The Paradox of Existence
by DragonLight


Chapter Eighteen:  A Shadow versus the Real Thing

*The Past*

Severus Snape didn’t move for a long time.  The Death Eaters were still gathered around the trembling body of the teenage boy.  He was huddled down, his face buried in his knees.  They had already raped and murdered his little sister; her body was sprawled not too far away.  Severus didn’t think that he would ever get her screams out of his head.

It was Severus's first meeting with the older Death Eaters.  He had been chosen, along with Lucius and a few select others, to start attending the full meetings, the meetings where things ‘got done’.  At least, that was what Severus had been told.  

Severus tried not to look into the center of the circle, but morbid fascination made his gaze wander toward the sight.  The little girl had been no more than twelve years old.  Her hair had been golden blonde with a slight curl.  Had been, until the blood had pooled around her head, and had turned it a ruddy red.  She had been pretty, as far as girls went.  And now she was dead.  

Three Death Eaters had taken part of her torture.  Two held her down as one ripped off the skirt she was wearing.  That one had beaten her, until she stopped crying.  But when he finally forced himself on her, she had screamed.  Lucius had grinned over at Severus as he held the boy down, forcing him to watch his sister’s rape.  She had been silent when she died.

Afterward Voldemort had said that it had all been done because she was a muggle, and therefore useless.  He had said that she was too filthy to be killed with magic.  Her parents were to be sent a picture.  Her brother was going to take it back.  And take the blame for her rape and murder.

The whole thing had been overkill, but it appeared as if he was the only one who realized that.  Severus's gaze slid to the boy.  He must have sensed Severus staring at him because his eyes locked with Severus's.  There was no life in the boy’s eyes.  A shiver went down Severus's spine at the sight.

Someone had seen the small movement of the boy’s head.  “Crucio.”  Severus couldn’t tear his gaze away as the boy convulsed and writhed on the floor once again.  Over the last half an hour he had been subjected to the Cruciatus curse multiple times.  

As quickly as the curse started, it ended.  Severus watched as the boy took in large gulps of air, his chest heaving.  A trickle of blood ran down his chin from where he had bit his lip in pain.  Severus quickly looked away; he could no longer stand to watch.

Instead Severus stared at Lord Voldemort.  He was standing toward the edge of the circle, a cold sneer plastered on his face.  He was nothing like he had been during Severus's initiation and the meetings that Severus had been able to attend afterward.  Then, he had been personable, and Severus had felt like he wanted to please him.  

Now, Severus realized that he had no choice other than to please him.  Failure would no doubt result in the sight that had greeted them when they arrived.

A man had been magically skinned and quartered.  His body was hung in pieces along the side wall.  The white mask of the Death Eaters was still in place over his face, the only reason that Severus had been able to tell he had once been one of them.

After they had all gathered in the traditional circle, Voldemort had casually waved his hand toward the body.  “A lesson, for our new friends.”  Severus had known that it was a warning for himself and the others that were new to the full meetings.

That was when the girl and her brother had been brought in.

Severus felt as though he were going to be sick; he had recognized the voice that had cast the last Crutiatus on the young man.  It had been his father’s.  Severus restrained himself from looking around the circle for him.  He wouldn’t be able to identify him with his mask on anyway.

He was trying to listen to the words that were flowing out of his Lord’s mouth, but the roiling in his stomach distracted him.  He could feel the thickening of saliva in his mouth and the bitter taste it had.  The metallic smell of the girl’s blood was causing his throat to start contracting.  Severus swallowed; he had no intention of being sick in front of these people.

He heard the memory charm being cast, and snapped his head around to look at the man who was kneeling in front of the boy.  He was remaking the boy’s memory.  Telling him that he had kidnapped his sister, tied her down, and then raped her.  After, when she had started to cry, he had hit her and slammed her head against the ground until she died.  He was told that he had taken a picture to show his parents.  

With a shudder the young man opened his eyes, and looked over at his sister.  A guttural scream escaped his throat, and tears started pouring down his face.  “Sarah, no!”  He was shaking his head.  “NO!  I didn’t do it!  I didn’t!”  The last words were barely recognizable through the boy’s sobs.  

Severus followed the boy’s gaze.  He was looking at his hands in horror.  They were covered in blood.  He looked down at his clothes; they were covered in his sister’s blood also.  “Oh my God.  Sarah!”  The boy stood and stumbled toward the door.  Leaving the body of his sister behind.

Severus knew that when the boy finally returned to his house, the picture would be found.  He was most likely going to go insane with the guilt.

