The Paradox of Existence
by DragonLight


Chapter Fourteen:  A River of Souls

*The Past*

Safely ensconced in the folds of Lucius's invisibility cloak, Severus wandered the hallways searching for a particular door that would lead to a certain professor.  Normally he wouldn't have done such a thing, but since Severus had learned that rules were bent for others, he couldn't bring himself to care as much about rules and regulations as he had before.  Especially if breaking the rules in this case would lead him to Professor Tyler.

Severus had been thinking about what Lupin had said to him that night in the infirmary.  Maybe he was right.  He had to trust someone, and if he wanted a relationship with Professor Tyler than whom else should he go to when he needed someone to talk to?  This way he would only have to go through the telling of the tale once, and to only one person.

Turning the corner, Severus followed the path Professor Tyler always took to get to his quarters; at least Severus thought that was the case.  The other path Tyler took didn't lead to anywhere at all, just down a hall with no doors and no turns.  The castle was a truly odd place.  As evidenced by the first door Severus tried to opened.  Well, try wasn't the right word.  The door did open - to a brick wall.  The next was empty and the third caused all sorts of cleaning supplies to start tumbling out.  Thankfully Severus was able to shut the door before the mops and pails and everything else clattered down the hall and gave him away.

The last door at the end of the corridor had a plaque which read "Professor Octavian Tyler". It was so bloody obvious that Severus initially decided that it had to have been a joke.  No professor would announce to students (the majority of which disliked him a great deal if not outright hated him) where he slept at night.  It was just asking for a myriad of pranks.  But Severus chose to risk it and set fingers to doorknob, receiving a jolt for the effort.

Knocking, of course, would be a wiser course of action than attempting to sneak in, especially if trying the door a second time led to something worse than a mild shock.  Severus wouldn't put it past Tyler to hex his doorknob.  Rapping three times on the door, Severus rocked on his heels and waited for the door to swing open and for him to be granted entrance.  At least he hoped that was what would happen.

Seconds turned to a minute and Severus began fidgeting with the corner of his cloak.  Maybe it was a trick door, but instinct told him it wasn't and that he should just wait -- patiently -- for the door to open.  Tyler wouldn't leave someone standing outside his door all night.  That was inconceivable.  Wasn't it?

Just when Severus was about to turn away, the door opened, and a bleary eyed Professor Tyler stood in its place.  Severus swallowed, two thoughts racing through his head.  The first, that he had awakened the man, was followed quickly by the second:  he was going to die a painful death.

"Take off that cursed cloak.  I could hear you through the thrice damned door."

Severus squeaked, cursing himself for being so undisciplined, and drew the cloak off.

"Bloody hell, couldn't you have at least been a descent person to talk to in the middle of the night?"

The words were slurred and Severus realised his mistake, gaining a new sort of confidence at the same time.  Tyler had not been woken up from a sound sleep at all.  He was good and sloshed.  Drunk might be easier than half asleep.  

Long hair, that wasn't tied back, fell in messy waves around his professor's face.  A clump of it was sticking to his bottom lip, and Severus's fingers itched to reach out and brush it away, but he knew better.  Never offer fingers or hands to deadly beasts.  They were likely to be bit off.  Severus tore his gaze away from Tyler's face and looked elsewhere, his eyes landing on the sight of a long healed scar wrapping along the triceps of Tyler's right arm.  Swallowing, Severus looked down at Tyler's bare feet.  There was something strangely intimate about seeing a person barefoot that Severus never quite understood.  His face heated, and he looked away yet again.

"Seen enough?"

"Uh-"

A nod.  "What are you doing here, Mr Snape?"

"Uh, I, uh, I needed someone to talk to and you seemed to be the best candidate."  The words toppled out one after the other, blunt and to the point and somehow embarrassing.  

"At three o'clock in the morning?  Don't you keep normal hours?"

Severus was at a loss for words so he shrugged, turning his face away and his eyes to the ground.  Part of it was natural, but part of him knew that if he wanted to get anywhere, it would be best to seem timid and anxious.  Even if he was timid and anxious.  "I… I couldn't sleep."

"So you naturally assumed the rest of the castle would be awake because it was your bloody whim to seek someone out?  Typical."  Tyler sounded annoyed, and for the first time since he'd left the common room under Lucius's invisibility cloak, Severus thought it might not have been a good idea to seek Tyler out after all.

"I'm sorry, sir.  I just--"

"I apologise for being so short with you."  Tyler had covered his eyes with one hand and was rubbing them.  He sighed.  "I will admit that this isn't the best time, but if you truly need someone to talk to then I'll listen."  Taking a step back, Tyler made enough room for Severus to squeeze by, and Severus, taking no chances that the offer would be rescinded, darted in.

