A Matter Of Trust

First Things First

by Josan and kai

June 2004


1.

Severus paused on the threshold and inhaled deeply, steeling himself. He identified himself to the wards then turned the doorknob and stepped into the dank hallway.

As usual, the moment he entered, Madam Black set up an unholy din, "Vile, filthy, blood traitor! You dishonor the venerable name of Snape! You should be torn limb from limb! You should be strung up by your entrails! You should be - "

He turned swiftly and pointed his wand between the old hag's beady eyes. "They say, Madam Black, that a portrait captures the smallest portion of a wizard's soul. Would you care to join the rest of your putrid, demon-gnawed essence in hell?"

The bitch paused in her tirade and narrowed her eyes. "You wouldn't."

Having endured four days in the company of Voldemort, a nauseatingly unctuous Lucius Malfoy and an alternately simpering or whining Peter Pettigrew - not to mention the rest of his Dark Brethren - Severus had no compunction whatsoever about destroying private property. Especially any belonging to Sirius Black.

He tilted his wand just-so in the angle most favorable to channeling Dark energies. "Try me," he said.

They glared at one another for a moment, then with a scornful, "Hmph!" Madam Black turned her back on him.

His tentative calm shattered, Severus sheathed his wand and stalked down the hall towards the meeting room, seething. Why would no one listen to him that, Fidelius Charm or no, these goddamned portraits were an unacceptable security risk? Not to mention that Black's harpy of a mother was a mortal offense to anyone not blind, deaf, or currently sucking the Dark Lord's prick.

At the end of the hall, he sighed and reached for the door handle. Upon further reflection, it wouldn't have done a bit of good to hex the portrait anyway. He'd already determined that, theological arguments to the contrary, hell had no fixed location. It varied, from time-to-time and person-to-person. For him, it was currently located in the unsavory kitchen of number twelve, Grimmauld Place.

*

Kingsley recognized him, of course. That nose was unforgettable. And the tight, dour expression on his face.

Severus Snape. The Slytherin that Lily's boyfriend, Potter, and his fellow Golden Gryffindors had so enjoyed bullying. He'd asked her once, when they'd been studying together, why she went out with a jerk like Potter. She sent him one of her rare glares that made the recipient feel like a right idiot and reminded him to keep his mind on Transfiguration.

That had been during fifth year exams. That summer, concerned about the rising influence of Lord Voldemort, his parents had sent him to his mother's family in France and thus to Beauxbatons. And now, after all these years, he was once more dealing with these people.

The meeting was tense. Well, he could understand: what they were doing could be construed as treason. Dumbledore, hero of the last war against a Dark Lord, had assembled around him a core group of people he trusted. They were calling themselves "The Order of the Phoenix."

The people around the table believed, he supposed, as Dumbledore did, that Voldemort had indeed come back and was a greater threat now than he had been before his original encounter with Harry Potter.

He hadn't been surprised to find Arthur Weasley at the table. After all, Arthur had been the one to approach him, on the recommendation of Madame la Directrice, Olympia Maxime. One of his cousins was her secretary and the de Beauforts were not afraid to take sides or chances. It had been pure fluke that he had vented to his cousin, Gaspard, just that Yule, about his frustrations and disappointments with the Department of Aurors, Cornelius Fudge, and signs that they all seemed to be too blind to notice.

Gaspard was aware that Madame Maxime was in correspondence with Albus Dumbledore and so he had casually let her know of Kingsley's displeasure with his Department. The next time he'd visited, Gaspard had sounded him out as to his opinions a little more deeply. So, when Arthur began hanging around the Auror offices, casually shooting the bull with him, finally getting around to inviting him to his home for supper one night, he hadn't been all that surprised to find Albus Dumbledore there as well.

Kingsley had somewhat fond memories of his one-time headmaster and was more than willing to listen to his proposal.

Which was why he was here, in this house that felt cursed.

Next to Arthur was his wife, Molly, doing her best to hide her worry about the situation, but with a resolve that impressed him. She'd seemed a bit of a scatter-brain the first time he'd met her. There was Remus Lupin, of the infamous Golden Gryffindors, now known to be a werewolf. He looked tired and edgy. Probably due to the man sitting next to him. Sirius Black. Irony of ironies. The Department had an all points bulletin out on the man. And here he was, calm as you please...well, relatively calm.

As he'd taken his place, the others had arrived. Mungundus Fletcher. Merlin help them! Alastor Moody. Still not fully recovered from his imprisonment at Barty Couch Junior's hands. And hadn't that death been so very convenient for Minister Fudge!

By the time Dumbledore looked ready to call the meeting to order, they'd been joined by Emmeline Vance, Sturgis Podmore, Hestia Jones, Elphias Doge and Dedalus Diggle, none of whom really surprised him. They were of his or Dumbledore's generations, well remembering the deaths under the rise of Dark Lords, especially Voldemort's first attempt to take over their world.

Nymphadora Tonks was a surprise. As his presence was to her: she blushed when she saw him. He'd recently had to chastise her about her lack of attention while out on an investigation. He'd have to keep an eye on her. She was enthusiastic but accident-prone. Her taking the place right next to Black and giving him a quick peck on the cheek was explained when Black growled at him, "Cousins."

And then the last of them had arrived: Severus Snape. To a variety of reactions, from slight surprise to barely contained anger. But the ones that interested Kingsley the most were those of Lupin and Black. Black definitely showed his teeth. Yes, indeed, they would be well worth watching.

Kingsley Shacklebolt sat back in his chair and waited for the fur to fly.

*

Severus strode into the room but didn't bother removing his cloak before he took his seat. With luck, he'd be able to give his report and then get the hell out. He'd come directly from the Dark Lord's current hide-out and already his hastily quaffed anti-pain potion was wearing thin. Soon, the post-hex tremors would begin. To be followed shortly thereafter by spasms of the large muscle groups, then the smaller ones governing fine motor control, whereupon the blinding pain would commence, and eventually...He shook his head and looked around the table, carefully avoiding Dumbledore's eyes. The last thing he needed was the meddling old bastard to take the opportunity to rifle through his thoughts - his mental control was in tatters at the moment.

Along with the familiar - and in Black's case, repulsively ugly - faces, there were several surprises. Nymphadora Tonks, for one. One of the most terrifying students to ever set foot in his laboratory. The woman had brains to spare, but Sweet Merlin! The sheer amount of glassware she'd destroyed through her clumsiness was enough to max out his supply budget seven years running.

The other newcomer, sitting between Mundungus Fletcher and Alastor Moody, was perhaps the most gorgeous man he'd seen in a long while. The man's face and skull were clean-shaven. He was lean, obviously very fit - possibly an Auror or Hit Wizard - with skin the color of hot chocolate with cream, and would be quite tall when he stood. He regarded Severus steadily, his eyes dark and curiously blank. His face was also vaguely familiar.

But before Severus could scavenge his memories to identify him, Dumbledore called the meeting to order.

"Well, it seems that we're all here," Dumbledore said. "Shall we begin?"

Murmurs of assent went round the table.

"I've invited two new members to join us tonight," Dumbledore said. "Allow me to introduce Aurors Nymphadora Tonks, and Kingsley Shacklebolt, both of whom will be of invaluable assistance to us. Mr. Shacklebolt, in fact, will be in charge of seeing to it that our friend, Sirius Black, is never found."

Severus started. That's why the man seemed familiar. Shacklebolt had gone to Hogwarts, had been in Severus's same year in fact. Ravenclaw. A brilliant student, who could always be found at the top of the class. He and Shacklebolt had spoken quite a few times in the library about Dark Creatures, magical ethics, and the Dark Arts. Shacklebolt had been just another smart, gangly teenager then, athletic, an excellent Quidditch player, but not especially graceful about it. Then, he'd left school right after taking his O.W.L.s. Concern over the rise of Voldemort, or some such. Severus hardly recognized him without the enormous afro he'd sported as a student, not to mention with the addition of a single gold earring. The intervening years had certainly been kind to the man!

Tonks and Shacklebolt both inclined their heads as a short spate of conversation and a sickening display of fellowship, good cheer, and welcoming words followed Dumbledore's introduction.

He could feel the pain advancing along his nerves and rather than clench his teeth, he scowled. "Some of us have important things to do tonight. If we might set aside these unnecessary pleasantries so I may furnish my report?"

Molly, Moody, and Shacklebolt frowned at him and Black muttered something insulting under his breath. Dumbledore merely raised his hand to quell the chatter and smiled. "But of course, Severus," he said mildly. "Please do."

Without another glance towards Shacklebolt, Severus warded his mind then hid his shaking hands in his sleeves and began his report. He was pleased that his voice, at least, was steady.

"As many of you know," he began softly, "I have been in the company of the Dark Lord and a number of Death Eaters for the past four days. And before you ask, Moody," Severus scowled at the Auror to forestall the inevitable demand, "No, I do not know where his current headquarters are located, though it is most definitely not the old Riddle mansion. We were Summoned directly via the Dark Mark. From the position of the stars, my best guess would be somewhere substantially south and east of here.

"In those four days, I learned several things of significance to this gathering. Please allow me to enumerate them all before asking questions or commenting," he continued, without much hope that his request would be granted. Especially not by Moody or Black.

"As I suspected from Potter's description of the resurrection ritual, the Recidivus Restituo potion was used. Unfortunately for us, it is perhaps the only successful potion that Pettigrew has ever brewed. The Dark Lord is entirely corporeal. He is physically and mentally hale and his magical abilities are wholly intact."

Severus gazed carefully at the table as hostile murmurs swept around the room. Given that he had originally discovered Recidivus Restituo in a collection of ancient manuscripts some sixteen years earlier, there would be no shortage of accusatory looks cast his way. Merlin help him if they ever discovered that he'd been spared the brunt of Voldemort's displeasure solely because of the success of the potion.

As if to punish him, nonetheless, a sudden pain arched from his tailbone straight up his spine. His tremors grew stronger. He clenched his hands into fists inside his sleeves.

"Also, the Dark Lord's short-term agenda has become clear. He has identified four immediate goals. First, he wants the contents of the entire prophecy and has set Malfoy the task of obtaining it. Malfoy has been given unspecified manpower to accomplish this."

Out of the corner of his eye, Severus noticed a flash of puzzlement cross Shacklebolt's face followed by an answering look of confusion from Tonks. He ignored them. Dumbledore could fill both of them in later, if he chose. "He is aware that Trelawney cannot consciously recall any of her true prophecies, and is wary of tangling with Potter again without a full understanding of the prophecy. Therefore he has decided to go after the prophecy directly. Which, given that his two Seers are still in Azkaban, I take to mean that he plans to somehow remove the orb itself from the Department of Mysteries."

As expected, Moody immediately cut in. "How the hell does he think to get past the insanity wards placed on those orbs?" he demanded. "Does he plan to just waltz into the Ministry and pick it up himself?"

Severus fought not to grit his teeth, certain it wouldn't help his headache any. "I don't know. Lucius claims to have a plan. Or several plans. Whatever they are, I doubt that the Dark Lord will go to the Ministry directly. He fully intends to capitalize on Fudge's refusal to acknowledge his return."

Dumbledore looked at him directly for the first time and Severus felt the brush of a mind against his. Irritated, he blocked his thoughts and looked away from the man.

"Incidentally, he has also mentioned plans to discredit both Potter and Dumbledore. I don't yet know how he intends to do this - " he stubbornly ignored Black's muttered comment of, "You don't know much of use, do you?" and continued, " - but, given both Malfoy and Macnair's connections to the Ministry and Malfoy's financial stake in The Prophet, I suspect that he intends to wage a campaign of rumor and innuendo and perhaps some obstructionist bureaucracy, leaving the public's fear of the Dark Lord and love of sensationalism to accomplish the rest."

The tremors were widespread now, affecting even his voice. Severus was very pleased to be sitting down, at least; he doubted that his knees would hold him upright at this point.

"There is also the matter of Dark Creatures and non-human magical folk," he continued, deliberately not looking at the Order's pet werewolf, for whom he would have to give up more precious hours of his week to prepare the Wolfsbane. "As we suspected, the Dark Lord will send envoys to the giants. But there is something new as well, a very subtle strategy that might just work.

"In the last war," Severus said, struggling to steady his voice, "he actively recruited Dark Creatures and other non-human sentients. Given the political climate at the time and his well-known bias towards pure-bloods, he wasn't especially successful. He intends to use a more indirect approach this time.

"In addition to making overtures to the centaurs and goblins - groups notably displeased with the current state of affairs - Macnair has been set the task of agitating within the Ministry itself for increased restrictions on the registration and liberties of Dark Creatures, including werewolves and vampires." Severus took a deep breath and willed the pain to abate, if just long enough for him to conclude his report. "He claims to have some Ministry bureaucrat named Umbridge in his pocket. Apparently, she's already pushed through some anti-werewolf legislation. With a bit more of Macnair's money to back it, she plans to wrangle enough votes to go further. Voldemort believes that if he limits the legitimate options open to these...individuals they will be forced to turn to him for relief."

Severus felt another brush against his mind and fought the urge to lash back at the intruder. After everything that he'd done for the Order, did Dumbledore still not trust him?

"And finally," he said hoarsely, unable to disguise his frayed state any longer, "also as we expected, he plans to extract the remaining Death Eaters from Azkaban. And no, Moody, I do not know when or how he intends to accomplish that either."

His vision had grayed at the edges and random colorful sparks floated before his eyes, but with a grimness and tenacity born of years of spying and enduring hexes thrown by Voldemort, Severus maintained his grip on consciousness and rationality. "Are there any questions?" he asked wearily, wishing that for once they'd just accept his report as is, without endless nitpicking and suspicion. He nearly snorted aloud. And while he was fantasizing, why not just imagine the Dark Lord's head on a plate, right next to Sirius Black's.

*

There was something wrong.

Not with Snape's report. That was delivered in a staccato voice that dared anyone to interrupt.

No, there was something wrong with the man himself. A slight tremor that he couldn't prevent. The way his voice was growing sharper, more surly. Quicker, as though he wanted to get through with his report before something happened.

And there was something going on with the way the others were ignoring him.

Well, not Black, whose grin was growing more feral as the report went on. He knew what the hell was going on and he was getting a lot of pleasure out of it.

Molly, who had hovered over everyone as they had arrived, including himself, was now looking at her hands, clasped tightly in front of her on the table top.

Kingsley frowned as he watched Dumbledore listening, but only once looking at the man who was still speaking. The Headmaster was keeping a more frequent eye on Black, a very headmasterish eye. It almost made Kingsley smirk aloud to think of the Order as mere students under the watch of a tried-and-true instructor, who had learnt to ignore all small classroom transgressions for the sake of his sanity while being alert for far more serious ones. He wondered if Black would dare cross that line.

Tonks caught his eye and raised her eyebrows, inquiring. He shrugged and she settled. They were the newcomers here. Kingsley wondered if all meetings were like this. Snape was their spy in the Dark Lord's inner circle and they were all reacting as though they couldn't wait for him to finish and...what? Leave?

The man's tremors were beginning to affect his voice.

Kingsley turned so that he was facing Snape, the only one at the table actually looking at him. He allowed his mind to wander from the report and to focus on the man holding himself stiff, not successfully controlling his body's reaction. Was there something physically wrong with Snape? A palsy or something of that sort? He hadn't heard, but then he was new to the Order.

Curiosity fed on the responses of the others and he decided to see just what was going on. He carefully approached Snape's mind, not all that surprised to find barriers up. He didn't push his way in, he wasn't into violations of that most personal of spaces. But he waited, knowing that at some point, Snape's hold on himself had to weaken as it demanded more and more of him to remain sitting as Dumbledore finally began asking questions, seeking clarification on several points.

And there it was: a scent rather than an image. Hex. Snape had absorbed a fair number of hexes over the last few days. Four. That's what he'd told them all. He'd been in Voldemort's presence for the last four days.

He hadn't mentioned the hexes and, suddenly, Kingsley knew that he didn't have to. These people probably all had a pretty good idea of what Snape had undergone. What was it? They were embarrassed? Definitely uncomfortable. Except for Black who was now sitting back in his chair, eyes dancing with delight. He caught sight of Kingsley looking at him and he grinned, as though inviting Kingsley to share in his enjoyment of the situation.

Fuck! So the Golden Boy was still as big a shit as he'd always been. You'd've thought that twelve years in Azkaban might have taught him differently.

Kingsley glared back, causing the delight to falter. Black shrugged, dismissing him, and turned his focus back onto Snape.

With a feeling of disdain for his fellow conspirators, Kingsley looked over to the counter, to the teapot with the steam rising out of it. With a surreptitious wave of his wand, he had it fill one of the mugs that stood nearby. He glanced over at Snape, once more, then added several teaspoons of sugar and a healthy dose of milk.

Lupin was asking a question, not of Snape, but of Dumbledore, who in turn related the inquiry to Snape. Whose jaw was so tightly clenched that Kingsley wondered his teeth weren't breaking.

He waved the mug on its way behind everyone, around Snape and settled it in front of him.

Snape stared at it as though it were something he'd never seen. He looked around, his actions jerky, sending the lanky hair flapping, his glare accusing. Kingsley caught his eyes and nodded slightly. Yes, he was the guilty one, the one who'd dared notice that Snape was not doing well. He allowed his eyebrow to rise, offering his own silent dare in turn. Would Snape take it up?

Kingsley wisely kept his smile to himself when one of the man's trembling hands slipped out of a sleeve and went to the mug. He was thankful that he'd added a lot of milk as the hand was less than able to control the spillage: Snape would surely have scalded himself. Kingsley noticed that everyone, other than himself and Black, suddenly found other things to look at, other than the man struggling to bring the mug of liquid to his mouth. Not bothering to hide his involvement, he brought his hand up and, using some of the wandless magic he wasn't supposed to have, he steadied the mug so that Snape could bring it up to his lips. Not that the man looked thankful, but Kingsley allowed himself to link, just the slightest bit, with the man as he gulped the first mouthful and felt his relief as the liquid warmed him.

He unlinked yet continued holding the mug steady until he felt the heat and sugar of the liquid begin working their own magic. Snape's slowly closing eyes were the only thanks he got.

The mug was empty by the time Moody finished challenging everything Snape had reported. The man set the mug down on the table, hand a little more steady than it had been. Rising to his feet, a little wobbly - he had to hold onto the table to stabilize his legs - Snape pulled his cloak more tightly around himself.

"Believe what you want, Moody. You always do." He nodded to Dumbledore. "It would seem, Headmaster, that I have wasted the last four days. Pray excuse me as I have important work awaiting me back in my lab."

"Developing a shampoo that will deal with that greasy hair of yours, Snape?"

Why was Kingsley not surprised that Black had had to get in a dig?

Snape turned and managed, all things considered, a very effective sneer. "Not at all, Black. Just some Wolfsbane for our other canine 'friend.' Unless you would prefer to make it yourself? No? I thought not. It might mean you were doing something productive."

Lupin was the one who stood up, getting between Black and Snape. "Thank you, Severus. I'm certain that none of us here would want to delay your departure, as the full moon is not that far distant."

With a final sneer, Snape left the room, his gait uneven, slamming the door to the hallway behind him.

Tonks literally wriggled her eyebrows and rolled her eyes. "Nice to see that some things haven't changed."

Kingsley cocked his head. "In what way, Tonks?"

She shrugged. "The Professor was a prick in the classroom, too."

Molly stood up and said, in a falsely cheery voice, "Well, that's that. Now then, if you'll help, I can serve you all some supper before you leave."

Tonks's cheerfulness was not put on. "Shall I help you serve, Molly?"

Molly worried her lip for a moment and Kingsley swallowed his laughter: only if they all wanted to be wearing their meal.

He stood up. "I'm afraid that I shall have to offer my excuses, Molly. I have a report that's due tomorrow for the Minister, on the whereabouts of that dangerous fugitive, Sirius Black." The smile he sent Black's way was one that he knew would not make the Animagus feel very confident.

"And where has Black been seen, Kingsley?"

Dumbledore was using his Headmaster's voice. Kingsley noted that the younger members of the Order responded to it by growing very still. He turned and smiled: two years of Madame Maxime far outweighed Dumbledore's influence. He made them all wait until he'd dragged on his cloak and walked over to the door. "I think," he tossed over his shoulder, "Plymouth. It's the port the Muggles left from in the seventeenth century to avoid persecution. Or do you think that will be too subtle for Fudge?"

To the sound of nervous titters, he closed the door behind him.

2.

Kingsley knocked on the door to the broom cupboard that housed the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts.

"Ah, Weasley. I understand that you're off this morning to investigate some bewitched doorbells? Seems they're ringing and no one is there, or some such idiocy?"

Arthur Weasley smiled a little absentmindedly at Kingsley, dressed in his scarlet Auror's robe, as he shoved some memos into his satchel. "Morning, Shacklebolt. Yes, been a spate of complaints from the villages in the Dartmoor region. Probably just a bunch of crazy Muggle kids with nothing better to do, but it's also affected some magical folk in the area, so the MLA feels someone should go down and investigate."

"Mind if I come along? There have been reports of Black in that area and I'd like to question a few of the locals."

Arthur's grin reflected genuine pleasure. "I'm always glad of the company."

They Apparated just outside of Grimspound. Arthur unrolled a small scroll and nodded to himself. "Cecilia Cecil is on the list. She's quite reasonable, all things considered. You might like to talk to her."

Kingsley smiled, pointing to a bench at what looked to be a bus stop. "I'll talk to her, but later. Right now I'd like some conversation, if that's all right with you, Arthur."

Arthur shoved the list into his pocket and nodded. "I thought there was more to this." He propped his battered satchel beside the bench, sat and made himself comfortable. "What's bothering you, Kingsley?"

"Just need a few matters cleared up about last night's meeting."

Arthur looked as though he might be about to pretend he had no idea what Kingsley was leading up to, but he must have thought better of it. With a sigh, he plunged immediately into the matter. "You mean about Snape's being a Death Eater and our spy."

Kingsley settled back, stretched his legs out and crossed an ankle over the other. "Dumbledore told me that he had an ear and eye inside the Voldemort camp. But maybe someone should explain to me just how Severus Snape came by the job."

Arthur found a tree down the roadway very interesting. "Well, let me see. You know that the Order was organized the last time He Who Must Not be Named was acquiring power." He glanced over at Kingsley. "You weren't around then, off somewhere in France getting your Aurors training, weren't you?"

Kingsley nodded. Among other things: not that it was something Weasley or any other needed to know about.

"Well, there were quite a few wizards and witches who had gone over to He Who..." Arthur sighed. "Sorry, Voldemort." He shrugged. "It upsets Molly when I say the name. We weren't doing all that well when, one night, Albus suddenly announces that we have gained an advantage. That he's been approached by a Death Eater, someone deep within the Circle, close to Voldemort, and that wizard has offered to spy for us.

"There was the usual uproar. Moody was around and..." Arthur wriggled a little, as though uncomfortable. "Well, Moody was even more of a doubter then than he is now."

Kingsley allowed some surprise to show: Moody had challenged everything Snape had reported, including the amount of time that he'd spent with the Dark Lord, to the ever-obvious pleasure of Sirius Black.

Arthur shrugged slightly and looked down at his hands, which had found a button that was beginning to be loose. As if of their own volition, his fingers began to play with it.

From long experience with interviewing often unfriendly witnesses, Kingsley shifted so that he was at a slight angle from which he had no trouble watching Arthur's face and gestures as he spoke.

"Albus wouldn't tell us who the man was, only that he'd linked with him to make certain that the offer was a valid one, not a trick of Voldemort's." Arthur looked up from the button, sheepishly acknowledging, "And we got some very good information from our spy." He sighed and his fingers took up abusing the button. "Including that the Potters were in danger, which is why they set up a Secret-Keeper." Arthur shook his head sadly. "And you know what happened then."

Kingsley nudged a little. "Was that when Snape became Potions instructor?"

Arthur's hands stilled as he thought about that. "Yes. About the same time as Albus's announcement of our having a mole. Of course," he shrugged, "we never put two and two together."

Kingsley noticed that he suddenly became aware of what he'd been doing to the button. He pulled his hands back and slouched enough so that he could slip them into his robe's pockets.

"It was only at Snape's trial - he'd been pulled in by the Aurors..." Arthur frowned. "By Moody, in fact. Well, when Dumbledore spoke up for him, we finally did the maths. Of course," he sighed, "all those of us present were then sworn to secrecy.

"There were," he met Kingsley's eyes as though wanting to see his reaction, "those around who thought that the only good Death Eater was a dead one..."