When the door shut behind the frantic boy, some of the Death Eaters began to laugh.  Voldemort just smiled.  Severus thought that it wasn’t quite the smile of a sane man.  Not for the first time since the meeting began, Severus wondered what had impelled him to join.  He couldn’t quite remember.

The meeting ended not long after.  Severus couldn’t wait to escape.  The girl was still lying on the ground, her body forgotten.  Severus forced himself to look at her, burning the image of her broken body into his mind.  He had been part of her death.

A hand landed on his shoulder.  Expecting Lucius, Severus looked behind him.  His father was behind him, his mask removed.  For the first time in his life Severus saw a smile on his father’s face that was directed at him.

“I’m proud of you, Severus.  I know you caught that boy’s gaze to make him move.  You did good, my son.”

Severus managed to get all the way back to Hogwarts and the dormitory bathroom before he threw up.

***

Harry snapped awake at the erratic banging on his door.  A dart hit his closed bedroom door before he realized that the noise was coming from the main door.

He threw off the covers, and headed to answer the door.  On his way he cast the Tempus spell.  It was 5:30 in the morning.

As soon as the door was in sight Harry waved his hand to open it.  It flew open and a black-robed figure fell into a heap on the floor.  

“What the bloody hell is going on?”  Harry made his way over to the pile of limbs and robes that he was sure was Severus Snape.  “Mr. Snape?”  Harry had barely finished getting the boys name out when he was knocked over.  

Harry managed to get to his knees.  Severus was clinging to him, shaking hard.  He could feel the tears coursing down the young man’s cheek where Severus's face was pressed against his chest.  Harry automatically wrapped his arms around the boy, and started to stoke his back in a soothing manner.

“Shhh.”  Harry took a deep breath.  He had no idea what was going on.  “Tell me what’s wrong.”

Severus just shook his head.

Harry had dealt with upset students before, mostly first years suffering from bouts of homesickness.  That was nothing like the soul wrenching sobs that were coming from Severus.  He had never seen anything like this.

He pushed Severus away slightly so he could look at him.  Severus's head was downcast, his hair falling in damp, lank waves around his face, obscuring his features.  His shoulders were still shaking.  Harry could hear his raspy gasps for air.

Harry grabbed Severus's chin in-between his fingers and forced him to look up at him.  Severus's eyes were bloodshot.

“Talk to me, Severus.  I’ll listen.”

At Severus's nod, Harry pulled him back into his embrace, and just held the trembling young man.

After a minute, Severus started to talk in a quiet, shaking voice.

As Severus's story poured forth, Harry could feel his heart breaking.  His Severus never talked about what he saw at Death Eater meetings with him.  And certainly Severus had avoided all mention of what he had seen when he was younger.

“It’s my fault too, Professor.  I was part of it.  I was there, and I didn’t do anything to stop it.  I might as well have killed her myself!”  Severus's voice broke, and he started sobbing again.

Harry could feel tears prickling his own eyes.  He forcibly willed them away.  He could not afford to be emotional.  

He wished he knew what to say.  He kept a constant stream of soothing sounds issuing from his mouth.  

Harry knew Severus, and he knew that Severus, even the younger version, would never believe he wasn’t at fault for the girl’s death.  He also knew that this wasn’t a time for a lecture.  All he could do was comfort this younger version of his lover and hope.

Harry wrapped his arms more firmly around Severus, and started to shift so he could get his feet under him.  Once he managed that, he stood, with the sixteen year old in his arms, and moved to the couch.  He settled them both down, Severus pressed into his side.

Eventually Severus's sobs stopped, and his breathing calmed.  When Harry felt Severus's muscles relax, he knew that the younger man had finally cried himself to sleep.

Harry sighed.  He summoned his wand before lighting a fire in the large fireplace.

Harry thanked god that it was the weekend, and neither him nor the young Mr. Snape would be expected at breakfast or classes.  

Harry spent the time waiting for Severus to wake staring into the fire.

***

Severus started awake from his nightmare.  He lay perfectly still, breathing heavy, trying to figure out why he was dreaming something so horrible, when his memories from the night before flooded back.  The Death Eater meeting, running to Professor Tyler, his emotional breakdown.  Could he have been more stupid?  The last thing that he had ever wanted his professor to see was to see him lacking in control.

But last night he had been.  When his father had approached him after the meeting, he had lost it.  His father’s approval was the last thing that he wanted.  He hated the man.  His father had ignored him his entire life. He never cared how well Severus did in any of his classes, or how much trouble he had gotten into over the course of the year.  He cared about nothing other than his drinking, his women, his political position, and his money.  As far as his father had been concerned, Severus was nothing more than a mistake from one of his affairs.  A mistake that he had been forced to adopt and accept as his heir because Severus's grandfather demanded it.

