Chapter 17 : Conversations by Candlelight

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 17
-- Conversation by Candlelight --

The next time Harry woke, he drifted into consciousness enfolded by warm soft sheets and surrounded by the familiar scent of clean Hogwarts linen. The comforting sensation of a much-loved touch ghosted lightly over the scar on his forehead, and that familiar presence reassured the deepest parts of himself that all was well.

It therefore took several minutes for Harry's drowsy thoughts to idly connect the fact that Severus was tracing the outline of his curse scar, with the vague impression that for some reason the other man wasn't supposed to know the scar was there. When it finally dawned on him why Severus wasn't supposed to know the scar was there, Harry abruptly went from half-asleep to wide awake without so much as twitching an eyelid.

To all outward appearances, he was still sleeping -- curled up on one side facing the middle of the bed. But inside, Harry was mentally cursing himself for not realising that all the... activity... last night would have ruined the makeup concealing his scar.

Briefly, he wondered what he should do about Severus' discovery. 'Obliviate' was out of the question. He couldn't do that to Severus, and it would be pointless anyway since he definitely wanted an intimate relationship with the other wizard, which would only bring them back to this same situation all over again.

After a short internal debate, Harry finally decided that he simply didn't have enough information to make a decision. Whatever he said or did next would have to be based on Severus' response to the situation -- and right now Harry had no clue as to what the other man might be thinking. That meant that all he could really do was let Severus know that he was awake and then allow the Potions Master to set the tone for any revelations or accusations.

Still feigning sleep, Harry shifted a little and then breathed in deeply as though he was about to wake up. The touch disappeared from his face, and Harry let out an involuntary sigh at the loss of contact. Sleepily, he allowed his eyes to flutter open.

Severus was lying naked in front of him with the sheet pulled loosely up around his hips and his head propped up on one elbow. Harry allowed himself a few moments to drink in the sight of his lover's bare skin before regretfully shifting his attention to the rest of his surroundings. Over Severus' shoulder, Harry could see a couple of chubby half-melted candles burning silently on a wall-mounted shelf. With surprise, he realised that it was still some time before dawn, and the house elves had not yet been around to replace the torches that had burned out during the night. The fire he'd lit in the hearth earlier was now reduced to a few glowing coals, but the air in the room was still warm -- probably due to something Severus had done when he'd cleaned up both the bed and its occupants.

With another sigh -- and mindful of his sore muscles -- Harry rolled onto his back and allowed himself a careful stretch. He absently noted that the dying fire and the various candles scattered around the room were creating a soft golden light that was accentuated by a pinpoint of tiny brilliance wherever a solitary flame burned steadily in the darkness.

He turned his head back towards Severus -- watching him. Waiting.

At length, Severus looked at the scar on his forehead and asked, "Was it the Killing Curse?"

"Yes," Harry replied quietly. There was no point in lying -- Severus wasn't stupid, and a mage wouldn't normally use muggle makeup to hide an ordinary scar. It was interesting though, that the other man apparently still believed War Mage Ash and Harry Potter were two different people. After all, Severus already knew how 'The Boy-Who-Lived' had received his scar.

Severus seemed to consider Harry's answer for a moment before making the comment: "I was unaware that anyone other than the Potter boy had ever survived it."

Harry made no reply to this.

"But then," Severus continued, "since it seems no-one knew you existed until recently, I suppose it's not that surprising." There was another short silence before Severus asked hopefully, "You wouldn't happen to know how you survived it, would you?"

Ah. That explained why Severus was asking questions about a curse-scar instead of their pain-filled encounter earlier this evening. After all, the Death-Eater-turned-spy was far more likely to run into the Killing Curse than a repeat performance of something that had never happened before and might never happen again. Trust Severus to have his priorities in order.

"Strangely enough," Harry replied, "-- yes, I do. But I don't think the information will do you any good, since I haven't been able to repeat the experience with any other spell, and I'm not about to start experimenting with the Killing Curse just to see if it was a fluke."

"Still," Severus prompted, "if there's the slightest possibility..."

And so Harry explained about instinctively tapping into the magic of the curse in an attempt to use its power to sustain himself, and then went on to describe how -- instead of allowing the curse in past his own defences -- the magic had connected him back to the very man who'd been trying to kill him. "So you see," Harry finished, "when he tried to get away from me, it tore some sort of... hole... in his magic -- and he basically just bled out through it until he had almost nothing left."

"He died then?" Severus asked thoughtfully.

"Not quite," Harry admitted, and then grimly added: "But I fixed that problem for him a few years later."

"Ah," Severus said delicately. He noted the stony expression on his bedmate's face and curiously added: "You don't seem too pleased about his demise."

"You don't know what I had to do to get rid of him." Harry shuddered involuntarily. "And... I thought I'd be happy when he was gone. But I wasn't. I was just tired and sore and... well -- relieved, I guess. Like a heavy weight had been lifted off me. But I can't say I was really happy about it. I don't like killing people -- not even him."

Severus was silent for a moment. "We do what we must," he said softly. "The day you come to enjoy it, is the day you become the enemy." Then -- mercifully -- he changed the subject. "It's strange," Severus commented as his eyes flicked back to Harry's forehead, "that you and Potter should have the same scar in exactly the same place. I would've thought it might look different -- or at the very least, would be located somewhere else."

"What -- like on my butt or something?"

Severus arched an amused eyebrow. "More like your chest or back actually -- since most people aim for the largest target in order to have the best chance of actually hitting it."

"I suppose," Harry agreed. "But you're forgetting that people who enjoy killing also tend to enjoy having helpless victims who can't run away."

"Yes, of course," Severus responded bleakly. "On their knees..."

"-- where a curse to the head is convenient," Harry finished. It wasn't quite what had happened to him, but as a baby lying in his crib, Harry had certainly been helpless and unable to run away.

Severus frowned. "But you're a mage. Even without your wand --"

This time it was Harry's turn to be amused. "Surely you don't imagine I was born with the encyclopaedia of other-species spells in my head, do you?" Severus looked momentarily embarrassed. "At the time I was attacked," Harry explained, "I didn't even know I was a mage."