"Or one imprisoned in Azkaban," concluded Kingsley, voice even, letting nothing of his personal opinion out on the matter..

Arthur nodded as he pulled his hands out of his pockets and folded them on his stomach. "And it was sort of understood that Snape would remain under Albus's authority."

"At Hogwarts."

Arthur folded his arms over his chest. "Bill had him for Potions his last year there, Snape's first." His voice suddenly warmed with suppressed laughter. "He made them do all the work they should have done under Humphries and hadn't. By the time they sat their N.E.W.T.s, they would have been delighted to wear his guts for garters. And he hasn't mellowed since then."

Kingsley smiled. "Tonks didn't like him, in spite of the fact that she always got the highest mark in Potions for her year." He grinned at Arthur's raised eyebrow. "I checked her file this morning."

"He's a right bastard at the best of times."

"And these aren't the best of times."

Arthur sighed as he straightened and propped his hands to either side, on the bench. "Voldemort has returned and he's after the Boy Who Lived. And for some reason, in spite of the fact that he seems to hate the boy, Snape has, according to Hermione and Ron, come to Harry's aid several times."

"Any idea as to the reason for the antipathy between Snape and Black?"

Arthur pulled out his watch and checked the time. "You would have more of an opinion on that. You were at school with them, weren't you?"

"Only till O.W.L.s. They hit sparks off each other from the very first day. Snape, Black and Potter. James, that is."

"Yes, it was that way often, even with our crowd. Scholarship students are never fully accepted except maybe by Hufflepuff." He slipped his watch back into his pocket.

Ah, that was something Kingsley hadn't known. Mind, it explained some of the bullying he'd witnessed. Potter was the only child of a rather comfortable family, if he remembered well. "But last night was more than sparks, it was bone-deep hatred."

Arthur nodded and got to his feet. "Well, whatever the reason, I'd guess that both Lupin and Dumbledore know the whys and wherefores. And neither of them is saying."

"One more question, if I may? Last night Snape was obviously the worse for wear. Why did no one..."

"Sympathise? Offer to help?" Arthur's laugh was almost sad. "Maybe because Severus does not take kindly to offers of help. And his personality is such that... Those of the Order not in the know about his role in the...shall we call it the First Round?...found out at the very first meeting, the one in which recruitment was discussed. The fact that Voldemort had reactivated Snape's Dark Mark and already called him to a meeting did not sit well with some members. Even if Albus maintains that Snape is once more spying on our behalf, there are some who don't trust him."

"Let me guess: Moody and Black."

Arthur looked slightly embarrassed. "Doesn't sit well with Molly either. She's decided that Harry belongs to us Weasleys and she doesn't totally trust Snape with Harry." He stooped and picked up the satchel from beside the bench leg. "Well, I'm off to see Madam Cecil. Are you coming or was this just a ruse to get information out of me?"

Kingsley laughed. "I'm coming. I need to pretend to be doing my work and besides, is that the same Cecilia Cecil who claimed that she saw Loch Ness Nessie sunning herself in her back yard?"

"On her begonias," laughed Arthur. "As if Nessie cared for begonias! Now, mind you, if she had said gladioli..."

*

With the sun newly risen, the sky slowly lightened from amethyst to clouded opal. Mist steamed off the tall grasses and the surface of the lake, shrouding the hillside and the forest in a wet grey blanket. Though the early morning was still cool, a softness in the air hinted at warmer temperatures to come later in the day. Summer had come to Hogwarts.

The mist parted lazily before Severus as he ran. It brushed wetly over his face and hands, like grasping fingers. The long grasses slashed at his sweat pants, as if to begrudge him passage. In a short while, the sun would clear the tree tops and burn away the fog. But in the meantime, he ran nearly blind, trusting the cadence of his stride and two decades of familiarity with the trails around Hogwarts to guide his feet.

The students had left for break two weeks ago and the early hour made it unlikely that he'd be bothered by any of the few staff remaining at the school over the holidays. Or by Voldemort. And so for a brief time, he could run wild through the hills around the school and experience something very like freedom.

As a boy, he'd worn through his boot soles countless times on runs such as this one; he had the whip scars to remember them by. Whenever possible - when things got to be too much, when he felt trapped, when he had a knotty problem to solve - he'd sneak out and sprint away as fast as he could. Once he was far enough, either from home or from the castle, he would settle into a ground-devouring stride and run free. He would return home, many miles and sometimes hours later, problem solved or drained of anger, but always filled with a sense of wild exaltation that no beating, detention, or loss of house points could diminish. He would carry those feelings close, throughout the days, cradled at the bottom of his heart, like a charm against the world - against the ridicule he endured for his threadbare clothes, for the rags stuffed in his boots to patch the holes, against the ache of a hex or a beating he'd been too slow to dodge.

These days, he didn't have to sneak. He merely exited the dungeons just before dawn and tore off across the castle grounds. And rather than worn out boots, he wore expensive Muggle running shoes, with generous padding to support his woefully fallen arches. Instead of threadbare robes, he wore long sleeved shirts and sweat pants, and had tied back his hair with an old leather thong.

His reasons for running, however, had remained constant over the years. Today, he ran to rid himself of anger: at himself for being trapped yet again by the poor choices made in his youth; at Dumbledore, for 'requesting' that he return to Voldemort; and to gnaw on a perplexing question, that of Auror Kingsley Shacklebolt.

What the hell had that incident with the teacup been about?

Tonks's indifferent attitude towards his status of spy hadn't been too much of a surprise; Moody's influence notwithstanding, she was simply too young to truly remember the horrors that accompanied Voldemort's first rise - and to blame Severus for them.

But Shacklebolt was his contemporary. By all rights, the man should be nearly as hostile as Moody. As Aurors, they'd seen the worst of the Death Eater excesses, both within Britain and abroad. And yet...Shacklebolt had poured Severus some tea. And had used a fancy bit of wandless magic to disguise the shaking of Severus's hands. Even Molly Weasley, Earth Mother to the Multitudes, probably wouldn't bring herself to spit on him if he were on fire. Why would Shacklebolt bother with any of it?

In his experience, people only offered help if they wanted something in return. What was Shacklebolt's angle?

The terrain roughened as he turned away from Hogwarts and set out towards the hills behind the school. Severus set aside thoughts of Shacklebolt in favour of pounding out his confusion on the rocky trail.

By the time he reached the top of the hill, the sun had crested the trees and most of the fog had burned away. He paused, panting. He wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve then put his hands on his knees and looked down upon the Hogwarts school grounds - the place he'd reluctantly come to call his home for the past fourteen years - spread out below him.

As a boy, he never could quite decide if he loved or hated the place. Or both simultaneously, in some gut-twisting way. Everything good - the books, the opportunities to learn, the chance to escape his father's abuse - was balanced, nauseatingly, against the guilt of abandoning his mother and the constant humiliations, large and small, that he suffered at the hands of his fellow students and, quite frequently, his teachers.

All he was certain of in those days was of his passionate hatred of everyone, including himself. He was never quick enough with his wand, never quite smart enough to anticipate the hexes and the double-crosses, or to avoid the humiliations outright. He was certainly never wise enough to stop wanting the things that other children had in abundance: money, status, recognition...friends. In all those years, he could never quite get it through his thick head that he was simply the wrong sort to ever merit any of that.

As a man, Severus knew Hogwarts for what it was, both a prison and a sanctuary, in so many and varied ways.

After he'd been tried - and secretly convicted - during the first war, he'd been sent to serve out his parole at Hogwarts. To be fair, Albus and Minerva had done their best to welcome him. He'd made a good friend in Xiomara Hooch - the youngest child in a family of nine elder brothers - who had an even more acid tongue than he did. And another in Hagrid, whom he suspected thought of him as another of his snarly and temperamental 'interesting creatures.'

His pay packet was sufficient for his needs - books, clothing, the occasional exotic potion ingredient. His intelligence and skills were valued. His colleagues respected him for the most part, though they didn't much approve of his teaching methods or his surly personality.

But a prison - bars or no - was ever always that. His movements outside of Hogwarts were monitored and sometimes constrained. His quarters, his research notes, even his purchases were subject to search at any time. His wand was subject to examination by Priori Incantatum every month, though Dumbledore rarely insisted upon it.

Because of his past deeds as a Dark wizard, he knew that Dumbledore would never grant him the Defence position, the one subject that might have made teaching dim-witted, disinterested adolescents a bearable penance. The Headmaster had even refused his requests to resurrect the duelling club, until Lockhart arrived on the scene. Because of his foolish, childish belief that in Voldemort's cause he had found the means to achieve recognition and financial comfort for his mother, to satisfy his intellectual hunger, that he'd found a place to belong, he was now trapped at Hogwarts. Forced, year after year, to drill learning into ignorant and indifferent idiots rather than to create, to innovate! And now, he was back in Voldemort's circle, a double agent yet again, walking a desperately fine line between evil and the semblance of evil, all too aware that a protracted and very messy death awaited him at the hands of either side if he took one wrong step.

Severus shook his head violently - enough of that train of thought! - then jogged across the crest of the hill and pelted down the trail on the other side in a shower of loose stones and clumps of dirt.

On his way back down, he gnawed on the problem of Shacklebolt a bit more. By the time he reached the bottom, he'd decided that, considerate gesture or no, he would be wary of the man. Better to assume the worst than to be fooled by appearances. How different things would have been if he'd made that assumption about Potter and Black - hell, even about Malfoy! - when he was a student.

Forty minutes later, the clouds had burned away, and against the blue of the sky he could see smoke rising from the many chimneys of Hogwarts; the castle was awake. With a clear mind and that wild feeling in his chest, Severus finally descended out of hills and put on a burst of speed as he ran along the edge of the Forest and back towards the castle.

As he rounded the back end of the Quidditch pitch, a flash of black and white in the sky caught his eye. He looked up to see Xiomara, robes fluttering in the wind, racing after a practice Snitch that glittered in the sun.

He slowed and then stopped to watch as she executed a daring spinning roll, hung upside down for a moment, then flung herself sideways, then captured the Snitch. She looked down and he waved at her. A moment later she floated down to hover beside him.

"I was wondering if you'd crawl up out of that gloomy dungeon lair of yours to take advantage of the good weather," she said breathlessly. Her cheeks were flushed, hair was completely wild, and her yellow eyes sparkled with excitement.

Severus smiled in return; she looked exactly like he felt. "How could I resist?" he said. "Now that the little monsters are gone, I can run when I like without worrying that the dungeons will go up in flames in my absence."

She laughed and began to fly slowly towards the castle. He trotted along beside her. "They're just children, Severus," she called out. "You were a child once yourself. If Hogwarts could survive seven years of you, Sirius Black, and James Potter, not to mention the Weasley twins, then I'd say that the castle can manage without your intervention at least a few hours per week so you can take a run."

"Black and Potter," he said with disgust, scowling at her. "You always know how to ruin a perfectly good morning, don't you."

Xiomara reached over and ruffled his sweat-damp hair, something that she knew irritated him. "Not at all, Severus," she said, snickering. "I just know exactly how to wind you up."

He swatted at her but she darted up a few feet and out of his reach. She eyed him critically over her shoulder. "Personally, I think you've been hiding out in the dungeon because you're getting old and slow. You were looking rather peaky on that last hill. Can't get those old bones moving like you used to, eh?"

"That's rich, coming from you!" he said; Xiomara was at least ten years his senior. "If your arse gets any wider, you're going to need two brooms to get off the ground rather than one."

"I have it on good authority that my arse is just fine, thank you very much. As if you will ever be a connoisseur of fine female arses," she yelled back. "And anyway, I will always be able to fly rings around you, for all you're built like a bloody great bat!" As if to prove her point, she swooped up and away, circling him twice before darting in and snatching the tie out of his hair. Then she flew towards the castle, dangling it between her fingers.

"Give that back, you obnoxious wench!" he yelled, and raced after her. But she accelerated, always keeping just ahead of his grasping fingers. After a while, he stopped yelling and just ran as fast as he could, hair streaming away in the wind, his every worry forgotten for a time.

That feeling carried him all the way back to the castle and through his cool down regimen and his shower. It didn't wane throughout breakfast - during which Xiomara returned his hair tie, transfigured into a filly pink ribbon - nor during two hours of brewing healing potions for Poppy.

He suspected that it might have carried him right through tea if, immediately before lunch, the Mark hadn't turned black on his arm, Summoning him back to Voldemort.

*

London that night was hot, crowded, and dirty. Pedestrians rushed by, jostling against him on the pavement, and the honking of horns and loud thump-thump of car stereos seemed to drive a white-hot spike through his brain. To compound his misery, rain sheeted down from the sky, drenching his clothes and plastering his hair to his head. The only benefit was that it hid any blood that might have seeped onto his clothes. Voldemort hadn't been much pleased with his report and Severus didn't expect a better reception from the members of the Order.

He paused on the front steps of 12 Grimmauld Place and tried to recapture the wild exultation, the sense of freedom and possibility he'd experienced a scant fifteen hours earlier. Instead, he felt hollow, exhausted, and could only dredge up his usual ration of hopelessness and rage. Would he ever experience another meeting with Voldemort from which he didn't return battered, bruised, and debased?

Once through the wards and the door, he limped slowly down the hall towards the kitchen, hoping to find a snack before the meeting began. He was too exhausted to bother with a drying spell and took perverse delight in how well his sodden, uncomfortable state reflected his mood, not to mention the damage he did by dripping all over Black's hardwood floors. Madam Black glared down at him but bit back her usual invective when Severus countered with a far more malevolent glare of his own.

To his extreme misfortune, the kitchen wasn't empty: Lupin, Black, and Bill and Molly Weasley were at the table studying a map. All four of them looked up when Severus entered.

"Well, well," Black said. "Look what washed up in the storm drain."

Molly gave Black a look. "Sirius."

Bill's lips twitched, and as usual, Lupin said nothing at all. With effort, Severus ignored them both and went straight to the cold box.

"I'd planned to serve supper after the meeting," Molly said somewhat primly.

Severus ignored her too - as if he'd ever dine in their company - and rummaged around until he found an apple in one of the drawers.

"Besides," Black added, "We're fresh out of blood and new-born babes."

Severus counted to ten then straightened up slowly. He closed the cold box door and placed the apple on the counter. "In that case," he said evenly, turning to face Black, "Mrs. Weasley might want to add a few more items to her shopping list. Perhaps a large bag of kibble, for you, and a slab of raw meat for the werewolf."

"Severus!" Molly said. Black immediately pushed back his chair and stood up. Lupin and Bill grabbed at his arm but Black jerked away.

"I want your scrawny carcass out of my house, Snivellus!" he shouted, rounding the corner of the table and drawing his wand.

In a split second, Severus had drawn his own wand and sighted down its length at Black. "I'd be more than happy to oblige you, Black, except that my presence here actually serves an important purpose. Would that we could say the same for your worthless, flea-bitten hide."

"You sanctimonious prick!" Black yelled. "How dare you!"

"The truth hurts, doesn't it," Severus countered flatly.

The two of them squared off across the kitchen floor, circling slowly. Severus angled his wand and prepared to throw a hex at a moment's notice. His head throbbed, every muscle ached, and his spine felt like a molten metal bar, but he was damned if he was going to let Black get the drop on him this time.

"No," Black countered, "I'm just surprised that a vindictive, back-stabbing bastard like you can even spell the word 'truth.' Your Death Eater friends, like Malfoy, sure as hell can't." Black's expression turned malicious. "Speaking of Malfoy...Tell me, Snape, are you still sniffing after him after all these years? Does he give you a bit of a taste, for old times' sake, when Narcissa isn't around?"

Severus saw red. "Is a twenty year old rumour the best you can do, Black? I need only state the barefaced truth: that you will ever be a useless and pathetic excuse for a so-called friend, whose arrogance and stupidity killed two people and orphaned a third. I'm rather surprised that Potter can bear the sight of you, let alone willingly call you godfather."

Molly gasped. "Severus, that's enough!"

"You fucker," Black hissed. His pupils contracted to pin-points and Severus knew enough to duck. Black's stinging-nettle jinx whizzed over his head to rip large splinters out of the door frame.

"Severus, Sirius, stop this at once!" Molly said shrilly, as if the two of them were unruly children. As if their enmity didn't run murderously blood and bone deep. "Remus, don't just stand there," she snapped. "Do something!"

But before Lupin could act, Severus felt a sudden movement from the door behind him. He spun on his heel and moved off at an angle, keeping both Black and the new threat in sight.

Kingsley Shacklebolt stood in the doorway wearing a very mild expression. "Albus has arrived," he said in that slow, deliciously deep voice of his. His gaze flickered lazily over Severus and Black and took in their drawn wands and the splinters on the floor. "Why don't we all join him in the other room."

Severus was not fool enough to drop his guard but his own body conspired against him. A sudden cramp in his stomach nearly doubled him over with the sharp pain. Then, to add insult to injury, a post-Cruciatus tremor seized his arm in its teeth and shook it hard; light skittered over the polished surface of his wand as his hand trembled. Desperate not to reveal his weakness, Severus sheathed his wand abruptly, as if he'd planned to all along, and turned his back on Black.

"An excellent suggestion, Shacklebolt," he said, and stalked to the door rapidly, to disguise his limp. "I've wasted enough of my time on this useless mongrel as it is."

He thought that Shacklebolt might say something in return, but the man merely nodded at him then stepped aside to let him pass.

*

Not a hex this time. Something stronger. A curse. An Unforgivable? Were it anyone else, Kingsley would have thought it unlikely, but then the rules and regulations of the normal wizard world were not matters that would much concern Voldemort.

Kingsley waited until Snape had settled in an armchair to pick one for himself from which he could keep an eye on the man. He was soaking wet and, as last time, no one had bothered to see to him. Probably too busy watching to see just who was going to kill whom in the kitchen.

He took advantage of Tonks tripping over Moody's wooden leg and upsetting a chair to spell Snape dry. At least he wouldn't look like some half-drowned rat that the house 'dog' was waiting to deal with.

Snape's head turned immediately to him, scowling, black eyes still glaring with residual adrenaline from his near duel with Black. Kingsley caught a flash of a question in those bottomless pits before Snape's face tightened and he closed his eyes. He took a shallow breath, to control a flare-up of pain, Kingsley guessed, and let it out slowly. The control the man had over his own body was interesting. Not something Kingsley had seen much of, not even in his line of work. That was the product of years of self-control.

As was the control the man kept on his mind. Kingsley approached it, wondering just how strong Snape's blocking ability would be in these circumstances and was not all that surprised to find it firmly in place. That too was the product of years' work and training.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Same as last time, Dumbledore called the meeting to order and immediately asked Snape for his report.

"The Dark Lord is not pleased," Snape began. "Malfoy reported that his preliminary investigations into the location of the orb have met with resistance. Seems that Fudge will require more greasing before he feels that his good friend Malfoy can be trusted with the details of the security that surrounds the orb. Lucius wondered if it might not just be easier to replace Fudge, but, for some reason, Voldemort was rather displeased with that suggestion."

"Ties between Voldemort and Fudge? Has anyone investigated that aspect?" Podmore looked at Dumbledore. "Shall I?"

"If I may be allowed to continue?" Snape snarled.

"Fuck you," murmured Black, still wired and ready to continue the fight begun in the kitchen.

Dumbledore deigned to send a glare Black's way - probably more for the language itself than to whom it was being addressed - before he appealed to Lupin with a disapproving raised eyebrow. With a slight nod of acknowledgement for his role, Lupin reached over and grasped Black's arm. The Headmaster seemed to assume that nothing there would again require his attention as he turned back to Snape.

Kingsley watched the small battle that ensued between Black and Lupin with interest, but it was only when Black abruptly gave in that Kingsley finally remembered a more-than-rumour from his last year at Hogwarts. So the lovers from school were back together again, were they? He pressed his lips together to stop a chuckle from escaping: and the wolf topped, did he? He blinked to rid himself of the image of wolf humping the large black dog, and brought his attention back to Snape, who was scowling.

"They know about Hagrid's assignment with the giants."

Dumbledore didn't seem too surprised about that.

"Macnair has been sent to deal with that."

That was a surprise.

"Someone should try and get word to Hagrid to be on his alert. Macnair has never failed the Master yet."

"Your Master," sneered Black, but only in a low voice so that everyone could pretend they hadn't heard. Apart from a slight tightening of his mouth, Dumbledore certainly did.

"And as you have already gathered if you bother to read that rag, The Daily Prophet, the campaign to discredit you," Snape glared at Dumbledore, "and the infamous Boy Who Lived..."

Here Molly's head snapped to attention with Arthur quickly reaching over to take her hand in his and pat it calmly.

"...has begun. You may want to warn the Boy Wonder that his mental stability is to be called into question. As for the campaign for the hearts of the Dark Creatures, no one reported on that, nor on any ideas on the rescue of his people from Azkaban."

"And that's it?" snapped Moody. "That's all you've brought us? Not much worth calling a meeting for, was it?"

Kingsley was slow to anger but now he felt it come to life in him. What the hell was wrong with these people? He could understand most of them not comprehending just how at risk Snape was as a man spying in a nest of vipers, but Moody? The Auror should and had to know better. Just as he had to know that Snape's control was hanging by a thread right now.

And why was Dumbledore allowing this? Ah, he wasn't. He turned to Snape. "And what did Voldemort wish to know from you this time, Severus?"

Snape grew very still. "He wanted to know what you were up to. He knows you know that he's back, from Potter's little adventure, and he was...displeased that I had no information on how you intend to handle the situation."

"I see." Spoken calmly and dismissively, as if the Headmaster were dealing with an insignificant matter. "Arthur, perhaps you would care to report your..."

"Not in front of the git." All eyes turned to Black. "The less he knows of Order business, the better."

In the sudden silence, Kingsley stretched his legs out and smiled at Black. So the man had finally had enough of being ignored, had he? "Yes, and that will do our spy so much good. Much easier for him to walk into a trap this way."

"Need to know basis," growled Moody.

Aware that Dumbledore was silently watching him with more interest than he'd shown until now, Kingsley nodded. "True. Wasn't that the excuse they gave you when you walked into the trap that cost you an eye and half a face? If you'd known more than what someone else had determined you needed to know, you might have been better prepared."

Face white - whether from pain or from the insinuation that he couldn't be trusted, Kingsley couldn't tell - Snape got to his feet, holding onto the arms of the chair until he could stand without weaving. "I've told you all I know. Excuse me," he sneered, "while you all toy with my life. Do let me know what you decide I should tell Voldemort the next time I'm Summoned. Because I will need something or you'll have to find yourselves another spy."

And with that, he limped out stiffly.

"Bloody coward," Black said. "Runs at the first hint of trouble."

Kingsley stood up. He allowed his opinion of Black to colour his voice. "He won't be running, you arsehole," he snapped. "He'll be dead." He looked around the room, his glare and voice as cold as he could make them. "I was under the impression that this was a group of mutually minded persons, all working together to defeat the Dark Lord. I seem to have been misled."

His eyebrow rose in disdain for them all. "Dumbledore, do let me know when you've got things under hand and have decided whether you all are truly interested in dealing with Voldemort or, for whatever reasons you may have, just in arranging the execution of Severus Snape."

And, grabbing his cloak, he left them, mouths agape.

He closed the door quietly behind him, though he really would have preferred to slam it shut, releasing some of his anger. Were their petty differences more important to them than...

He would have slammed the outer door but it wouldn't let him. He stood at the top of the steps and glared into the night. Did these idiots not realise that if he could see them, Voldemort would be laughing his head off at their behaviour? That all this mistrust of the man, the only ears and eyes they had in among Voldemort's inner circle, would lead them to defeat? What the hell was the matter with them? If this blew up in their faces, it was Azkaban for them all, including himself.

He drew his dark-coloured cloak around him, raised the hood for protection again the rain and went down the stairs to the Apparation point beyond the wards, trying to decide if he was heading for home or the local pub, when he tripped. He staggered and found his balance as he pulled out his wand. There was a soaking wet mound of black lying on the ground.

Kingsley crouched next to it and determined which end was which. He reached over and pulled the sodden material from a face that was lined with pain. Kingsley felt for the pulse at the neck and found it, slightly erratic and not as strong as he would have liked. He turned to call and then didn't as a shudder shook the man lying on the wet ground. With a shake of his head at the situation, Kingsley leaned over and carefully scooped the unconscious man into his arms. As an Auror, he was in top shape, but it required a lot less effort than he'd expected to get to his feet. Under the voluminous robes, the man must be skin and bone.

Stepping beyond the wards, holding the wizard close to him, Kingsley activated his emergency Portkey to home.

3.