Severus turned to face the back of the couch, then realized where he was.  He sat up quickly, hoping that that Tyler wouldn’t be around so he could sneak out without having to answer any awkward questions.  Luck, however, had never quite been on the Slytherin’s side.

“I see that you finally decided to join the land of the living.  And I had just started to believe that you were going to be sleeping all day.”

Severus looked around him, finally spying the teacher standing in the doorway to his bedroom, leaning against the frame with his arms crossed over his chest.  For once the older man didn’t seem stern and forbidding, like he always had appeared.  There was a gentleness to his eyes and face that, to Severus, didn’t seem to fit with his idea of Professor Tyler.

Professor Tyler moved from where he was standing in the door, and walked past the couch to a side table.  There he picked up a tray, and carried it over, setting it down in front of Severus.

“I’m not hungry, Professor.”

Tyler nodded his head, but removed the lid covering the plate anyway.  “I figured.  So it’s toast and juice.  Just one slice.  I expect you to eat it all.  And when you’re done we’re going to have a nice long talk.”

That was not what Severus wanted to do.  He took his time, ripping his toast into tiny pieces before putting one in his mouth.

“Take as long as you need, Mr. Snape.  I’ve got all day.”  Tyler’s voice contained just a hint of laughter.

Severus took his time eating.  Professor Tyler didn’t watch him.  Instead he wandered back into his bedroom.  Severus debated throwing the remainder of the toast into the fire, and was just about to do so when Tyler called to him from the other room.

“I don’t think so, Snape.  I said I expect you to eat the toast, not feed the fire with it.  I’ve never been fond of the smell of burnt toast.”  Again, that small hint of laughter.

Severus had no idea how the man knew what he was thinking.  It was unnerving, this side of his professor that seemed to think that everything was a joke.  Severus's forehead creased in thought.  It was almost as if his professor expected him to act this way when he woke up, like he knew how he’d react.  But that didn’t make any sense.  Severus didn’t even know himself how he was going to react.

Severus decided that the best thing to do would be to stop thinking and just eat his toast.

The second that Severus finished, Professor Tyler walked out of the other room.  “How was your breakfast?  Disgusting?  Should have known.  There’s just no pleasing people like you.”  He picked up the tray and carried it back over to the side table.  Severus assumed that the house elves would get to it later.

“People like me?”

Tyler smirked at him good-naturedly.  “You know the type.  Dark and moody.  The ones that think if they stare into the bottom of a cauldron long enough they’ll discover the answer to why the universe doesn’t work the way they think it should.”

“Potion brewing-“

“-is a noble and pure art form, I know.”  At Severus's questioning gaze Professor Tyler explained.  “I happen to know one or two Potion Masters.”  Tyler narrowed his eyes in thought.  “Well one Master, and one that thinks he’s a Master.  That’s a quote out of some old dusty volume that they like to throw at me when they think that I’m getting too ‘cheeky’.”  Tyler’s gaze hardened.  “How are you feeling?”

Severus felt off balance.  This wasn’t what he had expected from his professor at all.  But it was what he needed, even though he hadn’t known that earlier.  It wasn’t Tyler’s normal behaviour, but it felt like it should have been.  And that’s what Severus needed, a sense of normalcy.  “Well, I don’t feel like the world is spinning in the wrong direction any more.”

“Well that’s good, I’d hate to see what happens to gravity if the world actually did start spinning the other direction.”

Severus's eyes widened.  “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”  He knew that his disdain could be heard, but he didn’t care.

His professor smiled at him.  “Now I’m positive that you’re back to your old self.”  The smile disappeared a moment later, and Severus was once again on the wrong side of one of Professor Tyler’s measuring gazes.  “You had no idea what you were getting into when you decided to join the Death Eaters, did you?”

The abrupt turn around startled Severus for a moment.  He realized that the kind, laughing man he had seen for a few minutes had disappeared, and it was the professor whom he had spent the last year attempting to figure out in front of him once again.  He wanted the relaxing atmosphere from a few seconds ago back.  “No, sir.”

“Why did you do it?  What possessed you to do the equivalent of selling your soul to the devil?”

Severus licked his lips; his mouth had become suddenly dry.  He couldn’t bring up the words to say that it wasn’t that bad.  He knew Tyler was right.

“I can’t tell you.”

Professor Tyler’s eyes narrowed in anger.  “Can’t or won’t?”  His voice was cold, like he had expected the answer and was upset that it was given.

“Won’t.”  Severus knew his voice sounded small, like a child’s.  But after last night he didn’t think that he’d ever be able to consider himself a child again.