"And yet," Severus mused, "you still managed to live through the Killing Curse -- just as Potter did. I wonder if the fact that you're both mages is significant?"

Harry was half-upright with astonishment before he knew what he was doing. "You knew?!" he demanded.

This time it was Severus' turn to roll calmly onto his back while Harry stared down at him.

"I'm not an idiot, War Mage," he disdainfully replied. Then he calmly laced his fingers together across his bare chest and added: "The boy has no idea of the power he could potentially wield, and is still young enough to be flexible in his thinking. Given his astonishing ability to find trouble -- and then somehow survive it -- it doesn't surprise me that he would turn out to be a mage."

"Which doesn't tell me how you knew in the first place!" Harry objected.

A smirk played at the edges of Severus' mouth. Eventually he replied: "If you're worried about others coming to the same conclusion -- don't be. My reasoning involves facts that are not widely known."

When it became obvious that the irritating man beside him wasn't going to add anything more, Harry finally caved in. "All right," he capitulated, "I give up. Please tell me how you knew Harry Potter is a mage."

With a smug look at having forced Ash to ask him for the information, Severus blandly stated: "My first clue was the fact that you happened to turn up the day after Potter mysteriously disappeared. Very coincidental. And then of course Albus decided to hire you -- even though you were a dangerous unknown with no background or references --"

"He's hired worse than me," Harry protested.

"I am -- unfortunately -- all too aware of that," Severus replied. "However, I do not recall any of our previous Dark Arts teachers knowing about my Mark, let alone the fact that I'm a spy and not loyal to Voldemort."

"Draco --"

"-- doesn't know that I'm a spy, and would never have told you about my Mark unless he believed you already knew -- which you have previously admitted he did."

"Ms Granger and Mr --"

"Yes, I can well believe she and Weasley would tell you all about their nasty Potions Professor and his less-than-trustworthy past. I'll even allow that you might have learned about my Mark from them. But I do not believe they would ever tell you that I'm spying on Voldemort for the Headmaster. I'm not even certain they know I'm a spy. Of the three of them, only Potter was actually present when Albus asked me to return to Voldemort -- and I sincerely pray the boy had more respect for my life than to go blabbing that all over the school. More to the point however, I doubt that either of his hangers-on -- and Weasley in particular -- would ever tell you something that might sway you towards trusting me when they aren't entirely certain they can trust me themselves. In fact, if Potter did tell them, then I'd be more inclined to believe they conveniently forgot to mention that I might be a spy, in favour of warning you against placing your faith in me."

Harry had no reply to that. The matter-of-fact way that Severus acknowledged Ron and Hermione's opinion of him was heartbreaking. Not because they didn't like him -- Severus didn't care whether they liked him or not -- but because they didn't trust him. A single mistake all those years ago, and Severus had been forever branded a traitor -- even by two teenagers who knew he'd saved Harry's life on more than one occasion over the past five years.

"Albus trusts you," he offered quietly.

"And you are so enamoured of the Headmaster's opinion," Severus asked wryly, "that you believe he made the right choice in trusting our previous Dark Arts teachers? I hardly think so. And yet, you're convinced that I hold no loyalty towards Voldemort -- that I am, in fact, a spy for the so-called 'Light' side. Now why would that be?"

"Uh... I'm a good judge of character?"

Severus snorted cynically. "Or perhaps," he retorted, "your knowledge of my Mark and your belief that I am completely trustworthy come from someone who's had the opportunity to observe me more closely than Granger or Weasley -- someone who has directly benefited from my protection as his friends have not. Mr Potter -- spoiled brat that he is -- is at least in possession of enough brain power to understand the difference between hating someone and wanting to believe the worst about them simply because he hates them."

"Does he hate you?" Harry asked softly.

Severus looked surprised by the question. "I would assume so," he replied indifferently. "Merlin knows I certainly loathe him. But that's entirely beside the point. The point is that he disappeared at approximately the same time you arrived -- and that you've been in possession of secrets known to very few people for quite some time. We were only in the third week of classes when you told me that you knew more about me than I would believe possible. Do you really expect me to believe that Albus would betray my secrets to you? Or that Granger and Weasley would willingly give you reason to trust me? -- and all some time before the third week of term?"

"And yet," Harry pointed out, "you seem to be implying that Mr Potter would tell me such things on the very day we met."

Severus smirked at Ash's tacit admission that he had indeed met Harry Potter before the young wizard had disappeared. "In Potter's case," Severus responded, "it's not an unreasonable assumption. Given that you and he possess an identical scar and survived the same curse, I'm quite certain that he was intensely curious about you. From there, it would've been easy for you to convince him that you were a genuine mage simply by demonstrating a bit of wandless magic. And after that, you would've made your grand offer -- everything the Gryffindor Golden Boy could possibly want: a place to go where Voldemort cannot find him; a school where he can learn magic to a level that will place him above that of ordinary wizards; a group of people who will regard him as different -- special -- simply by virtue of being human." Severus sneered slightly as he added, "Potter was probably mouthing his acceptance before you even finished the offer."

Inwardly, Harry winced at Severus' low opinion of him. He very much wanted to tell the Potions Master the truth about himself and the Mirror of Maybe. But unfortunately, it was now all too clear that Severus still thought Harry was an arrogant child who'd been raised in the lap of luxury on tales of his own magnificence. Harry knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he revealed himself now, Severus would reject him out of hand -- and probably accuse him of some kind of plot or petty revenge as well. For now at least, he would have to allow Severus to believe the same half-truths that the Headmaster had figured out.

But that didn't mean he was going to let Severus get away with giving him only half an explanation...

"There are one or two things I'm still curious about," he began. "You believe I only met with Mr Potter in order to offer him an apprenticeship within the circle. Given the circle's reluctance to deal with humans for any other reason, I'll admit that makes sense. And of course that naturally makes him a mage. However, your certainty that I did meet with him hinges on your belief that he was the only one who could -- or would -- have told me your secrets. But as yet, I've heard nothing that would cause him to even mention you."