"Sit."  Tyler was pointing at a chair positioned across from the couch.  It looked far more comfortable than any of the furniture which graced the Slytherin common room and Severus sank into it with a luxurious sigh.  His elbow bumped a book that was resting face down on the arm of the chair, and curious, Severus picked it up and leafed through the pages.  Every last one was blank.

"Nothing of interest there."  Tyler was looking at him through half-closed eyes from where he had slouched on the couch.

Severus stared.  Swallowed and then stared again.  Tyler had one foot tucked under him and the other leg extended out the length of the seat.  Resting one arm along the back of the couch, his fingers rhythmically brushed the fabric as his flexed his fingers.  Whatever Severus had come to say slipped out of his mind when Tyler lifted a tumbler half-filled with amber liquid to his lips.  Licking his own, Severus watched Tyler sigh and relax back even further into the cushions of the couch.

"You said something about talking.  Talk."

Severus coughed.  His mouth had gone dry and the words weren't coming, but he forced out the first sentence, and after that first sentence floated between them, Severus found each successive word easier to say until the whole story of what had brought him here in the middle of the night lay bare between them.  Each fear and concern, each question and answer he had asked himself over and over again.  He told Tyler about the burn of the Mark when it was seared into his skin.  And he told of each reason he had for joining the ranks of the Death Eaters.  All but one.  The fact that Tyler himself had been the final impetus never passed his lips.  It hung unspoken in the back of his mind.

Tyler, for his part, didn't move from his position on the couch.  His face was schooled into a mask of blankness, not a single emotion -- especially the expected disgust -- flickered on his face.  Severus was glad for that.  It seemed the rumours about this particular man were true.  He didn't care about the war that raged all around them.  It didn't matter who won, Voldemort or Dumbledore or the Ministry of Magic.  Tyler would not be swayed by either side.  That impartiality appealed to Severus.  He hadn't come to be judged.  At least that is what he believed.

But he was asking Professor Tyler to do so with every word that fell from his lips.

***

Harry leaned back, sipping at another glass of firewhisky as he listened to the story pour out of Severus's mouth.  He didn't quite remember just how many tumblerfuls of the alcohol had passed his lips.  That line of thought vanished as the story unfolded.  Schooling his gaze to one of indifference, Harry listened, fascinated, to Severus as he explained his reasons for initially joining the ranks of the Dark Lord.

This was a topic his Severus always avoided at all costs.  Harry had never pressed the subject, but it didn't stop the bottomless well of curiosity that made him want to know everything about the man he was bonded to.  Harry wouldn't pry, and in turn, Severus would not pry into Harry's life.  They would not push the other into revealing things they thought better left alone, and if they died without knowing everything about the other, then so be it.  It was something that Harry could tolerate.  It wasn't necessary.  What they knew about each other was inconsequential because what truly mattered was that they understood each other.

Maybe now Harry would relent and reveal some of those facts that he'd never whispered.  It was, after all, only fair now that his younger self had gone spilling some of Severus's most guarded thoughts and secrets.

Harry wondered if Severus, his Severus, had realised how very blind he was when he was sixteen.  Almost immediately, Harry berated himself.  Of course Severus knew.  Severus would probably be the first one to admit it, if he admitted such things.

This young man was blind to all the horrors Voldemort committed.  He was a young impetuous fool, and Harry struggled to keep the censure out of his eyes.  It wasn't completely Severus's fault.  Only mostly.  If he was to believe the words that tripped over themselves to tell a tale Harry was quite sure he deserved to hear.

It seemed that Mr Riddle liked to convince his followers that he was morally right before he showed them the more vicious side of his regime.  The joys of torturing and killing half-bloods and Muggles were hidden away from the impressionable young men (and on occasion women) like Severus.  So instead of a story filled with horrific sights -- which Harry had to admit to himself he had half expected -- he was being regaled with all the good things the Dark Lord was trying to accomplish and bafflement at how those who opposed him could possibly do so.  How everyone believed the horrid lies about kidnapping and torture which were just simply wrong.

Harry's chest tightened listening to the words.  Sadness, for a brief moment, threatened to overtake him, drown him, but Harry didn't let it.  Instead, his mind turned to all the conversations he'd had with the older Severus.  His Severus was full of self-ridicule.  He criticized all the decisions that he had made while growing up, never whispering to Harry what those decisions had been, just that they were wrong, wrong, wrong.  And not worth repeating.  Harry knew so much about his Severus, but not this.  Not what he was now discovering from the lips of a younger version of his lover.

