2015-08-09

2015-08-09 12:01 am

Glomp for carowren

Title: The Path That Magic Takes
Author: Anonymous
Prompt Number: #3: Snarky Severus, unusual careers, working together, reluctant friends to lovers (or maybe friends with benefits to lovers), a persistent, annoying Harry whom Severus comes to value, plenty of UST, pining, bumping into each other in an odd location, regular pub/drinking sessions, argumentative dialogue, spanking. Basically anything as long as Snape still has a backbone/exoskeleton and an intense, moody presence. Pick and choose whatever works for your story.
Rating: PG for some snogging
Word Count: ~13,600
Warnings: None
Summary: There's a danger to working inside the path that magic takes. Inhibitions disappear and the truth has a way of revealing itself.
Author's Note: Profound thanks to the mods for giving me 394 extensions and to Jess for giving it a once-over. I went with 'basically anything' so I do hope that Snape has enough of an exo-skeleton to suit. All remaining mistakes are mine.



Friday

"Next."

The young witch who approached the window couldn't have been more than a month out of Hogwarts. Biting her lower lip, she nervously slid her Floo application across the counter and gazed at Snape with fretful brown eyes. "We've just moved into the flat, you see, and two of us—"

"I needn't hear the tale, Ms…" Severus Snape glanced at the top of the form for the witch's name. "Ms Beloussov. I merely need to ensure you've completed the form correctly." His coal black eyes ran over the application with practiced efficiency and then he sighed. It was too much to hope that they'd get it right on the first attempt.

A long finger tapped a blank field on the form. "Nearest public Floo, Ms Beloussov. The installer needs to know where your flat is, so you can be connected to the proper network."

Marta took a step back, flustered. "But I've no idea where the nearest public Floo is."

"That, Ms Beloussov, is why there is a map." Snape pointed at a wall to her left that was covered both with a map of Great Britain and a map of Greater London. "Find your flat and find the nearest Floo. They're well marked. Or, if you've managed an OWL in Charms, follow the steps listed under the map to have the correct Floo light up. Next."

"But—"

"Next!" Snape glared at her and she scurried towards the map, application in hand. She glanced back over her shoulder, her eyes wide with alarm, and joined her flatmates in a huddle, whispering heatedly.

Severus Snape enjoyed his job as head of the customer service division for the Floo Network Authority. Most his days were spent scheduling Floo connection installations and managing a bustling team of repair technicians, but every once in awhile, he'd join his subordinates working one of the service windows at the Ministry offices. In his three years supervising the FNA, he'd long since discovered that spending a day or so a month on the front lines ensured that no incomplete applications were accepted by any member of the staff and that the lengthy set of rules were followed to the letter.

It had been a strange journey from Hogwarts to working for the Ministry in a mid-level managerial position. After the war had ended, he had been exonerated by the Wizengamot and somehow managed to escape a lengthy stay in Azkaban. To Snape's astonishment, he was awarded the Order of Merlin, First Class, for his efforts and with that citation came a generous stipend that enabled him to spend a year travelling the world.

But Britain was, and always would be, home, so, wanderlust satisfied, Snape returned to England and found a lovely little flat not far from the West End where he thought long and hard about what to do with his life. Brewing did not appeal. It was a delightful way to spend an afternoon, but he had no desire to spend the next hundred years of his life bent over a steaming cauldron, chopping and weighing ingredients and stirring whilst the magic happened.

After eliminating all careers related to the art of potions, which included Herbology, Horticulture, Animal Husbandry, the Healing Arts, and anything having to do with Apothecaries, he considered more solitary pursuits. He gave some thought to replacing Madam Pince as Hogwarts' librarian, but it was hard enough getting the little urchins to study as it was. He would only serve as a deterrent.

Stymied, he considered some of the more arcane positions at the Ministry and lasted two weeks in the Wizengamot Administrative Services division. Filing and archiving rolls of parchments was a sad and lonely affair. To his surprise, he wanted to be near people. Percy Weasley, the head of Magical Transportation, granted him an interview. Percy knew Snape to be a stickler for rules and regulations, hired him immediately, and a three month probationary period became a career as a bureaucrat.

Once David Blackshear finally arrived for his shift, Severus strode into his office—he would say he walked, but everyone who knew him would say he did nothing without purpose—and sat himself behind his wide, sturdy desk. Today's schedule was fairly light as such things were measured: four new connections, seven repair orders, some deferred maintenance near the Muggle District and Circle lines, and one disconnect.

Automatically, his eyes ran down the page in search of one name. Harry Potter had two repair orders that would keep him busy throughout the day, both of which were from habitual repeaters. The first, Tabitha Clearwater, was convinced a ghoul was residing in her upstairs Floo. The second, Edmund Goodpasture, was experiencing interference whilst on fire calls. Harry—Potter, dammit—had been to the residence four times now, but couldn't replicate the problem.

Potter had begun working as a Floo technician four or so months after Snape had started at the Ministry. No one knew why he'd left the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and Potter certainly wasn't willing to divulge that information, walking away whenever anyone brought the subject up. Mostly, Potter kept to himself and learned his job and before long, the rest of the FNA staff learned to leave him alone.

In a manner of speaking, Snape picked up with Harry Potter right where he'd left off: watching him intently and shielding him from harm. Potter had stepped effortlessly back into his role as well, ignorant of Snape's efforts to protect him. Fortunately, Potter hadn't noticed that Snape's interest was more than collegial. Harry Potter had become a gorgeous young man and Snape was utterly smitten.

Setting aside the duty rota, Severus turned his attention to the agenda for the upcoming meeting with the Department for the Regulation of Magical Games and Sport. The Appleby Arrows was hosting a friendly and wanted international Floo connections for their stadium for the weekend of the 17th. Given that they submitted their request only last week and it would take every Floo technician on the payroll, Severus was demanding that Magical Sport fund the overtime he would have to pay. They were, of course, claiming poverty.

A soft chime sounded and Severus looked up from the attached budget figures to stare fixedly at a single point on the corner of his desk, not so much as blinking.
After a few minutes, Severus' eyes watered as he forced himself to keep them open. Aiming his wand at his face, he cast a cloud of mist at his eyes and continued to stare. The door to his office opened and his administrative assistant, Viola, entered followed by an entire air wing of memos.

Though Severus was the head of the department, it was Viola who kept it running. Born in Bangalore, she'd moved as a child along with her extended family to Britain during Grindelwald's rise to power. Her eyes were every bit as dark as Snape's and equally as piercing. She was middle aged, shaped like a tree trunk, and had three hairs on her chin. Snape had learnt quickly that Viola could not be bullied; she'd learnt just as swiftly that he could not be intimidated. Their yelling matches were legendary and whenever their voices rose, Galleons changed hands as spectators wagered on the outcome.

"It's no use," she scolded. "You can wait all day, but the biscuits will not appear as long as you're watching."

Severus blinked rapidly. In that fraction of a second, a plate of cranberry-orange shortbread appeared, artfully arranged on a doily-clad china saucer. There was a sprig of flowers set daintily on the rim; Severus thought it was a bellflower. "Who is responsible for this?"

Viola rolled her dark brown eyes. "It is quite obviously a mystery. Here are the connection requests for next week. These are the repairs orders and this is the maintenance schedule. I must have these by three o'clock filed in—"

"In triplicate. Yes, I know. You've told me every Friday for the past seventy-two weeks." He snatched a biscuit off the plate and bit savagely into it. The bloody things were still warm. "Have I ever not filed my paperwork in triplicate?"

Viola wagged a stubby finger. "Don't you get shirty with me. I have managed this department since you were in nappies and will still be here when your grandchildren's grandchildren require changing." She arched a brow so perfectly shaped it was nearly a work of art. "Requisitions. Three o'clock," she reminded.

"Oh, sod off," Severus grumbled under his breath. Viola laughed as she left his office, her flame coloured sari fluttering in her wake. He adored her. Worse, she knew it. He picked up another biscuit and contemplated it.

They had started arriving precisely at ten a.m. about eight months ago and no one admitted to knowing where they came from or how they arrived. Severus had used every detection spell he knew, to no avail. He had even considered consulting with the Department of Mysteries, but his pride refused to permit him to make a fool of himself over a daily plate of shortbread.