First things first.

Kingsley cast a drying spell on both of them and stepped out of the small puddle that had quickly appeared at his feet in the hallway of his London flat. Next priority, as he carried Snape to his bedroom, was to see just how extensive the damage was. The trembling was growing greater as he laid Snape carefully down onto his bed. He was mentally going through the contents of his medical chest when something on the sleeve of his brown robe caught his attention.

A reddish mark.

He fingered the dried stain and suddenly realised: blood.

Merde!

He used his wand to spell the robe off Snape, tossing it off the bed and onto the floor as he quickly scanned Snape's body, looking for the source of the bleeding.

Under the robe, Snape's clothing had been torn nearly to shreds.

"Lumière forte!" And the lights in the room grew brighter.

Snape was built on long, lean lines, with musculature that was wiry rather than developed, as were Aurors from their training. The legs, especially the calves, were more muscular than the rest of the body. So, a runner. There was blood on those legs, streaking pink. Carefully, Kingsley checked Snape's rib cage on the far side for broken bones and, finding none, slipped a hand under a boney shoulder and painstakingly turned him onto that side.

"Fuck!" The man's back was ridged with old scars and welts, some still oozing, probably from his having lifted and carried Snape.

"Par Toutatis!" What the hell was the matter with the man? He'd come to a meeting, his back and hips slashed, nearly duelled with Black, given his report, all the time pretending he wasn't in pain. All the others pretending he wasn't. This had to stop!

He gingerly checked what other damage he could find. It didn't take Auror training to recognise boot prints in the small of his back, on his hip and his stomach. A quick once-over with his wand revealed the most severe bruising was around the kidneys. Medi-spells for these kinds of injuries were part and parcel of Auror training. Kingsley chanted the spells quickly, knowing that they could repair only to a certain extent. Snape would also need some healing potions.

And the shivers and shudders had to be dealt with as well. Definitely the after-effects of Cruciatus. Merde! So Voldemort's displeasure had been an understatement. Double checking that Snape was not also suffering from some head injury, Kingsley muttered, "Tête de pioche," not knowing if he were referring to the hardness of Snape's head or his sheer stubbornness!

He was in the bathroom, rummaging through the medicine chest when Snape regained consciousness. Not knowing where he was, Snape tried to leave the bed. He only stopped when Kingsley finally got his attention by grabbing his shoulders. The action startled him long enough for Kingsley to take advantage, holding a glass to his mouth. "Swallow, Severus."

He didn't know whether it was the fact that Snape recognised him or that he'd called him by his first name, but Snape opened his mouth and Kingsley tipped the contents in. The effect of the approved meds mixed in with some of his grand'mère's remedies was immediate: Snape's eyes rolled back and he was asleep before Kingsley had time to guide his head to the pillow. He turned Snape onto his stomach and began anointing the welts and cuts with a salve from his grand'mère's side of the chest. Covering him lightly with a sheet, Kingsley spelled the room warmer.

There, that should be it for a few hours at least. Not certain that it was necessary, but nevertheless feeling that someone might wonder at Snape's not having returned to Hogwarts, Kingsley wrote a short, almost malicious note to the headmaster.

'I have him. I'll send him back when his injuries are healed.'

He signed it with his last name and sent an official owl off with the message. Then he prepared a "potage" according to one of Grand'mère's recipes and made himself a light meal. He had reports to work on and correspondence of his own to deal with. Snape should wake eventually and would need nourishment. Damn, the man was skinny. He needed building up.

Kingsley suddenly chuckled to himself. He had a feeling that Snape wouldn't make an easy patient. Pity that Grand'mère was dead: she'd have been a good one to deal with Snape.

*

Severus came awake all at once and froze, eyes still closed, and every sense on alert. His last memory was that of exiting 12 Grimmauld Place and starting down the stairs, still seething over his treatment by members of the Order. Now, inexplicably, he was naked and lying on something soft in a darkened room. He was used to the dark, but the nakedness...that bothered him a great deal.

He'd also been drugged. The greatly diminished pain in his back and stomach, coupled with the aftertaste of willow and valerian on his tongue, hinted at a pain-killer - laced with a muscle relaxant if the slackness in his limbs was any indication. Given his level of thirst and the pressure in his bladder, quite a lot of time had passed.

Had he failed to cover his tracks back to London? Had Lucius, or one of the other Death Eaters, followed him somehow? His residual anger evaporated, leaving him chilled. He lay quite still, thinking: he was positive he'd spelled his clothing and body free of any tracking charms...

Mindful of potential observers, he rolled casually to his side, as if still asleep, then slid his hand under his pillow. His fingers encountered the smooth, familiar handle of his wand.

Interesting. Was this a friend then, or merely the opening move in an elaborate game?

He slitted open his eyes and examined the room through the cover of his lashes. He was in an unfamiliar, but distinctly masculine room, occupying a wide, exceedingly comfortable bed. A large armoire stood against the wall facing him and a dimly lit wizard lamp glowed on the night stand, casting a circle of light on the lush oriental carpet on the floor. A chair had been pulled up next to the bed. A colourful quilt lay over one arm and a closed paperback book entitled "Bonsai and the Art of the Zen Garden" lay on the leather seat cushion. An assortment of wizards and witches waved or peered at him, puzzled, from the few framed wizarding photos on the bed-table and a shelf of the bookcase. None of the unfamiliar faces offered any insight into the room's owner, although several of them looked a bit like...

Footsteps sounded just outside the closed door. Severus sat up quickly. He ignored the weakness in his muscles and the sparkles that danced before his eyes and brandished his wand.

The door opened and a wedge of yellow light from outside cast the figure into silhouette. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood in the doorway holding an armload of books and papers. "Ah," the man drawled. "I wondered if you might be awake by now." The man waved his hand at the lamp and the room grew brighter.

Kingsley Shacklebolt.

Lately, everywhere he turned, Shacklebolt seemed to be tangled up in his life somehow!

Severus tightened his grip on his wand. He'd had enough unpleasant experiences with Aurors to be fooled by the man's benign smile. "Where am I?" he demanded. "And why have you brought me here?"

Shacklebolt seemed to be as unperturbed by Severus's tone of voice as he was by the wand pointed at his head. "You are in my flat in London," he said, then entered the bedroom and placed the books on a chest at the foot of the bed. "You're here because I brought you here. And because I thought you would prefer not to explain how you acquired those wounds to a healer at St. Mungo's."

"Why, has Moody decided that I need yet another keeper?" Severus didn't lower his wand or bother to hide his bitterness. It would be just like Moody to play 'divide and conquer' with the Order's outcast spy. Set up the pretence of an argument with Shacklebolt to lure Severus into believing that the man could be relied upon as an ally. He was too old to fall for that trick again.

The Auror stood at the foot of the bed. He crossed his arms and sighed. "I don't suppose you'd believe me if I said that it was because you needed help."

If his sides hadn't still hurt so much, Severus might have laughed. "I lost my naivetè long ago, Shacklebolt. Try again."

"Par Belénos, you're even more paranoid than Moody!"

Severus narrowed his eyes, and waited. His wand hand was not especially steady, but he did at least have the drop on the man.

Shacklebolt rubbed one hand over his bare scalp then snorted and shook his head. His gold earring flashed in the light. "Moody had nothing to do with it, Severus." He shaped his mouth around Severus's name as if he found it particularly savoury; Severus shivered. "I found you passed out at the foot of the stairs," Shacklebolt continued. "What should I have done, left you for dead?"

That at least would have been far more consistent with Severus's experience of people in general and Aurors specifically.

When he didn't reply, Shacklebolt sighed. "Well then," he said, "would you believe that I believe that keeping you alive is the most efficient way to collect intelligence about Voldemort's latest plans?"

That explanation seemed far more likely. Severus lowered his wand but didn't set it aside. "Where are my clothes?"

"Your outer robe is in the laundry. The rest of your clothing is in the rubbish bin. What wasn't blood-stained was completely shredded. You may borrow some of my things when you're ready to leave."

"Fine. Give them to me now."

Shacklebolt's good-natured expression faded and his mouth firmed. "No," he said.

So, the man had showed his hand at last. It cost him to raise his arm and level his wand at him again, but Severus did so. "Yes," he said, fighting against a sudden flare of pain and rising panic. "Give them to me now, or I will hex you." Cursing an Auror in his own home was a monumentally bad idea - Merlin knew what kinds of wards and alarms were set up around the place - but he would not be imprisoned again. He would not give them another opportunity to force him to 'prove' his loyalty. Not this time.

For whatever reason, Shacklebolt was unimpressed by Severus's threats. He stood at the foot of the bed with the serene implacability of a mountain. "I know you are willing to curse me, Severus," he said, "but I don't believe that you want to."

"You have no idea what I want."

"That may be. But I do know that you are not yet recovered enough to leave and I would prefer not to drag your unconscious body up another flight of stairs tonight." Shacklebolt smiled and moved slowly and deliberately, around the end of the bed.

His hand shook but nonetheless Severus raised the wand and tracked Shacklebolt's movement.

"Severus. I am not acting on Moody's behalf."

What the bloody hell was it about the man that inspired trust? Why did Severus believe him? He was far too old to be taken in by a handsome face, a benign demeanour, and a voice that stroked over his raw nerves like a caress - especially when those attributes belonged to an Auror, and yet... "So you say," he sneered.

Shacklebolt paused beside the chair presenting a perfect target, if only Severus had the bollocks to act.

But his vision wavered and then the moment was lost: Shacklebolt had moved. A large hand closed over the length of Severus's wand and pressed it down. "That is enough," Shacklebolt said firmly. "You will eat, then you will rest. And when I am satisfied that you are well enough not to crack your stubborn skull open on my front stairs, then you may leave."

Severus leaned back against the pillow and glared resentfully. "I have had quite enough of your 'hospitality.'"

There was a brief tug-o-war and then Shacklebolt succeeded in prying his wand from his fingers. "That is unfortunate," the Auror said with a slight smile, "because I have not yet finished with you. Now, let us dispense with the hostilities long enough for me to see to your wounds. And for you to eat something. When was your last meal? You're nothing but skin and bones." Shacklebolt placed Severus's wand on the night table and then reached out as if to touch his shoulder.

"My injuries are healing just fine," Severus snapped, flinching away. He felt uncomfortably vulnerable, naked and without his wand. "And they do not require your intervention. Just bring me some clothes and I promise that I won't bleed on your bed linens any more than necessary."

Shacklebolt stepped back and gave him a long, considering look. "Very well," he said, then turned to the armoire and removed some clothing. He put the clothes on the foot of the bed and then walked to the door. "Your boots and socks are beside the door. After you've dressed, join me in the kitchen for supper," he said in a tone of voice that brooked no argument.

Supper? That caught his attention. The meeting at 12 Grimmauld Place had been after nine. Merlin's balls, how long had he been unconscious, an entire day?

Severus waited until the man had left before he climbed out of the bed and began to dress. He stared with dismay at the pants Shacklebolt had left him - not much more than a brightly colored scrap of fabric - and decided to do without. With shaking fingers, he managed to pull on the trousers, that were too long, and the shirt, that Shacklebolt's wide shoulders would likely have filled out nicely, but that hung ridiculously loose on him. The shirt chafed against the still-sensitive welts on his back and his head spun a bit when he finally stood up. But, all-in-all, he felt greatly improved. Unknown agenda aside, Shacklebolt was nothing if not an excellent field medic. No doubt most of his lingering weakness was due to his lengthy run in the morning followed up by a lack of lunch and supper - and apparently a second breakfast and lunch as well.

He sat on the chest at the end of the bed, laced up his boots, and took the opportunity to peruse Shacklebolt's choice of reading materials. The man was far too shrewd not to have left them deliberately unattended.

Several of the books were histories, including two books on the war with Grindelwald, and one on the first rise of Voldemort. He raised his eyebrows at a recently published Muggle book on global terrorism included in the stack. Less surprising were the Ministry documents: executive summaries of legislation pertaining to Dark Creatures, and intelligence dossiers on Black, Lupin, Lucius Malfoy, Dumbledore, and several members of the Hogwarts staff - including a non-classified version of his own Ministry file.

Shacklebolt certainly believed in doing his research. Did he dare hope that the man might come to something other than the obvious conclusions about the content of Severus's own dossier? The fact that the titles were readable was, in itself, significant - each was protected by a pass-code spell. Shacklebolt had obviously unspelled the documents then left them in plain sight. But why?

Severus sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. He grimaced at the greasy, gritty feel; his chin and cheeks bristled with stubble. Whatever the reason, and any overly positive interpretations of his pathetic life story aside, he doubted that he'd made anything other than a very poor impression on Shacklebolt so far. It annoyed him that he cared.

He stood abruptly, wavering for a moment until he caught his balance, then shoved his wand into the waistband of his trousers, took a deep breath and exited the room.

The room opened onto a short hallway that led past another bedroom, a lavatory and into a large living room. After a brief detour into the bathroom to relieve himself and splash water over his face, he walked down the hallway and into the living room. His over-robe lay over the back of an old wooden rocking chair that was most incongruous considering the modernity of the other furnishings.

He quickly donned the robe then walked the short way to the adjacent kitchen. Shacklebolt stood at a stove tending several pots. The savoury aromas made Severus's mouth water.

"Thank you for your assistance," he said through gritted teeth. "I will be leaving now."

Shacklebolt didn't even look up. "Sit down, Severus. Supper will be ready in a moment."

Severus paused. Too many years of past experience counselled him, in no uncertain terms, to make his escape while he could. Delay would only lead to unwanted questions, then to conclusions he had no desire to watch Shacklebolt make. But still, there was something about the man - about his memories of long, pleasant evenings in the Hogwarts' library, spent arguing politics and magical theory with Shacklebolt -- that whispered at him to take the chance.

Shacklebolt turned off the stove and began to empty the various pots into serving bowls. Severus's belly cramped with hunger.

"Sit there," Shacklebolt said indicating a place setting with one elbow. "You've missed too many meals in the past 20 hours."

Reluctantly, Severus sat. Although he was thirsty, he ignored the glass of water beside his plate. Instead, he watched as Shacklebolt first poured soup into his bowl and then spooned rice onto his plate, followed by a very generous helping of something else. Something that smelled wonderful.

Shacklebolt looked amused. "It's just a nice potage - a soup, Severus, and some ratatouille. Zucchini, eggplant, peppers, onions, tomato, and spices. I assure you that it is not poisoned. Now eat."

He sipped at the soup, then took a forkful of peppers from his plate, then another, and somehow a short while later, his plate and bowl were clean. Before he could push it away, another helping landed on his plate - Shacklebolt scowled at him when he made to as to protest - and a small glass of something purple and lightly smoking appeared near his hand.

"Drink it," Shacklebolt said. "It will help with the remaining pain that you are, no doubt, too proud to admit that you feel. And no, it does not contain any Veritaserum. Nor does the water in your glass."

Severus would have glared at Shacklebolt again but the man seemed to be immune to the effect. He finished the rest of his meal, downed the water, then sniffed at the purple stuff. From the ingredients he could identify, it was probably safe. Whatever the hell it was, he felt immediately better after having quaffed it.

They sat in silence for a little while. Eventually, Severus became irritated with Shacklebolt's steady perusal.

"So," he snapped, "I've rested and eaten and drunk your potion. Now tell me what price I must pay for accepting your help."

Shacklebolt leaned back in his chair. "Does Dumbledore know?"

He felt suddenly cold. The delicious meal lay like a rock in his bruised stomach. "What?"

"Do not pretend to misunderstand me," Shacklebolt said, and for once appeared to be genuinely annoyed. "Does Dumbledore know what you suffer whenever you attend Voldemort's meetings?"

"It's not every time," he temporised. At least Shacklebolt had told the truth: neither potion nor water had been laced with Veritaserum.

Shacklebolt said nothing. Then again, his implacable expression got the point across quite well.

Severus sighed and passed a hand over his face. He remembered the numerous evenings he and Dumbledore had spent analysing his memories of recent Death Eater gatherings as viewed inside Dumbledore's Pensieve. "Yes," he said tiredly, "he knows."

That admission was apparently not sufficient. "And what did you do - or not do - this evening to merit not only a whipping and a application of the Cruciatus, but also a beating that left you with bruised ribs and a bruised kidney?"

There was no way he would discuss his humiliation at the hands of the Dark Lord's new pet, Pettigrew, with Shacklebolt; having his 'punishment' be administered by Pettigrew had been worse than the beating itself.

Severus approached the subject obliquely instead. "Since his...resurrection, the Dark Lord has been more quickly roused to anger, more likely to...chastise us for any perceived failures. He has been very displeased with all of us who were not sent to Azkaban. He requires that we prove our loyalty to him, beyond the shadow of a doubt." When Shacklebolt said nothing, he added irritably, "Have I satisfied your curiosity yet?"

He tried, and failed, to read the maddeningly neutral expression on Shacklebolt's handsome face. Damn the man, he was harder to read than Dumbledore! He was also much more pleasant to look at. Severus decided it would be best not to focus on that fact.

"Your wounds were partially healed," Shacklebolt said finally. "It is difficult to cast a healing spell when you cannot see the injury. Who cast the spell, Severus?"

Puzzled, Severus answered honestly. "Malfoy. He didn't have the time or privacy to do a thorough job, he did what he could. He prefers not to see me hurt." Unless he inflicted the pain himself, a nasty little mental voice reminded him.

Shacklebolt frowned but said nothing. Severus felt an irrational anger rise up and seize his tongue. He pushed his chair back and stood, tossing his napkin onto the table. "What does any of it matter," he sneered, "if it leads to the Dark Lord's demise?"

"Oh, it matters, Severus, and make no mistake," Shacklebolt said, uncoiling from his chair, until he loomed over the table at full height.

"Why? What difference can it make?" Severus reached for the bravado and self-satisfaction he felt when needling Black about his non-contribution to the cause of late. But now, all he felt was bleak exhaustion and the only thing he could see were endless months ahead of fear, anxiety, and pain. "I am the only one who can do this," he said fiercely, "and it must be done."

"You are ruthless with yourself."

Exactly what could he say to that? "I must go now," he replied, "before I am missed." Severus turned quickly and walked to the front door.

Shacklebolt followed him, moving silently for such a big man. "Dumbledore knows where you are. I've already sent him word," he said, placing one hand on Severus's shoulder.

He tensed at the unexpected physical contact. Ah yes, of course. From either his research, or directly from Dumbledore himself, Shacklebolt no doubt knew enough to inform Severus's keeper of his whereabouts.

The large hand on his shoulder squeezed gently then released him. "You are not expected back immediately, Severus. Surely you have time to join me for a cordial before you leave?"

Severus closed his eyes and struggled to likewise close his heart against the tone of welcome he thought he heard in Shacklebolt's voice. "Do you have any further questions for me, Auror Shacklebolt, or have my answers provided sufficient return on your investment?"

"It's Kingsley, Severus. And it was supper, not attempted bribery. But yes, I do have one other question."

Feeling cornered, Severus waited, hand on the door knob. He expected more questions about Voldemort - why did he join the Dark Lord, why did he finally turn spy and leave? Perhaps even a question about his confrontation with Black in the kitchen.

But Shacklebolt surprised him again.

"From what I recall, Potter was a complete arsehole to you in school," Shacklebolt said, cocking his head slightly. "Why have you taken such great pains to ensure that his son is kept safe?"

Potter. It always came down to that brat, didn't?

"Ask Sirius Black, I'm sure he would be happy to give you the details. Suffice it to say that James Potter saved my life," Severus spat. "I may be filthy, cowardly, Death Eater scum, but I always pay my debts."

He jerked open the door and quickly strode down the hallway. He paused on the landing. "I will return your clothing, cleaned and pressed tomorrow morning. Thank you and good evening." With that, he rapidly descended the short flight of stairs and made his escape through the outside door before Shacklebolt could all to successfully pick at his sore spots any further.

4.

Kingsley Apparated at the extent of the wards near Hogwarts. He took his time strolling towards the castle, looking to see if his memories of the school were right, what had changed, what hadn't.

It had been over twenty years since he'd last seen the place and it satisfied a part of him that he couldn't find all that many changes. The Whomping Willow Tree was larger - well, that was only to be expected - but the grounds were still as well maintained, as peaceful looking as they had been in his day. Funny how that belied all the little dramas and tragedies that occurred behind those stone walls. It pleased him that he recognised the shrubbery where he and Coriander Jones had snogged, that the Quidditch changing rooms where he'd lost his virginity to Berrington Felongue were still standing. He chuckled to himself, remembering the vitality and energy of those years, moving from shag to shag as he did these days through reports. It seemed that during fifth year, they were in a state of perpetual horniness, some of them more successful at satisfying that need than others.

The halls were as he remembered them, though he was certain that he had never noticed the smell that, after a thousand years, must permeate the stones themselves. Even with the outer hall doors open, allowing in a lovely draft of fresh air, the odours of wet wool, perspiration, nervousness, anger, and testosterone dominated. Unlike Beauxbatons, there were no vases of cut flowers decorating the hallways, the perfume of the blossoms covering up any other scent. And there were no tapestries like the ones at Beauxbatons, which were cleaned annually with some very old, very delicate magic by Madame la Directrice herself. Beauxbatons was far less austere than Hogwarts, supporting the French philosophy that the senses needed educating as much as the brain. He doubted very much that the Board of Governors would find a wine-tasting class to be obligatory at Hogwarts.

His split education had appealed to his multi-cultural background. Hogwarts was for his father's family. The Shacklebolts had a long, excellent history in the diplomatic service. As did the de Beauforts. Which was how his parents had met. His mother, Venise de Beaufort, was herself the product of another diplomatic union, that of France and Haiti. His maternal grand-père had been a member of the French wizardry diplomatic service, who was sent into French territory to deal with "petits problèmes" before they became "gros problèmes". Haiti had been the site of one of his rare failures, but then Haiti, with its Vaudou - among other - cults, had a totally different philosophy of witchcraft.

Still, Thèophile de Beaufort had returned from that diplomatic assignment with Grand'mère, a Vaudou priestess-witch who had somehow fallen into disfavour with the local establishment. Kingsley never knew what the problem had exactly been - he doubted that even his mother knew - as Plaisir de Beaufort would only roll her eyes and change the subject whenever he had tried to broach the subject. Grand-père was no better: he would just chuckle to himself and ignore Kingsley until his grandson changed the subject. The mystery followed both of them to their graves. All Kingsley knew for certain was that his grandfather had never again accepted a mission to that part of the world.

Minerva McGonagall was waiting for him at the Gargoyle. He'd been told someone would meet him there and conduct him up to Dumbledore's office.

"Madame McGonagall," he said, pronouncing his former Transfiguration instructor's name with a French accent. Then he raised her hand to his lips and bowed, just enough to indicate respect to someone of her status.

She didn't blush but it was close. "Kingsley Shacklebolt. You're looking well."

"So are you, Professor. I doubt that you've aged a minute since I last saw you."

Now she did blush. A little pink tinge that coloured her cheeks and did indeed make her look younger. She claimed her hand back and tried to look sternly as him. Kingsley smiled his most charming smile at her and she lost most of her frostiness. Grand'père used to say that Venise and Kingsley had both inherited Plaisir's smile and that they used it with the same effectiveness as his much loved wife did. Plaisir's smile had been Thèophile's secret weapon whenever he'd had to deal with frayed diplomatic tempers.

"Does the Headmaster still use Sherbet Lemon as a password?"

McGonagall gave a small shake of her head as though she'd long given up dealing with Dumbledore's foibles. "It's chocolate truffles this week," she said, suddenly looking embarrassed as though she were only now noticing Kingsley's colouration.

As the Gargoyle began moving, Kingsley laughed aloud, easing her consternation. Dumbledore knew that this meeting was not going to be an easy one and he was doing everything he could to indicate that he had the upper hand. Not that any of this made any difference to Kingsley: he had also inherited Plaisir's single-mindedness, a handy trait when it suited him.

The office was just as he remembered it. Not that he'd seen it often during the five years he'd been a student, but enough to remember the feeling of stuffiness, of being watched as several of the former headmasters and headmistresses awoke to stare at this intruder. Now he nodded and bowed politely, noting that Dumbledore was not to be seen. Another little tactic to put Kingsley in his place.

Instead, with a smile, Kingsley began inspecting the books on the shelves, making his way over to the phoenix who was pretending to be sleeping, his head under a wing. The open eye never once blinked as he strolled over to the fire-bird and gently stroked the side of its neck with the tip of a finger and then back again to that little spot on Fawkes's throat that had him humming happily.