This blindness of young Severus was a weakness, and Harry's Severus despised showing any form of weakness to anyone, most especially Harry.  Even if Severus was no longer weak in such a way, he had been at one point, and that was enough to hide this from Harry.  At least that was what Harry thought.  His Severus always looked at all the possible angles and never stepped into any situation, other than Death Eater meetings, without full knowledge of what he was getting himself into.  In the future, Severus looked at having to attend those meetings as his punishment.  Harry had always thought it was a punishment for following the Dark Lord in the first place, but now, listening to this younger version of his lover, Harry wasn't quite sure that he had it right.

Harry's mind was not focusing on any one thing; instead so many conversations were running through his mind that Harry couldn't help but make connection between them that he would never have made had he been sober and in complete control of his thoughts.

The young Severus stopped talking and tilted his head to the side, waiting for Harry to say something.  Running his fingers through his hair, Harry decided he didn't know what he should say.  What he wanted to say was "stay away from that horrible monster!" but Severus didn't need that advice.  He needed to find his own way to the conclusion that Voldemort was indeed a monster and not the man he purported himself to be to his followers.  Harry, though, still had to say something and settled on stating what he had always believed.

"Mr Snape, you seem to be trying to convince yourself that you did the right thing.  Not trying to convince me."  Harry paused.  "All I have to say to that is, as long as you did it for the right reasons, as long as it is a cause that you believe in, and as long as you can live with yourself while doing it, then it is your decision to make.  No one else can make that decision for you.  You are, after all, the person that you have to live the rest of your life with.  And if you can't stand the person you've allowed yourself to become then it's going to be a rather horrid life for you."

It was also the end of any level of coherence Harry could expect from himself.  Shifting slightly, Harry started to get up so he could escort the young Mr Snape to the door.  He closed his eyes and stretched his arms upward, arching his back as he did so.  Letting out his breath slowly, he lowered his arms and opened his eyes.  Severus's eyes were wide and filled with conflicting emotions, and lacking the sureness Harry had come to expect with his Severus.  Shrugging, Harry swung his legs over the edge of the couch.

Severus looked away.  "You must think me a fool, Professor.  I always seem to come across as someone who can't handle making his own decisions.  I suppose I was just worried that I had made the decision too hastily."  Severus swallowed.  "I know my Lord is trying to change things for the better, and I know he is probably going about it in the best way.  He must be better informed than I am.  I'm only a sixth year, but still…"  Severus's eyes flicked from Harry to the floor and back.

Harry was almost positive that Severus didn't even realise he was rambling on.  It was a refreshing change to his Severus that always weighed each word with care.  A genuine smile flitted across Harry's face and Severus's babbling stopped.

Cocking his head, Harry looked at Severus.  He didn't trust his voice to say what he wanted to.  Whenever he drank too much firewhisky -- and he was almost sure that he had -- Harry ended up making a fool of himself.  Something he was determined to prevent tonight.

"I've never actually seen you smile before, Professor.  Even when your friend visited.  You just never seemed like the smiling sort."

Harry's smile didn't disappear, only got bigger.  Perhaps Albus was right, he thought, this was almost like a vacation.  Spending time with a Severus that didn't have nearly as many worries as his Severus would be a nice change.  As long as nothing happened between them it would be perfectly acceptable to talk to the young man, right?

"Everyone has an off day now and then, I suppose.  You just happened to catch me on mine."  Harry stood and swayed slightly as the blood all rushed from his head.  Being the sober one, Severus jumped up and grabbed Harry's elbow to keep him from falling.  A nod.  "Well, I guess you should be going, Mr Severus."

"Perhaps you should lay down, Professor.  You don't look well."  Severus's hand tugged at Harry, trying to pull him back toward the couch so he could help him sit down, but Harry didn't want to sit, so he tried to pull free and ended up stumbling against Severus.

Frowning, Severus turned him and Harry cupped his cheek in one hand.  Confusion clouded the familiar yet unfamiliar features of Severus face and Harry frowned in turn.  "So much lost.  Such beautiful eyes filled with emotion.  I'm so--" Harry leaned closer.  "Sorry."  Without another thought to the consequences of his actions, Harry swayed forward the last little bit and covered Severus's lips with his own.

***

Severus stretched when he woke, savouring the ache through his body.  He was sore in places, but it was a pleasant sort of sensation.  He'd spent the night with Professor Tyler-- No.  Octavian.  A sleepy slow grin stretched his lips and he rolled over to see if he could catch sight of his professor.  The grin widened, he liked the sound of that.  His professor.