After working for another twenty-five minutes, Severus gathered his papers, rose from his chair, and headed to his meeting with the loathsome people in the Department of Magical Sport. "If I'm not back by noon," he said as he passed Viola's desk, "invent an emergency and send one of those infernal aeroplanes to fetch me."

"It will be a Messerschmitt," said Viola gravely.

"With a little iron cross on the side?"

"Naturally." She regarded him steadily. Snape couldn't tell whether or not she was serious. Shaking his head, he strode through the office to the corridor that led to the Ministry lifts, girding himself for the battle he knew would follow.

~*~


Shortly after noon, Severus returned to his office on the sixth floor of the Ministry building and relieved Francisco at the customer service desk. As he settled into the high-backed stool, he couldn't help but notice that a number of queued customers suddenly decided to surrender their place in line in favour of having lunch. He sighed. He wasn't a demon—or even a Death Eater—but most of the public gave him wide berth regardless. He just wasn't social. That was all.

"Next," he called out and waited for the next wizard in line to approach his window.

"I am applying for an additional Floo," the man stammered under Severus' piercing gaze. He pushed through a small stack of parchment a small stack of Galleons to cover the fee.

Severus skimmed through the application. "It says here that you have two connections already. For what possible reason would you require more?"

The man, Royce MacEchearn, gazed wearily up at Severus. "I have five children and three grandchildren living under my roof, and now my wife has invited my mother to move in. One son-in-law works in Ipswich, two daughters work in Diagon Alley, my son is the equipment manager for the national Gobstones team and my oldest grandson just turned ten." He gestured to the application. "This one would be mostly for my mother. Please, sir. We spend three sickles a week on Floo powder as it is."

The chaos in the MacEchearn household must be unbearable, thought Severus. "Your application appears to be in order." The man had even listed the nearest public Floo in accordance with the rules. "Approved."

One desk over, Ebony Sweetwater knocked over her inkstand in surprise whilst Severus affixed the requisite seals, signed on the seven lines requiring Ministry acquiescence, wrote out a receipt for the required fee, and duplicated the application for Mr MacEchearn's records. It wasn't as if he'd never accepted an initial application before. "You will receive an owl on Monday with the day and time our technician will arrive to perform the necessary spells."

As the uncoordinated Ms Sweetwood cleaned up her mess, Severus summoned the next person in line. That transaction took less than two minutes of his time; the foolish wizard had barely completed the first page of the form and had managed to make four mistakes already.

"The instructions are printed clearly on the information placard," he growled in his best long-suffering voice and pointed at the large white board covered in teeny tiny letters to the customer's left. Severus sent away the next person in line as well, but only because they wanted an Apparition license and his department couldn't help with that.

~*~


At long last, it was time for lunch. Severus found his meal tucked away in the back of the cold box and fussed with it until everything was to his liking. Steam wafted off the small kettle of soup, butter melted into warm bread. Squares of sharp cheddar towered over the starburst of apple wedges surrounding it. He prided himself on being a simple man with simple tastes; his colleagues thought him fussy.

As he levitated his lunch over to a vacant table, he had the unmistakable sensation of being watched. He allowed his gaze to wander over the lunchroom, already half-empty and clearing quickly. A pair of green eyes dropped swiftly to the magazine in front their owner and Severus found himself heading to a nearby vacant table. He arranged his food to his liking and Summoned the current edition of International Portkeys and Floo Quarterly from his office.

"Did you see to the Clearwater request?" inquired Severus as he took his first mouthful of soup. He scanned the table of contents and shook his head. When were the Slovakians going to come to the realisation that the Austrian Ministry were about as likely to construct a new Floo passage along the Danube as they were to build an aquaduct to import Swiss chocolate?

Harry Potter shook his head. "No, I took care of the Goodpasture ticket first." Harry closed his magazine and toyed with the salad in front of him. "I know there's a problem with his Floo, but bugger all if I can find it."

Severus sunk his crooked teeth into a cube of cheese and followed it with a bite of apple. "What have you tried?" he asked, still not making eye contact. It was too disconcerting. Somehow, when he wasn't looking, Harry had matured into his idea of the perfect partner. That Severus even had a type came as quite the surprise, but when it turned out to be that impudent whelp, it had shaken him to the core. And then Harry transferred to the Floo Network Authority for reasons unknown and Severus' restful nights became a thing of the past.

"I checked for build-up of soot, ash, and Floo powder residue. I checked for webs, nests, hives and whatever else birds and bugs build in chimneys. I checked the firebox. I checked the connexion for spells and curses. I've even checked for Dark magic."

"Hmm." Harry had been as thorough, as usual. "Have you checked the connexion from other Floos?"

"That was the first thing I did. Mr Goodpasture hasn't had any problem with the Floo itself, not that anyone visits much. Just his sister from time to time. None of his nieces or nephews have dropped by since Dylan died."

Severus arched an eyebrow and shifted in his seat to look over at Harry. "Who is Dylan and what has he to do with the Goodpasture Floo?"

"I don't know," replied Harry with a shrug. "His son, maybe? There are photos of them all over the flat." He expression turned wistful. "Mr Goodpasture was so proud of him. I guess Dylan was the manager of the Catapults' Quidditch stadium, ran the whole bloody place. Mr Goodpasture said it was it was some sort of insect bite and Dylan was allergic. He just…" Harry turned his attention back to his half-eaten lunch and pushed around a piece of lettuce. Severus would have given as much as three Knuts to know what was going through Harry's mind.

"You've still not explained what this Dylan person has to do with the Goodpasture Floo," Severus pointed out.

"I guess Dylan's cousins don't come to visit anymore, so it's harder to tell where the problem with the Floo might be." Harry looked up and his green eyes seemed brighter than usual. "He's lonely, Sever—Snape. Mr Snape."

Would Gryffindors ever learn to stop wearing their hearts on their sleeves? Severus thought the odds highly against it. Harry's sentiment for Goodpasture's plight was pure twaddle. "Have you scheduled a follow-up visit?"

"Yeah…I mean, yes, sir." Harry Vanished the remains of his lunch and rose. "It's for day after tomorrow. I'm going to dig through the archives and see if I can find something, and then I'll get the Clearwaters sorted. That won't take but a few minutes."

"Oh?"

"They don't have a ghoul," said Harry with a snort. "They keep using homemade Floo powder and blowing the connexion all to hell."

"In that case," said Severus as his gaze travelled slowly over Harry's body. "Inform Mrs Clearwater that, should we have to make another service call because she's used her bloody powder again, her Floo will be disconnected for a period of not less than thirty days and she will be assessed a penalty of thirty-five Galleons when she submits a new application for a single-source Floo."

"Yes, sir." Harry Banished his lunch things and started towards the door, but Severus interrupted him before he'd managed to get very far.

"A word, Mr Potter, if I may."

Harry turned swiftly, his eyes wide, and Severus couldn't quite tell if they held a note of hope or fear. As Harry returned to the table, Severus' pulse quickened and a flock of butterflies took up residence in his stomach. With his luck, they were more likely to be Death's Head moths, but he wasn't going to whisper one out to learn what it was. For reasons surpassing understanding, he had trouble meeting Harry's gaze. "I somehow managed to acquire two tickets to tonight's performance of 'The Lion King'." Hiding behind a lethal glare, Severus continued. "Would you be willing to accompany me to see it?"

In the space of fifteen seconds, Harry must have blinked a hundred times. His cheeks suddenly blossomed with colour before the pinkness faded to the colour of old milk. Even his lips were white. "I-I would love to, sir, but I have Teddy and Victoire tonight. My godson and my…" His brow furrowed. "Bill Weasley's daughter." Harry managed a curious twisting smile. "Next time, though, 'cause I really do wish I could see it, but I have Teddy so there's that." He scurried away, flashing Severus a smile so bright it hurt.

"Next time," muttered Severus. Tickets for 'The Lion King' didn't just fall from the sky. It had taken ages to find someone who truly needed an emergency repair to their Floo and was willing to provide a token of thanks in repayment. Naturally, solicitation of such bounty was strictly forbidden by Ministry policy, but when a grateful customer said, "I wish I had some way to repay you," was it so terribly wrong to impart a suggestion? Ah well, a trip to the box office on the way home and a small bit of magic ought to ensure decent seats for another night.

