Chapter 16 : Key Incident

Publish Date: 31 July 2005

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter, its characters, or anything associated with it. I'm not making any money from this story, and I don't intend to. I'm writing it purely for the satisfaction of it, and because several people warned me that there would be dire consequences if I didn't finish it. The resemblance of any character to an actual person is completely accidental. Please don't sue -- I don't own enough to make it worth your while.

Note: This is a Harry / Severus slash story -- and while their relationship is also accompanied by plot, action, and drama, if you seriously object to the slash element -- or to the particular pairing -- then don't read the story!


THE MIRROR OF MAYBE: Chapter 16
-- Key Incident --

By the time Saturday night arrived, Harry had managed to work himself up into a mild state of nervousness. He really really wanted tonight to go well. He'd debated inviting Sev to his quarters and cooking dinner himself, but he wasn't that good a cook and it was a little close to his bedroom for his own peace of mind -- to say nothing of giving Sev the wrong impression.

So instead, Harry had booked a table in Hogsmeade at a small out-of-the-way place that offered wonderful home-cooked meals at reasonable prices. But most of all, it boasted several intimate alcove tables that were private without being closed in or claustrophobic. It was a wonder to Harry that the restaurant wasn't more widely known. But then he supposed a lot of people didn't see why they should pay for a meal that many of them could prepare themselves if they simply put a bit of effort into it -- and the wealthy usually had house elves who could do just as well anyway.

But that wasn't the point of tonight. Tonight Harry wanted to take Sev out of the school grounds to a place that was welcoming and enjoyable where they could talk and get to know each other. Harry wasn't so arrogant as to believe that Sev was exactly the same now as he'd been 13 years in a future that hadn't really happened. He was curious about what Severus Snape was like now, and he sincerely hoped Sev was curious about him too.

It was around 7 o'clock that evening while Harry was nervously checking himself over one last time, that his plans for dinner were unexpectedly and painfully cancelled.

----oo00oo----

Harry had been standing in front of his bedroom mirror, pulling his shirt-sleeves straight and smoothing down the front of his robe. //This is silly,// he told himself. //I look fine.// And indeed he did. For the sake of the occasion, he'd forgone his usual attire and changed into black slacks with a shimmering deep green silk shirt. He'd retained his battle robe and War Mage pin, but forsaken the gloves, arm guards, and potion-belt. His wand was safely tucked away in a pocket of his battle robes, and as for his gun -- well, if he'd had a shoulder holster, he would've been wearing it, but unfortunately he didn't, and the dratted thing was too heavy to hide in his robe, so it was unfortunately staying home tonight.

Harry was a little uncomfortable with so much of his wardrobe stripped away, but he hadn't been kidding when he'd told Draco that he'd been trained to defeat opponents while posing as a muggle. Part of that training had involved living without all the weaponry and magical tools he was used to carrying.

//It'll probably even be good for me,// Harry told himself. //I can just hear Ly'haniir now -- telling me to rely on myself and not all the accessories.//

And after all, tonight was just for himself -- not for Ly'haniir, or training, or the good of the wizarding world, or anything else. And that thought alone was enough to bring a smile to his face. Suddenly, Harry was eager to be off. //The table's booked for 7:30,// he reminded himself. //We have plenty of time, and Sev will be waiting... Why am I still standing here?//

Quickly, Harry passed into the living room, intent on picking up Sev's potions book before heading out to meet the man to whom it belonged. But just as he reached the middle of the room, Harry was suddenly struck by the most excruciating pain imaginable.

He fell to the floor instantly, convulsing as his muscles twitched and spasmed in sympathy with his mind, and through the searing agony Harry realised that it was all in his mind -- as though someone had cast Cruciatus on him without being present...

//Voldemort,// his pain-addled thoughts supplied. And hard on the heels of that understanding came the memory of an identical pain -- this exact moment in precise and terrifying detail -- just as he had lived it in the Mirror.

"Noooo!" he screamed. It couldn't be the same! It just couldn't! If it was, that would mean...

"Severus!" Harry gasped. Merlin, no! If this really was the same thing that had happened in the Mirror, then there was nothing Harry could do to stop it. But Severus...

He couldn't focus -- couldn't stop the agony in his scar from stabbing into his mind. //Voldemort... have to stop it... stop...//

But he couldn't. The walls Harry had built to squeeze down his connection to the Dark Lord were being overwhelmed -- and the very nature of the pain told him that he was not the only one suffering. Linked to Voldemort by his scar, and to Severus by years of physical and emotional intimacy in the Mirror, Harry had long ago learned how to recognise the second-hand sensation of Severus' own link to the Dark Lord. He could feel it whenever Sev was summoned, and in the same way he knew that at this moment Sev was hurting -- and hurting badly.

Whatever Voldemort was doing was also flushing power back through his followers -- back through everyone who was connected to him by the Dark Mark he'd burned into their skin.

"Severus..." Harry forced himself to his knees. He had to get to Severus while his battered walls were still -- mostly -- holding. Nearly blind with pain, he staggered to the door and wrenched it open.