Octavian, however, was not in the room, and Severus climbed out of the bed.  His clothes were folded and placed in a neat pile on a chair by the door, and he headed over to them, past the door which led to the bathroom.  The shower was running.

That, at least, answered the question of where his errant professor had got to.

All thoughts of Octavian in the shower vanished when Severus's eyes alighted on the note laying primly on top of Severus's pile of clothes.

*//Mr S Snape,

I would advise you to vacate my rooms immediately.  You see, I have regained my sobriety.  For your own personal safety, I suggest you remain as far away from me as possible for the remainder of the school year.

I expect you gone before I reappear.  If not, something worse, much worse, than detention with Filch awaits.

Professor O Tyler//*

Crumpling the paper in his fist, Severus glared at the bathroom door and flung the wad of paper at it.  He would have felt better if it had made a satisfying sort of shattering sound, but it didn't and all he could do was seethe.  Like a child.  The thought left a bitter taste in his mouth as he tugged his clothes on.

It wasn't over.  Tyler wanted him, Severus was sure.  He wouldn't have taken him if he didn't want him.  Now that he knew what to look for to get past Tyler's defences (particular large quantities of alcohol being imbibed) Severus had plans for paying another late night visit.

Tyler had never met a determined Severus before.

***

Harry heard the bedroom door slam followed shortly after by a dull thud of the outer room door slamming as well.  He was alone.

He slid down the tiles and groaned.  How stupid had he been to allow himself to drink that much.  More than he would have if Severus had been there, but then that had been the whole point to his drinking.  Severus -- his Severus had not been there.

Not that they ever did anything to celebrate their anniversary, but they never ignored it either.  It just was, just like everything else about them.  And last night had been their anniversary.  Harry sighed, scraping his nails across the bond mark on the inside of his right wrist.

It would have been fine had the young Severus not appeared at his door.  Harry would have just finished off the bottle of whisky and fallen asleep on the couch probably while reading, all the while missing Severus and trying not to think of him.  But none of that had happened.  Instead, Harry had found himself listening to the younger Severus talk about what he had done, and then Harry had done something beyond foolish and idiotic.

His eyes were prickling, but Harry refused to admit to any tears.  It was easy to do so in the shower with the water running over his head trailing down his face in long rivulets.  He was furious and angry at himself and the situation, but he was not going to shed a tear over it.  He scrubbed at his skin, wishing to wash the guilt down the drain, but he couldn't.  Guilt never washed away like that.  It stained his skin in a way only he could see.

Of course the irony was the his Severus knew exactly what was going on between 'Professor Tyler' and his younger self, but Harry couldn't stop feeling like he had cheated on Severus.  There wasn't an end to the circular logic, Harry knew that, but neither could he stop thinking about it.  Anyway he looked at it he felt guilty and angry at himself.  Then his thoughts turned to his Severus and Harry wondered if Severus was furious with him for his complete lack of self control, for giving in to Severus's sixteen year old self.

The water was cooling, but Harry stayed where he  was, his head down turned with the water beating down on it and his right wrist gripped in his left hand, the bond mark staring up at him accusingly.

***

*The Future:  Summer Between Harry’s Sixth and Seventh Year*

“Stop being such a baby.”

“I am not acting like an infant.”  A sharp hiss of indrawn breath filled the small room.  “That hurts!”

“I barely touched you.  You know, it would hurt a lot less if you’d just sit still.”

“Your bedside manner leaves something to be desired, Potter.”  Severus tried to move away from the hand that was coming closer to him.

Throwing up his hands in frustration, Harry glared.  "Would you just sit still?!  It's only a salve without a single ingredient that will cause pain.  You should know because you MADE it!"  Harry gripped Severus's shoulder before he could jerk away again, but the older man twisted out of his grip anyway.

"It stung the last time."  Matter-of-fact.  "What are you trying to put on it anyway?  For all I know it could be something completely inappropriate to the wound.  And--"

Harry glanced skyward.  There was not a worse patient in the entire world than Severus Snape.  And he was stuck with the man.

"--I don't need your help.  I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself.  In fact, I've been doing so since before you were born, so if you would kindly bugger off I'll see to this myself."

That was it, Harry decided.  He grabbed Severus's arm, yanking it toward him, provoking a gasp from Severus, and rubbed his salve covered fingers into the gash on Severus's shoulder.  Another hiss issued from Severus's lips, turning into a growl at the end.

"To answer your question," Harry said, stepping back and releasing Severus's arm.  "It's a pain numbing and disinfectant salve.  Clearly marked in your neatest handwriting, sir.  As for why it hurt the first time.  You wouldn't sit still and were pulling the cut open wider tearing the flesh and muscle.  The reason that I am helping you is because you can't reach the gash to tend to it yourself.  If you could, I'd just let you lick your injuries like the wounded animal you are.  Sir."