~*~


Thursday

Severus tossed a handful of Floo powder into the flames. "CF8 Goodpasture," he called out in his distinctive voice and stepped into the swirling emerald flames. As he spun through the magical conduit, he made note of the speed at which other fireplaces swept by, of how smoothly (or not) the eddies of magic carried him to his destination, and as he came to the end of the journey he paid close attention to an increase in turbulence just before he arrived.

Both Potter and Mr Goodpasture were waiting for him as Snape stepped through. He gave Harry a curt nod before extending his hand to Goodpasture. "I am Severus Snape, the head of the Customer Service Division of the Floo Network Authority. How might I be of assistance?" His manner was a bit more cordial than his typical demeanour; he was in the man's home after all.

Goodpasture bowed his head in acknowledgement. The wizard was much older than Snape anticipated. From Harry's remarks about nieces, nephews and a daughter who seldom visited, he had envisioned someone in his mid-fifties or so. This man was within a year or two of Minerva's age at best. "Young Harry here said you would be stopping by. Care for a cuppa, then? It's no bother." His eyes, the colour indistinguishable, were warm when they settled on Harry.

"If you would be so kind," murmured Snape and watched as Mr Goodpasture tottered in the direction of the kitchen. Snape took a moment to look around. The room was small, though comfortable. A chesterfield sofa with worn, shiny patches sat along one wall. Across from it were two tattered tuck and roll wingback chairs with a small table between them. On the mantel were dozens of photographs; one in particular seemed to hold Harry's attention. He stepped behind the young man and peered over his shoulder. "Ahh."

"Gwenog Jones," said Harry. "That's Dylan there on the left." Dylan waved cheerfully and Harry smiled at him. "And Edmund on the other side. She's Ginny's favourite player, you know."

Snape stepped closer and studied the photograph. Dylan appeared to be at threshold of middle age or happily ensconced in it. Certainly, he couldn't have been much more than sixty. But his face was boyish and his dark grey eyes danced with delight. In truth, he appeared to be a man who wanted for nothing and had everything his heart desired, and every time Dylan's eyes rested on Edmund, he glowed with happiness.

Taking a moment to glance at the other pictures, Snape quickly came to the conclusion that Harry was every bit the idiot he always suspected him to be. Dylan and Edmund Goodpasture weren't father and son.

They had been lovers.

Hard on the heels of that realisation came an emotional punch to the gut. Harry thought the pair were father and son. The thought that they could be anything else had never even entered his mind, which meant there was no chance at all that Harry—that Potter would ever be interested in someone his age. Snape staggered back a step just as Goodpasture returned with tea.

Snape settled in the armchair nearest the fireplace and clutched his cup, watching as Harry seated himself at the other end of the sofa. His heart was beating through force of habit and white noise filled his ears. Distantly, he was aware that Goodpasture had asked him a question, but Snape shook his head dumbly, as though unable to comprehend the nature of the inquiry.

Gazing into the flames, he let Harry do his best to respond while he tried to work out when, precisely, his attraction to Harry had taken root. Certainly not whilst Harry was a student at Hogwarts. The mere idea left him cold. No, it had definitely happened after he'd returned to Britain, when Harry had shown up at work one day, announced he had transferred to the Floo Network Authority and did Snape have any training manuals on Floo repair he could read?

Snape had replied as he always had done—with an insult. "As I was unaware you could read at all, wouldn't you prefer a book with pictures?" Harry had gazed up at him uncertainly, those glorious green eyes as guarded as Snape had ever seen them. It was then that Snape noted his pallor, the smudges of hazy purple under Harry's eyes, the way Harry's wand hand twitched, and something had…softened.

"Come with me," he had said and led Harry into a small office that had more scrolls of parchment and folios crammed with animated drawings than could be read in a year. Even by Hermione Granger. Thus began a truce of sorts, though they hadn't quite given each other permission to use given names. He sipped his tea and ruminated about the relationship he wished he had instead of what he'd allowed to develop.

"Sir?" It was Harry's voice, tentative, perhaps a bit worried. "Severus?"

Snape's dark eyes settled on Harry, the firelight painting his cheek golden, emphasising the line of jaw, the fine arch of his neck. A pang of longing struck so hard and deep that for a moment, Snape couldn't breathe. He nodded and waited for the lump in his throat to vanish. "My apologies. What do you want, Potter?"

Harry managed to appear wounded and turned his head to look into the flames whilst Goodpasture repeated the question. "Young Harry wondered if you'd noticed the journey got a wee bit rocky there at the end. I admitted to him I once thought the same, but decided it must be age. I'll be eighty-two come October."

It took Snape a moment to tear his eyes away from Harry. He blinked once as his gaze settled on Goodpasture and he nodded slowly. "Yes, it is something that must be explored. I have a few theories, but I won't know until we start examining the network itself."

Harry leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, his wand dangling from his fingertips. He shuddered lightly. "I hate working in the tunnels," he murmured quietly, his eyes focussed on the floor in front of him.

"Then you certainly chose the wrong profession," snapped Snape, and regretted his words the instant they left his mouth. An uncomfortable silence filled the room as Goodpasture's eyes flickered back and forth between them. "I apologise, Potter," he said stiffly. "I do not relish working inside the network either."

It was an experience difficult to describe. To Snape, working inside a Floo connexion was akin to changing his clothing mid-Apparition, or attempting to measure out a gram of lionfish spines whilst using a Portkey. To work inside the network was to work inside magic itself, to feel the whorls and eddies against his skin, to be stripped bare and laid open, to be simultaneously on top of the world and at the bottom of the deepest abyss. He was both wildly exultant and deeply depressed once he returned to the 'real' world. He suspected the same would be true for Harry.

Sitting up straight, Harry met Snape's eyes. Snape arched a brow and Harry's forehead furrowed as they came to a mutual understanding. There was trepidation, but a touch of exhilaration as well. Not everyone fared well inside the network, but they both had enough experience with it to know they'd be all right in the end. "How much time, do you reckon?" asked Harry.

Snape stroked his chin as he considered. The turbulence had begun roughly five seconds before they reached their destination, giving them nearly a kilometre of network to examine. Potter was a strong enough wizard that he didn't require a minder, which left the two of them able to work by themselves. They'd be able to cover more territory alone than together, thus reducing the time they'd need to spend inside. "Forty-five minutes for diagnosis," he decided.

Harry nodded. Opening a small satchel, he pulled out two bundles of heavy black leather and handed one to Snape before unrolling the second. Gleaming instruments sat in their proper sleeves. A row of pouches bulged with potions and powders. With nimble fingers, he extracted a crumpled ball of shimmering grey cloth out of one of the pouches. After tapping the wad of fabric with his wand, Harry fluffed out what appeared to be a gauzy shadow of himself and started to put it on.

Across from Harry, Snape was engaging in the same ritual whilst Goodpasture watched with fascination. With a grimace, Snape stepped into the containment suit that covered him from head to toe and murmured the enchantment that sealed him in. Whilst Harry was strapping the tool belt around his slender waist, Snape was fishing through the pockets in search of the set of sheer gloves and mask that would complete the uniform.

Harry reached into another pocket and pulled out a small, leathery pouch that was so black that it seemed to draw the light out of the room. Once Snape was fully covered, he handed it over gingerly, as if afraid to disturb the contents and finished getting suited up.

Extracting a tiny, collapsible set of scales from one of the many pockets, Snape proceeded to weigh out a precise measure of a glittering powder the colour of sand down to the very grain whilst Harry finished suiting up. Using a fine brush, he transferred it to a thin sheet of parchment, which Harry folded carefully into an envelope. "Ready?" he asked once the tools were put away.

"Is there anything I should do?" asked Goodpasture anxiously. "Or refrain from doing? Should I contact your office if you should…" His voice trailed off. "I suppose there's a protocol for this sort of thing?" He wrung his aged hands and peered nervously at the fireplace.

From behind the fine black mask that clung like a second skin, Harry smiled. The goggles he wore instead of his spectacles gave him a vaguely insect-like appearance. "We'll be fine, Mr Goodpasture. I promise we'll be back before we've run out of time. I'll let you know what we discover when I see you next."

Snape stood at the fireplace and waited for Harry to join him. Once they were standing side by side, Harry tossed the envelope into the fire whilst Snape chanted a lengthy incantation. The flames seemed to vanish, though traces of blue-black tongues could be seen writhing and flickering and tasting the air. Snape and Harry stepped inside and were whooshed away, leaving only malevolent blue sparkles behind.