“Who do you think you’re protecting by not talking about it?  I assure you, not yourself.  It’s going to eat at you.”

“It was stupid.  I shouldn’t have done it, but I did.  And it was for a stupid reason.”  Severus sank back into the couch, his shoulders hunched and his arm crossed.  “Why do you care anyway?”

“Because you are under my supervision.  Because you gave me the right to pry into your life the moment that you came in here last night.”

“I came here last night because I thought you cared.”

“I do.”

“As a lover or as a student?”

Professor Tyler’s eyes looked away for a moment before turning to rest on him once again.  “Does it matter?”

“Yes.”

“As a student.”

Severus flinched.  It felt as if he had just been slapped.  “Then what was I?  Just someone you used when you couldn’t have your lover?  Are those his initials, Professor?  T.M.R.  Did he carve-“

Shut up."

Severus snapped his mouth closed.  The man sitting across from him wasn’t his professor, and certainly wasn’t the man that had greeted him upon waking.  He wondered just how many facets existed to Professor Octavian Tyler.

“Don’t talk about things you know nothing about.”  Tyler’s voice came out as a whisper, but still managed to be forceful.  

Severus realized that this was who he would face if they were to meet on opposite sides of a battlefield.  This was the man that carried those weapons he had been so careful to show Severus.  And now Severus knew why.  Tyler had known they were on opposite sides.  He had known just what type of man the Dark Lord was.

“Why didn’t you stop me?” Severus whispered.

“Stop you from what?”

“Going to the meetings.  When I came to you the first time, I told you that I had joined Dark Lord, but you didn’t do anything.”

“Exactly.  You had already joined him, what did you expect me to do?”

“It’s all your fault, Octavian!”  Severus stood glaring at his professor.  “I joined him because of you.  That’s why I ‘sold my soul’.  Are you happy now?  You know.”

Severus turned away, and didn’t see his teacher’s eyes close or his fists clench tightly.  He didn’t see when Tyler ran his fingers through his hair, yanking out the tie that held his hair in place.  And he certainly didn’t see the single tear that his teacher angrily swiped away.

“Why?”

“Because I saw you with your lover, and I thought that the only chance that I would ever have had just disappeared.”  Severus didn’t turn around.  “Because I listened to Lucius, who told me that the Dark Lord could give me power.  And who in their right mind could refuse someone with power?”

“Don’t you get it?  I’m not worth that.  I don’t matter.  I’m leaving at the end of the year.  You never really had a chance.”  Tyler’s voice had started out quietly but grew in volume with every word.

Severus turned to face his teacher.  He couldn’t see his face; it was hidden by a curtain of hair.  “You can’t leave.  If I don’t have you, I have nothing.  I’ve destroyed my life, and the only thing I have left is you.  I love you!”

Tyler shook his head.  He didn’t say anything for a moment.  Eventually, he looked up at Severus, his eyes dark.  “I’m sorry.  But I don’t love you.”

“Then what is this thing going on between us.”

“Lust, and me being stupid and giving into the whims of a child.”  

“I’m not a child.  It’s because of my Mark, isn’t it?  Because of what I’ve done.  Because I’m a Death Eater.”

“No, it’s not.  The Dark Mark on your arm would not stop me.  And it’s obvious that you aren’t happy in your choice of being a Death Eater.  The truth is that I can’t love you because you are just a child.  One taste of hell isn’t enough to make you grow up overnight.”

Severus wished he could see his professor’s face.  But Tyler hadn’t moved at all.  “But I want to be with you.”  Severus's voice sounded petulant even to his own ears.

“You can’t.”

Severus didn’t say anything.  It felt as if someone was squeezing something in his chest, keeping him from breathing properly.  He turned around and ran out the door, slamming it behind him.

***

Harry sighed when the door slammed shut.  He had known exactly how that conversation was going to go.  He had gone through a very similar one his sixth year.  He had hated every minute of it, and the last thing he had wanted was to force Severus through it.  But it had to be done.  He had a future to go home to.

Harry pushed his hair out of his face.  Strands still fell into his eyes, but he knew that it was a losing battle.  He could never get his hair to behave, no matter how long it was.  

The words that Severus had said were still ringing in his ears.  “It’s all your fault, Octavian!  I joined him because of you.”  Whatever reason Severus had for joining the Death Eaters, he hadn’t expected that to be it.  The thought left a bitter taste in his mouth.  

Harry stared into the fire.  He couldn’t think about that now.  He had the rest of the school year to get through, and wondering at Severus's reason would just eat at him.  He’d wait until he returned to the future.  