That smirk was back on Severus' face. "I note," the Potions Master commented, "that you're not trying to deny any of this."

Harry grimaced. "Would you believe me if I did?"

"No," came the succinct reply.

"Then what would be the point?"

Severus merely raised an eyebrow before finally answering Harry's unspoken request for the final piece of the puzzle. "Sometime during your various explanations," Severus told him, "Potter's impertinent curiosity undoubtedly caused him to ask why he'd never heard of you or your 'circle' before. That, in turn, would've uncovered your personal disagreement with the circle's policy of non-interference in the human world. And once Potter learned of your... dislike... for Voldemort and his followers -- and of your intention to remain in the wizarding world to oppose him -- the boy would've felt compelled to warn you against harming me."

"Oh?" Harry asked hopefully. "So you're saying he doesn't entirely hate you?"

"Not at all," Severus smoothly replied. "I'm simply saying that he understands my value as a spy and that his foolish Gryffindor honour would never allow him to remain silent if there was the slightest possibility that you might mistake me for a loyal Death Eater and attack me before explanations could be offered."

"I see," Harry said with silent regret. "And of course Albus hired me because --"

"-- he knows you're connected to Potter's disappearance I would assume," Severus finished.

----oo00oo----

Harry sighed.

He was once more lying on his back in Severus' bed, having collapsed back onto the mattress when the Potion Master's last statement suddenly made him realise just how many people were now privy to the truth -- or part thereof -- about the current Hogwarts' Dark Arts teacher. Just what was it about this school that made keeping secrets so impossible? As Albus had once told him: 'What happened... is a complete secret, so, naturally, the whole school knows'. Well, it wasn't quite the whole school yet, but still -- this was becoming ridiculous. //How many other people are going to figure this out?// he wondered. //First Albus, then Ron and Hermione...// He'd actually told Sirius and Remus -- and of course the circle of mages. And now Severus had also connected Ash with Harry Potter. Although, to be fair, Severus had been right about the fact that his reasoning involved secrets that were not widely known.

"Your silence is not reassuring," came a voice from the other side of the bed. Harry looked over at Severus, who was once again propped up on one arm looking down at him. "Was I wrong in my assumption that Albus knows where his favourite Gryffindor is?" And then, with a faint hint of suspicion, he added, "And if so, why does he not know?"

"He knows." Harry reassured his paranoid bedmate.

"How much?" Severus pressed.

"Not much more than you," Harry reluctantly admitted. "He knows Mr Potter is studying to be a War Mage, and he knows that I'm aware of his location. But beyond that..."

"And the Headmaster accepted that?!" Severus asked incredulously.

This time it was Harry's turn to smirk. "I didn't give him a lot of choice."

Severus blinked. "Wish I'd been there," he muttered to himself.

"I think," Harry mused, "that he didn't protest too much since it meant he could honestly tell the Ministry and the papers that he had no idea where Mr Potter was."

Severus' gave him an ironic look. "I doubt Merlin himself could get the Headmaster to cough up a secret he wasn't ready to share."

Harry laughed. It felt astonishingly good to be lying in Sev's bed, sharing their opinion of Albus together. But, when he looked back towards the Potions Master, Harry realised that the other man's dark eyes were watching him with a curiously tense expression. "What?" he finally asked, more than a little disconcerted.

"Do you expect... favours... because of this? -- because you saved my life?"

"No!" Harry exclaimed with a shocked look. "Certainly not! Why on earth would you think...?" His voice trailed off as he realised that Severus didn't know Harry had been in just as much pain as the Potions Master himself. Briefly, Harry considered hiding the fact that he'd been in the same situation as Severus. If he didn't confess, then the existence of his own link to the Dark Lord would remain a secret. But in the end, he knew he couldn't do it. Severus hated owing debts, and to owe a life debt -- to him of all people...

"You think I nobly sacrificed myself to save your life?" Harry laughed. "Sorry Professor, but it was most definitely a case of mutual survival." And he watched with satisfaction as the subtle tension gradually left Severus' face.

"Then you felt it too," Severus remarked. Suddenly he looked worried. "Would anyone else in the castle have been affected?"

"No," Harry hastened to reassure him. "Everyone else is fine."

Severus relaxed again. "Well, in that case perhaps now you'd care to explain exactly what happened -- and why the two of us were the only ones affected."

"Um, yes. Right. What happened..." Harry tried to collect his thoughts. //How do I explain this without giving too much away?// "Well," he began, "basically Voldemort performed a spell or ritual of some kind. Don't ask me exactly what he did, because I honestly don't know. All I can really tell you is that it was the blackest sort of Dark Magic -- and that it went way beyond mere Unforgivables." Harry paused for a moment, trying to decide on the best way to describe what had happened.

"But even though I don't know how he did it," Harry continued, "I am familiar with the... side-effects... that we experienced. Basically, Voldemort somehow became a conduit for more magical energy than he could handle. And while he probably dumped most of it into something nearby, there was still a kind of 'backwash' that flowed over into all the people magically connected to him."

Severus' face held a faint tinge of glee, but his next question was tempered with caution -- as though he somehow knew it was too good to be true. "Are you saying that every Death Eater experienced something remarkably like the Cruciatus Curse? For several hours?"

Harry snorted. "I wish. No, unfortunately the power that was filtered back was... well, I guess you could say 'aligned' according to your relationship with the link along which it travelled."

Severus' eyebrows rose. "My relationship with it!? We are talking about the Dark Mark here are we not?"

"Yes," Harry chuckled. "But the power that flowed into you was... well, it responds to living beings -- to their emotions and beliefs. And the Dark Mark -- while not alive in and of itself -- is still part of you. So the power became... 'attuned' so to speak... when it passed along the link and into you through your Mark."

"And that affected what I felt?"

"Oh yes." Harry confirmed. "In your case, I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that you have a rather negative attitude towards your Mark."