~*~


The current of magic buffeted Harry as he stepped into the network. Wisps of colour in every hue wove and warped around him like streamers in a strong breeze and his grip tightened instinctively on the handle of his wand. Wide as it was, being inside the network always made him feel claustrophobic, though he seldom felt that way when travelling through it.

Beside him, Snape began to prepare to take measurements of the flow of magic through the network. He extracted from his tool belt a meridian circle, which resembled something like a calibrated mill wheel, though much smaller in scale. Still, it was taller than Harry, though it weighed a tenth what he did. Inside the wheel were a series of oblong gears, one of which was bright blue. From his own belt, Harry extracted a wide stand and set it up before helping Snape place the wheel upon it.

It took them a moment to ensure the wheel was balanced properly, but once they were both satisfied, they took up positions on either side. "On three," said Snape, his dark eyes fixed on a long slender rod that kept the wheel motionless. Harry counted and Snape pulled the pin. On one side of the wheel, Harry kept track of the number of times the blue gear travelled the inner circumference of the wheel, whilst on the other, Snape kept track of the number of times the entire wheel revolved.

"Seventeen and twenty-three minutes," called Harry when Snape reached ten. They stopped the wheel and Snape re-inserted the pin so they could move the entire contraption to a new spot.

As Harry wrote down the figures on a chart, the back of his neck began to tingle and echoes of memory floated up from his subconscious. Something like spell fire swept past his ear and he jerked back. A Death Eater's mask formed and dissolved before his eyes and he nearly fired off a counter curse before remembering where he was and that none of this was real. He hated being inside the tunnel.

"Where are you right now?" demanded Snape and Harry answered dutifully.

"Inside the Floo Network at the Goodpasture residence." Returning to the wheel, he helped Snape carry it down the tunnel and positioned it closer to the far wall.

"Harry!" It was Hermione's voice, filled with terror. Shelves filled with glowing spheres began to topple and Harry sprinted towards the sound, covering his head with his arm to keep from being pelted by falling prophecies. Remembering again where he was, he stopped suddenly and turned, only to see Snape lunging at him, eyes wide and wand out. Before he could so much as move an inch, he was tackled to the ground whilst above his head, Snape carried out a fierce battle with—absolutely nothing.

"Severus!" shouted Harry. "Severus! Where are you right now?" He reached up and turned the man's head towards him, staring into that strange mask as he tried to pull Snape out of whichever memory had him in its grip. A wisp of bright purple dragged across Snape's mask for a moment before floating lazily on.

"Lupin…Wolfsbane," gasped Snape.

Harry shook Snape's shoulders hard, but it didn't seem to help. "Severus, you're in the network. This isn't real. We have work to do." A flash of brilliant white light just over Snape's shoulder caught Harry's attention and he stared as his stag Patronus charged past them. He began to shiver as some formless black shape began circling overhead, standing out from the miasma of swirling colour like a hole in magic. A mewling sound escaped his lips.

"This isn't real. This isn't real," chanted Harry, though the warm body covering his most certainly was. It was warm, heavy, shaped just right, and Harry spread his legs to increase the contact between them. He canted his hips ever so slightly. Ahh, yes, right there. Whilst Snape continued to fling curses at his imaginary foe, Harry was caught in a different vision, one he had enjoyed on countless nights. His hands framed Snape's face and he lifted his head to capture Snape's lips in a heated kiss.

For a moment, everything was perfect until, without a word of warning, Snape scrambled to his feet and backed away with an expression of abject horror on his face. It took Harry a moment, but he rolled to his stomach and slunk on hands and knees to the far side of the wheel. What on earth had he done? First, Snape had stopped talking to him, then he threw himself at the man. It would be a miracle if he wasn't fired the moment they returned to the Ministry.

Mortified by his behaviour, Harry climbed to his feet and took his position at the wheel, hoping against hope that Snape would forget all about this. "I'm inside the Floo Network at the Goodpasture residence," he said dully. "Where are you right now?"

There was a long silence from the other side of the wheel. "I am inside the Floo Network at the Goodpasture residence," came Snape's voice. It sounded funny to Harry's ears, almost hollow, and his insides twisted with dread.

"What's our mission?" asked Harry when Snape failed to give the instructions to get ready. His stomach churned and the knowledge that Snape had an inkling of Harry's desire weighed on him like a lead cloak.

"On three, Potter," barked Snape, apparently ignoring Harry's request. According to the manual, Harry was supposed to ask the question again or abort the session, but Harry had a history with Snape and decided that, in this case, following the rules would not be in their best interest. He found the red gear and noted its position.

"One. Two. Three." Snape pulled the pin and the wheel began to turn, gathering strands of vibrant green, orange and yellow in its spokes.

Over the course of taking readings, they both experienced several hallucinations. Whilst Snape was growling his defiance, or shouting his criticism about potions ingredients, Harry was enduring a harrowing flight from the acromantulas that lived in the Forbidden Forest and trying to defeat Inferi with a teaspoon of happiness.

Whilst Snape made calculations based on their measurements, Harry stowed their equipment, brushing a cloud of bright crimson aside. Once that was completed, Snape issued their next instructions. "Head south down the network for ten minutes. You are searching for patches of bright pink," he handed Harry a card printed in the proper colour, "lining the walls. Let me know if you locate any."

"What is this stuff, sir?" asked Harry as he took the card. It was a sickly shade of pink, too bright by half, and Harry shook his head as he committed the colour to memory.

Snape didn't meet his eyes. "It's a magical fungus called Sniggowary. It disrupts the flow of magic in the Floo System and causes it to malfunction."

Harry didn't quite know what to make of that. He'd been a Floo repair technician for nearly three years and had never heard of such a thing, but Snape had made a study of the Floo Network's system of magic, delving into its construction as though he were preparing to sit a NEWT on the subject. It wouldn't surprise Harry to learn that Snape knew more about the Floo Network than any person alive.

He glanced down the tunnel and back and Snape. "So, I'm to look for pink?"

"Think of lichen such as you'd see in the Forbidden Forest," said Snape as he ventured up the tunnel away from Harry. "Ten minutes. Not one minute more." The words floated down, almost visible, as though magic itself were spelling out his instructions.

Harry jogged for two minutes down the tunnel at a quick clip, estimating that should put him at or near the place where he'd first sensed the disturbance. Pulling a Muggle torch from his tool belt (magic was nearly useless here), he started walking back, fighting off images from his past he'd rather not confront again.

As he moved through the network, feeling the press of magic against his body, Harry suddenly felt as though he was moving through Nagini's innards. Tendrils of dark red patterned like snake skin wrapped around his arms and neck and Harry felt like he was choking. He flailed wildly, trying to escape and ran full-tilt into a patch of Sniggowary the size of a Quaffle. Reeling, Harry tripped over his own foot and fell back—hard.

The magic engulfing him changed, became soft, seductive. Harry felt the press of a hard body against his own, a hard prick burning like a brand against his inner thigh and he wriggled closer. For a brief moment, he was sorely tempted to surrender to the delicious sensations coursing through him, but the voice of reason hadn't been silenced quite yet. No time, Harry. There's no time.

His eyes snapped open and it took him a moment to orient himself in the shifting kaleidoscope of colours wafting around him. Grinding the heel of his hand into his aching cock, he shuddered as he fought to regain some semblance of control before pushing himself to his feet and resuming his search for mutant lichen.

A few minutes later, Harry entered a section of tunnel that made him think a bottle of that stomach stuff Aunt Petunia kept in the upstairs bathroom had exploded. Patches of the stuff were growing everywhere. Pulling an empty phial from his tool belt, he scraped off a sample for Snape and made note of his position, wondering how they were going to rid the tunnel of all this stuff.

As he packed the sample away, Harry realised he was running out of time. He walked as swiftly as possible, pleased to note that the pink crusts had all but vanished. Just as the timer began to buzz, he saw a formless shadow drifting towards him and paused, not knowing if it was Snape or something his memory was providing. The walls of the network morphed into towering yew hedges and the wisping colours faded to grey. A Blast-Ended Skrewt scurried past and Harry flung himself out of the way.

"Potter, where are you?"

Harry gazed around wildly. Was he in the maze? Was he at Hogwarts? Where was he? "I-I'm here," he called out before pressing back further into the hedges. Was it Krum? It didn't sound like him.