Harry, instead, turned his thoughts to the younger version of his lover.  Severus's reaction to Harry’s behaviour when he had woken up had been amusing; the poor boy hadn’t known what had possessed his professor.

Harry would be the first to admit that he didn’t know everything.  In fact, sometimes he believed Severus when he would tell him that he knew absolutely nothing.  But Harry did know one thing.  And that was what his lover needed after a particularly bad Death Eater meeting.

Severus always said that he needed to be alone.  Harry, however, knew better.  Severus needed to be distracted; he needed things to be normal.  And the only way that Harry knew to do that was to do what he always did.  Annoy the man.

Severus could never hold down food in the morning after going to a meeting, but if he didn’t eat then he would be in the hospital wing before he got halfway through his first class.  Harry had seen it time and time again.  So since Harry had started to live with Severus he had made sure there was always toast the next morning.  It had been amusing to realize that this Severus was going to toss the toast into the fire.  Harry couldn’t remember how many times his lover had succeeded in doing just that before Harry had developed a sixth sense for it.

Harry sighed.  It was a familiar role that he had played out that morning.  His role of the impertinent Gryffindor brat.  It was one that he was used to, but it had felt odd with the younger Severus.  He didn’t want the younger man to know that side of him.  He didn’t want the younger man to know him at all.

Harry looked toward the fire again.  The dark smoke was curling into abstract shapes.  He didn’t want this Severus to be hurt.  He knew that if this Severus had been hurt, then his was.  And he had done it.  His Severus would probably say something along the lines of “what goes around comes around”, and then shrug when Harry asked for a proper explanation.  Harry thought that he just might have gotten it this time.  The only problem was:  where did this circle of punishment start?

He had repeated some of the same words that Severus had said to him during his sixth year.  “I don’t matter… But I don’t love you… Because you’re a child… You can’t be with me.”  The memory was a painful one for Harry.  Severus had accused ‘Octavian’ of not loving him because of his mark; Harry had accused Severus of the same because of his scar.  Harry hadn’t thought of himself as a child either.  By the time he had been sixteen, he had faced more than just a ‘taste of hell’.  Looking back, Harry realized just how much of a child he had been at the time.

And that is where things differed.  Harry had told the younger version of Severus that he was just a child.  Severus, on the other hand, had agreed with Harry, saying that Harry wasn’t a child-

No, that wasn’t right.  Severus agreed that Harry hadn’t had a chance to truly be a child, but for his own sanity he had to think of Harry as one.  Having a childhood and being a child were two totally different things.  Harry hadn’t had a childhood, but his thought processes had been those of a child.  So Severus had been able to honestly say that Harry had seen things that no child should have, but in the next sentence say that Harry was still a child.

And like a child Harry had demanded that Severus prove it to him.  And in a moment of logic that Harry couldn’t quite figure out, probably because it was Severus he was dealing with, he was answered.  “I don’t have to prove anything to you, Mr. Potter.  And that is what makes you a child.”  

Harry leaned back in his chair, and stared at the ceiling.  “You couldn’t do it, Sev.  You couldn’t prove me wrong except in one thing.  Children expect answers and adults know that answers do not always exist.”  

***

*The Future:  Harry age 20*

“Ron, last time I checked, my desk was not a chair.”  Harry brushed past one of the department secretaries and into his cramped office at the Ministry of Magic, Auror division.

“Last time I checked, your chairs weren’t supposed to be used as storage.”  Ron waved his hand at the pile of papers that covered both of the small chairs.  “And last time I sat in your chair, you got mad at me.”

“Cut the cheek, Weasley.”  Harry hid his smile, and went to sit in his seat behind the desk.

“You’ve been spending too much time at Hogwarts with those slimy Slytherins.”

“I’d be careful of what you say, Ron.  You never know who’s behind you.”  

Ron twisted around to see if there was anyone behind him, and fell off the desk.  The look on the redhead’s face was just too much for Harry; he started laughing.

“Very funny, Harry.”  Ron got to his feet, and rubbed his backside.

“What do you want?”  

“You didn’t put me on the assignment roster, sir.  I need to know what I’m supposed to be doing this week.”  Harry looked up.  Ron’s good humour had vanished, and Auror Ronald Weasley was standing at attention.

Harry rolled his eyes.  He was starting to hate this job.  “Cut it, Weasley.”  Ron’s relaxed slightly, but Harry could still feel the tension cutting into the good humour that the two shared.  “Are you sure that it wasn’t up?  I know that I put you on something.  Wait a minute.”  

Harry rummaged around on the desk for some papers.