"Something of an understatement," Severus assured him dryly.

"And therefore," Harry finished, "the power manifested itself in a negative way -- as pain."

Severus looked at him speculatively. "And the reason you felt it would be...?"

//Let's hope he buys this,// Harry thought to himself. "Because Harry Potter is connected to Voldemort through his scar -- and I'm connected to Harry through mine." Severus' eyes widened at this information, but he didn't interrupt. "I believe," Harry continued, "that you already know Mr Potter's scar hurts whenever Voldemort is nearby." Severus gave a short nod of assent. "Well," Harry continued, "he also has visions -- dreams about the Dark Lord which are sometimes past memories, and occasionally present events."

"You mean he's actually witnessed...?" Severus looked horrified.

"Death Eater meetings? Some of their... field trips? Dark Revels? Yes. He's seen all of that and more since Voldemort's return to power. And that's on top of the things he's actually lived through himself." Quietly, Harry added, "He has rather horrific nightmares actually. Which is one of the reasons he was out of bed so often after hours."

Severus' face had gone pale. "I had no idea..."

Inwardly, Harry was very pleased by the other man's reaction. While Severus might not like the Harry Potter that he imagined he knew, the Potions Master would never wish harm or horror on someone he considered to be a student under his care. If Ash was ever going to reveal his true self, then he was going to have to change the other man's opinion about The Boy-Who-Lived. Disabusing Severus of his assumptions about Harry Potter's life would help tremendously, and this first revelation was a good step since Harry knew that Severus occasionally endured some rather horrific nightmares himself.

Which meant the Potions Master had just discovered he had something in common with Harry Potter.

"Don't let it worry you," Harry smiled -- and then chuckled at the sour look Severus gave him for assuming he was worried about Potter. "I'm sure you realise how important it was for me to establish that Voldemort wasn't having similar dreams about Mr Potter's life. When I examined his scar, I found that it was a purely one-way link. Voldemort doesn't even know it exists. But while I was studying it, I also found that my own scar was... sympathetic."

"Which was not all that unlikely," Severus mused, "given that both scars were formed by the same curse with the same intent." Then he added, "You realise that this also lends weight to the theory that Potter survived by doing the same thing you did -- linking himself back to Voldemort through the spell. Simply having scars that look similar would not be enough to cause a magically sympathetic reaction."

"Probably," Harry allowed. "But it was important to me at the time because it meant I could use that sympathy to forge a secondary link between my scar and Mr Potter's. Now the visions and pain he used to feel flow through his scar and into mine. In effect, they now bypass him and end up with me."

There was a little silence while Severus digested that.

"All right," the Potions Master eventually replied, "that explains why you felt the same pain I did. You're linked to Voldemort through Potter, and both of you dislike the Dark Lord easily as much as I do. But I fail to see why you created such a link -- or why a self-sacrificing Gryffindor like Potter would allow it."

"Because," Harry explained, "unlike Mr Potter, I have both the training and control to implement magical barriers within my mind that can squeeze down the link to the point where I don't really notice it. Normally, I don't suffer at all. Tonight was more of an... aberration... than anything else. So I simply asked Harry why he should suffer -- and potentially fall behind in his mage studies -- when I can simply take away the problem without suffering it myself."

"And then of course," Harry finished, "I pointed out that at some point, it might actually be useful to have visions of whatever Voldemort is up to. Naturally, I won't subject myself to that if I don't have to -- but who can tell whether it will become necessary at some point in the future? This way I have the option if I need it."

"A perfectly reasonable argument," Severus noted. "And one which also explains how you were able to resist last night's... 'side-effects'... long enough to reach my quarters and cast the necessary spells." Then he looked at Harry with a thoughtful expression. "And yet, you say you felt the same thing I did. I assume that means those 'barriers' of yours didn't last very long after you got here."

"No," Harry agreed ruefully. "In fact I think my desperation might've been the only thing propping them up towards the end. But they lasted long enough."

"Hmm," Severus commented in a non-committal sort of way.

"You don't agree?" Harry asked in surprise.

"Don't be ridiculous," Severus told him. "We're both still alive and capable of forming coherent sentences. I'm certainly not going to criticize your abilities -- or your methods -- for that."

"Then what...?"

"I was simply wondering whether such internal barriers might be able to block the effects of Voldemort's summons -- and if so, whether you could teach me how to create them."

Harry blinked. The Mirror version of Severus had also made this request, so Harry already knew that such barriers couldn't fully protect the Death Eater-turned-spy from Voldemort's wrath. "I could teach you," Harry admitted slowly, "but it won't... I mean they can't..." He stopped and sighed. "As I understand it, when Voldemort summons you through the Dark Mark there's a gradual increase in the level of pain until -- if you ignore it long enough -- you're effectively placed under a modified and weaker version of Cruciatus."

"Essentially, yes," Severus agreed. "Over time the pain becomes more and more severe until you quite literally cannot do anything except try to answer the summons. It's not so completely debilitating as Cruciatus -- and the risk of insanity is minimal -- but unlike the standard curse, you can't banish it with the flick of a wand."

"That's what I thought," Harry confirmed. "The barriers I can teach you to build won't hold up against that level of pain."

Severus frowned. "But they withstood a great deal more for you last night."

"Yes," Harry acknowledged, "but my link to Voldemort isn't the same as yours. My scar wasn't branded onto me with the intention of forming a deliberate link. Neither was it purposefully created to convey pain. What happened to us last night was an unintentional side-effect of something Voldemort was doing, and as such, it affected both of us in much the same way. But what happens when you're summoned is deliberate, and doesn't affect me at all." Which wasn't quite true since Harry could always tell when Sev was being called, but that wasn't something he wanted Severus to know just yet. "It's not the same," Harry repeated, "and the barriers I use aren't as effective for something like the Dark Mark. They won't hold up if you try to resist a summons for too long."

Severus considered that for a moment. "But they will provide protection for a time. Correct?"

"Yes -- until the intensity overwhelms them."