Strong hands clutched his upper arms and shook him lightly. Harry blinked at the strange shadowy version of Snape before awareness clicked in. " I'm inside the Floo Network at the Goodpasture residence," he managed.

Snape said nothing. He merely shook his head. "Idiot boy." To Harry's ears, it sounded almost like an endearment. "I didn't ask where you are right now. I was merely attempting to locate you. The powder is about to wear off. Are you prepared?"

Harry was more than ready to escape this hellish place and nodded. He stood with his back to the stream of magic, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet as he waited to be swept off them and deposited however awkwardly into Mr Goodpasture's front room.

~*~


When they tumbled out of the fireplace, Mr Goodpasture had food waiting for them. It was simple fare: egg and watercress sandwiches, crisps, bottles of butterbeer and a steaming pot of tea. After removing his containment suit, Snape fell on the food like a man possessed, leaving Harry to express their thanks for Goodpasture's foresight.

The moment Potter and Goodpasture began chatting about Quidditch Snape turned his attention to other matters. They would have to go back into the network, of course. The Snigglewary would have to be neutralised before it could be removed. Fortunately, Snape had anticipated this and brought with him the few things he would need in order to cobble together an effective scourgicide.

He did not relish spending another hour inside the tunnel, especially after Potter's peculiar behaviour. Potter had kissed him, and Snape's fingers traced lightly over his lips as he ruminated on it. Experience was a stern master; Snape had learnt well never to get his hopes up, especially where Potter was involved. He was certain he'd kept his longings safely under wraps. It would not do for that whelp to get wind of them.

But Harry had kissed him, and writhed against him when they were in the tunnel. What did it mean? Did it mean anything at all? Snape didn't know, and not knowing was worse by far than knowing. Not knowing meant there were many possible outcomes, while knowing closed off many avenues of conjecture. With fewer options to choose from, there was far less to worry about.

Harry must have lost his head. Strange things happened inside the network. No one knew from moment to moment what was real and what was supplied by a fevered imagination. It was almost a certainty that Harry had been thinking about a previous lover, perhaps just a one-off that he remembered with fondness. No, Harry couldn't have known what he was doing. No one wearing one of those wretched containment suits would ever engage in a bit of snogging if he was in his right mind.

With that settled, Snape attempted to set the memory aside, though his fingertips still moved slowly over his lips whilst he stared off into space, completely oblivious to his surroundings. He found himself thinking of his ham-fisted invitation to see a show and how Harry had reacted. He'd blushed—just before all the colour drained from his face. How was he to interpret that?

Snape had chosen the show with Potter in mind—the whelp seemed to take rare delight in child-like things—and the story was one he imagined Potter could relate to. There were one or two parallels to Harry's life that could be drawn, certainly. But if Potter was going to be embarrassed by Snape's presence, then he'd just as soon acquire a ticket to see Lucia di Lammermoor at the Coliseum.

There was, Snape decided, no point in dwelling on things he couldn't change. "We have to go back inside," he announced abruptly. Goodpasture and Potter stopped speaking immediately and stared at him as though he'd just burst into Parseltongue. "With your permission, sir, we will work in short bursts, no more than fifteen minutes at a time."

Harry exchanged a look with Goodpasture that seemed to say, 'I've no idea who this person is' and nodded. "So, you found some of that mouldy stuff as well. Shall I contact the office then to let them know we'll be out for the rest of the day?"

It occurred to Snape that he'd never even asked what Harry had found. He asked a few questions and revised his estimate of how long they'd be at it before nodding. "Let Viola know. Once that's done, clean the suits whilst I prepare the potion we'll need. Mr Goodpasture," he continued, "might I avail myself of your kitchen? I merely need running water and a small counter upon which to work."

"Of course, Mr Snape," replied Goodpasture, his eyes dancing with amusement. Merlin alone knew what those two must have been speaking about to cause that sort of reaction, thought Snape. "It's right this way. It's a bit on the small side, but I except you'll manage." He climbed to unsteady feet and tottered through a swinging door, leading Snape to a old-fashioned kitchen with a wood burning stove and a pump faucet. A small butcher block table with two chairs sat in a corner with a vase of spring flowers set in the middle.

Love lived here once; Snape recognised it the moment he walked through the door. Edmund and Dylan had spent many an hour here, chatting over endless shepherd's pies and steaming pots of tea. In that moment, he understood at last what he wanted for himself and it resided in the young man who was cleaning magical residue off their containment suits. Clearly, there was no fool like an old fool and Snape sighed.

"There's always a fire burning and the pump doesn't need more than a light touch to operate," said Goodpasture. 'I'll leave you to it then, shall I?"

Snape stepped to the counter and began to pull various tiny bottles and small jars from his tool belt. He set them in a row on the counter and looked through the window over the sink into a garden awash with flowers. "It's lovely," he murmured.

Goodpasture hesitated for a moment at the door. "So is the boy, Mr Snape," he murmured as he slipped back into the living room, leaving Snape to stare in confusion at the swinging door. Wordlessly, he mixed his potion and thought about Harry.

~*~


The next day, Snape was late with his paperwork. And he forgot to submit it in triplicate.

~*~



Wednesday

At precisely ten o'clock, a plate of shortbread appeared on Snape's desk, just like clockwork. Today, there was the merest hint of maple to it and Snape sighed at the taste. It was a little slice of happiness in biscuit form, delivered to him every day by magical means.

Snape sat at his desk, biscuit in one hand, tea in the other, his thoughts still back in the network. A strange tension had arisen between them that afternoon, but they'd manage to rid Goodpasture's Floo of the lichen that had been building up on the walls. They'd squirted and scraped and swept for hours, not finishing until well into the evening.

Through it all, Harry had worked tirelessly by his side without a word of complaint. He'd done whatever Snape had asked, offered suggestions at appropriate moments, ensured neither of them remained too long in the network, and had even given him one or two of those heart-stopping smiles. Harry had even ensured Snape's hair was tucked safely inside the hood of his suit. The gesture, so intimate, had made Snape's knees weak.

"Severus!"

Snape startled so badly he sloshed tea all over his quarterly analysis of Floo repairs. He gave Viola a baleful glare. "See what you made me do!"

Viola tsked. "As if I had anything to do with this. You are late for the meeting of the department heads. Wainwright has sent three aeroplanes already." She swatted another one, this one a Sopwith Camel, out of the air. "Make that four." She waved her wand and restored Snape's report. "They are finalising the arrangements for the Arrows' friendly. We will be at their mercy if you don't hurry."

"For Circe's sake, woman, why did you not inform me sooner?" growled Snape as he shot to his feet. He gathered a sheaf of parchment and tucked it under his arm before snatching another wedge of shortbread from the plate.

"Because your head has been lodged firmly up your arse all morning," she roared back, her eyes flashing dangerously. "Ever since you spent that day in the network, you've been ignoring your work. Go to your meeting and try to remember there are important matters to attend to."

Severus took off at as fast a pace as his dignity would allow, reining in his scattered thoughts as he stalked through the corridors of level six, his dark robes billowing in his wake. It was an effective tactic for clearing the hallway and his journey was unimpeded by busybodies who wanted a moment of his time for their pet undertaking.

It was surprisingly simple to set aside the vexing problem of Potter whilst arguing with Fletcher Wainwright about the advantages of Portkeys over Floo connexions, though, in a moment of weakness, Snape conceded that having both would be useful. All this fuss for a simple Quidditch match. It was nothing short of a miracle that the Ministry got anything done at all.

After agreeing to provide well over a hundred hours of labour to the Department of Magical Games and Sport in exchange for Quidditch tickets and half of the overtime he'd be forced to pay, Snape returned to an office in chaos. Three Patronuses, two Weasleys and the Minister of Magic were shouting at Viola as an aeroplane shaped like a British Tornado fighter jet zoomed through the office.

"What is going on here?" he thundered. A Patronus shaped like an otter swam through the air and burbled out something that sounded like "Harry…St Mungo's…horrible…not make it." It gave a cry of distress and swam laps around his head. Not waiting to make sense of any of it, Snape Apparated directly to the fourth floor where the Spell Damage department was located.

He stormed through the halls, avoiding the lime-clad Healers and medi-magicians scurrying purposefully through the corridors. At long last, he found a cluster of Weasleys at the end of a hallway near the stairs that led to the tearoom.