There were many curses that inflicted just as much pain as Cruciatus. But only Cruciatus was an unforgivable. That knowledge was not comforting as Harry hauled himself brokenly down the corridor, clinging desperately to the cold stone walls.

Whereas other curses might burn, or smash bones, or even liquefy you from the inside out -- only Cruciatus did nothing at all to the physical body. Instead, it forced the sensation of pain directly into the mind itself.

Without a physical source for the suffering, there was no way to relieve the agony of the victim. With other curses, there were spells or potions that could be applied to deaden the sensations. A victim might die, but they would not die screaming in agony. With Cruciatus, it was the opposite. A victim was unlikely to die, but they would continue to scream until they shredded their own vocal chords -- and even then, they would continue trying to scream.

Put simply, Crucio hurt just as much ten seconds after being cast, as it did ten hours later. That first instant of pain held the same intensity of suffering as every other moment under the curse. There was nothing that could alleviate it.

And that was what made it unforgivable.

Finally, Harry felt wood under his fingers: the door to Severus' rooms. With his eyes squeezed shut, he forced himself to concentrate long enough to magically reach out into Sev's wards and demand entry. Thank Merlin for the fact that he was so familiar with those wards from his time in the Mirror. If he'd actually had to think about them, he would probably have been forced to just blow the door off its hinges.

As he shoved his way inside, a scream of agony greeted his ears.

Harry slammed the wooden door closed behind him, grateful for Sev's silencing and privacy spells. With the door shut, nobody would be able to hear them, and Harry would be able to do what he must without being interrupted.

Forcing his eyes open -- fighting the instinct to keep them screwed shut against the pain -- Harry spied Severus writhing on the floor of the main room. The man's teeth were tightly clenched in an effort to avoid screaming again, but it was obvious he wouldn't be able to hold out for long. The tendons on Severus' normally smooth neck stood out like ropey snakes under his skin. Every muscle was taut and straining. Shakily, Harry drew his wand and hoarsely whispered, "Petrificus Totalis." Instantly, Severus' body relaxed into the frozen stiffness of a full body bind.

As quickly as he could, Harry magically floated the immobile Potions Master into the bedroom, and lowered the man's body onto the bed. After clinging to the bedroom doorframe for a few moments, Harry then turned and lurched desperately towards the locked and warded storage cupboard in Sev's personal workroom.

As he fell into the spotless laboratory -- still fiercely trying to maintain his eroding mental walls -- a small part of Harry's mind replayed what he knew of the three ways to escape Cruciatus.

The first way was simple: you died. Centuries ago, when Cruciatus had originally been conceived, there'd been no way to remove it. Even 'Finite Incantatum' had been ineffective. In those days, it was considered a kindness to put an end to such suffering, and it became common for ruthless wizards and witches to kidnap someone close to their enemy, cast Crucio on them, and then return them -- still living -- to their grieving family and friends.

However, that particular horror underwent an abrupt change with the discovery of the second way to escape Cruciatus. In the end, it was revealed that because the curse had no anchor in the physical body, its connection to the victim was especially weak. The secret to breaking it turned out to be nothing more than a simple wand motion coupled with the true desire to put an end to it and a modicum of concentration. It didn't even require a spoken word.

These days the only way to die of Crucio was through physical weakness -- for although the curse itself did no physical harm, the body's natural reaction to perceived pain still applied. The victim's heart rate soared, adrenalin flooded the bloodstream, and tendon stretched and snapped tightly over straining muscle and bone. Muggles -- who were more susceptible to the curse than wizards -- had been known to contort their bodies with such force that they fractured their own limbs. Blood vessels could burst -- and some grimoires still contained images of victims weeping bloody tears as the delicate blood vessels of the eye were ruptured. A weakened blood vessel in the brain could be fatal, and the strain on a victim's heart could cause a coronary.

Had anyone in the wizarding world stopped to think about it, they would have noticed that there was no such thing as an obese or unfit Death Eater. For while a wizard's innate magic nearly always protected the body well enough to avoid permanent injury, those who struggled with the additional burden of poor health simply didn't survive repeated exposure to Voldemort's treatment of them.

But wizard or not, minor damage -- such as lacerated vocal chords -- was all too common. Which was why Harry had used Petrificus Totalis on Severus. The binding spell would keep his body from harming itself until Harry could gather what he needed to prevent both Severus and himself from becoming so consumed with pain that they succumbed to the final method of escaping Cruciatus.

Abruptly, Harry crashed against Sev's storage cupboard. It was both locked and warded, and he couldn't focus well enough to practice the niceties of getting it open. So instead, he simply destroyed the wards and smashed the glass to get at the potions inside.

After tucking his wand into the waistband of his pants, Harry carefully began pawing his way through the delicate bottles and sealed flasks. As he desperately searched for the right potions, Harry found himself wishing that he and Severus really were under Cruciatus. It would be so easy to remove the curse if that was all it was. But they weren't. What they were going through was only like Cruciatus, and since no spell had been cast on them, there was no magic to be broken. They were simply caught up in the backwash of Voldemort's insane greed for power.