Stepping around Severus, Harry bent over and looked into Severus's eyes to check the dilation of his pupils.

"What are you doing now?"  Though Severus didn't snap his eyes closed.  Probably because Severus didn't trust him at all, Harry thought bitterly.

"Is your vision blurry?"

"No."

"Good."  Standing up, Harry grabbed a clean cloth from the table and went to wipe off any excess salve that hadn't absorbed into his skin.  Casting a healing charm, Harry watched as the skin knit together - the only sign that there was ever a cut there a sharp red line which would fade but never completely go away.  Just one more scar to a man who already had so many.

Harry traced the line with his finger, to make sure that the spell had sealed properly but also because he could get away with it.  Another time and Severus would have hexed him across the room, but right now, Harry could get away with splaying his fingers across the taut flesh and muscle as long as he pretended he was checking the injury.

Severus didn't stop grousing, and Harry really didn't expect him to.  He just ignored all the snapping insults and groaning complaints about how he did everything wrong.  It was the way Severus dealt with his pain.  It was also leagues away from Harry dealt with his own.

The first time Severus had pulled him out of a bad situation, Harry had had five gashes in parallel lines across his chest, and a stab wound in the side.  He had automatically curled up and closed his eyes, trying to silence even his breathing.  He had wheezed out a gasp when Severus had picked him up off the ground and brought him to safety.  After he'd been healed, Severus had ripped into him for making him think that Harry had died.

Of course it was probably because Severus thought that a dead Harry meant that he'd failed his duty.

"Was it bad?"

Harry shrugged.  "I could see the bone, but it was your shoulder blade and part of that is exposed through the muscle anyway.  I don't know enough to tell you if the muscle suffered any severe trauma."  Harry ran his fingers and hands over Severus's back one last time.  "It's healing all right, and-- I must have been mistaken."

"Hm?"

"I thought I caught the scent of Oleander, but you're not showing any of the symptoms of Oleander poisoning."  Harry paused.  "Who would have thought I'd ever learn anything remotely interesting about potions?"

"Prat."

"That was an awfully juvenile thing to say, Professor.  I thought you saved such comments for my godfather."

Severus's eyes narrowed, but he didn't say anything, just grabbed Harry's hand and tugged Harry in front of him.  Fidgeting, Harry pulled his hand from Severus's grasp and took a step back.

"We should check that puncture wound, Potter."

"I can do it myself."  Harry lifted a hand to his eyes and rubbed at them.  He'd been staring too long trying to check Severus's wound.  His eyes felt strained, and the exhaustion from lack of sleep must have been catching up with him because he felt a little off.

Severus was staring at him.  Harry could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end, and when Severus opened his mouth, the words cut through him, sharp and hard.  "You said you smelled Oleander?"

A sharp nod sent Harry's head reeling and he collapsed against the table.  Propping himself up with one hand, he rubbed the other against his eyes and sighed.  He was just over tired.

"Did it ever occur to you that you could have been the one poisoned?"

Harry lost his balance when he titled his head back to look at Severus, and fell backward.  Severus caught him before he hit the ground.

***

The first things Harry saw upon waking were the cracks in the ceiling.  They were very familiar cracks as Harry had woken to the sight of them twisting along the painfully white ceiling many times before.  With a sigh and muttered curse, Harry pushed himself up and looked around the hospital wing.

"You, Mr Potter, have proven that you are even more of an idiot then I have previously assumed.  I assure you that if you ranked toward the bottom of the echelon of intelligence before, you rank at the bottom now with perhaps Longbottom just slightly under you."

Harry swallowed and leaned his head back and closing his eyes.  "I told you I thought I smelled Oleander.  I'm not the potions master who should have been able to identify it a mile off."  Rolling onto his side, Harry looked at Severus.  He was surprised to find him sitting in a chair by his bed reading a book.  He'd obviously been there a while.  Some sort of bittersweet emotion that Harry didn't really want to examine wrapped around his chest and squeezed.  "How long was I out for?"

"A week."  Short and clipped and Severus's tone had an edge of anger to it.

"Sorry," Harry said, instantly sheepish.  "I shouldn't have snapped.  I should have been able to tell I was the one who was poisoned."

Severus nodded.  "I did not sit there and drill symptoms into your head so that you could get poisoned and not recognize the effects."  Severus dragged in a harsh breath between clenched teeth.  "You are lucky I was there, you idiot boy.  It has obviously been a complete waste of my time training you to identify some highly dangerous poisons by scent alone."