Eventually, he got up and went over to the two chairs that were covered.  He had to talk to the head of department about getting a few filing cabinets.  Finally he found what he was looking for, his copy of the week’s roster.  Ron’s name wasn’t on it.

“What did I do with you?”

Ron bit at his bottom lip, obviously to keep from laughing.  

“Is something funny?”

“Hermione would never be this disorganized.”

“I see that you haven’t seen her office lately.”

Ron’s professional demeanour dropped.  “You’re joking.  Hermione’s office, a mess?  I don’t believe it.”

“It’s true. Aha.”  Harry finally found a parchment with some illegible scribbling on it.  He turned it around a few times until he figured out which side was the top, and squinted his eyes to read the writing.  “You’re supposed to be on the team heading to the Malfoy estate.”

“Come on, Harry.  Not that.”

“You’re team head, I put two others with you.  You’re bringing in Lucius Malfoy, and gathering anything that can be used against him.”  Harry narrowed his eyes.  “Be selective, Ron.”

“I’m on that team because you want me to protect the little bastard, don’t you.”

Harry had to choose his wording carefully.  The last thing he needed was for the wrong person to overhear this comment.  He’d be in front of the advisory board in a second.  “I expect you to do the right thing.”

Ron gnashed his teeth together.  Harry had seen this look before.  Ron was sulking.  “Fine.”

“That’s all.  I’ll redo the assignment roster and have it up within a couple of hours.”

Ron turned on his heel, and headed out the door.  Harry only caught snatches of what he was muttering.  “Stupid… boyfriend… cheating… bastard…” was mixed in with a lot of unintelligible grumbling.

“Weasley doesn’t seem very happy with whatever assignment you’ve given him, Potter.”

Harry looked up from his desk to see his least favourite Ministry official walking into the room. Cornelius Fudge.  “Hello, Minister.  How can I help you?”

Fudge walked into the room, and looked around with a disparaging gaze.  He glared at the stack of papers that were on the chairs before turning to face Harry.  “I was looking over the assignment roster and -”

“I know.  I’m fixing it right now.”

“I’m glad to know that, Auror Potter.  We can’t afford to have you go out on the field right now.”

“What!?”

Fudge took out a handkerchief and swatted at his forehead.  “I’m sure that you understand the need to keep our strongest aurors here.  It’s people like you that keep this division running.”

“I’m not taking myself off the roster.  We’re short-handed this week.  I’m needed.”

“Of course, it’s really not my job to tell you what to do,” said Fudge, crumpling the handkerchief in one fist.  “I’ll just take this to Moody and let him straighten you out.”

That had probably been the worst idea Dumbledore had had in recent years, persuading Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody to leave retirement, and head up the Auror division of the Ministry.  Half the Aurors under him thought he was a genius; the other half thought he was a crackpot old fool.  Harry was somewhere in between.

“There is no reason to get Alastor involved in this, Minister.”  

“There is every reason.  If you are short-handed then get some Junior Aurors to fill in.  They need the field work.”

Harry shook his head.  The Junior Aurors just didn’t have the experience needed.  “I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t have any JA’s under me.  Their rosters are done by someone else.”

Fudge stuffed the handkerchief into a pocket, and placed his podgy hands palm down on Harry’s desk.  “Now see here, Potter.  That roster better be taken down and fixed or else you will find yourself going up against the advisory board for insubordination.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Quite, Minister.  I’ll just inform Alastor that you were nosing around and playing with the schedules again, and that is why my name was taken off the roster.”  

Fudge breathed in heavily through his nose.  “No reason to do that.  After all, I just have your best interests in heart.”  Fudge moved to the door.  “I’ll just be going now.  I expect to hear good things about you, Potter. Oh, one other thing.  In addition to the files and reports you have to process, I need copies of them, in triplicate, by the end of the week.  Hand signed by all parties.”  Fudge started to head out the door, but turned around.  “I almost forgot.  Make sure to mark all the pertinent information.  I tend to get bogged down with work, it’ll make my life so much easier.”

Harry sighed and looked around his office.  The piles on his office chairs accounted for only a third of the paperwork he had to deal with; the rest was in stacks on his desk, on the floor, and even on the windowsill.  With all the things magic could do, thought Harry, it was a shame nobody had yet come up with a spell to speed up paperwork.

***

“Look, Potter, I know that you wanted to go out on assignment, and I know that I told you it would be best if you took that mission.  But with Cornelius nosing around, like the little mole he is, I can’t have you going.”

Harry closed his eyes and clenched his teeth together.  So this is what Ron felt like earlier when Harry had assigned him the Malfoy estate.  “But, sir…”

Moody raised his eyebrow at the formality; Harry visibly relaxed.  “Harry, get that paperwork for Fudge out of the way tonight.  And don’t get too upset when he tosses it into the bin in front of you tomorrow.”