As Fawkes's head rose high, allowing Kingsley better access to that spot that no phoenix itself could reach, as his humming grew louder, his eyes began tearing with happiness.

"Grand'mère," whispered Kingsley to Fawkes, "always said that it didn't matter why a phoenix was crying, that tears were tears." Blatantly, Kingsley withdrew a small vial from a pocket and quickly scooped up the tears. Phoenix tears belonged to whomever harvested them.

"Amusing yourself with my phoenix?"

Kingsley took the time to gather the last tear before slipping the vial into his pocket. "I was under the impression that phoenixes belonged only to themselves." He gave Fawkes a last little stroke and turned to face Albus Dumbledore. "Headmaster. You asked to see me?"

Dumbledore sat down before indicating a chair for his visitor, a wooden armless chair that sat trembling nervously directly in front of the Headmaster's desk. Kingsley pretended not to notice as he walked around the room, looking at the Sorting Hat, which waved its rim at him. Kingsley reached up with a finger and stroked the material. His action startled the Hat, but it gave a soft "Ah," and allowed the liberty.

Kingsley chuckled, then went and took the overstuffed armchair that sat to a side. His back was to the sunlight that streamed into the office from a high window. Now Dumbledore was the one who was seated awkwardly, having to blink into the sunlight. Kingsley sat back, crossed a leg over his knee and waited for Dumbledore to remember that he wasn't a student, nor an employee, but an Auror of a rank that demanded at least a minimum of respect. Even from the Headmaster of Hogwarts.

"Tea?" offered the Headmaster, already pouring.

"Actually, I have never been much fond of that potion. Coffee, but only if it's not a problem."

So, he'd slipped in the reason for this meeting: a certain Potions instructor.

Dumbledore waved his hand and the light in the room dimmed. A cup rose into the air and landed cautiously on the padded arm of the chair. A cup bearing coffee, not tea.

Kingsley noticed that he wasn't offered any of the biscuits so he waved one over to sit on the edge of his saucer.

Dumbledore sat back in his chair, tea cup and saucer in hands, and narrowed his eyes. "I have," he finally said, "spoken to the members of the organisation. It has been decided that, for his own safety, Severus should attend only those meetings that concern him personally. Such as when he has a proper report to give. Auror Moody will determine what information he should be given."

Kingsley placed the cup down then got to his feet. "Then we have no further business, Headmaster. I wish the Order all the best."

"You would leave over this? Perhaps betray us?"

Kingsley sat back down. "Not at all, Headmaster. I still believe that Voldemort is a danger to us all. However, it is obvious that your organisation is not the means by which I will be involved in his downfall. I swear on my oath as an Auror that I have no intention of mentioning the Order, its membership, its location to anyone. As I said, I wish you all well."

"Why are you doing this, Shacklebolt?"

Kingsley put on his most innocent expression. "This, Headmaster?"

"You know what I mean. Refusing to work with us on defeating Voldemort."

Kingsley smiled. "I am not against defeating Voldemort, Headmaster: I just can't support the way you're going about it."

Dumbledore sat back in his chair, rested his elbows on its arms and tapped his bearded chin with steepled fingers. "Why is the way we treat Severus so important to you that you are willing to leave the Order?"

Kingsley leaned forward, just enough to make his point. "Because, Headmaster, you have an unfortunate tendency to be overtly prejudiced in favour of your Gryffindors. You are willing to close your Gryffindor eyes to anything Gryffindors do that is beyond the pale, yet at the same time, you hold others to a higher level of expectation and a lower level of tolerance."

Dumbledore opened his mouth to protest, but Kingsley raised an hand and stopped him. Putting on what he called his stern Auror face, he continued challenging Dumbledore, careful to keep his voice calm and respectful. "Tell me, Headmaster, if Snape were a Gryffindor spy, would he be kept out of the know? Would the Order ignore his condition on his return from Voldemort? Would Molly Weasley not be all over him, Pomfreying him to the extreme? Would he not be given the courtesy of a thank you for the fact that he's putting his life on the line every time he answers a Summons from Voldemort? A life that would meet a very slow and painful death should one of the Order conveniently forget and mismention something that should not be discussed away from Order meetings?"

He stood up, shaking his head sadly. "You must decide, Headmaster, whether the Order is composed only of Gryffindors and their supporters or of anyone, regardless of House, who hates Voldemort and wishes to help in the dispatch of this threat to all our lives. Not just Gryffindor lives. Unless, of course, in your mind, all non-Gryffindors are expendable."

He was at the door to the office when he heard a chair scrape across the floor. "What exactly is it that you want, Shacklebolt?"

Kingsley hesitated at the door as if he were thinking about the Headmaster's offer. He turned and leaned a shoulder against the door-frame. "Let's begin with respect for Snape and what he's doing for us all. You want him to have a handler, and so I will handle him for the Order. Not Moody. There's too much bad blood between the two. Moody was the one who arrested Snape at the end of the First Uprising, who oversaw his 'interrogation.' Snape was the one who saw Moody at his worst in that layered trunk of his. He'll never forgive Snape that."

"Anything else?" Dumbledore's voice was as cold as his eyes.

Kingsley pretended to think a moment. A victory needed to be balanced. It was time to give Dumbledore and the Order one. "I sensed that Moody is not the only one in the Order who wishes Snape wouldn't come to meetings. As his handler, I would see to it that he would attend only if he had something of vital importance to report. I shall attend as many as I can and will decide what information can be passed on through Snape to Voldemort. You will have to trust that I have our goals in mind at all times and will do nothing to endanger any of us or our plans."

Dumbledore drew out what Kingsley knew to have been an immediate decision. Still he was not about to deny the Headmaster his little power trip after he'd had his. "All right. On behalf of the Order, I agree to this."

"One more little thing, Headmaster. When Snape returns from a Summons, I will decide if he is physically fit to return to Hogwarts. At the moment this is not a problem, but should this occur during the school year, someone will need to be available to take over his classes."

"So he truly was with you that night."

Kingsley nodded. He made no mention of Snape's injuries: he doubted the man would appreciate it.

"And it was necessary for him to be away for a full twenty-four hours?" The question was asked casually, as though merely checking on an incidental bit of information.

"Actually, should he ever again be in a similar condition, you will not see him for several days."

Dumbledore's eyebrows rose high. "Ah," he said, in a manner that had always made Kingsley want to laugh. His grand-père had spoken in that same tone whenever he had wanted to confuse the situation. It always had the undercurrent of 'I know what you're hiding.'

Kingsley allowed a hint of steel into his voice. "And if I tell the Order that Snape is to be pulled out of his role as our spy, I expect your full support. I," he stressed the word lightly, "do not allow any of my people to be seen as expendable. No matter what Snape did in the past, he has paid the price. I think we would both agree that we need him alive and well...and sane in order to win."

Dumbledore's only response was another cold look, which didn't impress Kingsley very much. He merely nodded and pushed off the frame to leave.

"You are wrong in one thing, Shacklebolt: I may have favoured Gryffindor when it was my House, but as Headmaster..."

Kingsley shook his head, laughing. "Headmaster! We used to take bets on who would get what kind of punishment if a group were caught and sent to you. Let's say Gryffindors were given one detention, then usually Hufflepuff got one, too. Ravenclaw got three and Slytherin got five. Ask around, Headmaster, and then tell me you haven't got favourites."

Dumbledore looked as though he were going to protest but only stiffened his spine. "There is one bit of information that you need to know, Shacklebolt. Since you left the last meeting so early, you weren't present to know that Arthur and Molly Weasley will be moving into Headquarters..."

Headquarters, thought Kingsley. No longer Black's house.

"...along with their four youngest. We have determined that it might be best for someone...responsible...to be in the house at all times."

And it would seem that Black had already lost any usefulness he may have had. Kingsley almost felt sorry for the man, but only almost. He was still Ravenclaw enough not to be a fan of Dumbledore's Golden Gryffindors.

With a nod, Kingsley closed the door behind him and went off to find Snape.

*

Kingsley remembered his way down to the dungeons. The material he'd read on Snape had indicated that he had his classroom, private lab and quarters down in that part of the castle. Unfortunately, the dossier had not been quite complete: there'd been no mention of the wards on the door that led to Snape's personal rooms. Layers upon layers of wards. It would take hours to work one's way through them. Kingsley wondered if anyone had ever tried.

"He's not in."

Kingsley turned to find a woman glaring at him. She was leaning, a shoulder against the wall, arms crossed over her chest. Tonks would have classified her as a lean, mean, Quidditch machine.

"Xiomara Hooch."

She indicated that he was correct with the merest blink of her cold, yellowish eyes.

"I had the honour and great pleasure of seeing you play in a match against the Sumbawanga Sunrays when the British Quidditch World Cup Team toured Africa after their victory. We even met afterwards, though I seriously doubt that you remember. My name is Kingsley Shacklebolt. My father was Ambassador to the Eastern Region at that time."

She squinted at him, face almost grimacing in thought. "We were doing an exhibition tour. One of those idiotic round robin tournaments. If I remember well, your mother cheered for the Tchamba Charmers."

Kingsley laughed. "Yes, Maman is very partial to any team even remotely allied with France. If I remember well, she lost a fairly hefty wager to Father when your team trounced her favourites. Father was quite pleased."

She didn't smile at him, but her stance relaxed.

"I played Quidditch while I was a student here," he added, hoping it would help him get on her good side. He understood quickly that his charming smile might not go far with Madam Hooch. "Keeper. For Ravenclaw."

She frowned at him. "I don't remember seeing your name on the final roster?"

He shrugged. "I left after fifth year. My parents sent me to Beauxbatons."

She scoffed and rolled her eyes.

He laughed again. "Yes, I agree. Not much of a team. But it did allow me to keep my hand in, so to speak. I still play Keeper on the Aurors Team in the Inter-Ministerial League."

She nodded slightly. Kingsley wondered if his 'credentials' were acceptable. "What do you want with him?"

"Just a few minutes' speech. Do you know where he is?"

She led him outside via a small door at the top of a narrow staircase. This part of Hogwarts was not one that he was familiar with, as there was a high hedge that sequestered it from the rest of the property. Over to one side there was a park bench and Madam Hooch went to sit on it, her arse on the top of the back, her booted feet on the seat. There she pulled out a small case and from it a thin cigar. With a small bow, Kingsley refused her offer but flicked a finger, offering her some flame for her smoke. She thanked him with a nod, taking a deep inhale of the cigarillo, then used the black stick to point to the hills in the distance.

"He's running. He should be back in about fifteen, twenty minutes."

Kingsley caught his mouth before it dropped open. Three days ago the man had barely been able to stagger upright out of his flat. Now he was running, cross-country if he understood Hooch correctly.

"Yes, I know what you mean," she rested her elbows on her knees. "He doesn't take very good care of himself. I've tried nagging, and let me tell you, being the youngest with nine brothers, I am an expert nagger, but it goes in one ear and out the other. Are you the reason he was really away for a day and not just hiding out, licking his wounds?"

Kingsley joined her on the bench, eyes scanning the hills for Snape.

"I'm not an idiot, you know. People assume because I played professional Quidditch I took a few too many Bludgers to the head. In actual fact, I was one of the least damaged of Beaters the British league has had in the last two hundred years. I retired not because of injuries, but because I knew I was getting to be too old for the game. Still, I was old for a Beater when I did go."

She exhaled a series of smoke rings. Kingsley watched them form a bull's- eye and waited until her next plume, an arrow shape, pierced dead centre.

"How much do you know?"

She snorted. "I'm supposed to trust you, just like that, all because you saw me play in Africa?"

He grinned at her. "No. No, you're supposed to trust me because, like you, I worry about Severus Snape."

She cocked her head as she examined him. "Going to take him to your bed?"

He didn't bother to hold back his incredulity that she would pose such a question. In response, she rolled her eyes and puffed on her cigarillo.

Kingsley sighed. "I am an only child," he explained.

She shook her head. "Tell me something I hadn't guessed." Then she smiled at him, not a large smile, but one that indicated that she'd decided to take a chance on him. "So, let me see, what do I know? I know about the Order. Past and present incarnations. I haven't been asked to be an active member, though after the final of the Triwizard Tournament, Albus held a meeting with the entire staff. Severus, by the way, was not present for that. He was off..." her smile was less warm, "...somewhere. He came back from that somewhere not in great shape. Poppy banged at his door and finally gave up. He still looked like shit when he let me in two days later. He rubs his left arm. Not all the time. But when he does, he's not to be found."

Kingsley stared at his hands. "You are trusting me with a lot of dangerous information, Madam Hooch."

She grunted. "Just Hooch. Madam is for the kiddies." She shifted so that she was looking at him directly. "Albus is pissed off with you."

He raised an eyebrow.

"Minerva was worried about that meeting you two had earlier on. You should know that after that post-tournament meeting, Minerva and I had a little private one of our own. Albus is her concern; Severus, mine. I'm one of the few people on staff Severus considers a friend as well as a colleague. If Minerva had decided that you were an enemy, we wouldn't be here, shooting the breeze. I picked up that expression on an American tour."

Kingsley shook his head. "Is there nothing secret in this school?"

Hooch laughed. "I'll assume that's a rhetorical question. Is there any secret at all in any school like this one?" Then she got serious again. "Where was I? Oh, yes. The Dark Mark. Severus has done his best to hide it from view. One reason why he wears those long shirts of his, even in this weather. But it's almost impossible to hide anything from staff room gossip. I assume that he's spying for us. I also understand it wouldn't be the first time."

Kingsley shook his head. "Does Dumbledore know that Snape's secrets are common knowledge?"

Hooch laughed. "Albus is like any other male of his generation. He likes to think that witches, equal though he knows them to be, are here to be protected. He'd probably have a heart attack if he knew just how much we do know. He likes to think that the Order is separate from his Hogwarts life. In fact, they overlap. Even if he refuses to think so."

"Madame McGonagall and you would do well with the de Beaufort women. It's a good thing for us males that you care so kindly for our sensitive male egos."

Hooch snorted, guffawing. "So now my turn to ask questions. Just what is it that you want with Severus?"

He turned his head to meet her eyes. "I want him not only to continue spying for us, but I want him to live to enjoy a victory lap."

Hooch straightened and tossed her stub away into the hedge after putting it out on the back of the bench. "He's coming down the trail. You'll see to it that I have a means of contacting you, Auror Shacklebolt." She jumped off. "I'll leave you alone to deal with His Stubbornness. Just remember, Kingsley, I'll deal with you personally if anything happens to him."

Kingsley nodded, knowing that was not an idle threat.

*

Never once had a good hard run failed to work its subtle magic on his body and mind. Never once had it failed to calm his seething emotions, to clear his head, to nudge his thoughts into more productive or creative directions. Never once had it failed to protect him, even if for just a short while, against life's many indignities.

Until today.

There was, Severus thought bitterly, a first time for everything.

Earlier in the day, immediately following an especially infuriating meeting with Dumbledore, he'd left the castle to pound out his fury on the roughest and most hilly of his training routes. Now, three and a half hours later, the small, private space of peace and tranquility that running had always granted him remained stubbornly elusive.

Perhaps he was still not fully recovered from his latest 'chastisement' at Pettigrew's infernal magical hand. He certainly hadn't been unable to run as fast and far as usual today. Perhaps the number of rest-breaks he'd taken, for water, to ease his aching back and legs, had nullified the magic of running.

And perhaps the magic simply had its limits, especially when set against the Headmaster's skills: the man was a virtuoso when it came to inflicting pain. With just a few gently phrased words he could strip away a man's dignity and leave him prostrate and bleeding. Macnair, sadistic bastard that he was, could still take lessons from Albus Dumbledore.

Even so, and despite his complaining knees and the pains that jolted his body with every step, Severus didn't much want the run to end. He had several stultifying hours of potion-making to look forward to, and to remind him of the mess that he'd made of his life.

When the trail finally turned back towards Hogwarts and the castle came into view, he discovered an additional reason to ignore his body's demands for a halt. On a bench just outside the door up from the dungeons, two people sat and watched his approach. The bluish cloud of smoke around the smaller figure bespoke of Xiomara getting her usual nicotine fix. The afternoon sun gleamed off the bare, bronzed skull of the other watcher; Severus's stomach roiled uneasily.

Kingsley Shacklebolt.

As if his earlier session with Dumbledore hadn't shredded his dignity enough, Shacklebolt had to come along and bear witness, once again, to his pitiful attempts to hide the tattered remains.

When he was within a few hundred paces, Hooch - the traitor! - flicked the stub of her cigarillo into the grass and departed for the dungeons, leaving Severus to face the perplexing, interfering Auror alone.

He slowed to a jog and finally a brisk walk. Better to get whatever it was over with so that he could get on with what was left of his day.

Shacklebolt reached under the bench, retrieved Severus's knapsack, then stood and held it out to him. "You're moving rather well for a man who was nearly beaten to death a few days ago," Shacklebolt said with a good-natured smile.

Severus took the pack, released its wards, then pulled out a towel and mopped at his face. "Why are you stalking me, Shacklebolt?" he said after a moment. "I thought that by answering your questions the other night, I was quit of the debt between us."

"There never was any debt between us, Severus," the man said, rolling his tongue around Severus's name in that positively indecent way of his. "The debt was your own invention, not mine. At the moment, I merely wish to speak to you. I promise I won't take up very much of your time."

"As you can see, now is quite inconvenient for me. Perhaps later," Severus said, stuffing the towel in his pack and heading for the door.

Shacklebolt laughed and followed him. "When hell freezes over, you mean? I confess that I'd rather we speak a bit sooner than that. I am quite willing to wait while you cool down and shower."

Minerva, wearing a rather stern expression, chose that moment to open the door and step through. "I'm afraid that your conversation will have to wait a bit longer than that, Kingsley. Severus, Albus wishes to see you immediately."

Despite the heat of the day, the sweat froze on his skin. "Certainly, Deputy Headmistress," he said, keeping his voice even with effort. "Allow me to shower and change, then I will see him promptly."

But she shook her head; he could read the apology in her eyes. "Right now, Severus," she said. "He insisted."

A lump of ice settled in his belly. "But - "

"Kingsley, you may wait in Severus's office," she interrupted, gesturing them to follow her into the dungeons.

He and Shacklebolt both accompanied her silently, though out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Shacklebolt's expression was nothing short of thunderous. Severus could empathise.

At his office door, Minerva paused. "Severus?"

With poor grace, he snatched his wand from its sheath on his forearm and said, "Alohomora."

The locks released and Minerva held the door open. "Kingsley?" she said, arching one eyebrow.

Shacklebolt gave her an unreadable look but stepped inside without comment. She nearly closed the door in his face.

"Minerva, at least let me wash up," Severus said, "If nothing else, I have no wish to drip sweat all over the Headmaster's furniture."

"No time," she said. "Here, allow me." She touched her wand to his chest.

The powerful cleaning charm swept over his clothing, his skin, and through his hair. He could feel at least one layer of skin cells rip free of his body and dissolve into nothingnessess. He scowled through the tangled mass of his hair.

"Hm," she said then tapped the top of his head. His hair writhed for a moment then settled limply onto his shoulders. "Better," she mused, eyeing him critically. She touched her wand to his sweatshirt, and his running clothes transfigured themselves into a standard set of black robes and boots. "That should hold for a long enough."

"Minerva - "

She plucked imaginary pieces of lint off his sleeves. "Step carefully. He's very upset."

"What's wrong now? What happened? Did I - "

But she cut short his questions and pushed him towards the stairs. "Go on, Severus. I'll keep Shacklebolt occupied, but you have to go. Right now!"

With equal amounts of trepidation and annoyance, Severus ignored the ache in his calves and lower back and hurried up the stairs towards Dumbledore's tower.

*

When he entered Dumbledore's office, the Headmaster was standing at the window with his back to the room. Fawkes trilled a welcome from his perch but Severus wasn't in a congenial mood.

"Headmaster. You asked to see me."

Dumbledore turned to face him. "Severus, thank you for being so prompt. Please, have a seat," he said, indicating a plush armchair in front of his desk.

Severus wasn't fooled by the chair or Dumbledore's benign expression. At rare times during their association, Dumbledore was simply 'Albus.' But at this moment, he was most definitely 'Headmaster' and this was to be an interrogation, no mistake. Severus took a deep breath and tried to let the anger drain harmlessly from his fingertips. "I'd much rather not," he replied.

"I'm sure you'd be more comfortable..."

"I have just run for several hours and your Deputy Headmistress accosted me before I could either cool down or stretch. My muscles and ligaments most assuredly would not be more comfortable if I sat down. And before you ask, no I wouldn't like any tea or a biscuit. Minerva implied that you had urgent business. If we could get to the point?" He stood behind the proffered chair and rested his hands on its back.

"Well then," Dumbledore said, taking his own seat behind his desk. "It seems that you have acquired a champion."

Severus frowned and replayed that statement in his mind. It made no more sense than it had the first time. "I beg your pardon?"

Dumbledore's level gaze gave nothing away. "A rather unlikely one, in fact," he continued. "I must say, Severus, you do seem to have made quite the impression."

Severus clung to both patience and politeness, tooth and nail. "I assure you, I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about," he replied, although he was beginning to suspect that Shacklebolt's presence in the castle had something to do with...whatever it was.

The Headmaster raised his eyebrow. "Don't you?"

The muscles in his thighs quivered and he had to lock his knees to avoid collapsing to the floor. Suddenly, he was exhausted and enraged all at once. Why did he bother? What exactly was the point? Year after year he did his best to prove to this man - his reluctant benefactor - that he'd been 'successfully rehabilitated.' And yet, it always came back to questions like this. "Why don't you just examine my thoughts if my word alone is no longer sufficient for you?"

Dumbledore looked at him for a long time, then leaned back in his chair. "That won't be necessary," he said, although the words 'At this time' hung in the air between them, unspoken. "I wanted to let you know that there has been a slight change of plans."

"What change?" he asked, wary of yet another twist to the loop of rope already coiled around his neck.

"This morning, you and I discussed that, from now on, you would be shielded from some of the contents of the Order meetings. For your own protection, of course."

"Of course," Severus echoed with a disgusted curl to his lip. Even had his run provided its usual buffering charm against worldly aggravation, Dumbledore's reminder of what had prompted the run would have dispelled it on the spot.

'By limiting your exposure to sensitive information,' Dumbledore had told him, 'Voldemort cannot torture you to gain access to Order plans.' As if Voldemort ever needed an excuse to curse, hex, or otherwise make his life a living hell! As if these new 'security measures' meant anything other than: 'By all means, die for us, Severus, but don't for a moment believe that we trust you.'

Furious, Severus dragged his attention back to the present. "What does any of that have to do with my so-called champion?"

Dumbledore steepled his fingers and looked at him over the rims of his glasses. "Kingsley Shacklebolt was most insistent that he, and not Alastor, be your main point of contact for the Order."

That brought him up short, no doubt as Dumbledore had anticipated that it would. "What? Why?"

"Shacklebolt was quite disturbed by the rather...fractious interpersonal dynamics he observed during the last few meetings."

"So Black and I don't get along. This is hardly news to anyone, even Shacklebolt. After all, we attended school together."

"Yes, however his primary concern was not about Sirius. Rather, he was most concerned about your relationship with Alastor."

His 'relationship' with Moody, ha! Severus couldn't decide if he most wanted to laugh or to curse. As well anyone should be concerned about Mad-Eye Moody, a rogue ex-Auror who had tacitly condoned torture and rape under the guise of 'aggressive interrogation.' At least Voldemort had never cloaked his acts of personal brutality in oh-so-pure euphemistic terms.

After a brief internal struggle, Severus compromised and gritted his teeth instead. "I assume that you told him to keep his nose out of Order business."

"Actually, I did not."

Severus blinked once then clenched his teeth against the pain as the true import of Dumbledore's words slammed home, like a fist to the gut.

After all the blood he'd bled for them, all the humiliations he'd endured; after risking his life to bring the Order word in time to save the Potters and their unborn child - an act that Sirius Black's arrogance and stupidity had nullified; after allowing himself to be beaten by that cowardly prick, Pettigrew, because 'the Master' and Dumbledore willed it; after faithfully serving out the terms of his parole, avoiding the Dark Arts, attempting to pound knowledge into ignorant and uninterested minds. After all of that! And still: Shacklebolt, a man Dumbledore knew only vaguely, who'd been vouched for by Arthur Weasley, a newcomer to the Order, a goddamned bloody Auror was somehow more worthy of trust, more worthy than... After everything, Moody and Dumbledore had decided that he needed a keeper after all.

Severus thrust his hands into the sleeves of his transfigured robes in an effort to hide their shaking.