"It's not like you did any of it out of the goodness of your own heart, you giant bat!  Not that you have one.  Dumbledore told you to train me."  Harry rolled over, turning his back to Severus and squeezed his eyes shut.

“You are the most impertinent brat I’ve ever met, Potter.”

“Where is the Headmaster sending us next?  I want to get out of here.”

"What makes you so sure you'll be working with me?"

All Harry heard was venom in the other’s voice.  "Well he sure won’t send me off alone.  And just because I did something stupid he isn’t going to take Sirius or Remus off assignment to ‘baby-sit’ me as you call it.  I'm afraid you're stuck with the honour."

Severus ignored him.  "We’ll be picking up where we left off.  Between your visions and my mark we might actually be able to track Voldemort to his new headquarters."

"Hiding place."  Harry narrowed his eyes and crossed him arms.  From the corner of his eye he caught Severus glancing upward at the ceiling and stifling a sigh.

"Quite right, Potter, his hiding place.  Since your visions get stronger with proximity, as do the pains in your scar and my mark, we should be able to determine where he is hiding."

"Stupid, stupid, stupid.  We should be spending our time building up a defence, not planning an offence.  'One is always stronger on one's home ground.'"

"I have never admitted to comprehending the Headmaster."  Severus stood with one swift motion.  "Whenever you are ready, I will be waiting for you at the front doors."

The door to the hospital wing slammed behind Severus and Harry jumped out of bed.  It wasn't that he was excited about going back out with Severus, more that he wanted to avoid any further lectures about promptness from the man.  Pulling his shirt over his head, Harry caught the scent of spice and potions ingredients.  His bag must have been stashed in Severus's private rooms.  With a sigh, Harry caught himself wishing that he had been stashed in Severus's rooms for the last week as well.  Not that Severus wanted him there of course.

All the way down to the entrance hall, Harry's thoughts remained on his odd relationship with Severus.  The pair of them had been working on this brainless -- in Harry's opinion -- scheme of Dumbledore's  since the end of the school year and with each week they spent in close company Harry fancied himself more in love with Severus.  In his more optimistic moments, Harry thought that maybe Severus found him a bit attractive as well, but those moments were short and far apart.

One of those moments was not when Harry reached the bottom of the main stairwell.  Severus turned a glare on him and called for him to stop dawdling.  With a roll of his eyes, Harry half jogged the remaining distance and stopped in front of Dumbledore who gave him a quick pat on the shoulder and wished them both good luck.

Harry wished his benevolent smile to Hades.

***

"Potter."  Severus pushed a small vial at Harry, but Harry didn't look up from the page he was staring at.  "Potter."  

With a disinterested sigh and his eyes glued to his book, Harry ignored Severus, his lip curling up at the corner in distaste.

"Potter."  Severus's tone moved from impatient to annoyed and the vial slammed down next to Harry's untouched dinner.

"Stop calling me Potter.  I assure you that you cannot attach any distaste for the name to me as I know barely a thing about my family, and I refuse to count my caretakers.  Poor excuses for caretakers let alone family."

"Potter--"

"If you want me to answer than come up with a different name."  Harry turned another page.  "You can call me Harry, but no, you'd never do that, Professor.  So how about Black, Weasley, or Lupin?  At least I feel like I belong to those families."  Harry whinged.  "But I doubt you'd use those either."

"Drink the damned potion, Pot-- Harry," Severus snarled.  "You have trace amounts of Oleander in your system and it is acting as a mild depressant."

"Thank you, Professor."  With a nod, Harry returned to the book that Severus was damned certain he was not reading a single word of, ignoring the existence of vial and potion.  He did shovel a spoonful of the god awful cottage pie into his mouth, however, after Severus pushed the plate against Harry's elbow for the fifth time that night.  He shouldn't have to coddle the boy, but Dumbledore had put Harry in his care and he wasn't about to fail the assigned duty.

"One normally moves their eyes when one reads a book."

"Not if the book is there as a simple pretext so a conversation can be avoided."

Severus tapped his nails against the wood table and bit back a growl.  Damned brat.  Acting like an infant who doesn't like the taste of cold medicine.  "Why won't you take the potion?"

Harry shrugged and turned the page again.  "This is how I should feel."

"Expound upon that."

"I'm not an essay that you can write comments on so you'll just have to deal with my saying as much or as little as I please."  Snapping his book shut, Harry stood to leave, but Severus grabbed his elbow in a firm grip and wouldn't release him.  "Let go, Professor."

"If I'm expected to spend the remainder of this accursed summer in your company than I deserve to know what makes you unbearable, and that, Mr Potter, is what you will be if you don't take the damned potion."