"Where is Potter?" he demanded as what seemed like dozens of pairs of watery eyes turned on him. "What happened to him? Is he all—"

"I'm here, Severus." Harry stepped out from behind one Weasley or another, his face grey and with tears streaming down his cheeks. "It's Ron. They were about to tell me when you showed up."

"There was an explosion," said George, his freckles standing out like dragon pox on his white face. "I was working on combining an invisibility potion with a beautification potion—"

"Did you account for the effect of dragon liver on fairy wings?" interrupted Snape.

"Yes, but it was the ginger. It turns out there's a false wall in the shop," said George bitterly. "Neither Fred nor I knew about it when we set up the place. We thought it was stone like the rest of them, but it was some sort of chalk or something. I've no idea. The batch exploded and the cauldron shot through it like a cannonball, right into the store room where Ron was taking inventory."

"Did it hit him?" gasped Harry.

George shook his head and his eyes filled as he gazed helplessly at his mum. "No, but it smashed into the wall right next to his head. We had loads of stuff that's not supposed to mix together on those shelves. There's stuff in Heartbreak Teardrops that ought never mix with—"

An agonised scream came from the room behind them. "Ron!" gasped Hermione and she yanked open the door. Inside, Ron was writhing and begging at the top of his lungs. Snape followed the crowd inside and his eyes bulged in horror. Ron's skin was bubbling and sloughing off in huge patches. Blood was mixing with serum and oozing all over the bed and he was screaming so loudly that Snape could practically hear Ron's vocal cords shredding.

A team of Healers began casting spells whilst a medi-wizard consulted with a potioneer, but the spells only seemed to make matters worse. Ron's face seemed to be sliding off his skull, his left cheek was hanging near his collarbone, and Harry sprinted towards the bed as Ron let out a low gurgling moan. Snape wrapped a strong arm around Harry's shoulders and held him back as Molly fainted.

"George, what was on those shelves?" barked Snape in a commanding tone as Arthur tried to revive his wife. "Quickly, before your brother is nothing more than a skeleton."

George turned wide eyes on Snape and began listing products. "Uhh, Beguiling B-bubbles, umm, Crystal Tears…I mean Cupid Crystals, Dungbombs, Extendable Ears, Heartbreak Teardrops, Nose-Biting Teacups, the Skiving Snackboxes, Canary Cream, Tongue-Ton Toffees, Peruvian Darkness Powder, Shimmering Silver Sa—"

"Go back. Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder?" demanded Snape. "Did any of the containers break? Were there any open wounds on your brother? He may have been poisoned by it."

"Darken the place," shouted a Healer before George could say a word. "Everyone out. Now! Nox! Nox!" Two medi-magicians hustled everyone out into the corridor where they were met by a welcome witch wearing green and white stripes and an expression of alarm. Harry clung to Snape and Snape found himself throwing a protective arm around Harry's shoulders.

"If you would come—" she invited.

"Professor Snape, could you remain behind? One of our potioneers would like to speak with you." It was the mediwitch who had helped remove them from Ron's room.

"What is happening to my husband?" demanded Hermione as she swiped angrily at her streaming eyes. "What does Peruvian powder have to do with anything?" Her breath hitched and she sniffed. Harry watched from the safety of Snape's arms though he must have been watching Hermione intently.

"We have a lounge right—"

"It has some rather horrible side effects if it gets into the bloodstream, phototoxicity being chief amongst them," the witch explained patiently. "Professor? Would you be willing to act as a consultant on this?"

Harry turned in Snape's arms and gazed up with wide frightened eyes. "Please?" he said in a voice roughened by fear. "He's my best mate."

"Will he be all right? Can you tell me that? Will Ron be all right?" pleaded Hermione.

"It's too soon to know," said Snape. He met Hermione's tearful gaze, saw the pleading note in Arthur's eyes, and the desperation in Molly's. George's guilt tore at him, but it was the quiet hope shining in Harry's eyes, a certainty that Severus could fix anything, that swung the balance. "I will speak with your Potions Master," he said quietly, unable to tear himself from Harry's gaze. "I presume you have one on duty?"

To the surprise of everyone, Snape most of all, Harry laid a palm on Snape's cheek and kissed him fully on the mouth. "Thank you." He kissed Snape again before wrapping his arms tightly around Snape's middle and resting his cheek on Snape's shoulder. "Thank you."

Snape stood in flabbergasted silence, his lips still tingling from the delight of Harry's kiss, but his arms came up automatically and he held Harry close, breathing in the clean scent of him. His eyes closed and he rested his head upon Harry's.

"I'll just…" The welcome witch gestured helplessly and backed away.

"Please, Ms…?" Arthur spread his hands helplessly.

"I'm Miranda. Miranda Fremantle."

"Why don't you show us to that lounge now?" suggested Arthur. "I'm certain we'll be more comfortable there. Molly? Hermione? Let's find a place to sit, shall we?"

The young witch turned warm brown eyes on Molly and held out her hand. "We've a lovely place right 'round the corner. There's hot chocolate and tea, and you can get a bite to eat upstairs if you'd like."

Snape stroked the back of Harry's head and brushed a kiss over the faint remnant of the famous scar. "Go with your—go with the Weasleys. I will be there presently."

Harry stepped back and gazed at Snape as if uncertain he'd keep his word. "But…" He turned his head and stared down the hallway. "You don't have to wait with us if you don't want to," he said as he met Snape's eyes again. "It's likely to take hours before they get Ron sorted and you have that whole thing with the Arrows' stadium to work out. Oh, and would ask Viola to reschedule the Barksdales cleaning? They have an infestation of Mesopotamian Pixies—"

Snape laid a finger across Harry's lips. "I will return after I've spoken with the Potions Master." He kissed Harry lightly and then followed the mediwitch down to the lowest levels to the hospital where the brewing was done.

Afterwards, Snape couldn't really say what he'd spoken with the Potions Master about. The Potions Master, a fine boned black woman with the most enchanting smile Snape had ever seen, asked cogent questions about Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder and combinations of ingredients that could counteract the worst of the phototoxicity. Snape answered by rote, making but a few suggestions that proved noteworthy, but the rest of him was reliving Harry's kisses.

There was no question that the kiss had been a deliberate action on Harry's part. The unleashed magic within the network could not be used as an excuse. Was it possible, then, that Harry found him desirable? Severus thought back to the way that Harry fit so neatly in his arms; even the memory of Harry's scent was enough to cause his prick to stir.

"Would you care to assist with the brewing, Severus?" The sherry-smooth voice startled Snape from his reveries.

He shook his head. "My brewing is strictly for the enjoyment of it. I will leave Ronald's fate in your capable hands. If you will excuse me, I would like to return to the Weasleys and let them know where things stand with the Potions Division."

Master Nwanna tilted her head. "As you wish. You gave me options, Severus. For that alone I am thankful." She offered a respectful bow, but the moment her head came up, she was snapping out orders. "Selvyn, two number five brass cauldrons of distilled water. Mina, I need shredded jellyfish tentacles. No, not those. Use the lion's mane." The potioneers scrambled and Severus slipped quietly through the door and made his way to the lifts.

By the time Snape made his way to the lounge, Percy, Ginny and Kingsley Shacklebolt were clustered in with the family, offering useless platitudes to Hermione and Molly. Lingering near the doorway, almost out of sight, Snape studied Harry for a moment. Harry appeared to be following several conversations, but every few seconds his eyes would stray towards the entrance as though hoping Snape would step through it.

It was a heady sensation, feeling wanted. Warmth trickled through veins once thought iced over and Snape found he walked a little taller and felt lighter of heart than he had even a moment ago. He slipped quietly into the room, his eyes only for Harry.

Before he'd managed to walk three feet into the room, Percy was on his feet and moving to intercept him. "Snape! Where have you been? You left without telling anyone where you were going? Have you any idea the chaos you left, running off like that?"

In a heartbeat, Snape's expression darkened and his lip curled. "I should think it obvious where I went—and why, if any of you lot had been paying attention. The Patronus intimated that Harry had been grievously injured and was here. I came to render what aid I could to ensure he survived the ineptitude typically shown by most of the Healers on staff."

There was an uncomfortable silence. Then Hermione spoke up. "So, you're saying you've refused to help my husband?" She came to her feet and strode towards him, her dark eyes snapping with anger. "You still want to hurt Harry any way you can," she raged. "Ron is his best friend, but you're leaving him to people you think are incompetent. Get out," she growled.