"You must admit, Severus, that his idea has some merit," Dumbledore was saying in that maddeningly reasonable voice of his. "If you and Sirius are oil and water, then I daresay that you and Alastor are fire and lamp oil. An incendiary mix under any circumstances but in this case, well, I have no wish for the consequences of your interaction to turn...deadly."

Dumbledore paused and appeared to be expecting some response from him. "No, of course not, Headmaster," Severus managed to choke out.

"So then, it's settled," Dumbledore said, smiling. He rose from his seat and came to stand beside Severus's chair. "You will, of course, still report to me before and after each meeting. Including any additional meetings you should have with Shacklebolt."

Dumbledore's words were barely audible above the roaring in his ears.

"And I would prefer that you return to Hogwarts for medical treatment. Poppy was quite concerned about you this last time, Severus."

"As you say, Headmaster," he said through lips gone strangely numb. "If that is all?" He didn't wait for an answer, whether Dumbledore was finished or not, Severus simply could not endure any more. He turned and walked to the door as quickly as his stiff, protesting muscles would allow.

But before he could escape, a warm hand clasped his shoulder. It took every bit of will-power he could muster to remain calm and unmoving under that insincere touch.

"Severus, as I explained this morning," Dumbledore looked at him intensely, with obvious concern, no doubt attempting to reprise his occasional role as the Kindly and Benevolent Albus. "Please understand that this decision is no reflection on your skills and your commitment to the cause."

Severus squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden wave of pain; Dumbledore certainly knew how best to twist the knife.

When he opened them again, Dumbledore's mouth was still moving but Severus couldn't hear the words. He desperately pulled away from Dumbledore's counterfeit compassion and, for the second time that day, fled down the spiral case to retreat to the dungeons to lick his wounds in privacy and peace.

*

By the time Severus had reached the dungeons, his muscles had warmed up enough that he was able to manage an approximation of his usual fluid, ground-eating stride. He nearly paused at the door to his office but reconsidered and stalked past on his way to his private chambers.

To hell with Shacklebolt! He and Minerva could cool their heels in his office indefinitely, for all he cared.

Once at the door to his residence, he dismantled the wards, strode into his sitting room, then slammed the door behind him. He was half-way across the room, on his way to his liquor cabinet when he realised that he was not alone.

He whirled around and pointed his wand directly at Kingsley Shacklebolt's heart. "Get the hell out of my home," he spat.

The Auror rose slowly from his seat on the couch and held out his empty hands, palms out. "Minerva let me in. She thought you wouldn't mind."

Damn Minerva and her blasted administrative over-rides!

Severus narrowed his eyes. "I don't care how you got in and I don't care what Minerva said. I want you out. Now."

"I would prefer to stay and talk to you about your work for the Order," Shacklebolt said in a calm, reasonable tone, one that was all too reminiscent of Albus bloody Dumbledore.

Red mist filmed over his vision and the dull roaring in his ears increased in intensity. "Oh, I see," he replied, coating each word with venom. "'Talk' is such an interesting euphemism for 'declaim.' Please, let us speak plainly. You are here to inform me of your new status as my keeper. Too late," he sneered. "Dumbledore has already shared that valuable tidbit with me."

"Severus, I - "

"But, since you have deemed my working relationship with other members of the Order to be inadequate, no doubt you now wish to instruct me on the proper, most effective use of my time and abilities. Tell me, Auror Shacklebolt, do you prefer that I preserve the illusion of familiarity and equality and call you 'Kingsley'? Or shall I just be done with it and call you 'Master'? Do you prefer a discreet obeisance, a simple nod, or a deferential lowering of my eyes, perhaps? Or shall I kneel and kiss the hem of your robe, and while I'm down there, suck your cock as well?"

"What? Par Belénos. Severus! I - "

Severus bit back the hex that had leapt instantly to his tongue. His control was in tatters and he needed the man gone more than he needed an outlet, no matter how deserving, for his frustrated rage. "I have no interest in whatever you came to say, Shacklebolt," he snarled, holding his wand steady. "I repeat: get out of my home now."

They stared at one another for a long, tense moment. Then, wonder upon wonders, Shacklebolt actually took the not-so-subtle hint.

"Very well," the Auror said, then donned his lightweight outer robe and went to the door. Severus tracked his progress with the point of this wand. Shacklebolt paused part-way out of the door. "You do realise, however, that we must speak before the next meeting."

Severus concentrated on saying nothing.

Eventually, Shacklebolt left.

Shortly thereafter, Severus's transfigured robes reverted to their original state.

Somehow, he managed to close and ward the door before his legs gave out. He slid down the wall and rested the side of his head against the smooth wood. The ache in his legs was eclipsed by the tightness in his chest and throat and the burning in his eyes.

*

So the Headmaster thought the match was over. Checkmate, and Kingsley would go back to his office, tail between his legs, reminded of his position in the scheme of things.

Merde! Mer...de! FOUTRE!

He should have remembered how the Headmaster had never liked losing the upper hand. You could pull any stunt on any teacher and, sure, you got detention for it, weeks' worth, but Dumbledore always gave the impression that students would be students and that, of course, professors were fair game. The only time someone had been expelled in Kingsley's memory was when Dumbledore had been the butt of the joke. It was just youthful exuberance when you stuck a pail of bat gizzards over the entrance of a classroom and some teacher stood there splattered in the gore, but when it had been done to the Headmaster, coming into the student-packed Great Hall that had rippled with titters and guffaws, well, that had been quite another thing.

As he strode, his anger barely contained, through the hallways, Kingsley wondered whatever had happened to the poor little Hufflepuff who had dared.

Xiomara Hooch jumped when the door to her office slammed open. One look at Kingsley and her wand was in her hand, pointing at him.

"Put that damn thing down," he snarled, "or I'll blow it to smithereens! I've had enough wands pointed in my direction and the day's not even half over."

"What on earth..."

Kingsley placed both hands flat on her desk and leaned over so that he spoke almost directly in her face. "The Headmaster," he almost spat the word out, "didn't like the fact that I got involved in what he seems to consider to be his own private little game. Severus now thinks that I'm no better than Moody, that I don't trust him and he..."

Hooch sighed and held up her hand. "All right. I don't need to hear any more. I get the picture. Severus is very upset and lost his temper."

Kingsley pushed away from the desk and took a quick turn around the small office. "I wanted to tell him he could trust me. Now bloody Dumbledore..."

Hooch's chair scraped the floor as she pushed it back. "I'll go and see to Severus and calm him down. Then I'll have a little talk with Minerva. Until then, get out of here. The last thing Severus needs is to think that I'm joining the enemy. And if he even thinks that for a moment, you can bet that Albus will play on it. Go home and wait until I contact you."

5.

It was nearing midnight by the time Severus had sorted through most of the non-perishable ingredients for Lupin's next batch of Wolfsbane and finished brewing the potions that Poppy had requested.

The day's potion-making had gone badly.

Despite a hot shower, followed by an early supper alone in his rooms, he could neither relax nor concentrate. He'd even managed to botch the first three batches of the simplest of philtres: a Calming Draught, a potion that an utter screw-up like Longbottom might complete without mishap.

Over and over, throughout the afternoon and evening, his mind stubbornly replayed bits of the day's confrontations. His two meetings with Dumbledore. Then, what he mentally called the 'Shacklebolt Incident.' A brief, near incoherent shouting match with Xiomara, cut short when he slammed the door in her face. And finally, his contretemps with an exasperated Minerva, who'd cornered him while he was still dripping from the shower demanding to know why he insisted upon taking everything "so damned personally!" Apparently, he also pigheadedly refused "to accept help when it was as good as handed to him on a silver platter." She'd actually splintered his door straight down the middle when she slammed it on her way out. Given the annoyances of the day, even his usual tricks of meditation, isometric exercises, and logic puzzles refused to shake the damned thoughts loose.

And now, after bottling and sealing the final potion vials, he eschewed magic and manually scrubbed out his cauldrons, wiped down the counters, and swept the floor. With each rhythmic swipe of his sponge or swish of the broom, he imagined that he was clearing away the accumulated frustrations of the day. Unfortunately, his unruly thoughts had their own way.

It was his exchange with Minerva that bothered him the most. Like Xiomara, she had the irritating habit of seeing straight to the heart of things. He did take things far too personally - although it was difficult not to when his supposed allies seemed determined to trample his interests whenever possible. Not to mention that any 'help' he was likely to receive always had strings - or chains - attached. As Lucius and Dumbledore had amply demonstrated over the years.

And then, there was Shacklebolt.

Severus reluctantly admitted that he'd gone a bit overboard in his confrontation with the Auror. Meddlesome tendencies aside, there was something maddeningly sincere about Kingsley Shacklebolt. Xiomara and Minerva certainly seemed have been suckered in by the man's abundant charms.

As furious as he'd been with Minerva for breaching the privacy of his wards, he was even more baffled by Shacklebolt's appalled reaction to his, admittedly rather wild, accusations. Either the Auror was a far better actor than Severus gave him credit for, or...Severus paused in his chores and narrowed his eyes...or Dumbledore had shaded the truth of his meeting with Shacklebolt just enough to coax Severus into jumping to the most pessimistic and humiliating of conclusions possible.

Oh yes, that sounded exactly like the Headmaster.

So.

He'd been played for a fool, yet again. When the hell would he ever learn?

Disgusted, Severus threw down the sponge and stalked out of the lab.

He knew he should get some sleep, lest Voldemort or Dumbledore or someone else decide unexpectedly to demand a healthy slice of his time come morning. But instead of his rooms, his footsteps led him from the lab, out into the hallway, and up the stairs to the tiny courtyard just outside the exterior entrance to the dungeons.

The moon had already set and the summer sky was clear and brilliant with stars.

If running had been, in his childhood, a physical escape, contemplating the stars had offered a different kind of solace. Under their cold, indifferent gaze, he could take comfort in knowing that everyone was insignificant and meaningless. He might be a stupid, ugly, contemptible waste of life, but when compared to the majesty of the hundreds of millions of suns in the heavens, with their countless planets and moons, so was everyone else. Dumbledore, Voldemort, Potter, and perhaps, most especially, Barnabas Aquinas Snape.

He'd only been watching the skies for a few minutes when the cellar door opened and Hooch stepped out onto the lawn.

"You, Severus Snape, are an idiot," she said, plunking herself down on the bench beside him.

Severus gritted his teeth. Her timing was too convenient. The dratted woman had probably placed a monitoring charm on his laboratory door and he'd been too distracted to notice. "And a good evening to you, too, Xiomara," he said, not bothering to hide his irritation.

"It would have been an even better evening if I hadn't had to deal with the fall-out from your most recent snit all afternoon and into the night." She pulled a narrow metal case from her pocket. "As if Albus and Minerva weren't enough, you had to go and piss off Shacklebolt too."

He clenched his fists and stubbornly continued to stare at the sky. "It's a gift."

"It's sure as hell something," she said, knocking her boot against his. "Drawing your wand on an Auror? I always knew you had a death-wish, but Death-by-Auror seems like an especially messy way to go, even for someone as masochistic as you. Why not just whip up a batch of something lethal and have done with it? Go and steal eggs from a broody dragon. Whatever! Just spare us all the sight of your bleeding, dismembered corpse strewn all over the hallway."

"Why, thank you, Mother," he snapped, "I'll keep all that in mind for the next time I'm feeling suicidal." Since she didn't seem inclined to depart of her own accord, Severus decided to help matters along a bit. "And now, if you've exhausted your store of witty rejoinders, you can bugger off to the broom-shed. Polish broom handles with your tongue for all I care. Your company is neither needed nor wanted."

"Ha! Ever the charmer, our dear, dear Severus," she cackled, jabbing her elbow in his ribs. "And you know what, you prick? I love you, anyway." She flicked the case with her thumb. "Here."

Severus rubbed his temples. The problem with Xiomara was that she was nearly impossible to make truly angry or to offend. Nine loud-mouthed brothers, five of whom had been professional Quidditch players, had seen to that. Much to her parents' dismay, instead of a sweet, demure young lady, she'd grown up to be a rough-and-tumble, anatomically incorrect tenth son. Or, in own her words, 'anatomically superior.' "You are not going to go away, are you?" he said, finally choosing the fattest of the proffered joints.

Xiomara grinned toothily and snapped the case shut, narrowly missing his fingers.

He sighed. "What the hell are you still doing here anyway? I thought you were supposed to be in Edinburgh, flaunting your deviant lifestyle in the faces of your horrified parents, not hanging about Hogwarts, making my life miserable."

"I've decided to stick around for a while. I can annoy my family any time."

"So Hester isn't up to braving the Hooch horde just yet?" he speculated. If so, he surely didn't blame her. He'd encountered the Horde once before over Yule supper. If Xiomara's mother had made one more comment about what a sweet couple they'd made and wouldn't their children be just darling, he'd have been forced to cast an Unforgivable - although the family photos showing a scowling, prepubescent Xiomara dressed in an array of frilly pastel-coloured frocks and ribbons did quite make up for the ordeal.

"Hester is giving a paper at the International Healer's Symposium in London. The effects of dead, shrivelled up something-or-other on bone fractures resulting from blunt force trauma or some-such. She wasn't coming with me in any case." Xiomara ran her fingers through her hair then glared at him. "You gonna light that thing, or just fondle it all night?"

He called fire to the tip of his finger, lit the joint, and took a long drag. The potency of the smoke nearly made his eyes cross. Dead something-or-other indeed! Xiomara had been making extensive use of that honours Herbology N.E.W.T. of hers again. "What the hell did you do to the structure of this plant?" he gasped out.

Xiomara snickered. "Don't look at me. I'm good, but not this good. Sophia lost a bet. I made her pay up."

He handed back the joint and watched as she took a drag. She looked supremely smug, and no wonder. Convincing upright Sophia Sprout to hybridise a quasi-legal plant for illicit, non-medical purposes was a remarkable feat. "A bet? Against you? Oh no, she didn't bet on - ."

"The Chudley Cannons, yeah." Xiomara shrugged, waving smoke away from her face. "The woman insists upon betting on the underdogs. She never learns. Hufflepuff to the core."

"And you never fail to exploit her weakness for gambling and sucking down far too much Ogden's Platinum Blend Firewhisky," Severus said, then took back the blunt and allowed the herb to blur the edges of his miserable day just a bit more. "Some Gryffindor you are."

"As if you haven't batted those long, dark lashes at her to get her to add a bit of semi-legal this or that to her shopping list, from time to time."

For the first time in...years it seemed, Severus laughed aloud. It felt so peculiar that he tried it again, just for the experimental value, of course. "Ah, but I'm supposed to be shifty and duplicitous, didn't you realise? It's in the Slytherin code."

"Slytherin code, my arse," Xiomara said, then stretched out full-length on the bench and put her head on his lap. She took back the joint and squinted up at him. "You're so full of shit, Severus. You've got a noble streak as wide as Hagrid is hairy."

"Now, now," he said, ruffling her hair until she scowled at him through the blueish haze of smoke, "there's no call to be insulting. We all have our minor character flaws."

"Mmm, yes," she agreed, "we certainly do. Though procuring us the finest in mind-altering recreational substances is certainly not mine, eh?"

"Indeed," Severus said slouching on the bench a bit and tilting his head to rest against its back. Xiomara complained briefly then resettled herself.

Suddenly, she laughed. "You know, the ickle students would piss themselves if they saw us like this."

On cue, an image of Potter, Weasley, and Granger staring at them, goggle-eyed and slack-jawed (at least more so than usual) formed in his mind and Severus chuckled helplessly. "Oh yes, can't you hear the gossip? My god, you'll never guess what we saw, " he said in a high childish voice, "the Greasy Git and Iron Arse Hooch smoking genetically modified pot on Hogwarts property! Do you think the Headmaster will take points?" Xiomara was giggling and Severus had to calm himself with effort. "Though the seventh year Slytherins and Ravenclaws would probably want a cut of our action in return," he continued. "I had to shut down a burgeoning drug-ring earlier in the year. Two Ravenclaws and a Slytherin mixing up batches of a mild hallucinogenic in their rooms and selling to younger students as a study aid. And they say inter-house co-operation is a lost cause."

"You prick! You didn't tell me about that. Albus must have pitched a fit!"

"I didn't tell him. Though he may very well know. If nothing else, the number of detentions I gave them should have raised suspicions." In theory, he should have brought the matter directly to Dumbledore's attention. But the two Ravenclaws had been scholarship students and he understood all too well the pressures that drove even the most ethical students to consider a bit of entrepreneurship. Feeling a bit of kinship or nostalgia for his own misspent school days, perhaps. He couldn't look the other way, since the trio had been careless enough to be caught, but he could act to minimise the consequences to their futures. "No doubt he knows what you and I are up to tonight. You'd better give me a sample of the original plant so I can brew up a dissipation agent. In case the Board of Governors decides on random drug testing again."

"Malfoy was good for something, eh? Never had to worry about that kind of shite while he was on the Board. But anyway, no fears, mate, all right?" Xiomara said, slapping his thigh with the back of her hand. "Albus and Minerva are out of the castle, some Ministry thing. And except for Argus - who I know for a fact is passed out in his sitting room with a lap full of Muggle pornography - you and I are the only responsible adults on school grounds."

"Responsible, ha! And I don't even want to know how you know what Filch, that filthy old sadistic pedophile, is up to."

"Yes, Severus, responsible," Xiomara said with the exaggerated diction of a person who was thoroughly intoxicated and trying to pretend otherwise. "You are a Head of House," she said. "And I am a Sedate Mature Woman. We are responsible adults. And no," she continued primly, "you do not want to know how I know about Filch."

They looked at one another and for some reason, the image of Filch, the tone of Xiomara's voice, something made the both of them giggle like idiots.

Eventually, though, they fell silent, passing the joint back and forth until Xiomara was forced to stub it out or burn her fingertips. Whereupon she lit up another, of course.

Afterwards, the stars seemed brighter and closer than before, shining in blues and golds and greens and reds; Severus felt unaccountably at ease with himself, the world, and...everything. Somewhere out there, Hagrid was off on his errand for the Order, dangerous, but Hagrid was more than a match for trouble, wasn't he? Hell, the man had a three-headed dog for a pet and a girlfriend who could wrestle dragons. There was no need to worry, right?

Xiomara startled him from his reverie with a jab in his side. "Quit bogarting the blunt, Snape," she said. So he passed the joint to her and leaned his head back again to contemplate the summer constellations.

Unbidden, the memory of another beautiful night, much like this one, arose in his mind.

It had been earlier in the year, of course. School was still in session and the fifth-year Slytherins and Ravenclaws had had an Astronomy lesson that day. All during class it had been impossible not to be aware of the tall, quiet boy with the big hair, wide smile, and easy laugh who'd watched him intently for weeks. They'd spoken occasionally in the library over break. And after an awkward few times, they had debated a wide range of topics, from the Dark Arts, to ethics, to politics and power.

But there was something about Shacklebolt's observation that day in the class-room that had Severus distracted enough to flub an absurdly simple answer during the review for the O.W.L.s. His cheeks had flamed, and, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the other boy hide a smile behind his hand. Severus had even tripped over his own feet on his way out of the classroom, spilling his entire armload of books and papers, not to mention a full bottle of ink. He'd wanted to sink right into the flagstones when two large brown hands entered his desperately narrowed field of vision and helped him gather up his things. He'd been too rattled to even say 'Thank you.'

He had played the entire horrid episode over and over in his mind, each time coming to the inescapable conclusion that he was doomed to be a sorry fuck-up his entire life. But later that afternoon, he'd opened up his text book to find a note:

Astronomy Tower. Tonight, midnight.

- KS

Severus smiled as he remembered the sweet agony that followed. Looking over his shoulder, wondering if it was a mistake. Was it a trick? Why would Shacklebolt want to meet with him? What if Black and Potter somehow slipped him a bogus note? What if, what if, what if?

He'd even spent two hours huddled in the library locating the proper spells to test the parchment for authenticity. Even now, he had no idea how he'd got the nerve to slip out of the dormitory that night and slink up to the Astronomy Tower.

Shacklebolt was already there, standing beside one of the larger telescopes with a stack of books at his feet.

Wary of a prank, Severus had kept his wand out as he approached. Shacklebolt didn't seem bothered and never even drew his own wand. "I wasn't sure if you were going to show," he said.

"I almost didn't," Severus admitted. After a moment, he lowered his wand and stared at his feet. The other boy's robes rustled over the stone floor as he moved closer and Severus swallowed hard.

"I'm glad that you did, though," Shacklebolt said.

Severus chuckled to himself. Oh, his younger self had been terrified. His heart had been beating fit to burst if Shacklebolt had done so much as breathe on him. And then, the man - the boy - actually touched him. It was a wonder that he had neither passed out nor come in his pants on the spot.

After a moment, Shacklebolt had grasped Severus's chin and tilted his head. "You have the most amazing eyes, Severus," he'd said, rolling his tongue around Severus's name like it was something to savour, like the finest chocolate or the brandy he was sometimes allowed to sip in his father's drawing room after supper.

Severus closed his eyes, remembering the unexpected sweetness of that kiss. The very first he'd shared with anyone.

Kingsley Shacklebolt.

All mental paths seemed to lead straight to him this evening.

But, at the moment, he was far too chemically disengaged to care that his life had gone to hell shortly thereafter, what with plunging straight into the O.W.L.s two days later, then being bound, suspended mid-air, then stripped naked by Potter and Black in front of the entire school. He'd never even known if Shacklebolt had been present that afternoon by the lake, but he'd have been certain to hear the rumors...No, it was much better to remember that kiss and wonder about the man who'd been the boy who'd given it to him.

And to find out exactly what Hooch was up to.

"Okay, Xiomara," he said, shoving the limp lump on the bench beside him. She snarled at him and thumped the back of her head on his thigh. "Stop that. I'm relaxed. I've laughed more tonight than I have in months, years. And you've got me stoned on the most phenomenal dope I think I've ever smoked. So what's the catch?"

She rolled her head and cracked open one bleary yellow eye. "Catch? You're a paranoid bastard, Snape. Can't a friend do her bit to cheer up a mate who's had a lousy day?"

"Nice try," he said, poking her in the stomach. It was like thumping a warm, moss-covered brick. "Not that I don't appreciate the effort you've gone through. But I know you. If you'd just wanted to cheer me up, you would have dragged me off to some horrid 'alternative' pub, got me pissed on cheap beer, then tried to buy me a cute, but most likely underaged, date. You're laying it on thick tonight. So again, I ask, what's the catch?"

"Bloody wanker," she grumbled, then sat up, swung her feet to the ground, and glared at him. "You just want to spoil my fun."

"Xiomara."

"All right, all right. Look," she said, blinking at him owlishly. "I need you to do me a favour."

"A favour." For Xiomara. That sounded ominous. "What sort of favour, exactly?"

"Hell, who knows, you might even enjoy it, you know?"

"Ahem. The bloody favour?"

"Yes, well, okay." Xiomara cleared her throat. "Look. It's not really that big of a thing, really. Not in the grand scheme of things, y'see? It's just that..."

"Xiomara Francine Hooch."

"...I just want you to give Shacklebolt a chance, okay? Hear him out. Try not to piss him off any more. He's a decent sort and all. Infinitely better than that Malfoy ponce and - "

Shacklebolt. Again.

Severus immediately burst into laughter.

Xiomara looked offended. "What? What did I say? What's so fucking funny, Snape?" She punched his arm. "I know I'm stoned but hell, that's no reason to - "

He closed his hand over her fist and struggled to stop laughing. "Yes, I'll give him a chance," he said. "Yes, I'll listen to what he has to say. Yes, I'll try not to piss him off any more than necessary. Will that do?" Then he held out his hand for the stub end of the smouldering joint. "Now hand that bloody thing over again, before you get me to agree to something else that I'm certain to regret."

*

His promise to Xiomara was put to the test two days later.

Not long after dawn, Severus donned his running gear, exited the castle, and took off down the trail that wound its way into the hills behind the school. He'd been forced to take a shorter run yesterday, thanks to the stack of yearly student evaluations he'd had to finish, and the next batch of potions for the infirmary. But today, the sky was clear, Dumbledore was out of the castle, and his schedule was his until tea time. Add to that the fact that he was fully recovered from both his sybaritic excesses in the company of Xiomara and his 'chastisement' at the hands of Pettigrew, and he decided could indulge in a good hard run.

And avoid thinking about his meeting with Lucius later in the day.

He started out at an easy jog to warm himself up. Fifteen minutes later, he eased into a steady lope that gnawed away the path that stretched through the tall grasses, wove in and out of the trees, and led up the hillside to its plateau. From there, he would take the long loop back to Hogwarts, running flat out.