"Then I'd still like to learn, if you're willing to teach me. I'm not so enamoured of pain that I enjoy being summoned with an arm that feels like someone used hot pokers on it."

What Severus didn't say was that there would inevitably come a time when answering Voldemort's summons would mean his death. Once that happened, he would have to ignore any pain coming from the Dark Mark as best he could. While internal magical barriers might not hold up against the worst of it, it was also true that the Dark Lord couldn't keep the pain at that level indefinitely. And for the rest of the time -- with the barriers in place -- Severus wouldn't have to worry about it. What concerned Harry, however, was the possibility that the Death Eater-turned-spy might unknowingly answer a summons after the Dark Lord discovered his defection. With the way reality was currently diverging from his memories of the Mirror, Harry couldn't be certain that he would recognise that particular summons when it came.

But in the meantime, he could certainly prepare for it by teaching Severus the things he would need to know when the Dark Mark's call became too dangerous to answer. And of course, when dealing with irascible Potion Masters, it was always best to ensure that Severus didn't feel indebted to him for it...

"Tell you what," Harry suggested, "I'll teach you the spells and technique for creating barriers around your Mark if you'll help me with a combined Potions/Defence class."

Severus looked pleased by the War Mage's offer, but also somewhat surprised. "You actually did want to hold a combined class? I thought..."

He didn't finish that statement, but Harry could practically hear the ending. "You thought I made it up as an excuse to spend time with you," he finished, "-- and to try and get you into bed." Severus' mouth quirked with amusement as Harry realised what he'd just said. At the moment, they were in bed together -- and it had nothing to do with any plot or plan on Harry's part.

Sev's appreciation of the irony inherent in their rather... intimate... situation wasn't quite enough to make Harry blush, but the expectant look on Sev's face certainly made him wish they could drop the whole conversation right there. It was obvious that the Potions Master was still awaiting some sort of denial of any ulterior motive. The problem was... Harry couldn't honestly give him one.

"Um... ah..." Harry found himself somewhat flustered. After all, he had intended to use the combined class as an opportunity to pursue his seduction of the other man -- but that didn't mean it was the only reason he'd suggested it. He really did believe the class would be a valuable learning experience. But how could he explain that without making it sound like an excuse?

Just then Severus' expectant look transformed itself into a small chuckle, and Harry's embarrassment dissolved upon hearing the rare and welcome sound. //I'm an idiot,// Harry berated himself. //There's no way Sev would ever believe I didn't intend to use the class as an opportunity to get to him. He just didn't realise I also wanted it purely on its own merits.//

Trust Severus to let him flounder around in his own embarrassment.

//Sadistic bloody Slytherin,// Harry thought fondly. But then, Harry didn't really care what kind of fool he made of himself if got Severus to laugh.

His bedmate soon quieted and they lay there for a few moments regarding each other silently.

"May I ask you something... personal?" Severus tentatively inquired.

"If you like," Harry replied with a curious tilt of his head. Severus guarded his own privacy fiercely -- and generally avoided any interest in other people's private lives as well. Hopefully, Sev's curiosity was a sign that he was interested in Ash as more than just a professional colleague.

"Why do you hide your curse scar with muggle makeup?"

"Because concealment charms don't work," Harry replied simply. It didn't seem like a particularly personal question to him, but then he supposed it might seem like one to Severus given the fact that Harry obviously didn't want people to know about it.

"No," Severus frowned. "I mean why hide it at all? I could understand it if you were trying to conceal yourself amongst the general population, but you aren't. In fact you go out of your way to make sure everyone recognises who and what you are." Harry was about to protest when Severus held up a hand and added, "I understand that you aren't doing it out of conceit or arrogance. After Albus' little demonstration at the welcoming feast, I recognised it as a necessity that allows those around you to take appropriate care with their behaviour. However, since you're forced to live with the notoriety anyway, why bother with the annoying task of acquiring and applying muggle cosmetics every day?"

"Mostly," Harry replied, "because I don't want people to associate me with Harry Potter. The public isn't supposed to know I had anything to do with his disappearance. Ideally, they shouldn't even be thinking about the two of us at the same time." Then ruefully Harry added, "Although in your case -- and Albus' too I might add -- it doesn't seem to have worked."

Severus looked faintly amused. "I think you're overestimating the similarities between yourself and Potter. A set of matching scars does not make you twins. In fact, the two of you are nothing alike at all."

"No?" Harry asked with much amusement. "And how would you say we're different?"

Severus snorted derisively. "How are you not different? Potter is a whiny, selfish child who goes out of his way to make himself the centre of attention wherever he is. He's a lazy student whose whims have been indulged far too often. He breaks rules constantly -- secure in the knowledge that he will not be punished as anyone else would."

"You on the other hand," Severus continued, "are self-disciplined enough to have mastered several different types of magic, as well as your own emotions and reactions. I have no doubt that as a War Mage you've known both pain and loss -- yet you don't sit about whining over it or demanding special treatment because of it. And most telling of all -- you have a reputation for being fair to all the Houses -- even mine. The fact that Draco is willing to talk to you at all means that you know being Slytherin does not automatically make someone evil. That, in itself, is an understanding that has eluded many adult wizards -- and is something completely beyond Potter's mindless black and white view of the world." Severus paused momentarily, then added, "I don't envy your fellow mages the task of pounding some sense into Potter's thick skull."

Harry sighed. The process of teaching Severus what his life had really been like would have to be a gradual one. The man simply wasn't ready to hear the entire truth in one sitting. He would never believe it. But it didn't matter -- the need for time suited Harry perfectly. After all, he also needed Severus to know -- and believe -- that he sincerely wanted the Potions Master as a permanent part of his life. The only way that sort of surety could be achieved was through experience -- and experience would only come with time.

But that didn't mean he couldn't try and soften Severus' opinions along the way.

"Perhaps," Harry suggested, "you're being too harsh on Mr Potter. He is, after all, only sixteen. I know several people who've told me that if they were to meet their sixteen-year-old selves on the street, they'd most likely punch themselves in the nose. Can you honestly say you'd be happy to have your sixteen-year-old self sitting in your Potions class as a student?"