Finally Harry found everything he needed -- four potions, two of which he would be drinking almost immediately, and two that he and Sev would need in a few hours. Carefully cradling the bottles against his chest, Harry staggered away from the wrecked cupboard, heedless of the broken glass crunching beneath his boots.

When he finally stumbled back into the bedroom, Harry all but collapsed onto the bed next to Severus. His own pain was becoming worse, and he knew that soon he wouldn't be able to think at all. //How long has it been?// he worried. //Did it take this long last time?// But he had no way of knowing since his time-sense had been stretched and distorted by the ever-increasing pain and his panicked fear for Severus' safety.

Unlike Harry, Severus had no walls pressing down on his link to the Dark Lord, so the Potions Master had already suffered the full weight of Voldemort's brutality for several minutes. Severus had a strong and well-ordered mind, but when your whole world was nothing but agony and suffering, there was only so much pain anyone could take before succumbing to madness.

And it was madness that was the third and final escape from the pain of Cruciatus.

The first time Crucio had been cured, ordinary wizards and witches had rejoiced. Their loved ones could no longer be placed under eternal torture. No-one would ever again be forced to kill a relative or lover in order to stop the screams.

But the joy had been short-lived.

Instead of being ended, the horror had merely been altered. Cruel enemies discovered that if the curse was not lifted quickly enough, then the victim's mind retreated from the pain by retreating from sanity. Instead of a grave, survivors now inherited the never-ending helplessness of caring for someone who alternately drooled and howled, becoming randomly violent or near-comatose, with no hope of recovery.

Such was the cruelty Voldemort had visited upon Neville Longbottom's parents.

//But that's not going to happen to us,// Harry promised himself. //We survived this in the Mirror. We will survive it now!//

Mindful of the potions still cradled in his arms, Harry carefully shifted one hand in order to pull out his wand. The waistband of his pants was not the safest or most comfortable place for it. Unfortunately, he knew he wouldn't be able to hold onto it while he still had to worry about the potions -- and he couldn't afford to risk dropping his wand or having it roll out of reach under the bed before he released Severus from the body bind. So instead, Harry simply left it on the covers beside Severus' body. Then he deliberately allowed himself to slip gently to the floor.

There was a rug covering the cold stone beneath him, and Harry gratefully sagged forwards until he could relax and let the delicate glass potion bottles slide from his arms onto the soft material. He noted the slight tremor in his hands as he separated out the two potions he and Sev would need later. Carefully, he pushed those two bottles safely up against the wall beside the bed. Between the pain in his mind and the shaking in his body, Harry knew he wouldn't have had much chance of getting those potions safely onto the nightstand -- and where they were now, he couldn't step on them or accidentally knock them over.

Then Harry shrugged his way out of his battle robe. It was the only piece of clothing he was currently wearing that would present a danger if Severus tried to remove it. But other than that, Harry didn't waste any more time before roughly grabbing up the first of the two remaining potions. He unstoppered the first bottle and downed the contents in a single gulp. A frission of hot desire burst into life within him. He'd just drunk one of the most potent aphrodisiacs in the wizarding world, and given that he hadn't bothered to dilute it, the effects would last hours.

Even the pain of Crucio would not be enough to drown it out.

Harry was already gasping at the drug-induced ache in his groin when he opened the remaining potion and swallowed it to the last drop. This one required a few minutes to become effective, and when it did he would have to be ready for it because afterwards reality would become more than a little... blurred.

He was nearly done. With an immense effort, Harry managed to get his knees under him and haul himself back up onto the bed. His blood was surging through his veins like molten fire, and he cursed himself for not thinking to open the front of his pants before he'd tried to move. The erection between his legs was painfully hard and not at all happy about the restriction of clothing. But he couldn't afford to worry about it now. Severus had been left alone with the pain for far too long already.

Quickly, Harry located his wand and retrieved it. Then he gently straddled Severus' unmoving form, seating himself low over the other man's hips. Leaning forwards, Harry closed his eyes and rested his cheek against Severus' warm chest.

Concentrating, Harry reached inwards for the magic -- and then he reached out...

Power flowed.

Instantly, Harry's pain was doubled -- tripled -- multiplied beyond bearability. His internal walls vanished without a flicker. The world whited out with pain. He might have screamed... he wasn't sure... but with the last of his concentration, he managed to croak out the words that would release the body beneath him from its spell...

----oo00oo----

Severus was lost -- cocooned in a world of hurt and unable to feel anything but searing agony.

There was a part of him that knew what was happening. After all, it wasn't the first time he'd suffered Crucio. But this time it was different. It didn't stop -- didn't end. He could feel himself beginning to slip. He was losing control -- panicking. Losing faith that it would ever end.

Then suddenly, there was something else -- someone else. And he'd never had a companion in his pain before -- never someone to share it...

The Other's presence in his mind was instantly followed up with need -- a hot desire that flared up and burned him from the inside out.

Pain. Companionship. Lust.

And then... Freedom.