Or so he'd planned.

When he arrived at the small clearing at the top of the hill, he slowed to a jog, dumbstruck. Leaning against a boulder, arms crossed over his chest, was Kingsley Shacklebolt.

The Auror was dressed in a pair of grey Muggle running shorts and loose tank top, both of which revealed quite a bit of the man's excellent physique. He was quite obviously unarmed - unless he'd transfigured his wand into a something the size of a toothpick.

As Severus approached, Shacklebolt leaned away from the rock and held his hands out, palm up, as if to imply that he was not a threat.

He nearly snorted aloud: Shacklebolt was dangerous, armed or not.

"Still stalking me, Shacklebolt?" he asked, wondering as he did so how the Auror knew where to find him. Even Xiomara had no idea of the route he took once he was out of sight of Hogwarts. And he'd swept his body and clothing for tracking spells before he'd left the dungeons.

Shacklebolt smiled broadly and Severus was forcibly reminded of the young boy who'd kissed him on a memorable, long ago night in June. He felt pleasant jolt in his stomach.

"Mind if I join you?" Shacklebolt asked.

Severus considered the question as he jogged in place to keep his muscles from seizing. He had promised Xiomara that he'd give the man a chance. And, if he were honest with himself, now that his initial fury at Dumbledore had abated, he was somewhat intrigued with what Shacklebolt might have to say.

Of course, that didn't mean that he had to make it easy on Shacklebolt. Not at all.

Severus resisted the urge to smile. "If you like," he said, nodded once then took off down the trail, not bothering to see if Shacklebolt would follow.

*

Kingsley would have liked to swear aloud but he couldn't spare the breath. He was in good shape. He had to be to retain the position he had. More than that, he regularly worked out in a Muggle donjon and was an accomplished capoeirista. He could bench-press his weight a dozen times without breaking a sweat. And here, he was barely able to keep up with a scarecrow of a man whose stride ate up the rocky, uneven terrain in a way that made Kingsley wonder just how many years he'd been doing this. Snape must know the trail by heart, whereas he had to keep an eye on the ground, just to avoid the possibility of breaking an ankle.

Damn, the trail hadn't looked that rough when he'd followed Snape on his run the previous morning from high up on his broomstick.

Hooch had told him that these runs usually lasted two to three hours. Par Toutatis, in that time, Snape could run down to London and back, probably without even breaking stride. Unlike Kingsley, his clothing barely revealed any of the wetness of over-exertion. Kingsley swiped at the sweat running into his eyes. After a little more than an hour, here he was, panting like a dog, every muscle aching. And considering the shape he was in, it could only mean that running used many, many different muscles and fuck he was hurting now.

So when the cramp hit, he couldn't prevent the groan of pain from escaping his lips, nor the gasp when his aching body hit the ground. He grabbed his leg and tried to ease the blinding pain, blinking against the sting of sweat running into his eyes.

"Here, allow me."

Kingsley lay flat on the grass at the side of the trail, his arms outstretched, catching his breath as bloody fucking Snape, not even having the decency to be doing more than breathing hard, pulled off Kingsley's runner and, stretching his leg out full, forced his foot toward the shin, working on the charley horse with his other hand.

He looked up at the sky which today would have to be a beautiful, cloudless blue - as though even the heavens were laughing at him - and gasped, "Uncle!"

Severus looked up from the work his hands were doing and met his eyes...mischievously? Bloody hell, the man had been leading him on some fucking wild-goose chase!

With a wince for the relief Severus's massage was bringing to his poor battered leg, Kingsley actually found enough breath to laugh.

By the suddenly stilled hands, he knew his response had surprised Severus.

"All right," he gasped between winces and chortles, "can we talk now?"

"Let me deal with this first," said Severus.

Kingsley propped himself up on his elbows and watched as Severus brought the pain down to an endurable ache.

"Have you got your wand on you?" he asked.

Severus looked up and nodded.

"Can you use it to Accio my knapsack from the clearing where I met you?"

Severus's eyebrow rose. "Don't you have your wand on you?"

Kingsley shook his head, scattering the last of the sweat off his forehead.

"Not very intelligent of you, that."

Kingsley shrugged. "I trust you," he said, as if it were no big deal.

Severus stilled. "Just like that?" His snarl was less biting than at their last meeting, but it was still there.

"Severus. The knapsack, please. There're drinks in it and I don't know about you, but I need one."

Severus sat back on his heels and pulled his wand out from his sleeve. "Accio..." He looked at Kingsley once more as though searching for something. Kingsley met his gaze and waited. "Accio Kingsley's knapsack."

So they were to be on a first name basis. Probably Severus's way of apologising for his behaviour. Kingsley nodded his head slightly.

The knapsack arrived and landed with a soft thunk by Kingsley's side. He opened up the sack and pulled out two plastic bottles of colourful liquid. "Red or blue?"

Severus looked askance at the bottles. "What is that?"

"It's a special drink the Muggles use to replenish minerals and other things after strenuous exercise. Better than water. Gets your electrolytes back up to the level they should be."

"I've heard of it," Severus said, then warily took the blue and, sitting next to Kingsley, twisted the cap off and stared suspiciously at the contents before raising the bottle to his lips. There he stopped. Kingsley twisted the cap off the red and proceeded to chug down at least a good third. Only then did Severus actually drink.

Not a very trusting type, but then who could blame him?

Severus grimaced as he examined the label. "Is this one the same as yours?"

Kingsley nodded. "The colour is just to indicate the flavouring."

The other man took another drink, a bit more this time. "Does it come in green?"

Kingsley laughed, once more startling Severus. Merde, did no one laugh around this man?

Severus shook his head slightly. "Why are you doing this?"

Kingsley placed the bottle down. "Yes, I suppose it is time to get down to business. Are we far enough away from Hogwarts so that Dumbledore won't pick this up?"

Severus turned enough so that he could see Kingsley's face. "The Headmaster is at the Ministry today. There's a faction who wish to have him removed from the Wizengamot. He's dealing with that."

"Ah, yes, Minister Fudge." And he didn't have to say any more on that subject. "To begin with, I want to apologise to you."

Another surprise. Guess that was something else no one did.

"Apologise?" Severus's walls were quickly going up.

Kingsley nodded. "I'd forgotten how vindictive Albus Dumbledore can be. I challenged him and you bore the brunt of his anger when I did so. I can't promise you that he won't get angry again, but I can promise you that I shall try to be more diplomatic."

Severus only looked at him and repeated, "Why are you doing this?"

"Because I don't like how you're treated. I don't like how they're putting your life on the line. I don't like how most of them don't seem to understand just how important...no, integral you are to our success."

Severus snorted.

"What?" Kingsley challenged.

"Harry Potter is integral to our success, not Severus Snape."

Kingsley pretended to think a moment. "Well, maybe he is. But without the information you bring and the disinformation you spread, his chances of success are far less."

Severus suddenly found his clasped hands very interesting.

"Look, Severus, you're not our only spy, but you are the one who is the deepest in. You are irreplaceable."

Severus's head snapped up. "Ah, I see. So all this concern is merely so I don't leave you all in the lurch." The bitterness was back.

Kingsley grimaced. Well, what did he expect? Time to go that little extra bit. "Severus. Do you know what I am?"

The question brought Severus's eyes back to him. "An Auror. Why?"

Kingsley dropped back onto the ground. "Yes, well, yes. That's what I am here. Special Projects Auror. In charge of finding Sirius Black. Ever wonder why I have that assignment?"

Severus shrugged. "Because he is an escaped convict and locating him is part of an Auror's duties."

"Yes, but any regular Auror could have been assigned that task. Not someone with my training." He looked at Severus. "I said I trusted you. And I do. With my safety this morning. But now I need to know if I can trust you with more."

Severus made him wait while he thought about that. "With what kind of more?"

"With my life and that of others."

Severus leaned back on his hands and stared out at the rolling hills in front of them. "That will have to be your decision. All I can tell you is that others probably would counsel you not to."

"I'm not asking others, Severus, I'm asking you."

"If I'm tortured..."

"I'm willing to take that chance."

Severus shook his head. "You might regret that decision."

"I don't think so."

Severus finally nodded. "All right. I swear that whatever you tell me will remain between the two of us. To the best of my ability."

Kingsley understood the proviso. "I am...on loan...from le Ministaire de la sorcellerie, Departement d'information particulaire. On the request of the Head of the Department of Mysteries."

Severus blinked. "You're a spy?"

Kingsley grinned. "Takes one to know one."

"But... Who knows this? And why?"

"Who knows? Well, M. le Directeur and the Head of Mysteries. My father, who brought the proposition to me. And now you. As to why. Well, it seems the Quirrell incident convinced the Head of Mysteries that Voldemort was less than dead."

Severus's only response to that bit of information was a slight rise in that disdainful eyebrow of his.

"And he's not the only one: there are a few other concerned members of the Ministry. Unfortunately, they don't have the power or authority necessary to override Fudge and his faction."

"Of course not," mocked Severus.

Kingsley shrugged and went on. "The Head knows better than to approach Fudge after the Minister indicated that the return of Voldemort was nothing more than a Dumbledore-based rumour, and he forbade any Department to investigate. So he took it upon himself to contact his equivalent in France. Seems they're old friends from their days in the field. My father got involved because of some old, well- known connection between the two men, from his days as a junior diplomat. If he visits the Head when in Britain, no one will be any the wiser as to his reason. The same for M. le Director. Who suggested me."

He waited but there was no comment forthcoming, not by word nor gesture.

"They chose me because I do have Auror training. I have a logical excuse to leave France for Britain, being a wizard of both cultures, not to mention a perfectly valid reason to visit my father. And because I have the ability to pick up..." He stopped and looked at Severus who was watching him with that intense expression of his. "You know, telling you I trust you and doing so are two different things. There are things I cannot tell you, Severus, but if I expect you to trust me, then I have to do more than pay lip-service to that, haven't I?"

Severus slowly nodded.

"I can do more than pick up bits of information. I have been especially trained in Legilimency and Occlumency..."

Severus found the scenery interesting again. Kingsley waited.

"I thought it was Dumbledore, that night...the first night...that's why the tea."

Kingsley put as much sincerity into his voice as he could without it sounding false. "I didn't enter your mind, Severus. I would not do that without your permission. But I did hover to see what feelings I could pick up. I could smell the after effect of the hexes."

"Is that the only time?"

"Yes."

"At your flat..."

"No. I mean what I say, Severus. Entering a person's mind is not something that I do casually. It is not a game." Then, remembering what he'd read in Dumbledore's file that sat in a drawer at Mysteries, he added, "It is not a power trip. It is an invasion of a person's deepest, most personal self and, other than when in training, I have done so without permission only once in my career. When the lives of my people were at stake. I needed to know where an attack had been arranged that would have seen at least three of my subordinates mutilated if not killed."

"Did you get your information?"

"Yes. Severus. In France, I worked as assignment chief for..."

"Unspeakables we call them here."

"Yes. I suppose you could call them Unspeakables. Before I accepted this mission, I had a team of people working under me. I have never lost a wizard or witch yet and I don't intend to begin now. Which is why I told Dumbledore that I would take responsibility for you."

Severus bit his lip as he thought. "He told me that you had been assigned as my keeper and that you could decide if I was to be pulled out."

"There is some truth to what he said. Mind, he did twist it a little to suit his purposes."

Severus looked at Kingsley for an explanation.

"I told him that if he was determined to keep you out of the loop of information, then I would decide what you needed to know. Between us, I think there is very little you don't need to know. That you would report to me and I would report your findings to the Order, not because I don't trust you, Severus, but because that way I can see what condition you're in. And also because I have links to another kind of magic, I can teach you other ways of protecting yourself. As for pulling you out, I will order that if I think your cover has been breached. I've said I want to keep you alive and I mean that."

He waited but Severus said nothing. "As for your attending Order meetings, I think the less contact you are forced to have with Black and Moody the better. I know enough about the kind of auror Moody was and is to read between the lines of your file."

Severus's body shuddered but Kingsley said no more about that. They both knew the methods Moody had used to interrogate.

"As for Black, well, I have no idea what exactly is the basis for the loathing you have for each other, but I assume it dates from school. I don't need to know. I just know that I would prefer that you have as little to do with the man as possible. Especially when you've just returned from a Summons. You don't need the extra stress. You'll have to do so once in a while, but I'll try to keep those to a minimum. And Dumbledore himself has given us an excuse for your leaving as soon as you have reported."

Kingsley leaned forward and worked on loosening the muscles of his calves. "We had been hoping to get someone inside the Order. Not because we had doubts about its objectives, but merely because Dumbledore does tend to play his cards close to his chest. He's very much into not sharing information. Not that we can blame him. No official can be seen to be very interested in his fear of Voldemort's return. So you can imagine our surprise when I was approached by Arthur. The Head of Mysteries worked it so that I would be given the Black assignment as a way of making certain he wasn't found. Though we are all a little surprised that Dumbledore isn't making much use of his particular talents."

There was silence for several minutes. Kingsley finished off his drink while Severus sat staring at his hands. He was on his feet, seeing just how much the leg would hurt after they took off again when Severus spoke. "He wants me to report any meeting we have to him. And he wants Poppy to be the only one who sees me should I be injured."

Kingsley rested his fists on his hips and looked over the peaceful scene in front of him. "Not acceptable. We'll work out something to tell him about meetings. If he doesn't want you to be in the know, then there's no reason for us to accommodate his request. As for Pomfrey," he cocked his head as he smiled at Severus, "that's because I told him I would decide if and when you were fit to return to Hogwarts. Out of curiosity, just how often do you actually allow her to deal with the repercussions of your meetings with Voldemort?"

Severus said nothing.

Kingsley sighed. "I thought so. While it is true that I want you hale and hearty in order for you to continue working against Voldemort, I also want you in the same condition when we do succeed."

Severus rose to his feet. "Find a way we can be seen together without driving Albus to use my liver for his notes and I'll work for you."

Kingsley shook his head. "I don't want that, Severus. I want us working together. As for a way...give me a few days to come up with a plausible excuse. Something that will keep Dumbledore off your back and maybe even please Voldemort. If you could bring him information from more than the Dumbledore camp..."

"He has Lucius Malfoy for that."

Kingsley grinned. "All Malfoy has is the Minister. There's more to the Ministry of Magic than the Minister's office. As I've said, Dumbledore and the Order are not the only ones who are aware that Voldemort is alive. And now can we go back at a less testing pace? I need my legs if I'm going to arrange all that."

The expression on Severus's face relaxed a little. "We can walk back. It's really not all that far."

Kingsley slung the knapsack over his shoulders. "My calves thank you. So, Severus, did you ever find that book on Dark Spells you were looking for in the Restricted Section?"

Severus looked astounded. "You remember that? That was back in fifth year."

Kingsley grinned, allowing himself to leer a little. "You'd be surprised what I remember about you, Severus. Not just the books we talked about...but I have especially fond memories of a snog in the Astronomy Tower one night when we'd both snuck out to...ah, examine the night sky."

*

Severus was speechless.

Of the assorted revelations that Kingsley Shacklebolt had made this morning - from spying to conspiracies within the Ministry to far-flung international intrigues - this last was perhaps the most baffling.

And were he honest with himself, possibly the most unsettling.

Shacklebolt couldn't be suggesting that...no, of course not!

If Severus hadn't been carefully guarding his mind against intrusion, he would have suspected Shacklebolt of plucking the thought straight from his head. Not for the first time, he wished that he had some discreet way of investigating Shacklebolt without alerting either the Ministry or other parties - like Lucius - that he'd just as soon be kept ignorant of his interest. Articles in old newspapers, magazines, and journals shed too little light on the man's past and present.

After a few paces along the trail back to the castle, Severus managed to collect his wits and find his voice. "I find it difficult to believe that the...events of one evening twenty years ago would stand out against the backdrop of a life as varied and exciting as that of an international law enforcement official."

Shacklebolt - no, if they were to be fellow co-conspirators, he could at least use the man's first name, Kingsley - smiled at him. "You honestly have no idea, do you, Severus?"

Severus frowned. "Excuse me?"

Kingsley laughed and Severus tensed, then relaxed fractionally. Though he was usually inclined to take offence, for some reason, he had the impression that the man was laughing at himself.

"Never mind," Kingsley said, but he was still smiling. "And Severus, despite the reputation of British Aurors, I assure you that their French counterparts do not spend every off-duty moment carousing."

That wasn't precisely what he'd meant, but Severus knew a misdirection when he heard one. Despite their nascent alliance, he was unsure how far he could push for personal information, or for further clarification of Kingsley's plans pertaining to the Order.

They walked along in silence for a moment while Severus considered. Though he much preferred to get straight to the point, some odd intuition suggested that he should dust off his long-dormant conversational skills instead. Anyone else but Xiomara would likely laugh themselves into a spasm at the thought that he had any such abilities whatsoever, but he did possess some.

"Actually," Severus said finally, "I am rather surprised that you decided to become an Auror. I would have thought you might choose something like magical research, perhaps."

"You think that law enforcement is not cerebral enough?" Kingsley said. "I like to 'do' as much as I like to think, Severus. Being an Auror meshes those two things quite nicely."

Given his rather intimate knowledge of what Aurors - British Aurors at least - enjoyed 'doing,' Severus bit back his immediate reply.

"We must do a fair amount of investigative work before we actually go into the field," Kingsley was saying. "One of my recent cases - involving a ring of wizard artists who were counterfeiting famous Muggle paintings and sculptures - required nearly a full year of research before we understood the nature of the spells involved. Tthen, we still had to infiltrate the counterfeiting ring itself and identify the three auction houses which were in collusion with them. Another case involved a money laundering scheme involving six countries, two Muggle corporations, one Wizarding one, and an attempt to magically manipulate the European market for gold and platinum."

Severus didn't bother to conceal his surprise.

"I never claimed to be a common Auror," Kingsley said with a wink and a wealth of mischief in his warm brown eyes.

After a heartbeat, Severus said, "I can't imagine that you would ever be considered ordinary under any circumstances," startling himself with such a blunt statement of the truth.

"From you, Severus, that is high praise, indeed," Kingsley said putting his hand on Severus's shoulder and squeezing briefly. "And now, what else would you like to know about me? Surely I can't have satisfied that insatiable curiosity I remember you had with just a few comments about old cases."

Once again, Severus paused. Why would someone like Shacklebolt - Kingsley rather - invite such familiarity? In his experience, none of his previous 'handlers' had been interested in cultivating anything more than the most perfunctory relationship. Even Dumbledore preferred to keep things "professional, so as to avoid confusion or misunderstanding."

On the other hand, Kingsley was quite decidedly not cut from the same cloth as Moody or Dumbledore. He hadn't been ordinary as a student and he certainly wasn't now.

Even so, Severus chose his words with care. He had, for all intents and purposes, just become a triple-agent - defying Dumbledore in the process! - by agreeing to Kingsley's earlier proposal. Once again, he'd involved himself in a secret game with its own hidden hazards, alliances, and objectives. And on the basis of something so ephemeral and yet so viscerally real as an instinct to trust unconditionally, where for so long he'd resolved never to open himself to that kind of betrayal ever again.

He must have lost his mind, along with any shred of his dignity during that last 'session' with Voldemort!

Severus took a deep breath and attempted to calm his unsteadily pounding heart. It wouldn't do to antagonise his only ally in this new game within the first few moves. "In that case, Kingsley, I admit to being curious about where you went after you left Hogwarts all those years ago."

"That could take a while," Kingsley warned, but he was wearing that broad, open smile of his again.

"It's a long walk back." Severus looked down at his dusty trainers and wished that his sweat pants had pockets.

"In that case," Kingsley said, startling Severus when he companionably bumped their shoulders together, "Allow me describe to you the wonders of a continental education!"

And by the time they were nearly within reach of Hogwarts, Kingsley had described the decade and a half in question thoroughly, with no few colourful anecdotes, and Severus decided that he could consider himself very well informed, indeed.

And blindly jealous.

In his seven years as a student at Hogwarts, he had become very acquainted with every possible nuance of the poisonous emotion called envy.

If his worn shoes, threadbare robes, and second-hand books hadn't given away his family's shaky financial state, then his accent and the pitiful contents of the few care-packages that his mum managed to sneak past his father during the school year as good as shouted it to the world. What he had was inadequate. He was inadequate, flawed in some fundamental way. And the other children - and even some of the staff - never missed the opportunity to remind him of the fact.

"Hey, Snape. Tell your mum to get you some new robes for Christmas. Those are so old they're almost see-through, and Merlin knows we wouldn't want to see more of your skinny arse than necessary."

As if he wouldn't have given anything to have brand new everything. As if he wouldn't have rather used all the hours he'd spent learning mending charms and cloth weaving charms doing something more important.

"Solid work, Mister Snape, however you might have noticed that the elemental tables at the end of this chapter have been updated to reflect recent advances in the Arithmantic analysis of vanishing charms. Perhaps you might invest in a newer edition of the textbook if you wish to receive full marks in future."

As if he'd chosen an out-of-date text on a whim, as if it hadn't been grim financial necessity. As if Potter and Black and Merlin knew who else, didn't take delight in signing out the few copies of the current text books in the library before he could get to them. As if the professors didn't delight in requiring expensive texts that were in no way superior to other alternatives except in price.

He'd had nothing of value but his intellect. And no matter how unfair the grading, no matter how many times some arsehole who deemed himself a comedian ruined his homework or tried to sabotage his work, no matter what, he knew - the teachers knew, and detested him for it - that he was smarter than the lot of them, by far. That he was destined for great things.

Great things, ha!

Severus gritted his teeth, let Kingsley's words wash over him, and did his best not to snarl at the man.

It must have been nice growing up with two parents who cared for one another, without having to hide from one and constantly fear for the life of the other. With food and books and clothing and praise a-plenty. With trips to museums and galleries and concerts and holidays spent in foreign countries meeting famous witches and wizards - the scholars who'd written his most cherished books.

It must have been nice to transfer to a new school and yet make friends instantly. To be a favourite of teachers, to be allowed to excel, to leave school with a fistful of prestigious and lucrative job offers. To not spend every moment not studying in quasi-legal work to pay for medical care and a safe place for his mother, away from her murderous prick of a husband.

What a novel thought - to be something other than a wizard's familiar kept chained - "For your own safety, my boy!" - and muzzled - "No, quite sorry, but I simply cannot offer you the Defence position" - and put to work - "Surely you, of all people realise how important it is to bring down Voldemort this time, why only you can play this role?"

The one thing that Severus could say of his life was that what little he had, he'd earned, ten times over. The world was not fair, certainly not for the likes of him, but damned if he hadn't managed to carve out a tiny place for himself. And, if that knowledge tasted of brimstone and ashes, if that niche too closely resembled a prison, then he had almost no one to blame but himself.

"And that, Severus, is the condensed story of my life," Kingsley said, mercifully breaking into his thoughts.

He looked over at the tall Auror and schooled his face free of the sneer that desperately wanted out. Sometimes, he actually listened to his inner voice of self-preservation, no matter how tempting it would be to allow his bitterness voice. And truthfully, no matter how much he wished otherwise, it wasn't Kingsley's fault that he, like Lucius, was the sort of person that sun seemed determined to shine upon no matter how many storm clouds hovered over everyone else's heads. The sort who could fly as high as he chose without fear of being slapped down to earth for daring to dream.

Severus forced a smile. He suspected that it more closely resembled a grimace. "Have you thought about writing your memoirs? I suspect that with the right agent, you could make a killing with your tales of international intrigues."

Kingsley laughed. "Do I look like Gilderoy Lockhart to you?"

Severus thought that he looked rather better than Lockhart but managed not to mention that aloud.

"My life is hardly that exciting," Kingsley continued, "certainly nothing compared to yours."

Severus tensed. "I don't see why you find it necessary to mock me."

"Mock you?" Kingsley said, then put his hand on Severus's shoulder. "I am hardly mocking you, or your accomplishments, Severus, by stating the truth. Spending hours in libraries or interviewing experts or witnesses is hardly exciting - or earth-shattering - stuff. What you're doing now, what you did fourteen years ago, now that has the potential to affect the lives of millions and the entire Wizarding world."

It always came back to Voldemort, didn't it?

"Thank you very much for reminding me of all the deaths that will be on my head if I should fail in my duties," Severus said, pulling out of Kingsley's grasp and stalking down the trail alone.