“Alastor, what’s the point?  All the best field agents have been stuck behind desk jobs for the last six months.  Half the aurors are scared of getting a good review.  Too many of those and they might end up behind a desk.”

“You know as well as I do that Fudge is downplaying the need for aurors.  He’s still trying to convince the populace-“

“That everything is fine in the world, and that Dumbledore is a bumbling old fool that’s panicking.”

“Exactly.  Now be quiet while I finish what I was saying.”  Moody tapped one finger on the desk, his glass eye floating about freely, as usual.  Harry avoided looking at it.  “Tomorrow, after Fudge gets his paperwork, I’m going to temporarily reassign you and a few others.  Albus has informed me of something that he doesn’t think the Order has the manpower to handle.  I’m sending five of my top aurors -- that includes you -- to meet up with an anonymous source.  I’m sure that you’ll be able to handle it from there.”

“Yes, sir.”

Moody waved his wand toward the door and it opened without a sound.  “Go on, Potter.  You’ve got paperwork to do.”

***

“What part of ‘dinner at seven with me and Hermione tonight’ didn’t you understand?”

Harry sat back on Ron’s couch.  Hermione had left the flat over an hour ago; Harry had just stumbled out of the fireplace.  “The ‘at seven’ part.”  Harry sighed and put his head in his hands; he had a massive headache.

“It’s 11:30.”

“I know.”

“What have you been doing?”  Ron sat down on the footstool so he could look at Harry.

“Paperwork.”  Harry lifted his head.  “I’m sorry, Ron.  It’s just-“

“I’m not really interested in your excuses, Harry.  I know the Ministry’s been overworking you.  I just didn’t think it would be impossible for you to sneak away and have dinner with your two best friends.”  Ron stood up and paced over toward the kitchen.  “We’ve barely seen you since you’ve moved out of here.  And that’s saying something since you moved to Hogwarts, and Hermione only lives in Hogsmeade.”

It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried to see them; he just didn’t have time.  Hell, he didn’t even have time to see Severus all that often, and he lived with the man.  “Ron, I… I better go home.”

“Yeah, we wouldn’t want that lying bastard that you’re living with to worry about you.”

Harry lifted both eyebrows slightly.

“I saw Draco with a girl at the Leaky Cauldron last week.  And the week before that he was with a guy at the Hog’s Head.”

“Since when do you go to the Hog’s Head?”

“Sirius saw him, but he didn’t want to tell you.”  Ron turned to face Harry.  “If you two are having problems again-”

“It’s fine, Ron.  Dray and I are fine.  I already knew; it’s not what you think.  Just, please, don’t worry about it.”

“You’re my best mate, Harry.  I do worry about you.”

“I know.  But really, it’s not what you think.  Draco and I are getting along fine.”  Just not in the way that you’re thinking, he silently added.

“Fine.  Just remember you can always move back here.  With the schedule the Ministry has you on, it might be for the best.”

“Maybe.”  Harry didn’t particularly want to move back in with Ron, but the arrangement did have its advantages.

“Don’t forget to stop by and pick me up on your way to work tomorrow.”

“What time do I have to be there?”

“The team leaves at oh-five-hundred.  So that means that we’d have to be there at least by 4:30 in the morning.”

Harry sighed.  Another night with little to no sleep.  By the time he apparated to Hogsmeade and walked up to the castle… “Right then, I’ll be here at 4:15.  See you tomorrow.”

“Today, Harry.  It just turned midnight.”  As soon as Ron said that the old fashioned clock in the corner started to toll the hour.

***

“Shite.”  

Severus groaned and rolled over.  He flung his arm out to where his lover usually slept, but the place was empty.  

“Fumbling around in the dark will only lead to bruised and bloody toes, Harry.”

Harry growled low in his throat.  

Severus looked over at Harry’s muggle clock.  3:30.  He didn’t remember Harry coming home the night before.  “How was dinner?”

“You’re awfully talkative for this time in the morning.”

“You’re coming in awfully late.  The least you could do is let a decrepit old man like me sleep.”

“You were sleeping when I got home at 12:30.  If I hadn’t stubbed my toe you’d still be asleep.”  Harry cast a weak Lumos and looked under the bed.  “In fact, just go back to sleep, Severus.  I’m running late enough as it is.”

“Late?  It’s 3:30 in the morning, and you’re running late?”