He fought the instinct to scream as his body was suddenly released and physical sensation crashed back into his awareness. But that first involuntary flex of muscle shifted a weight over his hips and the scream turned to strangled gasp as the friction rubbed heat into aroused flesh. His awareness of the Other intensified as lust and desire flooded into him from outside -- from the Other lying atop him. The Other's need fuelled his own, and came to him laced with the familiar echoes of his own desire.

Hot breath panted next to his ear and teeth nibbled down one side of his throat before reaching the junction of neck and shoulder. Suddenly those teeth bit down.

Hard.

Severus gasped, arched, and clawed at the Other's back.

He understood.

The pain could not be stopped.

But it could be made bearable.

The Other's presence in his mind forced him to acknowledge the existence of a world beyond himself -- anchoring him in reality and preventing him from fleeing inwards in an effort to cut off the pain. It also carried the comfort of a companion -- someone who shared the pain -- who understood it because they also suffered it. He was not alone.

The lust and overwhelming need for sex -- for climax -- pushed a sharp needle of pleasure into the blinding agony. It speared a single thread of physical gratification into his awareness, giving him something other than pain to focus on. It was something he could hold onto that prevented the pain from becoming all-encompassing -- from becoming all there was.

The teeth in his neck offered genuine physical pain -- a location on his body he could feel and know why it hurt. The pain of Crucio could be blended into it, tying a purely mental torture to a physical response. What's more, it was a physical response he could choose to participate in, thus gaining a measure of control -- of choice -- back for himself.

These realisations never made it to Severus' conscious mind. He was hardly capable of conscious thought by the time the Other came to him. But something within him understood nonetheless, and the will to survive that had carried him through eighteen years of public mistrust and hidden betrayal accepted the implied offer of salvation with desperate enthusiasm.

He reached over and pulled the Other's head up -- forcing their lips together into a bruising kiss. Then he deliberately bit down, returning the gift of physical pain and filling both their mouths with the sharp tang of blood. The Other moaned and pushed back, pinning him down and tearing at his clothes.

But it was all too much -- too sharp -- too stark. The pain heightened all his senses when it should have dulled them. Every touch both inflamed him and burned him with no middle ground. And then -- somehow -- the sharpness of it all began to fade. His senses became... blurred... softened... and Severus gratefully surrendered all pretence of control, giving himself over to a pain-filled pleasure that ebbed and surged unpleasantly within him.

And in letting go, an unquiet voice disturbed him with the vague impression that he was also giving himself over into the Other's care -- giving of himself in a way that he had not contemplated for many years --

-- if indeed he ever had.

----oo00oo----

By the time the second potion began to take effect, Harry was no more capable of coherent thought than Severus. But as sensation and perception were slowly blurred and blended together, the connection he'd forged with the other man suddenly surged and deepened. Harry gasped at the sensation, intuitively knowing that Severus had just surrendered the last of himself to the magic that would save them both.

Together, they tore at each other's clothing, desperate to reach skin -- to feel the press and dig of strong hands over muscle. They bit and clawed, leaving bruises and welts as offerings to their mutual desire for survival. They ground their bodies together, seeking sensation as a distraction -- as a lifeline to cling to against the torture that existed within their minds.

They inflicted damage upon one another in a drug-induced craving for physical release, while the link between them fed that craving from one to the other and back again. Reality blurred and dimmed. Pleasure and pain were smeared into each other until it was impossible to tell where one left off and the other began.

And somewhere deep in the recesses of Harry's mind, each moment called forth the unwanted memory of a similar moment -- another night played out in a Mirror-world that others could not remember. Of all the things he had promised himself he would change, how could it be that this had to happen again? How could he have let it happen? And yet, without the gift of foresight...

...how could he have stopped it?

Unnoticed through potion-blurred perceptions, Harry's tears mingled with the sweat that sheened their skin and soaked the sheets.

Time likewise passed unnoticed, until -- in the hour before midnight -- the drugs that had burned so fiercely in Harry's blood finally wavered and flickered out. The pain that had been so much like Crucio had ebbed and faded some time before, but neither man had been in any condition to note its passing. Even now, there was not enough strength left in either of them to acknowledge that their ordeal was finally over. Instead, there was simply an exhausted need to rest -- and to rest so deeply that it bordered on unconsciousness.

And so they slept.

----oo00oo----

Sometime later, Harry woke. He opened his eyes, and the ceiling of Severus' bedroom gradually wavered into view. Harry felt a moment's disorientation before he remembered what had happened. A pang of sorrow shot through him. //I couldn't stop it,// he told himself, trying to alleviate the wave of guilt. //There was no way I could've known...//

The torches on the walls had apparently been spelled to burn for an unnatural length of time. Even with half the night gone, they were still alight, casting a soft golden glow over the room. There was no warmth coming from the fireplace, and the chill of the cold stone had begun to settle into Harry's stiff and sore muscles.

Tentatively, Harry tried to roll over.

//Ow,// he thought, //that hurt.// Worriedly, Harry managed to lever himself up onto one elbow. Severus lay beside him, still deeply asleep.