Severus took a few minutes to consider the question. His conclusion was evidenced by the slight grimace that appeared on his face. "No," he reluctantly admitted. "Although I would much prefer the presumption of my younger self's intellectual arrogance than the righteous moral arrogance certain Gryffindors like to practice." Then he added: "I would also like to point out that your observation about Potter's age only furthers my argument that the two of you are nothing alike. You are most certainly not sixteen."

"No," Harry wryly agreed. "But the fact that I turn thirty on my next birthday hardly means I've got one foot in the grave."

"I should hope not given that I'm only thirty-five myself."

"Ah," Harry smiled. "An older man! Lucky me to reap the benefit of all those extra years of experience." But the smile didn't reach Harry's eyes, and he anxiously searched Severus' face, awaiting the answer to his unspoken question.

On the surface, Harry's comment was little more than light-heated teasing. But beneath that, it was a very Slytherin way of asking the Potions Master whether Ash really would be allowed to experience the benefit of Severus' skills as a lover. Harry wasn't stupid enough to believe that a few hours of violent sex would sway Severus one way or the other, but the fact that Sev' was still here -- in bed with him -- still naked and asking him personal questions, gave Harry hope that perhaps the other man had already made his decision. And that perhaps it might even be the one Harry was hoping for.

Severus looked back at him with those ink-black eyes. Weighing him. Measuring him against the fact that he was even asking this question, and not presuming upon the answer simply because of their current situation.

The moment stretched.

Then the corner Severus' mouth twitched upwards ever so slightly. "Impertinent whelp," he replied with a hint of exasperation. "You should have more respect for your elders."

Answer given.

"Yes, Professor," Harry agreed -- and this time the smile sparkled in his eyes, reflecting both candlelight and happiness. Daringly, Harry reached out and traced a finger down Severus' neck, smoothing his palm out across the other man's warm skin as he reached the pale chest.

Severus watched him -- apparently amused by the fact that Ash seemed to feel it was some sort of privilege to be allowed to touch him this way. Quickly, Severus trapped Harry's hand in his own before it could move any lower, and in warm tones that reflected his amusement Severus commented: "If you're expecting anything more to happen between us tonight, then you've got a problem."

"More?!" Harry returned in amazement. "Good Gods Professor! I haven't got anything left to do more with!"

"As I said," Severus replied with a smirk, "you would definitely have some sort of medical problem if you were expecting more."

Harry laughed, and then felt a tug on his imprisoned hand. Severus gave another small tug, indicating that the War Mage should move over to join him. Harry was only too happy to oblige, and was soon settled alongside the other man with his head resting on Severus' shoulder, and their arms wrapped loosely around one another. Harry was warm, comfortable, and deliriously happy. "Professor..." he whispered into the warm flesh under his cheek.

"Why do you call me that?" Severus asked curiously. "I'm the only member of staff you don't address by their given name. In fact, you rarely even call me by my last name. I would've thought, considering our present situation..."

There was a small silence. "At first," Harry said softly, "it was simply because you never gave me permission. The others all gave me their names to use freely, but you never did... and mages are funny about names. Naming something gives you a certain... power... over it. There are very few things that will get you to respond so quickly -- or so instinctively -- as hearing your name called. I sometimes think that's why so many people are afraid of Voldemort -- because they're afraid to name him."

"You said 'At first'. Does that mean the reason changed?"

"Yes," Harry admitted. "I'm not sure when, but it did. Now... now I don't want to use your name until I can give you mine in return -- and I don't mean my War Mage name. I want to give you my private name -- the name my parents gave me -- the name my lover should use."

Severus mimicked his earlier moment of silence. "That... isn't necessary," Severus told him hesitantly. "We've made no promises..."

Harry heard the uncertainty in Severus' voice. Carefully, he propped himself up so that he could look at the other man's face. "Using my private name doesn't place you under any obligation," he gently explained. "It's simply an acknowledgement that you're important to me. You aren't required to give me anything in return, or even to use it if you don't want to. I just... want to be free to give you my name before I start using yours."

"And you aren't free to do so now?" Severus asked curiously.

"No," Harry replied. "It would tell you too much about me -- and about those who could be used against me."

"I can't imagine you giving in to blackmail."

"You're right," Harry agreed heavily. "I wouldn't." It an admission that contained terrible implications for anyone held hostage to ensure his co-operation. Rescue would be their only chance, and without it they would be killed -- or worse: tortured and maimed before being returned to him as a 'lesson'.

"For what it's worth," Harry added, "I swear that my reason for not telling you is not lack of trust -- it will never be for lack of trust."

Severus looked momentarily stunned. Then, in a somewhat strained voice, he said: "You are... unwise... to trust so easily, based on so little."

"Perhaps," Harry murmured. "But then, you forget: after tonight I'm not simply relying on the word of others. No-one who was loyal to Voldemort would've been in pain a few hours ago. There could be no better proof of where your loyalties lie."

Severus' eyes widened. "War Mage," he said in an urgent tone, "do you know whether Voldemort will be able to tell what my reaction was?"

Harry looked momentarily taken aback. He considered it for a second before replying with certainty: "No, he won't. Definitely not. But then, he wouldn't need to, would he? Voldemort will soon figure out -- if he hasn't already -- what effect his power surge would've had on anyone with the Mark. The fact that you weren't driven insane would be proof enough that you're loyal." Then Harry chuckled. "In fact, you might even find he's a bit less paranoid about spies simply because he knows what would've happened to them."

Severus looked partially relieved, but it was obvious something was still bothering him. His next question revealed the cause: "Do you know what reaction a loyal Death Eater would've had? I'll need to know if anyone asks me about it, and it will be easier if I don't have to find out from one of the others."

Harry smirked. "I don't think anyone's going to ask you about it, actually. It's not the sort of thing one generally talks about in public."

Severus raised an eyebrow. "Really," he said in a disbelieving tone.