"I'm already unbearable as far as you're concerned.  You've been telling me variations on that since I was eleven.  Besides," Harry continued, "what gives you the right to know anything about me?  It's not like you give a bloody damn.  You make that quite clear every day!"  Wrenching his arm away, Harry took off through the door and went into the small hotel bedroom.  

Severus snatched the vial off the table and stood to follow Potter, his chair scraping against the floor before falling over with an angry clatter.  If he got his hands around the boy's neck he was going to squeeze hard enough to--

Severus stopped just inside the room, listening to the satisfying slam and rattle of the door.

Potter was on the bed lounging indolently on his stomach with the damned book propped up on the pillow on the same page Harry had been not-reading twenty minutes ago.  The brat couldn't even keep page numbers straight.  It was no wonder he did so abysmally in his classes.

"Don't you know everything that book has to offer yet, Potter?" Severus growled.  "You forgot the vial."

Harry ignored him and Severus, giving in to nervous energy, started pacing.  Each footfall was a resounding thud against the floor.  And he certainly didn't glance over at the round curve of Harry's arse in those trousers which were much too tight and would have been put to better use strangling the idiot mutt who had given them to him.  After he was stabbed with the dagger which was strapped to Harry's thigh, yet another gift the boy did not need.

"Madam Pomfrey demanded that I give you this potion with your dinner.  I suggest you take it as I do not need the mistress of Hogwarts' hospital wing swooping down upon me with a vengeance."

"And I care why, exactly?"  Rolling over, Harry stared at Severus through half closed eyes.

Severus was feeling like the room was too small and temperature too high.  Dealing with Potter would give him an aneurysm before the end of the month, and for a brief time, Severus had actually thought that he would be able to last the whole summer with a surprisingly bearable Potter.

Brushing a lock of lank hair out of his face for the umpteenth time, Severus gave up.  There was no telling what was going through Potter's head, and on top of that, Severus still hadn't figured out how to deal with him since that incident around Christmas last.

Thoughts like those would lead him down a treacherous path, though, and Severus banished the image of Harry in front of him with his lips parted, about to kiss him, with a ruthless shake of his head.  He didn't have time for that nonsense.  Slumping down onto the edge of the bed, Severus extended the vial toward Potter.

Harry grabbed it and swallowed the contents in one gulp.

"Why do you let me get away with anything I want?"

"Since when do I allow you to do that?  I was under the impression I was constantly stopping you from doing such."  Severus turned to look at him, and Harry met his gaze with a steady one of his own.

"It depends.  As my professor you are a complete and utter shit."

Severus glared, but Harry didn't flinch.  "Last Christmas, Dumbledore put you in charge of me and since then you've been my mentor in the Order.  As such you let me get away with anything.  I've screamed at you, called you every name I could think of and even some that I had to look up in a book-"

"What book?"

"'1001 Ways to Insult Your Postions Master' by Fred and George Weasley.  Has a bonus chapter on the other professors as well."

Severus scowled.  "Why are you telling me this, you realise--"

"What are you going to do?  Most of the insults are pretty easy to memorise and if you get McGonagall to remove the copies in the common room you still can't confiscate them from individuals unless they bring them into your class, and they'd have to be pretty stupid to do that.  Not to mention that Fred and George will only send new copies."  Harry shrugged.  "Besides, I'm the only one who will insult you to your face.  Most everyone else is too scared to do so, or too interested in licking your shoestrings."

"Leave my Slytherins out of this."  Clenching his fist against his thigh, Severus cursed.  "Will I ever escape those two menaces?"

"No."

Taking a deep breath, Severus turned away.  "Because you are old enough to make your own decisions."

Harry's response was slow in coming, and Severus knew the abrupt change back on to topic was, in all likelihood, the cause.  "And if I make the decision to insult you and make you miserable?"

"That is your choice to make, and I know you are the one making it."

"How do you know that Sirius isn't rewarding me every time I insult you?"

"While that sounds like something your cur of a godfather would do, I doubt it.  I would appreciate, however, being told the reason for your sudden hostility toward me.  You've been… tolerable so far this summer and I had hoped the pattern would have continued as unlikely as that would be."

"I've decided that I don't want anyone to have faith in me."  When Harry's reply came it was quiet and Severus didn't know how to respond.  It surely wasn't what he had been expecting and he never handled the unexpected well.  Such territory was commonplace when dealing with Potter.

Severus took a deep breath as Harry shifted and changed position on the bed.  He was used to the boy's restlessness; he always fidgeted in class and now shouldn't be any different, but for some reason it was and Severus didn't know what to make of it.  He stared at Harry's fingers as they brushed across the floor chasing dust mites.  "And what is wrong with people having faith in you?"