The other man was a mess.

Scratches, bruises, and blood marred the normally smooth pale skin. Harry suspected that he didn't look much better himself. //As if I needed another reason to avoid mirrors,// he thought tiredly. But of course, it wasn't only Sev's physical condition that concerned him. Right now, Harry was more worried about whether the Potions Master had weathered the pain of their ordeal with that brilliant mind still intact.

Unbidden, the memory of Sev's beautifully muscled shoulders flexing beneath his hands appeared in Harry's thoughts. He'd always adored the graceful lines of Severus' body -- especially the elegant curve of his spine. Harry loved to indulge himself by smoothing his hands down the path it made to the small of Sev's back, and then sweeping his palms out across the narrow hips. But the memory that assaulted him now was unfortunately not quite so pleasant. No -- tonight that beloved body beneath his hands had been covered in scratches, bites, and blood. Harry almost shuddered at the recollection.

Severus had been pinned beneath him from the start, and after they'd managed to strip the clothes from one another, their mutual drug-driven need for release -- for orgasm -- had barely allowed them to do more than frantically crush their bodies together while clawing at one another. It was not until some time in the middle of those terrible hours that Harry had used his skill and strength to flip Severus over onto his stomach and take him from behind.

Harry's only consolation from that memory was that it hadn't been rape. The connection he'd created between them did more than simply allow Severus to experience the effects of the potions in Harry's veins. It also allowed Harry to experience Severus' emotions and physical reactions in return. Thus, Harry knew that the older man had not only been willing, but had also taken some enjoyment from it -- or at least... as much enjoyment as was possible given the circumstances.

In fact, had the idea occurred to Severus first, it probably would've been Harry gasping and tearing at the sheets beneath his lover. But as it was, the faster recovery time of Harry's teenaged body, coupled with the fact that he had missed Severus so much and wanted him so badly, had given Harry the opportunity and initiative to take the lead.

Harry knew Severus would not blame him -- that the other man would, in fact, probably even thank 'Ash' for his survival. But Harry still felt like... like Dobby when he used to bang his head on the furniture crying out 'bad elf -- bad Dobby'. How on earth would Harry ever be able to explain to his love that this was the second time this had happened? That he should've seen it coming -- should've known...

//Enough!// Harry told himself sternly. //It happened. It's over. You didn't -- couldn't -- change it. Deal with the fallout and minimise the damage.// He took a deep breath. //Right. Fallout...//

Physically Severus would be in worse shape than he was. There'd been no slippery lubricant -- no spell to ease the way when Harry had spread his lover open and pushed himself inside. There would be tearing -- internal damage. In fact, both of them ran the risk of infection -- and the number of shallow open wounds on their bodies would not help. As well, they were currently lying in a bed that was damp with their combined sweat, and cold wherever the chill night air touched it. Pneumonia was the last thing either of them needed.

Harry couldn't even begin to guess where his wand had ended up, but a word and a gesture easily took care of the possibility of pneumonia. The fireplace burst into life with a sudden whoosh of heated air, and with a second word, the rest of the room was instantly several degrees warmer. That taken care of, Harry hauled his protesting body upright and dropped his legs off the side of the bed. Carefully, he slid to the floor and retrieved one of the two potions he'd left safely pushed up against the wall. He opened it and drank the contents, breathing out a sigh of relief as the healing magic took effect.

The potion wasn't very powerful, but then it didn't need to be. Neither he nor Severus were sporting any broken bones or major life-threatening injuries. They were going to be stiff and sore for a day or two, but as long as the cuts, scratches, bruises, and other minor internal wounds were healed, then they wouldn't need to worry about infection or fever -- or the embarrassment of having to explain all this to Poppy.

Providing, of course, that Severus' mind was still whole and intact.

Harry reached out for the second healing potion, and forced himself up onto his feet. //Whoa...// His head spun, and he quickly lowered himself back down to the bed. A few moments later -- once the light-headed feeling was gone -- he cautiously sat up and crawled over to Severus.

"Professor," he croaked. The word sounded strange in his ears -- 'Severus' would've felt more natural on his tongue, but the prickly Potions Master had not yet granted 'Ash' that familiarity. Harry cleared his throat and tried again. "Professor," he said more clearly. "C'mon Professor, wake up." There was no response. Harry sighed. He put the potion down on a pillow and then started lifting the other man's shoulder until he could manoeuvre himself under it. He needed to get Sev into a sitting position so that the Potions Master could drink the other healing draught.

Somewhere in the middle of being pushed upright, Severus started to wake up.

"Hnn," came the inarticulate protest.

"Yes," Harry told him, struggling to ease the man forward, "I know you're tired, but I need you to drink something."

"G'way... hurts..."

Relief flooded him. Severus was all right. He might be cranky and still mostly asleep, but he was definitely not insane. Thank God.

"I know it hurts," Harry smiled in response, "but hey, we both know what Cruciatus feels like, don't we?" He pushed Sev a little more upright. "C'mon Professor," he coaxed, "I have a nice healing potion right here that will help." Harry lifted the potion and uncorked it. Then he offered it to Severus, holding it up to the other man's lips.