Harry rose and laid a hand on her arm. "Hermione, wait. He is helping. He's been with the Potions Master working on something that will save Ron. He's not abandoned him any more than he'd abandon me. Isn't that right, sir?"

"Is it true?" demanded Hermione.

Snape locked eyes with Harry and nodded. "I discussed with her several variants for the base she intends to use." He took a step forward and met the full force of her gaze. "She is quite competent and knows what she's on about. I dare say I'd take her potions were I to be under her care."

"Would you give them to Harry?" Hermione stood with her arms folded tightly, her hair bristling almost as much as the rest of her.

Snape's lip curled and the vein in his temple throbbed, but before he could level a scathing retort, Harry stepped in front of her and laid his hand in the centre of Snape's chest. Snape's anger died on his lips, and as he met Harry's questioning gaze, he nodded. "I've not brewed anything more complicated than a basic analgesic in three years, Ms Granger. Whilst I trust my skills have not eroded too terribly, in whom would you place your trust? The Potions Master of St Mungo's or a former profession who's not touched a cauldron in months?"

"I—"

"This is a family matter, Snape," said Percy firmly. "And you've a department to oversee. I'm certain the Minister will back me up on this."

For a moment, Snape wasn't certain which side Kingsley would take. "To be honest, Severus—"

Snape held up a hand. "No, Kingsley. Percy is correct. I should be back at—"

"But—"

"No, Harry. I do have duties to attend to." Snape's eyes were soft. "I will, however, return as soon as I am able." His dark eyes swept over the small group. "As it appears it will be some time before the Healers are able to give you a prognosis, might I bring some food back with me? It is, I assure you, no problem."

The Weasley family looked at him with varying degrees of incredulity. Finally, Molly spoke. "Th-that would be lovely, Severus. Thank you."

Snape started to turn, but a hand on his arm forestalled him. It was Harry. "I'll speak with Hermione, explain things to her. Just…she's a bit scared. We all are. She didn't mean it, at least I don't think she did." Harry pulled Snape's head down for another kiss, and then backed away. Snape felt green eyes boring a hole through him as he walked out of the lounge, more confused than ever.

~*~


It was early evening when Severus returned to St Mungo's with several bags of steaming fish and chips under his arms. Making his way swiftly to the fourth floor, he was met with protestations of "I'm not terribly hungry" and "I doubt we'll be able to eat all this." But the Weasleys fell on it as though they hadn't eaten in months. Half an hour later, there wasn't a bite to be had and Snape was wondering if he ought to step out and buy some more.

The Healers, he learnt, were on a second round of potions to purge the Peruvian Darkness Powder from Ron's system. Hermione informed him that Ron might lose a toe, whilst George added that they should have sacrificed an ear instead. Snape squirmed at that; it was his fault George had lost an ear, but the Weasleys were quick to assure him that no one bore him ill will.

The group fell into silence, curled up in clusters on sofas that had been transfigured from large blocks of foam set in the room for just that purpose. Percy and Arthur dimmed the lanterns set on the end tables, casting the room into a soothing darkness. Harry was draped across him, his head resting comfortably in the hollow of Snape's shoulder. Within twenty minutes, Harry was asleep.

~*~


"Professor? I want to apologise." Hermione's quiet voice barely reached Snape's ears. "I just feel so helpless and it's so hard, not knowing anything." Scattered around the room were dozing Weasleys, sprawled out on couches. Two pewter lanterns, their flames set low, sat on nearby end tables.

Snape peered into the gloom and could barely read Hermione's expression in the dim glow of the lamplight. "I understand, Ms Granger." He shifted slightly, trying not to disturb the young man who had made himself at home in his arms. Harry muttered something unintelligible, rubbed his cheek against Severus' shoulder and slept on.

"You were right, you know—and very wrong. I would have stopped at nothing had it been…" He gestured at the slumbering man, terrified at the thought of losing him. "But I know what your husband means to Potter. I did what I could without making the potions myself."

Hermione's eyes focussed on Harry and studied him intently. "Would you have done had it been Harry?"

Snape said nothing for awhile, electing instead to card his fingers through Harry's messy hair, so soft and silky to the touch. "Beautiful," he murmured before placing a gentle kiss on the top of Harry's head. "I suppose so, if only to take on the burden of failure should the attempts to save him prove unsuccessful." The smile that reached his lips was self-deprecating. "Never underestimate how powerful a motivator guilt can be."

Hermione rose and moved to the sofa Snape shared with Harry. She lifted Harry's feet and slipped under them before settling them on her lap. "And what do you have to feel guilty about? Harry forgave you years ago. He was all set to drop out of the academy when you disappeared, but Kingsley talked him out of it. He's only working in the Floo Network Authority because you're…" Her eyes widened and she clapped her hand over her mouth.

"Because I'm…what, Ms Granger?" said Snape silkily.

"N-nothing," said Hermione swiftly. "Oh, he's going to kill me." She turned pleading brown eyes on him. "We used to tease him back in sixth year about having a crush on you. Well, you or Draco. It was hard to decide since he was obsessed with both of you. When he heard you'd survived the war, he tried so hard to make amends, but you wouldn't see him. He tried to put you out of mind, go on with his life, but he couldn't let go of you."

"I wouldn't see him because I was terribly ill," explained Snape. "The venom from that damned snake…I could no longer determine what was real and what was a product of my mind. Once I was strong enough to leave my bed, I travelled, but home beckoned. It was happenstance that I learnt of the opening in the Floo Network Authority and something of a surprise that I was hired."

He glanced at Harry. "Why did he leave the Aurors?"

"Look at him," said Hermione. "He's sound asleep. Have you any idea how rare that is?" She shook her head and sighed. "It's his story to tell." Hermione looked up and met Snape's eyes. "All we want for him is to see him happy. Maybe he finally has a chance."

"Is this where you threaten me with endless curses and hexes if I break his heart?" Gazing down, Snape drank in the dark lashes fanned against high cheekbones, the hint of stubble along his jaw, the slender nose and well-shaped lips. He would die first before hurting Harry.

"I think you've loved him for ages," said Hermione simply. "Almost as long as you've hated him. But, yes. If you're cruel to him, I will make certain you're the most miserable person on earth."

"No you won't," said Harry with a yawn, startling them both. " It's always complicated with Snape. We'll fight. We'll make up, and then we'll do it again and again and again. But we've not reached that point yet. All I want to do is fall in love and get to know this Severus, not the one who lived at Hogwarts."

Harry yawned again and gazed up at Snape with bleary eyes. "I really did want to go with you to see 'The Lion King'. But I'd already promised I'd mind the kids."

"Go to sleep, Potter," murmured Snape. "We will talk about it tomorrow."

~*~


"Why are you here, Severus?" asked Percy hours later when it was clear no one was going to sleep any time soon. "It's not as if you're family. I doubt you've even seen Ron since the war."

Snape stiffened and Harry sat up swiftly. "He's here for me, Perce," he said quietly. "He's here because I want him here. Because he promised to come back." Harry slipped his hand into Snape's and laced their fingers together. To Severus, it seemed as though they were presenting a united front, but united against what?

"I don't understand," he murmured to Harry. "Ever since we worked inside the network you've been…" Snape didn't have a word to describe Harry's behaviour. In his experience, few people were ever delighted to see him. Few people touched him willingly or showed any signs of affection, but Harry had done all that.

"Interested?" supplied Harry. "Open? Honest about how I feel?"

"How do you feel?" asked Severus, confused. The whole thing simply baffled him, though he'd have been quick to admit he was here because Harry needed him if Harry hadn’t been so swift to answer.

Across the room, Angelina snorted. "I'd say he's right taken with you."

"Now, Anj," scolded George as he took his wife's hand. "Slytherins aren't as tuned in with their feelings as we Gryffindors. I doubt Snape here even knows how he feels about Harry. You can't expect him to know that and how Harry feels as well."

"Harry's only been obsessed with you since he was sixteen," offered Ginny with a smile.

"Hey," protested Harry. "I was obsessed with you, too. I even snogged you after we won the Quidditch Cup."

"That's only because you wanted to practice with someone who knows how to kiss," Ginny fired back, grinning. "You had a lot to learn." She leant forward and gazed earnestly at Snape. "Harry's always needed someone older and wiser and I'm neither of those. After the war, it was pretty clear he'd developed a thing for you. We all thought it best if he was given time to figure out what he wanted out of life, so we let him be. Turns out it's always been you. That's why he went to work for Percy. I can assure you it's not because they're mates or anything."