"I'll end up letting someone down.  I won't be what everyone expects me to be."  

"And what is it you think everyone expects of you?"

"To be a Gryffindor all the time."

Severus didn't say anything at first.  What was there to say? "Excuse me."

"There are qualities in me which are distinctly not Gryffindor in nature."  

"Your Slytherin qualities."  Severus nodded, but carefully kept his expression as stoic as possible.  He had noticed those qualities ages ago.  Harry's abilities to disappear into the shadows and to be ignored, the cunning he showed in certain rare situations.  He had a brain and on occasion even seemed to use it, as much as Severus didn't want to admit to that.  He didn't have a Slytherin's ambition though, and was left with the Gryffindor tendency to coast through life.

One would have to actually look to see those traits though, as Harry hid all of them behind his foolhardy Gryffindor courage.

"You knew?  You knew that the hat tried to put me in Slytherin?"

"I thank it everyday that it did not.  A born Lion among the House of Snakes?  I would have stepped down as Head of Slytherin."

Harry smirked.  "No, you wouldn't have.  You'd have learned to live with me.  You're a Slytherin, you'd have adapted."  

"Granted."  Another Slytherin trait Harry had in spades.  No matter what anyone threw at the boy, Severus knew that he would adapt to the situation and emerge from it relatively unscathed.

Standing, Harry paced to the window, but didn't look out.  There was nothing to see as the first thing Severus had done upon their arrival that evening was shutter it.

"It shouldn't matter if you let others down as long as you don't let yourself down."

Turning, Harry leaned against the sill.  "Sometimes I'm more Slytherin than Gryffindor, but this time I'm more Gryffindor than Slytherin.  A Slytherin looks out for their own interest over that of others.  A Gryffindor looks out for others' interests over their own.  You're similar in that regard," a pause, "Severus."  Severus said nothing at the use of his name and only raised an eyebrow at Harry's presumption.  Ducking his head a bit, Harry hurried on.  "I can acknowledge I have the qualities of both Houses in me, but personally I don't want to choose which one I associate with the most.  I'd rather be Houseless then to be classified as the quintessential anything.  I know people expect me to pick, and they all expect me to pick Gryffindor.  How can I be either one or another when I can see both?"

Severus stood and went to stand right in front of Harry.  Taking Harry's chin between his fingers, he tilted Harry's face up and met Harry's stare.  "You are neither and you are both.  The answer to your question lies inside of you.  Be whatever this," Severus settled his free hand over Harry's heart, "tells you to be."  Severus had meant to be brusque and abrupt and cruel and he cursed himself for ten times the fool that he sounded like he cared

Severus moved to take a step back, but before he could, Harry settled his hand over Severus's.  "And there's the problem.  I want to be free to be myself, but I know that some people I hold close won't accept who I see myself as and whom I choose to associate with."  Dropping his hand, Harry backed up a step.  "I want to love whoever I want."

Severus nodded, the muscles in his jaw tensing.  "Then do so," he ground out.  "Don't let anyone stop you."

"It's not that easy.  You see, I think I'm in love with you, but you're the one that is out to stop me."

"There is no advantage to that."  Severus started to back further away, but he stopped.  Their places reversed, Severus would not have admitted what Harry just had; knowing rejection was imminent would have kept Severus's lips sealed.

Severus was sure that this was all a mistake.  He was just the object of a misplaced infatuation and eventually Harry would come to understand that and move on.

Harry swallowed, his eyes sliding shut and shoulders sagging.  "I was right."  With a shake of his head, Harry looked up, eyes bright with insubordination and obnoxiousness.  Exactly what Severus had come to expect over the years teaching him.

With a shrug, Harry tried to brush past him, but Severus grabbed his arm and twisted it until Harry was facing him.  "You should know that as far as I am concerned you are never right, Potter."

"Really?"  There wasn't any defiance in Harry, just weariness and acceptance.  It bothered Severus, but he would never admit it.  Ever.

Drawing in a deep breath, Severus let his free hand brush Harry's cheek for a moment before he dipped his head and covered Harry's lips with his.  In the back of his mind he knew it was the biggest mistake he had ever made, but he couldn't bring himself to care as Harry opened his mouth under his and tentatively returned the kiss.  

There was something between them.  Some tangible thing that existed and twisted its way around them, joined them on a completely inappropriate visceral level.  Severus would have banished it, if he knew how and if he hadn't wanted to keep it.  This was madness, sweet and bitter madness, and he clung to it as he pulled Harry closer and kissed him harder. ♦

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