But the former Death Eater's suspicious nature had him twisting away. "No..."

Harry was fast running out of energy. He wasn't in any condition to be arguing with stubborn Potion Masters in the middle of the night like this. "Merlin's balls -- take the bloody potion you mistrustful bastard! It's one of yours, so unless you made a mistake, it's perfectly safe!"

The insult to Severus' potion-making skills apparently woke him up a little more. "Don't make mistakes..." came the half-conscious protest.

"Then drink the damn thing," Harry told him bluntly.

"Mmm," Sev agreed. He was apparently conscious enough to know that his own potions were safe, but not conscious enough to realise that Harry might be lying to him about it being one that he'd brewed himself.

He drank. And Harry breathed a sigh of relief.

Harry watched as the multitude of bruises faded out, and the welts he'd left across Severus' pale skin closed over and healed. Exhausted, Harry held the other man close, enjoying the simple feeling of having Severus in his arms. It was a matter of moments before the Potions Master was once more deeply asleep.

"I'm so sorry, love," Harry whispered. "I never wanted this to happen again."

----oo00oo----

In the Mirror, tonight's suffering had been years away in the future. Albus had still been alive, and Harry had temporarily returned to Hogwarts from fieldwork. He'd been injured -- though not seriously -- and Poppy had insisted that he stay a while to give himself time to recover properly. Albus had also insisted, and Harry had known better than to fight them both. His acceptance had caused Poppy to remark that he must've been more unwell than she'd thought, but in reality Harry was simply tired and knew that he needed a break. His War Mage training had taught him to respect his limitations, and part of that was the knowledge that he would be much more effective later if he simply took the time to rest now.

By that stage, Harry had been involved in the war as both apprentice and fully qualified War Mage. He'd been graduated in the field, and had worked in secret with Professor Snape on several occasions. Dealing with the Death-Eater-turned-spy on adult terms had been something of a shock for both of them.

At first, Severus had remained cynical about Ash's skills and abilities. He'd simply stated that an idiot mage was ten times as likely to blow himself up as an idiot wizard -- and that he had no desire to be present when it happened since he would probably be blamed for it.

Harry, on the other hand, still saw Severus as the prejudiced, spiteful, vindictive ex-Death Eater who'd enjoyed torturing him and his friends for too many years at Hogwarts.

It hadn't been what you'd call a wonderful working relationship.

At that point, Harry wouldn't have picked Snape for his lover even if he'd been the only other human being on the face of the planet. And the Potions Master himself undoubtedly felt the same way.

But even though love was the furthest thing from either man's thoughts, in the end neither of them had been able to avoid learning respect.

Grudgingly, Severus Snape came to appreciate that War Mage Ash was not the same person as the spoiled little brat he'd taught in Potions. Ash was, of course, still irritatingly cheerful and annoying at times, but now there was a darker side to him as well. It had shocked Severus to the core the first time he'd seen Harry use Crucio. Not because the boy -- man -- had used it, but because he'd used it so ruthlessly and effectively. And afterwards, Harry had simply looked at him with desolate eyes that contained a world of sorrow and regret. Neither man had said anything. It was simply understood between them that what had been done was necessary, and would probably be necessary again in the future.

Such understanding both pleased and saddened Severus. Too often such work was left to the ex-Death Eater simply because he was able to get answers where others could not. But it also seemed to him that one or two of his so-called 'allies' felt that because he was an ex-Death Eater and a Slytherin, it was only right that he should be the one to deal with the nasty and unpleasant jobs. Far be it from them to sully their self-righteous little souls with the darker side of war. But Ash never once tried to avoid a task simply because it was distasteful, and although he didn't like Severus, Ash never ignored his former teacher, or trivialised his presence, or tried to imply that Severus was somehow less than human because of the Mark on his arm. Severus was intimately involved in the dirtiest part of the war, and when Harry was partnered with him, the War Mage was right down there in the dirt alongside him.

As inconceivable as it seemed, Severus actually began to trust War Mage Ash in a way that he'd trusted few others in his life.

For his part, Harry gradually came to appreciate the fine mind behind Severus Snape's unreadable dark eyes. He learned to appreciate the black humour and the dry wit -- the creativity of the sarcasm and insults that Severus doled out in seemingly endless supply. But most of all, Harry came to understand why Severus was so dark -- so aloof, and so... disappointed with the world -- and himself.

It was a very small thing that triggered that understanding, but the knowledge it engendered was based on years of proximity to Severus Snape and a thousand different moments of observation -- all falling together in six simple words.

Harry accidentally overhead those six words at the end of a high-level strategy meeting. At the end of the gathering, Harry had been waiting patiently to speak with Albus when he noticed Snape approach one of the other members with a potion in his hands. It looked rather like a bottle of Dreamless Sleep -- and these days there were a lot of people suffering nightmares who would've loved to get hold of the stuff. Curiously, Harry noted the surprise on the other man's face as the Potions Master handed him the bottle. He missed the man's astonished question, but clearly heard Snape's irritated answer: "Of course I did. I said I would didn't I?" Later, Harry discovered that the man -- one of Dumbledore's operatives -- had indeed requested a bottle of Dreamless Sleep for some of the people under his command. Apparently, the lack of restful sleep was beginning to affect their performance. Plainly, the man hadn't expected Snape to actually go ahead and make the stuff.