"Yes. Really," Harry mimicked. "Think about it for a second. If you felt pain because you don't like Voldemort and his Dark Mark, then someone who wanted to be a Death Eater would feel...?"

"-- Pleasure obviously," Severus finished. "I had managed to work that much out for myself."

"Sorry," Harry apologised. "I seem to be underestimating you again."

"Not necessarily a bad thing," Severus told him. "-- for me that is. But... as I was going to say, pleasure can take many forms: physical, emotional, and/or intellectual. The pain we experienced was much like Cruciatus, which is a purely mental form of torture. Any physical effects were secondary. What I need to know is: in what form did the pleasurable effect manifest itself for loyal Death Eaters? -- and from your earlier comment, I'm going to assume it was somewhat embarrassing."

"Depends on what embarrasses you," Harry replied with a grin. "But to answer your question -- the pleasure would've been a purely mental form of ecstasy." Severus nodded his understanding. "-- with secondary physical effects."

"Secondary...?"

"Physical effects," Harry confirmed. "As in sexual secondary physical effects." Both of Severus' eyebrows shot up into his hairline. Gleefully, Harry added: "So you won't even have to worry about faking the appropriate symptoms!"

Severus looked completely blank for a moment. Then -- without warning -- he burst into hysterical laughter. He was literally doubled over with the force of it while a shocked War Mage stared at him in befuddlement.

"It wasn't that funny!" Harry protested. "Professor? Hey! Snape, are you all right!?"

But Severus continued to laugh and even went so far as to pound on one of the pillows while holding his stomach.

"Well, whatever the hell it is," Harry said in exasperation, "if it's all that bloody funny, then for Merlin's sake share it!"

Once Severus managed to calm down a bit, he shakily began: "You... you don't know..." then he burst into laughter again.

"Oh, this is ridiculous," Harry muttered. Frustrated, he got up and stalked out of the room. A few moments later he was back with a small vial from Severus' broken storage cupboard. "Drink this," he ordered, and then watched as Severus managed to gulp down the mild calming potion between breaths.

Once the Potions Master was a bit more coherent, Harry tried again. "Now, what's so bloody funny?"

Severus took a breath. "Draco's father..." he began, and then started sniggering.

Harry waited patiently. "So it's about Lucius Malfoy," he said calmly. "Go on..."

"He was... he was..."

"Yes?" Harry prompted. "Lucius Malfoy was what?"

"-- hosting a dinner party last night!" Severus burst out. "For that imbecile Fudge and... and..." Severus was losing it again. "...and for half the top people in the bloody Ministry!"

Harry sat there with the same blank look on his face that Severus had initially displayed. Then he too was rolling around on the mattress laughing hysterically at the thought of Lucius Malfoy -- proud defender of the aristocratic pureblood Malfoy name -- suddenly moaning and screaming in ecstasy at the head of the dinner table.

"He probably came in his pants right there at the table!" Harry laughed.

"I can just see Narcissa," Severus added with tears forming in his eyes, "having to make his excuses..."

"And dragging him away..."

"...with a raging hard-on..."

"...and an obvious wet spot!"

Together they collapsed back into laughter.

----oo00oo----

Some time later, after aching muscles and tired bodies finally overwhelmed their sense of the ridiculous, the two men found themselves back in each others arms, lying close while Harry gently traced soft patterns across Severus' chest and shoulders. Severus himself had one hand entwined in Harry's hair, and was absently twisting the thick strands around one long elegant finger.

Harry was gradually falling asleep. He noted fuzzily that Severus still seemed to be wide awake and somewhat distracted by whatever he was thinking. Harry found that mildly amusing. As the younger and supposedly more vigorous man, he was the one who should've had more energy. Yet here he was, drifting off to sleep, trying to convince himself that it was only because Severus was used to being awake at all hours of the night...

"Ash?"

"Mmm?" Harry loved the sound of Severus' voice. Rich and smooth, even in whispers. He could listen to Severus for hours.

"You said you didn't know what spell or ritual Voldemort used."

"Mm-hmm," Harry agreed.

"But you were familiar with the side-effects."

"Mmm," Harry agreed again.

There was a thoughtful pause.

"You never said you didn't know what the results of that spell or ritual were."

Silence.

Somewhere in the back of Harry's mind, a little voice was congratulating him on the fact that not one single muscle in his entire body had tensed up. But unfortunately, during the split second that his brain had gone from half-asleep to wide awake, the hand that had been tracing aimless patterns over Sev's warm skin had stopped moving. And it was still paused there -- perfectly motionless -- blatantly advertising his shock, and silently hinting at guilty secrets.

Beside him, Severus raised his own hand to gently cover the one Harry still hadn't moved.

"Ash," came Sev's perfectly calm voice, "I don't know what sort of liaisons you've had in the past, but with me there must be a certain level of trust. If we do this, we won't just be sharing a few simple trysts between the sheets. A... relationship... between the two of us would inherently involve Voldemort, Death Eaters, Aurors, the Headmaster, and quite possibly half the wizarding world. I would be trusting you with my life -- and the lives of a great many others. Likewise, you would be trusting me with your life in return -- and perhaps even the lives of your fellow mages."

Severus paused then, gently stroking his thumb over back of Harry's captured hand -- giving the War Mage a chance to comment -- to argue his words. But Harry remained silent, acknowledging the truth of them and awaiting the rest.

After a few moments Severus continued. "You must also consider that if you and I start down this road there will be no turning back. You won't be able to simply break it off with me when you finally tire of my company. You won't be able to just slip away and find someone else while pretending to be with me for Voldemort's benefit. There's no way of knowing how long we'll need to maintain the façade of lovers. If you can't give me a level of trust that will match the risks -- the obligations that we would both have -- then we cannot do this."

There was a brief pause before Harry whispered, "You're so certain I'll tire of you..."

"You're avoiding the issue," Severus chastised.