"Maudite merde!" Severus heard Kingsley say, then there were rapid footsteps, a hand came down on his arm, and pulled him to a halt. "Severus, listen to me. It was never my intention to...taunt you with possible outcomes. I only wanted to let you know that other people, myself included, admire the work that you are doing and are grateful."

"Why?" Severus nearly sneered.

Far from angry or intimidated, Kingsley merely looked puzzled. "Why what? Why do I admire you? Why tell you?" He frowned. "I suppose because that's what friends do for one another."

Severus pulled away again and continued walking. "We're not friends," he said.

Kingsley followed him. "I think that we could be."

Once again, Severus bit back his first response: "Why would you want to be?" He didn't want to appear even more pathetic than he usually did. Instead, he said, "I would have thought that you'd prefer to keep things between us professional, in case..." then trailed off, suddenly exhausted. If the decades-old magic of running was beginning to fade, perhaps it was time to find something new to take its place.

Unfortunately, Kingsley took it upon himself to complete the sentence. "In case I need to make a difficult decision regarding your life, you mean?"

When he didn't answer, Kingsley said, "Severus, look at me."

There was something in the man's voice - a peculiar tone of mixed command and compassion - that gave him pause. Despite himself, Severus stopped in the middle of the trail.

"Your safety is my first priority, Severus."

And damn it, when he said it, Severus could very nearly believe, could nearly trust the low curl of warmth and certainty in his belly. Not that it mattered. "Then you place one man's life above every despicable deed that the Dark Lord and his followers have done and will do. You are a fool, Shacklebolt, if you believe that any single life - mine especially - is more important than halting Voldemort's next rise to power."

"And I've said it before, you are too ruthless with yourself, Severus. Too willing to die to expiate your original allegiance to Voldemort."

Kingsley's words struck him like a fist to the gut. Severus whirled to face him. "A good commander recognises that in certain circumstances, those he commands are expendable."

The Auror stepped in close. Severus could feel the heat that rose up from the man's skin. "And an exceptional commander recognises the difference between a pawn and a queen. And realises that some members of his company have strategic value beyond a single engagement, a single battle, or even a single war."

"Oh, and you are an exceptional commander, I suppose?" Severus sneered.

Kingsley regarded him blandly for a moment, one eyebrow raised, then he laughed. "I've been told that I don't do too badly. But I'll leave it for you to judge for yourself," he said with what could only be described as a shit-eating grin. "I think that I've got that cramp worked out now. What say we jog back to the castle before I completely stiffen up?"

And with that, the man turned and jogged down the path, around the bend and out of sight through the trees.

Thoroughly confounded, Severus watched him go, admiring the movement of the man's large muscle groups, clearly visible due to his skimpy attire, despite himself.

It was only when he heard Kingsley shout, "Are you coming, Severus? Or do I need to come back there and carry you?" that he managed to shake himself out of his reverie and follow.

And though the run back to castle didn't banish his confusion in the least, the sunlight, the wind, the synchronous pounding of their footsteps on the trail lulled him, probably foolishly so, into believing that the end of this war might actually see him alive, rather than in an unmarked pauper's grave.

*

Once beyond the castle wards, Severus could have Apparated to Hogsmeade, but decided to walk instead. The weather had remained nice throughout the day and if nothing else, the walk through the forest and the crowded streets of Hogsmeade gave him the opportunity to bring order to his chaotic thoughts.

Before Voldemort's return, he would have looked forward to an afternoon spent with Lucius at the Atheneum. Enjoying drinks, conversation, or simply relaxing in the company of someone...familiar. Someone who understood, who'd been there.

Someone with a well-known agenda.

But Voldemort's resurrection had destroyed the tranquility of those regular meetings and upset the balance in their friendship. These days, Lucius was tense, snappish. And most of their conversations revolved around the Dark Lord, his plans, and what Severus or Lucius planned to do about them. Once again, a decade and a half later, he was forced to conceal his motives and plans within the camouflage of those deemed 'acceptable' by both Lucius and Dumbledore. He had begun to dread their get-togethers.

And then there was the matter of Kingsley Shacklebolt.

Severus wasn't naive enough to believe that the man could outfox Albus Dumbledore. No doubt Kingsley believed that he could. But even discounting his formidable skill with Legilimency, Dumbledore was a superb judge of men. He rarely needed magic to see straight through the manipulations, lies, and motivations of others. Why would Kingsley prove to be different?

A spy within the Order, indeed!

And yet, Severus wanted to believe that he would be. That Shacklebolt was sincere in his intentions, that the Auror truly had an alternative to the path of spying and deceit that seemed to lead, inevitably, to Severus's death. That any wizard bold enough to infiltrate Dumbledore's secret society, to face down the Headmaster over the deployment of his pet former Death Eater, might be capable of almost anything!

Were he honest with himself, it frightened him to believe it was possible.

And it tied his guts into knots that he had no way to know if Shacklebolt was playing him, if the argument with Dumbledore had been a sham. Or even if agents within the Department of Mysteries, or abroad, were manipulating Kingsley to their own ends.

Then again, Severus admitted, that last was paranoid, even for him.

"Watch for my sign," Kingsley had said when Severus asked him about his plans. And when pressed for details, he'd been mysterious: "It's better than you don't know what I've got planned ahead of time." Moments later, he'd Apparated away, presumably back to his flat in London, leaving Severus to wonder. And to worry about what this nebulous plan of Kingsley's to appease both Dumbledore and Voldemort might entail and how it would unfold.

The question continued to gnaw at him as he made his way down High Street, through the bustling centre of Hogsmeade, and right up the very steps of the Atheneum itself.

The Atheneum was located several streets away from High Street in the oldest part of town. The original book repository had been established in 1153 AD and, as time passed, it had expanded to consume an entire block. The sixteen jumbled-together buildings now held a staggering collection of volumes, folios, and tomes - many of them exceedingly rare - on every conceivable magical topic. It also housed the plush, extensive quarters of Britain's oldest and most exclusive wizards' club.

Severus paused, as he always did, on the sloping, well-worn stone stairs to admire the imposing architecture and to savour the knowledge that he was, indeed, a full member.

Caligula Malfoy had sponsored him years ago, as thanks for having aided the House of Malfoy in a delicate, and rather bloody, matter involving Lucius and a pregnant Muggle woman. Every year thereafter, Severus had scrupulously paid his dues, no matter how frugal he needed to be the rest of the year. Wearing worn robes was a small price to pay for access to one of the most comprehensive magical libraries in Europe. He was well-acquainted with weaving charms, after all.

Once inside the foyer, with its leaded glass windows and vivid blue and green oriental carpeting, he was greeted by an unfamiliar young man in the distinctive blue robes of a junior archivist. During the summer months, the front door was usually watched by apprentices. The wards were more than sufficient to keep out the rabble and to protect the buildings, and their precious contents, from spell damage.

"Good afternoon, Magus Snape," the young man said, "Magus Malfoy is awaiting you in the Herodotus Room."

"Thank you," he replied, trying to ignore the queasiness in his stomach; Lucius was rarely ever early to a meeting, preferring to make an entrance.

It took Severus a while to wend his way through the maze of corridors and rooms, nodding his greetings to acquaintances he encountered along the way, and to finally reach Lucius's favourite meeting place: the Herodotus Room. The suite of rooms, named for the Father of History - and the Father of Lies, which amused Lucius to no end - housed several private collections on the history of magic. It was tucked away in the most distant building of the Atheneum complex, on the uppermost floor.

There he found Lucius, standing at the window, a glass of his favourite whisky in hand. His fashionably dressed friend seemed as poised, arrogant, and self-assured as ever but Severus could read the tension in his posture. The flash of sunlight on the cruets of the tumbler betrayed the slight tremor in Lucius's hand.

He closed the door quietly and once the door wards and privacy spells clicked into effect, Lucius turned to face him.

"Cousin," Lucius said without preamble, "Narcissa is concerned about Draco's academic performance."

Severus sighed inwardly at Lucius's reminder of their distant kinship; it was to be another of those meetings.

"We've been through this before," he replied, ignoring the sandwiches and tea on the sideboard to fill one of the empty glasses with whisky instead. Just enough alcohol to make the meeting bearable, but not enough to make him careless. "Draco's scholastic performance this year was excellent."

"But not outstanding."

"Narcissa is being unreasonable. The boy has more than distinguished himself amongst his peers academically." Severus crossed the room and settled himself on the plush velvet sofa opposite the window. If Lucius planned to dance around the real topic at hand, Severus decided that he might as well be comfortable.

Lucius turned away to survey the garden below. "He has to do more than simply distinguish himself. He needs to set the example for others to follow. We've been too soft on him over the years."

"Have you truly looked at the boy lately, Lucius? He's been sleeping poorly and his fingernails are bitten down to the quick. You've spoiled him, yes, but applying even more pressure would be a mistake," Severus said sharply. He had yet to convince Lucius that beatings did more harm than good, especially with a boy like Draco.

Lucius remained silent. Severus took a sip of his drink and continued, "If anything, I am more concerned about his social development."

"So you said in your evaluation." After a morning spent in the company of Shacklebolt, Lucius looked oddly faded and insubstantial in the dusty afternoon light filtering through the windows. "Although," Lucius continued, sounding annoyed, "I must admit offering criticism of anyone's social skills is a bit rich, coming from you, wouldn't you say?"

"My own failings aside, fourteen years as an educator says that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to adolescents," Severus snapped, setting his drink on the low cherry wood table beside the sofa. "Draco relies too heavily on your reputation and on the alliances that you have made. He is too reckless with his use of your relationship and his incomplete knowledge of your...previous allegiances."

Lucius turned away from the window and eyed Severus speculatively. "He needs a mentor."

"Oh, and now my pitiful skills are miraculously sufficient enough that I am qualified to mentor your offspring."

"He already looks up to you," Lucius said, waving away both Severus's sarcasm and the reason for it.

Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. "Stop hinting, Lucius. I am far too close to the situation and too busy to invest that sort of time in any of my students."

Lucius sniffed. "You would make time, if the student were Harry Potter."

"Were it...required of me, then yes, I would have to, wouldn't I? Assuming, of course, that James Potter's spawn wouldn't attempt to hex me at every turn." He glared at Lucius steadily until the other man nodded, conceding the point. "You know that I do everything in my power to protect Draco."

"I realise that, but this...this situation is intolerable!" Lucius said, in a rare outburst of exasperation, then sat down beside him with a sigh. Lucius had brought the bottle of whisky with him and took it upon himself to pour them both a generous measure.

"I know," Severus agreed quietly. Of all Lucius's faults, caring for his son - no matter how poorly he showed it, no matter how self-interested the sentiment - wasn't one of them. "Listen, set Draco up with a summer apprenticeship. There is still time. Perhaps out of the country. Send him to Beauxbatons or Durmstrang next year if you have...concerns."

"He might take exception, as you well know."

"What? The silvered tongued devil himself admits that there is something he can not talk his way out of?"

"Be serious, Cousin."

"I am being serious. It might keep the boy safe."

"Yes, and make me wish I'd never been born." Lucius ran his hand through his hair. "Damn him. Damn them both! If my idiot of a son had simply managed to make friends with Potter, as I commanded him to, this situation would be far less...complicated."

"I doubt that it would have mattered. Once Potter learned of your...former affiliations - and believe me, Draco would have babbled it eventually - that would have been the end. Potter would never trust anyone he believed had been even peripherally involved in the deaths of his parents."

"Potter has a rather limited grasp of political expediency, doesn't he?" Lucius glanced at him sidelong, with a ghost of a smile.

Severus shrugged. He had far too much in common with Potter on that particular score, but Lucius needn't ever know that.

They sipped their drinks and talked of inconsequential matters for a while, while Severus waited for Lucius to get to the point. And he would, eventually, bring up the topic of the prophecy. His cousin had become predictable that way. Lucius's excellent acting skills allowed him to maintain a facade of cool disdain, but Severus knew that he was frightened. Of all the former Death Eaters who'd escaped imprisonment after Voldemort's first defeat, Malfoy stood the most to lose by having his reactivated status become publicly known. Family, lands, status, Lucius stood to lose them all, not only his freedom or his life.

"So you still don't believe that he knows?" Lucius asked after a long pause.

At last. Severus set aside his glass and turned to face Lucius. Dumbledore would demand a perfect accounting of this portion of their conversation, if not an analysis via Pensieve. "How many times have we been through this? It's in Dumbledore's interest to keep the boy as ignorant - and dependent on him - as possible. Potter knows nothing."

Lucius raised his eyebrow significantly. Severus narrowed his eyes. "And neither do I, Lucius! I would have reported it to him immediately if I knew. Do you really believe that Dumbledore would entrust me with the contents of," he lowered his voice, "that damned prophecy? I doubt that any of the other members of his little group know either, Dumbledore being how he is about the control of information," he finished, infusing his voice with heartfelt bitterness and loathing. Though his own sense of honour forced him to work with the Order, he still didn't much like any of the self-righteous pricks.

"Still, the boy is the only other one, besides him, who can handle 'it.' Perhaps if he could be enticed..."

Severus swallowed his unease and tried for nonchalance. "Potter is intractable and Dumbledore watches over him like a broody dragon. You'd have better luck breaking into Gringotts."

"What about Black?"

"What about him? For all his faults, Dumbledore isn't stupid. He wouldn't entrust that reckless prick with the time of day."

"I'm not so certain, Black has been playing messenger for him, hasn't he? It's a pity that you two never got along..."

"I'd sooner kill the man than chat him up!"

"Undoubtedly," Lucius said with a knowing smile. "You know, I could almost wish I'd paid some attention in that ridiculous Divination class." He was silent for a moment, then rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Listen, there's no chance that Trelawney - "

Severus felt a thrill of alarm. Potter was reasonably well-protected but Dumbledore would string Severus up by his guts if he didn't dissuade Lucius from targeting that nitwit Trelawney. "She rarely leaves the grounds, Lucius. Something about it 'clouding her inner eye,' or some such rot. Moreover, Hogwarts is a fortress. Do you really want to stage an assault on the castle itself? If so, please update your will first and leave me that lovely first edition of Occultus Magickal Praxis before you do. I've admired it for years."

Lucius sat back and regarded him steadily over the rim of his glass. "You seem awfully keen to persuade me not to complete my task for him."

"Forgive me for trying to save the life of a friend," he said snidely, hoping that Lucius couldn't hear the erratic pounding of his heart. "It's not as if I have so many of them, what with my ineptitude at personal relationships, as you so kindly noted earlier."

Lucius blinked slowly as he finished off his whisky. "I'm sure that between the three of us, Avery, Bode, and I can come up with something," he said. "Worry about your own task, Severus. He hasn't been much pleased with you either in recent weeks."

"My task is moving along nicely, thank you very much."

"Oh yes, as a whipping at the hands of that accomplished arse-licker, Pettigrew, so amply demonstrated."

Severus set his glass down with a thump and stood up. "I will not stay here to be mocked. Good day, Lucius."

"Oh, sit down, Severus," Lucius said, taking hold of Severus's sleeve and tugging. "You are so damned prickly. I didn't mean anything by it."

"Not much, you didn't," he said, not feigning his irritation with Lucius - and with himself. He'd nearly over-played his hand. He still might have, only time would tell. "Do you believe it's so simple to convince all those upright prigs that this," he tapped his left forearm, "doesn't matter?"

"If you'd accepted my help all those years ago, you wouldn't be in this predicament. You and your stubborn pride."

Severus gritted his teeth. Lucius had offered to pay for his defence during the first trials - through untraceable accounts - and Severus had refused. It was bad enough being beholden to Dumbledore. He suspected that, over time, Lucius's form of repayment would have been even more unpleasant, if subtly so. "We each made our choices then, Lucius. The important thing is what we do now."

"Now?" Lucius leaned his head against the back of the sofa and smiled - the same lazy smile that had made Severus's heart flutter so many years ago. Today, it made him inexplicably sad. "Now, my friend," Lucius said, pulling Severus down onto the sofa beside him, "I suggest that we enjoy more of this fine whisky. And leave the rest of these questions for another time. Have you seen the latest edition of The Prophet? The disinformation campaign is going quite well, don't you think? I was telling Macnair the other day that..."

Severus sat back and let Lucius's words and the buzz from the fine whisky wash over him. With Lucius's warm hand on his thigh, for a while, he could almost pretend that they were just two good friends enjoying a casual afternoon drink. That they weren't now unspoken adversaries in a deadly game with a madman. That they wouldn't each sell one another out if necessary, "Nothing personal, you understand?" That Kingsley Shacklebolt wasn't planning something unspecified - something hopefully benign - that nonetheless made Severus's skin prickle with goose-flesh.

But then the sun passed beyond the window and the room fell into shadow.

6.

Two days after his run with Shacklebolt and his afternoon tea with Lucius, Severus had ample cause to curse his association with both wizards.

Severus, Hooch, McGonagall, Dumbledore, and the rest of the Hogwarts staff - sans Hagrid - were seated around the circular table in the conference room adjacent to the Headmaster's office. Unfortunately, a quorum of the Board of Governors occupied places at the table as well, and none of the wizards or witches were in especially good humour. Thus far, this quarterly meeting had been particularly unpleasant.

"Honestly, Dumbledore, we've been quite indulgent," said Cassias Merwether, a short, portly wizard with hair as wild as Potter's. "We've put up with a high turnover rate with the Defence appointment. With Dementors, monsters, and convicted criminals roaming the campus. With international embarrassment due to the Triwizard Tournament fiasco, complaints from the parents, and what have you. But this latest from the Prophet - You Know Who has risen again?" Merwether slammed the newspaper down on the conference room table. The water glasses jumped, sloshing their contents. "And this business with the Potter boy? I do believe I speak for all of us when I say that we've had enough."

A chorus of murmurs ran round the table accompanied by the nodding of heads. Meanwhile, two tea-towel clad house elves scurried around the table, cleaning up the watery mess and casting impervious charms on the scattered paperwork.

"Enough of the truth, you mean, Cassias?" Dumbledore replied, sounding unperturbed.

"Truth!" Agnes Eggens, one of the eldest members of the board, said in a quavering voice. "You mean adolescent fantasy, don't you, Dumbledore?" She pointed one long, gnarled finger at the Headmaster. "Clearly the Potter boy is disturbed and belongs in St Mungo's."

"This is what comes of admitting students who are from Muggle backgrounds, magical ability or no," Marsten Marlon Manning put in smoothly. He was a good family friend of the Malfoys. "Histrionics, jumping at shadows, delusions. Murder, even," he said, tapping his chin with a well-manicured fingertip.

"Harry Potter is not delusional and most emphatically did not murder Cedric Diggory," Minerva said with the zeal of a lioness protecting a cub. "His wand was examined after the incident. There was no evidence that the boy has ever cast any Unforgivable. Or that he is even capable of such a thing."

"So you say, Minerva," Cassias said, with a wealth of insinuation. "Some members of the Ministry seem to disagree."

"And which members might those be, Cassias?" McGonagall asked. Two spots of colour stood out on her cheeks and her eyes were narrowed.

"I'm not at liberty to say."

"Why am I not surprised."

"Even the Wizengamot takes a dim view on this business," Eggens quavered, "and personally, I don't blame them. This is precisely why having Umbridge here would be beneficial." She tapped a copy of Umbridge's Curriculum Vitae they'd been given, to emphasise the point.

"I disagree, Agnes," Dumbledore said with his usual maddening calm.

"What precisely is your complaint with Umbridge?" Manning asked. "In lieu of an appointment made to another well-qualified candidate currently on your staff," he paused to glance at Severus, "she is an excellent possibility. She is knowledgeable, skilled, and no-nonsense in her approach. Surely she would make a welcome addition to the staff. If nothing else, she is available for a long term contract. The students would surely benefit from continuity, would they not?"

Severus avoided Dumbledore's inevitable evil eye and tried to think himself invisible. Sometimes, Lucius really made his life miserable, good intentions not withstanding.

"It's not a complaint, Marsten, merely a concern. In all its years, Hogwarts has been free of Ministry influence. Do you really wish the education of the next generation of wizards and witches to be unduly influenced by the whims of politicians?"

He never had the chance to find out Manning's opinion because at that moment, the door burst open to admit Kingsley Shacklebolt, flanked by two unfamiliar Aurors.

Dumbledore immediately rose to his feet, inch by inch, until he towered over the table in a billow of purple and silver robes. "What is the meaning of this intrusion?" he demanded. A cloud seemed to have passed over the sun, the room grew dark; there was no doubt that this was the wizard who had defeated Grindelwald.

Kingsley didn't bother to look at the man; he stared directly at Severus who sat, paralysed, in his seat between Minerva and Xiomara. "Severus Snape," Shacklebolt said, "You are under arrest."

The room was silent for a breath then exploded in a cacophony of questions. "What!" "But why?" "...on earth are you..."

Around him, the others got to their feet, but Severus sat, numb and cold, and...nauseated. Betrayed. Apparently, he hadn't been paranoid enough. Once an Auror, apparently always an Auror, international spy or no.

Dumbledore raised his hand and silence rippled over the assembled. "Explain yourself, Auror Shacklebolt."

Shacklebolt ignored Dumbledore and instead, held Severus's eyes. "I have here a warrant for the arrest of Severus Snape," he said. The Auror tossed the scroll onto the table then watched it as it rolled towards the Headmaster. Peripherally, Severus could see the horror on Minerva's face. Xiomara was watching the Auror like a hawk.

"On what grounds?" Minerva snapped. She sounded as livid as she had when Manning had accused Potter of murder. In some distant corner of his mind, Severus knew he should feel gratified for that fact.

"For the murder of one Sirius Black."

Severus blinked, then clamped his lips together to avoid vomiting all over the conference table.

Beside him, Xiomara sat back in her chair, arms crossed over her chest, eyes flickering between Kingsley and the Headmaster. McGonagall, who knew that Black was alive, opened her mouth then snapped it shut.

Binns shook his head sadly, as though not really surprised. Flitwick collapsed in his chair with a wail. Sybill Trelawney moaned, "I saw it. Such darkness in his aura." Whose aura, she didn't bother to clarify. Severus experienced it all through senses gone dim and distant.

Dumbledore stiffly reached for the scroll and unrolled it. He scanned it slowly then set it back down on the table. "Ah, yes, so I see," he said, in that congenial, apologetic tone Severus knew all too well. The tone he'd taken moments before he'd left Severus behind in a damp cell in Azkaban, so many years ago, to be 'interrogated.' "I'm sorry, Severus. I'm certain it is all a misunderstanding, but it seems you will have to accompany these Aurors."

Somehow, Dumbledore's declaration had unhinged his joints. After two attempts, Severus finally made it to his feet. He slipped his hands into his sleeves and suppressed a violent shudder. "Yes, of course, Headmaster," he managed to say, through lips gone numb and stiff.

One of the Aurors leaned forward and whispered into Kingsley's ear who nodded. "Yes. Professor Snape, I shall have to ask for your wand."

A shocked gasp rippled through the room and even Xiomara glared at the Aurors.

Severus took a deep breath and with shaking fingers, withdrew his wand from his sleeve.

The two Aurors beside Shacklebolt raised theirs, pointing them at his heart.

He was forced to lock his knees to remain standing.

"Professor Snape," snapped Dumbledore, "give the...Auror," he stressed, sarcastically, "your wand. This is all a misunderstanding and I shall deal with it."

"You'd bloody better believe it's a misunderstanding," snarled Xiomara, coming to stand by him, her hand on his shoulder. Her touch provided little comfort.

As if it belonged to someone else, Severus watched as his arm extended and his fingers unclenched to place his wand on the ancient, pitted surface of the table. Shacklebolt had asked for his trust. The man would never know what it took for him to relinquish his wand, the only defence he'd ever had, to wizards dressed in the robes of Ministry Aurors.

He felt as if he were naked, in a freezing cell, awaiting...no, best not to think on that.

Shacklebolt nodded, reached over and pocketed the wand. "Oh yes, I'm sure that a misunderstanding is all it is," the Auror said with an ironic twist to his lips.

Severus closed his eyes and concentrated on neither shaking nor decorating Shacklebolt's polished boots with his breakfast.

"Where are you taking Professor Snape?" Dumbledore spoke into the silence.

"All inquiries must be addressed to the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement," Shacklebolt said, grasping Severus's arm.

He had a moment to blink, to register the fury on Xiomara and Minerva's faces, the dismay, satisfaction, or horror on the faces of the board members, and then he was ushered from the room and into the hallway.

"Try not to throw up on my shoes, will you?" Shacklebolt said, then Severus felt the familiar claw in his bowels as a Portkey activated and swept them away to Merlin knew where.

*

"Where are we?"