But it was the last part of the Potion Master's reply that changed the way Harry saw Severus Snape forever.

"I said I would didn't I?"

Six words. That's all. And yet Harry had known respected men and women -- heroes even -- who could not say those words with the same weight -- the same honesty -- that Snape gave them. Looking back over everything he knew about the Potions Master, Harry suddenly realised that the man had never failed to live up to those words. What he said he would do -- he did. There was no swearing of oaths, no promises, no special ritual to guarantee his actions. Snape didn't need them. And what that implied about the man was nothing short of astonishing. After all, Severus Snape was a spy. His life -- and the lives of thousands of others -- depended upon his remarkable ability to lie -- and to lie so well that even Voldemort couldn't tell the difference. And yet... when it wasn't a matter of life and death, or the protection of others, Snape was the most honest man Harry had ever known. Painfully honest in fact. If you asked him for an opinion, he would give it to you -- warts and all. If you asked him a question -- and he deigned to answer -- then you would get the plain unvarnished truth, regardless of how much it hurt.

Most people believed Snape said such things because he was a callous unfeeling bastard. But Harry could recall times when Snape's honesty had likewise wounded the man himself. It wasn't callousness -- it was simply a personal standard of behaviour that was so high that it sometimes bordered on cruelty.

Harry's mage training had taught him how to lie to the best of his ability. But he'd also been instructed on the ethics of lying, and it was in those classes that Harry had discovered lying was a natural part of society. Everybody lied, and people even expected you to do so in certain circumstances. You didn't tell a bereaved wife that her husband had been a complete arsehole and you were glad he was dead. You didn't tell a friend who'd spent four hours in the kitchen that dinner was awful and you were going to buy take-out on the way home. You didn't tell a child that you couldn't really figure out what on earth the picture on the front of your birthday card was supposed to be. From big things to little things, people lied all the time. The only difference between all the lies people uttered, lay in the motive behind them. 'Good' lies were to help and protect others, while 'bad' ones were for selfish or cruel reasons. Lying only became complicated when it was possible that a 'good' lie might be discovered, and end up causing more harm than if the truth had only been told in the first place.

But Snape evidently considered any lie to be beneath him -- unless of course it was directly related to his spying activities. And even then, Harry suspected that he only did it as a form of penance, and because he knew how much depended on him doing it. It was a peculiar outlook on life, and Harry could only wonder about what strange circumstances might have produced such a strict code of behaviour.

Yet, in the wake of this new understanding, Harry couldn't help but admire Severus Snape. To be so ruthlessly truthful demanded a great deal of courage. It also explained the man's cynicism and disappointment with the people around him. To Snape it must have seemed like the world was full of deceit and cowardice. No wonder he was so angry with Gryffindors. The very people reputed to be the most courageous, were -- in his eyes -- no more willing to face up to the hard truths about themselves, and life in general, than anyone else. What's more, while Snape was growing up, he would've become more and more distrustful of other people as each one of them successively failed to live up to his personal standard of ethical behaviour. As a young man, he had become a solitary figure, contemptuous of others, and never really understanding why the world had turned on him.

Of course, there were other reasons too -- such as a certain natural arrogance that came from his pureblood background, and the knowledge that he was smarter and more talented than most of the people around him. But it was primarily his unwillingness to make allowances for the sake of others that earned him his harshest criticism.

And oddly enough, it was that same brutal honesty that lured Harry in like a moth to a flame.

As a child, Harry had been lied to all his life. His parents had not died in a car crash, magic really did exist, and he was not a freak, or useless, or un-loveable. At Hogwarts, people had invented things about him -- calling him "Slytherin's Heir", or saying that he was only interested in fame and publicity. People had accused him of lying at various times -- especially Snape, to whom he actually had lied upon occasion. But he'd tried to be mostly honest, and it had hurt a lot when Ron didn't believe that he hadn't put his name in the Goblet of Fire during fourth year. And of course, the lies Rita Skeeter and Cornelius Fudge came up with were beyond belief -- except that they had been believed by far too many people who read the Daily Prophet.

For someone like Harry, the knowledge that Snape would not lie to him or about him only served to increase his sense of fascination until it became too strong to resist. It was strangely comforting to know that Snape would not lie to him for anything less crucial than a life or death situation. And once he found out just how little Snape understood his fellow human beings, Harry was able to see more clearly the difference between a man who could mix the most complex and delicate potions, and a man who could manipulate people and events through the most complex and delicate negotiations. Snape and Dumbledore were both geniuses -- but it was a completely different kind of genius in each case. This also explained how an idiot like Fudge could've been elected as the Minister for Magic. The man had almost no common sense, but a great deal of talent when it came to self-promotion and getting favourable press coverage.