Harry lifted himself away from the other man's chest in order to look down into Severus' face. "I do trust you," he said with obvious sincerity. "It's just that... if I tell you the result of tonight's madness, then you might behave differently -- or say something... and it would be obvious that you must've heard about it from someone here, because none of Voldemort's followers will have any idea..." Harry trailed off momentarily, then carefully added: "Professor... Voldemort would want to know why you didn't tell him that his enemies know what he did -- and what it gained him. Is there any way you could answer that question without being executed for it?"

"You were trying to protect me?" Severus asked in surprise.

"I... yes," Harry admitted. "But I swear I was going to tell Albus first thing in the morning."

Severus frowned. "Ash," he said carefully, "while I appreciate the fact that you don't want to see me dead, your chosen method of 'protecting' me is both pointless and insulting." Harry blinked. It was? He had the sudden sinking feeling that he might've just screwed something up. Severus' next words confirmed it. "It may have escaped your notice," the Potions Master continued, "but as much as I despise lying, I have -- of necessity -- become exceptionally good at it. And while I freely admit to a certain sense of surprise at having survived so long, it's patently self-evident that I'm still here. And that's in spite of the fact that there are literally hundreds of different ways I could betray myself, and any number of spies and Dark Lord supporters to whom I might do so."

Then Severus looked pointedly at Harry and added: "None of which has anything whatsoever to do with you."

Harry felt his stomach tighten. Severus' blunt description of the constant danger that surrounded him wasn't very reassuring. But it did highlight exactly how 'pointless' Harry's reason for withholding information was. It really didn't matter whether he told Severus what Voldemort had done. The Potions Master was already hiding so many secrets that one more would hardly make a difference. And as for 'insulting'... well, his comments had sort of implied that Severus wasn't a very competent spy -- which was blatantly untrue, and certainly a slur on his abilities.

In hindsight, Harry decided that his desire to protect Severus by leaving him in ignorance was pretty much an instinctive reaction that had little or no reasoned thought behind it.

He was still mentally kicking himself when the Potions Master surprised him yet again by abruptly adding: "It occurs to me that there may be another reason why you don't want to tell me what happened." Then he was silent for a moment before reluctantly admitting: "We both know that if Voldemort discovered I was a traitor, he wouldn't hesitate to use Veritaserum on me -- and that in the end, willing or not, I would tell him everything." That the Dark Lord would also use torture was left unspoken and understood between them. "Because of that risk," Severus continued, "I understand that secrets must sometimes be kept from me. Even Albus doesn't tell me everything. He tells me as much as he can, but he can't afford to be completely open with me when he knows just how precarious my position really is." Then Severus added: "If you deem it too dangerous for me to know what Voldemort gained from tonight's work, then I'm willing to accept your judgement on the matter. But if that's the case, then please don't try to disguise it as some sort of irrational concern for my welfare."

It would've been so easy for Harry to cover up his momentary bout of thoughtlessness by claiming Severus' reasoning as his own. But it wasn't true, and while his Slytherin side had no problems with lying for a higher purpose, his Gryffindor sensibilities objected to this particular lie as both petty and self-serving.

"Professor," Harry sighed, intent on owning up, "the result of whatever Voldemort did a few hours ago isn't something you can betray. As the one who did it, Voldemort already knows what happened. And as for telling him how you knew -- what could you possibly say that would be of any use to him? 'War Mage Ash recognised the side-effects'? Does that mean that someone told me about them; I read about them somewhere; or that I've experienced them myself some time in the past?" Harry sighed again. "I'm afraid, I really was just trying to protect you -- as silly as that might sound right now."

There was an oddly neutral silence -- as though Severus was trying to decide how he felt about Harry's admission. At length, he finally said: "In that case, I don't think you have the right to withhold information." The Potions Master didn't sound angry -- more sort of... disappointed... which only made Harry feel worse. "Ash," Severus continued seriously, "I'm a grown man -- my safety is my responsibility. How much or how little I choose to risk is just that: my choice -- and my decision. Naturally, I don't want to die, and I'm certainly not going to turn down any help I can get, but the word 'help' implies that I get a say in the decision. There are too many people in my life already who think they have the right to make decisions for me. I'm not looking to add another one."

Now Harry felt really guilty. If their situations were reversed, he knew he'd feel much the same way. And while Severus hadn't said it in so many words, it actually was a matter of trust. Harry had to trust that his beloved Potions Master wasn't going to put himself at risk without a damn good reason. Harry also had to trust Severus when he said that he knew what he was doing. And if Harry admitted the truth to himself, then he was forced to concede that his fear was -- at least in part -- a purely selfish thing. He was scared that he might lose Severus -- that the Death Eater-turned-spy would risk things Harry didn't think he should, simply because the other man placed too little value on his own life.

But Harry couldn't justify any of that as a reason to hide Voldemort's latest horror from the other man. If he tried, then he would only drive the Potions Master away. So instead, he simply replied: "You're right. And I apologise. I just... wasn't thinking."

Severus made a brief sound of amusement. "At least you admit you were wrong," he said. "That's more than I usually get."

Harry frowned slightly. "You know, for someone I just insulted and belittled -- albeit accidentally -- you don't sound very upset."

There was a little silence.

"It's barely possible," Severus began quietly, "that you actually do care whether I live or die. That doesn't excuse your reasoning, but... it helps."

Harry felt somewhat relieved. Severus wasn't generally the forgiving sort, but occasionally he could be convinced to... overlook... certain things -- providing, of course, that the original stupidity wasn't repeated.

"You still haven't told me what Voldemort gained from tonight," Severus suddenly reminded him.

Harry felt oddly reluctant to admit what had happened out loud. Now however, he wasn't sure whether it was for Severus' sake or his own. "The result was... fairly horrific," he said quietly. "Many would consider ignorance a kindness. Are you sure...?"

"I have never considered ignorance a kindness," Severus replied steadily.

Harry closed his eyes and gently lowered his cheek to rest on Severus' chest. "No," he whispered, "I don't suppose you have." Then he said the words that made it all far too real...

"He's made himself into a Soul Mage."

----oo00oo----