Harry stood up.  In the weak light Severus could see the bloodshot eyes and drawn features of his lover.  “Yes, late.  I have to be at Ron’s by 4:15.  Which means that I actually I have to be there at ten till to pull Ron bodily out of bed.”  Harry turned around.  “Where the bloody hell are my boots?”

“By the door, where they always are.”  Severus sat up, the sheet falling down to his waist.  He watched as Harry exited the room.  “Why do you have to go in so early?”

“I don’t know, maybe because I’m required to?”

Severus raised an eyebrow at the sharp tone.  “Care to rephrase that, Potter?”

Harry heaved a harsh sigh.  “Sorry.  I have to see a team off on assignment.  Make sure the prelim work checks out… Never mind.”

Severus smirked.  Harry knew him well.  Details were fine when concerning potions and spying, but he wasn’t interested in the minutia that was Harry’s job.  “You brought it on yourself by staying out so late.  If you had gotten home earlier you wouldn’t be this short tempered.”

Severus caught Harry rolling his eyes at him in his peripheral vision.

“If you must know, I never made it to dinner.”

“Why not?  Draco was telling me how much you were looking forward to it.”

“I had paperwork to do.  And don’t get mad at me for talking to Draco more than you lately.  He was helping me coordinate the raid on Malfoy Manor.”  Harry shot him a quick glance.  “Which is what I have to go and make sure goes off without a hitch this morning.”

Severus raked one hand through his hair.  It caught in quite a few snarls, and he glowered.  He had been momentarily jealous of Draco.  It hadn’t been pleasant.  “They’re overworking you, Harry.”

“You think that I don’t realize that?”  Harry was hastily buttoning up a shirt.

“You’re better than a desk job.  The Ministry is wasting you.”

“Well then, tell that to Fudge.  He pulled me off the active roster yesterday.”

Severus narrowed his eyes.  “Why?”

“Because he’s a prick.”  Harry pulled on a boot.  “I don’t know.  And Moody agreed with him.”  The other boot slipped on.  “I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing anything.”

“Come back to the Order.”

Harry walked over to the bed and stuck his hand under his pillow.  “I can’t.  I really don’t want to teach Defence.  We’ve been over this.”  He brushed his lips against Severus's.  When he pulled away his dagger was in his hand; he slipped it into his boot.  “Besides, if I stick it out long enough I’ll make head of department.  Then maybe I can get things done.  Above board.”

“You want to get things done officially?  Good bloody luck.  Not with Fudge as Minister.”

Harry sat at the edge of the bed.  Severus watched as he closed his eyes for a moment and then swallowed.  “It’s pointless isn’t it, Severus?”

“You’re acting like a stupid Gryffindor.  Haven’t you learned anything?  Nothing in the Ministry is ‘above board’.  Why do you think that that the majority of politicians were Slytherins?”

“I am a Slytherin.”  

“According to you, you’re Houseless.”

Harry glared.

“And to me, you will always be an impertinent and petulant Gryffindor brat.”  

“I love you too, Sev.”  Harry sighed then stood and walked out of the bedroom.

I love you too.  Severus had never actually told Harry he loved him, but this wasn’t the first time that Harry had responded with that when Severus had called him a hotheaded Gryffindor with that.  He wasn’t sure when he had fallen in love with Harry, but he had.  His jealousy of Draco and the amount he worried about Harry was proof.  Of course, that didn’t mean that he would ever actually tell Harry.  

Severus got out of bed and walked out into the living room.  Harry was rifling through a stack of papers, pulling some out and stuffing them into a satchel.

“I might not be behind that desk much longer.  Alastor is pulling me out.  Something about a favour for Albus.”  Harry looked up.  “You wouldn’t know anything about it, would you?”

“No.”  All he knew was that it was bad, and that wouldn’t help Harry.  He’d find out the details soon enough.  But if Harry got hurt…

“Harry?”

Harry paused and looked up at him again.  “What?”

Severus swallowed.  “Bond with me.”

Harry snorted, and closed up his satchel.  “I never took you for the soul bonding sort.”

“That’s not what I was talking about.”

“Then what… Not the well thing?  You aren’t talking about that?”  Harry set his satchel on the table.

“Actually, I am.”

“Why?”  Harry’s voice was barely above a whisper.

“I want to make sure that, in your Gryffindor stupidity, you don’t get yourself killed.”

“No.”  Harry shook his head, picked up his satchel, and walked to the door.  “I’ll see-“

“I love you, that’s why.”  The words were out before he could stop them.

Harry turned and looked at him, not speaking.

“Bond with me, Harry.”

Harry turned the knob.  As he was walking out the door he looked over his shoulder at Severus.  “You’re crazy.” ♦

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