And so Harry had indulged himself in Snape's company -- spending time with the man under the pretence of private discussions about the state of the war and what Voldemort might do, and what their side was doing in return. And for some unknown reason Snape reluctantly allowed Harry to continue invading his privacy, until it eventually became an unspoken agreement between them that anytime they were in the same place with no other pressing duties, they would meet somewhere and simply sit and talk. If they were both at Hogwarts, that meeting was inevitably held in Severus' living room, and more often than not they shared a few glasses of wine after dinner and allowed their conversation to range widely over a multitude of subjects and ideas.

Somewhere along the line, Harry was surprised to find that 'Snape' had become 'Severus' to him, and that -- if given the choice -- he would willingly pick Sev's company over just about anyone else's. But it still never occurred to him to look at the other man with anything more than friendship and respect.

And then that night had occurred.

Nobody ever did manage to find out what spell or ritual Voldemort had performed. That it was Dark magic of the blackest kind went without saying -- but beyond that, only its effects were eventually uncovered.

The first of those effects made itself known as Harry was approaching Severus' quarters one evening. Without warning, Harry had been blindsided by an agony that threatened to overwhelm the internal walls that shielded him from Voldemort. From there, that fateful night in the Mirror had followed almost exactly the same pattern as the one that had just occurred in reality.

And in the Mirror, when Harry and Severus awoke the next morning, neither of them had been able to look at one another in quite the same way...

... although it took Harry damn near forever to convince the stubborn git that they should try repeating that night without all the pain and potions.

----oo00oo----

Harry was abruptly startled awake when his head finally dropped too far down towards his chest.

He felt a brief moment of disorientation as the memory he'd been reliving from his time in the Mirror warred with the reality that he suddenly found himself in. But reality quickly asserted itself as he realised that he was still cradling Severus in his arms, and that if he fell asleep like this he would have one hell of a crick in his neck when he next woke up.

Gently, Harry slid out from underneath his lover, lowering Severus back down onto the bed.

The other man didn't so much as twitch when Harry carefully extricated himself.

Watching Sev's sleeping form, Harry reached out and delicately traced one finger lightly down the Potion Master's bare neck and shoulder. Spreading his palm out over the warm skin, Harry marvelled that it felt so very familiar to him -- and then frowned as he recalled just how unpleasantly recognisable the last few hours had also been.

And yet... tonight had not been an exact duplicate of the Mirror version. For one thing, Harry had not originally thought to use the second potion that blurred and softened the senses. It was only his prior experience with the Mirror that made him think of it the second time around. As a result, the last few hours had been somewhat easier to endure than in the original version. Another difference lay in the fact that last time he'd been forced to drag himself back to Severus' smashed cupboard in order to retrieve the two healing potions, whereas this time he'd remembered to bring them with him into the bedroom. There were other small discrepancies too -- subtle ones that reflected the change in circumstances leading up to this night. But even so, it was all far too similar for Harry's peace of mind.

Given that tonight's events had been a crucial turning point in the Mirror for both himself and Voldemort, Harry was almost certain that this evening had played host to a Key Incident. For Harry, this night was supposed to be the beginning of a relationship that would support and strengthen him for the rest of his life. For Voldemort, this was the night that would grant him the greatest amount of personal power he would ever achieve.

They were two vastly different outcomes, tied to two very different men -- yet those outcomes were linked together by the same moment in history, just as the men themselves were connected and bound.

Harry knew that the follow-on effects from whatever the Dark Lord had done would eventually be felt across the entire wizarding world. Somehow he had to put a stop to it -- and from tonight, time would be against him.

But there was still a little of it left -- still enough to do what was needed.

All his plans would have to be moved up, and the War Mage circle would have to be notified. Briefly, Harry wondered whether this was something the Sight Mages had foreseen when they told Ly'haniir and Silver not to hide their visit. Should he tell Albus what had happened? How much would Severus need to know? Some of it certainly, if Sev was to avoid being caught out by the Death Eaters. After all, what had happened to Sev was not the same as what had happened to others with the Dark Mark.

Plans and anxious thoughts swirled through Harry's tired mind in a confusing storm of worry. But ultimately, the exhaustion in his body caught up with him again, and he moved reluctantly away from Severus', not wanting to disturb the other man's rest with his own tossing and turning.

Carelessly, Harry dropped his head onto a pillow and rolled onto his side so that he could watch Sev as he fell asleep.

Something jabbed him in the ribs.

"Mmph," he grunted. //Bloody hell, what's that?// Ugh -- his wand. //...wonder where Sev's is... probably here somewhere too...//

Harry dug the offending bit of wood out of the bedclothes and relaxed back into the pillows.

Vaguely, he noted that the bed smelled of dried sweat and sex, but he was far too tired to care.

Harry gave a lazy wave of his wand. "Nox," he whispered and the torches -- now sputtering and dying anyway -- were finally extinguished.

Darkness enveloped the room, and Harry -- ever vigilant as Mad-Eye would say -- tucked his wand under his pillow and followed Severus into dreams.

----oo00oo----