"Percy's not that bad," said Harry. "I mean, he's not Ron or George or Charlie or Bill, but it's not like he's Umbridge. Well, not usually."

"Oi! I'm nothing like Umbridge," declared Percy as he lifted his nose in the air. "Besides, I look horrible in pink. It clashes with my hair." A broad smile emerged as everyone laughed. Even Molly managed a bit of a chuckle.

Harry laughed as well. "Admit it, Percy. You never met a rule you didn't like."

"He's not the only one who cares about the rules," drawled Snape. "Or have you forgotten the many detentions you served?"

"How could I? My fingers are still twisted from all the writing you had me do." Harry pretzelled his fingers and held them up. "Admit it, Severus. You didn't assign me all those detentions to punish me. You only wanted to admire my assets."

Snape's eyes widen and his jaw dropped. "You were a child," he hissed before realising that Harry was teasing him. He was being teased, by Harry, in front of the Weasleys. "But you do have lovely assets, Potter," he added, recovering quickly. "I'd have to be dead not to notice them."

The warmth in Harry's eyes made Snape's breath catch, and his smile stopped Snape's heart. Then Harry's smile faded and some of Snape's happiness disappeared with it. "The truth is," said Harry in a low voice that did nothing to keep everyone from eavesdropping. "I've been attracted to the Half-Blood Prince for years, but it was almost impossible to reconcile what I thought I knew of him with what I thought I knew about you.

"Turns out everything I thought I knew was wrong, but when I tried to see you so I could explain all that, Pomfrey kept turning me away. Then you left and that was harder to come to terms with than a lot of other things I'd had to deal with. I was certain I'd blown any chance of apologising for my pig-headedness when all I wanted was a chance to start over with you.

"Then you came back. You're not the reason I left the Aurors, by the way," admitted Harry with a sideways glance at Snape. "That's a story for another time." Only Ron and Hermione knew his reasons and they'd keep his secret as long as they lived. "But I heard Percy talking at dinner about how you'd been put in charge of the customer service department and knew that they needed a trainee for the Floo Repair division, so I asked him to consider me."

"I will admit I was surprised to see you appear," replied Snape, still reeling from Harry's confession. Part of him wanted to drag Harry off into a secluded corner and snog him senseless; the rest of him was too curious about what else Harry might reveal. "But you've done exceedingly well. Most of your reviews have been positively glowing."

"Yeah, who wouldn't want the Boy-Who-Lived to repair their Floo?" said Harry. Bitterness tinged his words, but Snape quickly put an end to that.

"Do you not believe I would screen for that?" growled Snape, somewhat affronted. Harry knew damned well who created the duty rota for the repair personnel. "The only time you're assigned upon request is if you've worked on their Floo before. Believe me, Potter, I will not send you into harm's way."

Harry appeared gobsmacked. Clearly, the thought had never occurred to him. "This is why Dumbledore wanted me to trust you. Even when you despised me, you still had my best interests at heart. Anyway, the first time I saw you at the Ministry I was certain I'd made a berk of myself. I couldn't look away."

"You've been all Harry could talk about," interjected Hermione. "'Stunning' was the word he used. Percy said you looked well-rested, but Harry was obviously smitten. We've tried fixing him up with other people so he wouldn't get his hopes up about you, but Harry's the most stubborn person I've ever met." She tilted her head and studied Snape for a moment. "Well, perhaps aside from you."

"Harry doesn't do 'set up' well," said George. "Though Merlin knows we tried. Doesn't seem to matter who we've dangled in front of him, he has his heart set on you." He fell to his knees and walked on them to where Snape was sitting. "We're begging you, Snape. All of us, even Ron if he were here. Please, if you value our sanity, especially Percy's since you work with the git, go out with Harry. Take him on a date. Shag him through the bloody mattress—"

Molly gasped. "George!"

"It's all right, Mrs Weasley," said Harry. "Honestly, I wouldn't mind being shagged through the mattress." He glanced shyly at Snape. "If, you know, you might, possibly, be interested in someone like me."

"You truly are an imbecile," said Snape despairingly. "Of course I'm interested. Why didn't you say something?"

"Because I'm who I am," replied Harry.

"The world does—"

"No! That's not it at all." Harry sighed. "Because we have a long, horrible history. Because I thought if I made the first move, you'd find some reason not to trust it. You'd think I was having you on or taking the piss or something. I didn't think you'd believe I want to go out with you." He dropped his head for a moment as if exhausted. "I really did want to see 'The Lion King' with you."

Severus pulled Harry into his arms and held him close. "If I had known sooner…" he murmured. "Will you come with me to see 'The Lion King'? We'll make a day of it." He might have to down a Pepperup to stay awake, or a Calming Draught to keep from despairing at the inanity of it all, but it was a decent enough place for a first date. At least there would be entertainment if their outing went spectacularly off the rails.

Harry lit up and his smile was blinding. "I'd love to. As soon as I know for certain Ron will be okay, we'll go." Just as Harry lifted his head for a kiss, a Healer appeared in the doorway, asking for Hermione.

They watched as Hermione squared her shoulders and steeled herself. Her steps were purposeful as she walked over to hear what the Healer had to say. Though most eyes were glued on Hermione, Snape was watching Harry, reading his expressions as one might skim through the Daily Prophet. Harry's brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed. He bit his lip. He sucked in a sharp breath and held it before collapsing back in Snape's arms, his eyes closed.

And then Harry smiled.

Harry disentangled himself from Snape's arms and stood by Hermione's side as the conversation continued. His arm went around Hermione's shoulder as he asked a couple of questions, though Snape couldn't hear what they were. Then Harry shook the Healer's hand and pulled Hermione into a hug.

They walked together back into the lounge and Hermione gave Harry a tremulous smile before announcing, "Ron's responding well to the new potion. They think the powder will be out of his system in a few hours, and once that happens, they can start fixing him back up. It will be a few days yet, possibly as long as a week, before he starts to feel like himself, but they think he'll be all right in the end."

Molly burst into tears and hurried over to wrap Hermione in a gigantic hug. Even George was teary-eyed, though most of the others appeared both exhausted and relieved. Arthur swiftly joined his wife as Bill and Ginny joined the throng. Through it all, Harry remained by Hermione's side.

There was an undeniable bond between the two of them, one that had been tested by adversity and endured. With a pang, Snape recognised it was the sort of bond he might have formed with Lily had he been a little more social and far less judgmental when he was a student back at Hogwarts. To his surprise, the thought didn't hurt; it barely stung.

Even more surprising was the realisation that there wasn't even the smallest twinge of jealousy. Harry needed his friends, but he needed a life mate as well, someone who would stand beside him and love him without condition. Perhaps it was a bit of insight. Maybe it was a touch of Divination, but for the first time in his life, Snape acted entirely on instinct.

"Marry me," Severus heard himself say and there was a question over who was the more startled, Harry or Severus.

Harry spun around, eyes wide. "What?"

"What?" chorused half a dozen Weasleys.

"Marry me." It had to be the most ludicrous thing he'd ever heard himself say, but Severus knew to the marrow of his bones that this was how their story would end—assuming, of course, that Harry agreed. Somewhere deep inside lived the clear understanding that the only person he wanted to share his life with was Harry Potter.

"You-you're asking me to marry you?" stammered Harry. He approached Severus slowly and gazed up at him with uncertain eyes as the Weasleys murmured and whispered to one another. "But we've not even gone on a date yet."

"Do you expect to learn something more about me than you already know?" countered Severus.

"I don't even know your birthday!"

"The ninth of January. Next?"

"What's your favourite food?"

"This week?" replied Severus. "Lamb shank with garlic and rosemary, but my favourites change. Constantly. Anything else?" He took a step closer and Harry looped his arms around Snape's neck.

"Will you still take me to the theatre if I say no?" asked Harry, his voice nearly a whisper.

Snape's heart clenched, but he forced his expression to remain open, if not genial. "If that is your wish."

"In that case…" Harry's eyes swept slowly around the room, gazing at person in turn. He lifted his ear to Snape's ear and whispered. "I'll give you my answer after the curtain goes down."

~*~


Severus married Harry Potter six months later. As a wedding gift, Viola doubled her shortbread recipe. Snape never did figure it out.


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