"My parents' flat. The one they use whenever they visit England. It's not the one assigned to me as an Auror."

Kingsley had smiled at the surprise in Severus's voice, though the tremors worried him. He had gone for verisimilitude but now he wondered if it had all been a little too real. He kept his arms around Severus, silently offering support and an apology. "My acting abilities must have improved a great deal if you thought that scene was for real."

"It looked...and felt real enough." Severus turned to face him, his face milk pale.

Oh, damn. "Good," said Kingsley gently. "Then Dumbledore will have believed it as well. He's probably yelling at the Head of Aurors right now, trying to find where you are."

"And what will the Head tell him?" Severus made it to the couch and dropped onto it as though his legs couldn't hold him any longer. Kingsley stomped on the flash of guilt: he had needed Severus's responses to be as real as possible.

"Nothing. He has no idea. He's been told that there is some information that Mysteries requires from you and that I was needed as a front for his men. I'll be surprised if someone doesn't finally realise that though I was in Auror red, my 'assistants' were in Mysteries brown."

Severus shrugged, wrapping his arms around himself. "You think Albus won't approach the Head of Mysteries?" There was still a slight quaver in his voice.

"I know so. They haven't spoken to each other since 1951." Kingsley went over to a tall cabinet and opened the doors. He picked up a bottle of cognac and poured a small drink before handing it to the still white-faced man sitting almost collapsed on the couch. If this scene had put Severus under this much strain, the reason for his being here was all the more important. And necessary. "Here."

Severus tossed back the cognac with no respect for its bouquet or age. "How long are you keeping me here?"

"About 36 hours."

He waited for the glass to be lowered and reached into his pocket to hand Severus his wand back. It quickly disappeared up a sleeve.

Kingsley made himself comfortable in his favourite armchair. "There's a ritual I want you to participate in that will increase your ability to protect yourself. From Voldemort, maybe even from Dumbledore to a certain extent."

"I see." But his face indicated that he didn't.

Kingsley smiled confidently. "I keep my promises, Severus." He pointed to a book on the table at Severus's end of the couch. "I know your Latin is excellent, but how good is your French?"

Severus cautiously reached for the book, as though he were expecting it to snap at his fingers. "Serviceable." The book had no writing at all on the covers. He opened it part way and perused some of the pages, a frown forming between his eyebrows. Kingsley could tell the exact moment when Severus understood what he had in his hands. He stilled, almost stopped breathing, then his eyes rose slowly to meet Kingsley's. "Vodou?"

Kingsley grinned. "That book is a copy of Grand'mère's personal journal. She wrote it for me as a coming of age present. She said there were things in her own copy that she didn't think I was then ready for. She was a priestess of that rite. The pages you may find interesting - it's a Garde Ritual- are towards the end, written in a brownish colour. The potions are in purple." He stood up. "I'll be in the kitchen, making us dinner. You can join me when you've finished reading. I'll answer any questions that you have. By the way," Kingsley tossed over his shoulder on his way out of the room, "after this meal, other than water, we both have to fast for 24 hours."

*

Severus made it to the commode in time, but it was a near thing.

Between the 'arrest,' the Portkey, and having skimmed the contents of Kingsley's Grand'mère's journal, his stomach - which was rarely settled in the best of times - had finally rebelled.

He heard rapid footsteps in the hallway followed by a pounding on the door. Fortunately, he'd had the presence of mind to lock it.

"Severus?" Kingsley called in a worried tone, "Severus, are you all right?"

He lifted his head to weakly glare at the back of the door. "Oh, bugger off, Shacklebolt."

And for a wonder, the man actually took the hint. There was silence for long moment, then Severus could hear the floorboards creak as Kingsley walked back towards the kitchen. He almost sagged in relief but his stomach rumbled ominously and he lurched for the toilet again.

Untold minutes later, after having flushed away his breakfast, lunch, and Kingsley's fine cognac, Severus managed to crawl to his feet, and rinse out his mouth. He splashed water on his face and carefully avoided glancing into the mirror. No need to confirm the obvious. Instead, he sagged against the wall and pressed his cheek against the cool tile.

In his seventh year, he had undertaken a special project for Binns: A Comparative Analysis of Non-European Magical Systems. There had been few volumes in the Hogwarts library on Vodou but he'd managed to gain access to several French-language treatises on the subject in Lucius's father's private library. One lengthy scroll had been written by none other than Plaisir de Beaufort, Kingsley's grandmother herself. It had proved to be a fascinating read.

The Magical and Muggle communities were far more intermingled in Haiti than they were in Europe and the practice of magic itself was tightly bound up in theology and folklore. Among his peers, it was common to sneer at magical systems the world over, like Vodou, that lacked the secularism, academic tradition, and fussy refinements of European magic. But after completing his thesis - having barely scratched the surface of the topic - Severus knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that many of these Vodou hougans and manbos were tremendously gifted, indeed. That by tapping directly, bare-handed into the source of magic, they could achieve in mere moments results that wizards using more 'refined' methods could scarcely hope to accomplish in years. They'd even managed to create ceremonies in which Muggles and Squibs might raise magic and, to some extent, control it themselves.

Potions and charms, spells to heal, to protect, and to communicate with the dead. Madame de Beaufort's age-yellowed scroll had described those, and many more. Severus had had nightmares imagining what might have happened had Voldemort been just a bit less narrow-minded or had managed to locate a true practitioner of the art.

And now, years later, Auror Kingsley Shacklebolt - who was apparently quite a bit more unusual than Severus had ever imagined - intended that he participate in a protection rite fuelled by raw earth magic. To protect him from the Dark Lord's wrath.

Severus smiled darkly to himself. His straight-laced, xenophobic, and rigidly pureblood Snape and Malfoy ancestors would be shrieking in horror at the very notion. His own sense of privacy and fear of...exposure was certainly howling loudly enough. But if for no other reasons, he was tempted to agree to Kingsley's plan. To hell with his family's theoretical opinions - what had they ever done for him? And most definitely to hell with his aversion to touch. At his age, surely he should be beyond such things!

Still, there was the question of whether he truly had any choice in the matter.

If Kingsley were to be believed, then the answer was 'Yes.' Even Dumbledore was convinced that the 'right' outcome was the result of the 'proper' choice, made in a world that was apparently brimming over with options. That was true for other people, perhaps. But what if one's so-called choices were always of the "best of the worst" variety? When every path led to a slightly-less-than-hell-on-earth, where was the bloody choice?

Severus scrubbed his hand across his mouth and gnawed on his lower lip.

He supposed that it boiled down to a matter of trust. Something that seemed so simple for everyone but him. Two days ago, Kingsley had placed his life - and the success of his mission as a spy inside the Order - in Severus's hands, seemingly without a qualm. How had he done that? How had he known that Severus would honour that trust?

His inner cynic reminded him that Kingsley had little to lose and everything to gain by cultivating him as an ally. That having his role revealed to Dumbledore would do little except get him deported - assuming that Dumbledore could muster that much internal pressure at the Ministry. Severus, on the other hand, had everything to lose: Shacklebolt was privy to the contents of all of his Ministry files. Nevertheless, he had the odd impression that Kingsley's trust had little to do with coolly weighing the odds and everything to do with that uncanny insight that seemed to elude him.

Despite its lack of popularity within Slytherin House, he had avidly studied Divination - usually in the wee hours of the morning to avoid harassment - hoping to achieve with magic the insight into motives and outcomes, what others seemed to do so intuitively. As with trust, he'd been abysmal at it.

Nonetheless, there were times in his life when he knew that it was required, when because of either fate or his own stupidity, he needed to swallow his fear, ignore the odds, and instead embrace the risk.

Severus took a deep breath then straightened up and went for the door.

For good or ill, he'd thrown in his lot with Kingsley. Time to live up to his commitment.

*

"Does it work? Truly?"

Kingsley looked up from the vegetables he was chopping. "Truly."

Severus tiredly leaned a shoulder against the door-frame. "How do you know?"

"Personal experience." He smiled at the memory. "When I announced my choice of career, Grand'mère insisted I undergo it. She died a little while after."

"Ah."

Kingsley waited. Severus said nothing.

"No questions?"

Severus shrugged. "You asked me to trust you. That's what I've decided to do."

Kingsley turned to face the man watching him. The calm tone of his words belied the emotion he was trying to control. He'd wrapped his arms around himself again and the eyes, which had the courage to meet his own, were a dull black. Moreover, in spite of his comment, he had to be brimming with questions. "I'm honoured." He gave a small bow of acknowledgement. "Thank you, Severus."

After a moment, Severus loosened the grip he had on himself and merely crossed his arms. Kingsley waited patiently as Severus examined the floor. He had an idea that what he was asking of this man was far more than he thought. His patience paid off.

"From what I've read in your grandmother's journal, the ritual is rather...intimate."

Kingsley cocked his head. He suddenly remembered how Severus had always avoided showing any of his body while at school. How even then, getting close to him was truly invading his personal space. That night, up on the Astronomy Tower, when he'd first kissed him, Severus had been as startled by the touch of Kingsley's hand on his shoulder as he had been by the first kiss. "Yes, it is."

Severus gnawed his lip as he continued inspecting the floor.

"Severus." He waited until those eyes were looking at him. "I promised to protect you. Not to hurt you. I swear, on my grand'mère's spirit, that in the ritual there is nothing painful, nothing humiliating." Then, from the conclusion he'd come to based on the contents of the Aurors' file, he added, "Nothing sexual, Severus."

Ah! There was relief in the small sigh that escaped Severus. He waited again until he got a small nod. Between now and the time of the ritual, he had to get Severus into the right frame of mind. And maybe treating the ritual as nothing all that monumental might help. "Well, then, you can come help." He offered Severus the knife and moved away from the chopping block. "You can finish the vegetables for the ratatouille. I'll start on the chicken. How much of a sweet tooth do you have?"

It worked. Severus slowly pushed himself away from the door-frame and approached the vegetables as Kingsley imagined he would a batch of ingredients for his cauldron. "Not much."

"Then cheeses for dessert. Let me see what Father left the last time he was here."

*

Throughout dinner and dessert, Severus had found himself far too tense to eat or converse very much. Much to his surprise, Kingsley hadn't pressed the issue. Instead, after they finished the excellent final course of fine cheeses, he suggested that they both get some rest. Having already questioned Kingsley about the upcoming ritual over dinner, Severus nearly leapt at the chance to escape. He did his best not to hide his relief but, from the faint smile on Kingsley's face, he suspected that the other man knew anyway. Or else he was a far more gifted Legilimens than he let on.

The bedroom he'd been given was small, but comfortable. The furniture was of light maple, with a small clothes press and bed against one wall. The other walls were lined with bookshelves filled with Muggle and Magical texts in several languages, in addition to quite a few children's books. After having a shower and donning the pyjamas and robe left for him over the back of the chair, Severus decided to explore the shelves before bed.

Growing up, books had been the only indulgence that his father allowed. "Knowledge is power, boy, never forget that," he'd often said; it was one of the few of his beliefs that Severus had ever wholeheartedly embraced. Biographies, histories, dictionaries, grammars, or tomes on the magical arts were acceptable, but never children's books and only rarely fiction. Certainly never Muggle books like many of these.

Severus pulled one slender book from the shelf and flipped it open with his thumb. On the inside cover, the ornate book-plate read: "This Book is the Property of: KiNgslEy SHackLebolT," with the name written in a shaky, childish hand. In those curiously still Muggle pictures, with simple text below, the book told the story of a young boy and his dog. The tale began with the boy receiving a puppy for his birthday. What followed was a series of lushly illustrated adventures spread across ten books: camping in the woods, chasing chickens and geese at the grandparents' farm, catching fish in a shady stream, rescuing a neighbour's sheep from a muddy ravine.

For some inexplicable reason, Severus found himself reading through each and every one of them, secretly thrilled when Michael and Prince nicked the pie from Mrs. Fletcher's window sill, and worried, despite himself, when Prince was nearly struck by a lorry after racing out into the street after a ball.

"They were my favourites as a child, too," Kingsley said, startling him into dropping the book and very nearly reaching for his wand.

"Have you never heard of knocking?" he snapped, then retrieved the book from the floor and shoved it back into place on the shelf.

Kingsley spread his hands. "The door was open. I'm sorry to have startled you."

They stared at one another for a while, then much to Severus's dismay, Kingsley entered the room. He was dressed for sleep in a night-shirt that did little to hide his splendid physique. "Did you have a pet when you were a boy, Severus?"

He crossed his arms over his chest. "My father wouldn't allow pets." The fact that his family couldn't afford them was always conveniently overlooked in Barnabas Snape's tirades against frivolous expenses. The puffskein Severus had won in a school recitation challenge had met a very messy end once his father had discovered it.

"Not even a familiar?" And when Severus shook his head, he sighed, "That's a shame. I had a crup when I was a boy. Named Prince, of course. And we got up to just as much mischief as Michael and the fictional Prince did."

Severus stepped to the side as Kingsley, with a fond smile, ran his fingers over the spines of the slim series of books. "I think that sometimes my father wished he'd never brought these books home."

Once again, Severus's tongue got away from him. "I highly doubt that," he said. "Your parents seem to have been quite indulgent, if this bookshelf is any indication."

Kingsley turned and regarded him with a puzzled frown. "Perhaps," he said, "But I think they just wanted to make certain that I didn't feel the lack of their attention. I am an only child and their work as diplomats sometimes kept them away from home."

Severus could think of nothing to say to that.

After a moment, Kingsley turned his attention back to the books with a slight smile. "Did you know that there are three more in this series? But I have never been able to find them. Out of print, apparently."

Feeling very awkward, Severus shrugged. Had Kingsley been Lucius, he would have made a snide comment to the effect that money couldn't buy everything. But then Lucius would never have been caught dead with a Muggle children's book. "That's unfortunate," he said after a pause.

"Ah well. C'est la vie," Kingsley said, still wearing that wistful smile. "I suppose I should let you sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow." He brushed past Severus on his way to the door. "Good night, Severus. And pleasant dreams."

After Kingsley closed the door, Severus stood silently for a moment then got into bed and doused the light. Good wishes aside, his dreams were rarely pleasant.

However, oddly enough, that night, instead of blood or pain, he dreamt of running. Of startling butterflies and grasshoppers out of the knee-high grasses as he ran, of a presence, beside him and yet unseen, of laughter, sunshine, and a strange sense of limitless possibility.

*

Kingsley dressed himself slowly, saying the words Plaisir had taught him that long ago day. He wore white, the colour of purity. Loose white trousers. A sleeveless white t-shirt.

He woke Severus up before dawn. Carefully, so as not to startle him. "You're to remain as silent as possible until the ritual is over. Take a shower and use the soap that's on the towel. It's strong, but you have to be very certain that you're completely clean. Use it on your hair as well. Take your time. In fact, wash twice, just to be certain. There's a new toothbrush on the towel as well. Understand?"

Severus pushed the hair off his face. He nodded.

"Good. There's a glass of water on the counter in the bathroom. Drink it. After you've washed, put on the robe you'll find hanging on the door. Then come and join me in the living room."

*

After his shower, Severus towelled himself dry and donned the terry cloth dressing-gown that Kingsley had left for him on the back of the door. He brushed his teeth, rinsed his mouth, drank the glass of water on the counter, then stared at himself in the mirror.

Too pale. Tight-lipped. Familiar oversized nose. Dark questioning eyes, with their absurdly long lashes. With a bit of stubble on his chin and cheeks; Kingsley hadn't left him a razor and the ritual forbade the use of magic on the part of the initiate.

He closed his eyes and stilled his breath, seeking within for the answer he'd sought for and failed to find in his reflection.

Last chance.

Now was the time to call a halt, were he truly unsure of Kingsley's intentions, of the nature of the ritual, of any of it. Assuming that he truly had a choice in the matter, as Kingsley insisted.

Instead of certainty, he felt a shadow of the warm, comforting presence that had partnered with him through his dreams the night before.

Severus opened his eyes and sighed. He supposed that that odd, hopeful feeling, whatever it was, would have to suffice in lieu of logic.

Perhaps it would be enough.

*

The living room was dark. The curtains all through the flat were closed, allowing no natural light in.

Kingsley watched as Severus slowly entered. He might have read up on the ritual last night, but Kingsley understood the undergoing was a completely different matter. He'd been there once himself and remembered. Even if the performer had been his grand'mère, the situation had been fraught with heavy Magic.

And the need for trust. So much of the success of the ritual depended on trust.

He gestured for Severus to stop and went to pull open the bottom drawer of the drinks cabinet. He removed seven candles and set them up around the room. The light they gave would be enough for all phases of the ritual.

All furniture had been moved back, creating a space that was ample in which for Kingsley to work..

He opened a white towel and placed it on the floor, murmuring the words that were a mixture of Latin, French and Creole. The safe place had been established. At a signal from him, Severus stepped onto the towel.

Still chanting, Kingsley removed the white towelling robe from Severus and tossed it onto the couch. Damn, the man was shaking. Small tremors were racing under his skin. And he was cold. Maybe this was asking too much of him. Kingsley wondered if he should stop now when Severus raised his head and, taking a deep breath, he nodded. Not a big nod, but one which conveyed the trust he must have to want to continue.

Kingsley accepted his decision and nodded back.

He brought a small bowl from the drawer, white, painted with the symbols of offering. He knelt and placed it on the towel in front of Severus. "You have to empty your mind of all thoughts, all emotions. Look at the flame in front of you and use it to burn any of those away."

Severus nodded slightly and his eyes focused on the flame.

Kingsley took the small pair of scissors that he'd also taken out of the drawer and, chanting once more, he knelt and used it to cut the nails of both feet, dropping the parings in the bowl. He reached up and took Severus's hand in his, pared those nails and added those cuttings to the others. He moved, on his knees, still chanting, around Severus's back, to the other hand and did the same.

Standing, he used the scissors to cut the ends of the still damp hair, making certain that he had samples of the hair that went from one side of Severus's face to the other. They all went into the bowl.

Severus was still fully focused on the flame. The concentration seemed to be working: he was no longer shaking and his skin had warmed.

Still, Kingsley allowed Severus a moment to adjust to the feel of his hand on his shoulder before it slowly skimmed down Severus's right arm. He raised it and carefully clipped some of the hair from the underarm, adding those to the bowl. He did the same with the left underarm.

Severus's chest had a line of black hair that began just under the pectorals and widened to cover the pecs, then narrowed again to form a straight line down to his genitals. Taking samples every few inches - Severus jerked slightly then settled - Kingsley added that hair to the bowl.

Then he knelt and meticulously clipped a circle of hair from around the flaccid cock and balls, careful to keep the action clear of all sexual meaning. He heard Severus's relief when he moved his hands away.

He placed the scissors on a corner of the towel, raised the bowl using both hands and, chanting louder, he carried it over to the flame that Severus had been staring at. Carefully balancing the bowl in one hand, he removed the candle from its holder and used the flame to set fire to the contents of the bowl.

There was a flash of flame as the hair caught, the smell acrid in the room. As the small fire still burned, Kingsley walked slowly around Severus, bowl in one hand, candle in the other, his chanting filling the room, until the fire had burnt itself out and nothing but ash remained.

He set the bowl down on the table in the corner and replaced the candle in its holder before blowing it out. He then walked around the room, blowing out most of the other candles, in the reverse order in which they had been lit. Only the first two were allowed to continue burning, leaving the room in flickering shadow.

He picked up the robe and draped it around Severus's shoulders. The look Severus sent him was definitely grateful.

*

Severus pulled the robe around himself and clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering - whether from the coolness of the room, or in reaction, he carefully decided not to wonder.

Allowing Kingsley to open the robe and remove it had been difficult enough...but nails and hair, clipped by silver scissors: these were the basis of many rituals of power. Rituals for summoning, for binding, that were far less benign than Madame de Beaufort's Garde Ritual purported to be.

With the addition of blood or semen, or perhaps a feather or claw or venom from a powerful magical animal and...Severus shoved the memories of other more guttural chants, of lying naked within other candle-lit circles firmly away. He thrust his arms through the sleeves of his robe then tied it tightly around his waist.

He'd studied this ritual as best he could; there were no hints of domination or subjugation in its structure. Nothing to indicate that it was anything other than an earth-based spell to protect the initiate against general ill-will and overt attempts at harm.

Nonetheless, he was glad that Kingsley had left briefly. It gave him the chance to calm his racing heart, to find his centre again, and to remind himself that Kingsley Shacklebolt was not in any way like Barnabas Snape.

*

As he stepped away, going into the kitchen, he caught Severus gathering the robe about him. If this part of the ritual had been that difficult for him, how would he handle the rest of it? When this was over, he and Severus would have a little discussion. Things he only suspected would need clearing up.

He returned with a glass of water which he silently offered to Severus, who drank it down thirstily, with shaking hands.

Severus sat on the towel, cross-legged. This part of the ritual did not demand nudity so Kingsley allowed him to retain the robe.

Kingsley faced him, also cross-legged but off the towel. He spoke slowly, encouragingly, with pauses in between each instruction until he sensed Severus was in the right state to continue. "Close your eyes. Concentrate only on what your body can sense. On your skin. In your ears. In your nose. In your mouth. Become conscious of every aspect of your body, the physical only. Your breath. Your heartbeat. The blood coursing through your body."

It took some time, but finally Kingsley saw a certain releasing of stress in the man. His breathing evened out, coming with less frequency, as though he needed fewer breaths to keep him alive. His hands relaxed, the fingers no longer clenched, the palms visible. Even his knees dropped into a more relaxed manner. His head dropped slowly, his chin eventually propped on his chest.

*

It should have been far more difficult to reach that quiet, protected space, the small, sun-dappled glade deep within his mental forest where he would always be alone; where no one would ever intrude, where there were no emotions, no memories, and no fears.

He had still been shaking. From the first part of the ritual that resonated so strongly with other, more grim spell-castings of his acquaintance. From the exposure that left the little boy he'd been terrified of the punishment that would inevitably follow.

Regardless, Severus found himself sinking rapidly into his senses, into the brush of the air currents against his bared skin, the scent of the candles, the whoosh of his pulse in his ears, and the odd sensation of warmth along his side, as if a friend were sitting nearby.

*

Kingsley left him in that state, finding his own. More practised in this, he cleared his mind of all thought save those of the man he kept his eyes on. Another time, hopefully sooner rather than later, Kingsley would at this stage ask permission to enter his mind, but not this time. This was still too new for Severus. It was obvious that taking time to locate himself in the world was not something the man did often, if at all. Well, he probably did so when he worked on his potions, otherwise they wouldn't work as well as they did.

Still, that would have to change. Legilimency and Occlumency required a calm mind. How long had they taken Severus to master without the ability to easily clear and calm his mind? Another point to add to that future discussion of theirs.

He waited until he sensed Severus was on the edge of a near-sleeping state before rising silently to his feet. There were preparations that he had to deal with now in order for the spells to settle in time for the main ritual that evening.

On his way into the kitchen, he picked up the bowl of ash.

The pestle and mortar he used had belonged to Plaisir the Priestess. He poured the ashes into the bowl, using his finger to make certain that he'd not left a speck behind. He reached for the small packets of ingredients that he'd set out last night before going to bed, so that they'd spent the night sitting in the moonlight. Equal amounts of allspice and annato, an entire small nutmeg including the dried skin of another, a dozen turmeric seeds, six cloves, some thyme, three bay leaves which he tore up, a pinch of bois bandè, and what appeared to be a rock - pierre tonnerre - the size of his fingertip.

Using the journal as a reference, he began slowly grinding the ingredients in the mortar, all the while chanting the necessary spells. It took time, but other than keeping an ear listening for sounds from the living room, Kingsley worked diligently until he had pulverised the contents. Then he added some dark rum that a cousin had sent him through questionable means, and kept on working until he had made a thick paste. To that he added the juice of one orange, the zest of its peel and pounded it all into a thick sludge.

He went and got the small clay jug from the cabinet drawer, checking at the same time on Severus, seeing that he was all right. It made him smile to hear the soft inhale of a man sleeping, still upright. That was a trait Severus must have honed over hours of waiting by a cauldron for the right time to add some ingredient, chant a spell or stir it.

Back in the kitchen, Kingsley cleaned the jug according to specifications, chanting the specialised spells over it, then used his finger dipped in the sludge to draw certain symbols on the outside. Into the sludge he poured some cooking oil, about a cup's worth, and painstakingly stirred the entire solution until the oil was cloudy with the emulsion. Taking care not to spill a drop, he poured the solution into the jug, again using a finger to get every precious drop. Then he scraped his finger clean on the rim before covering it with a clean white handkerchief.

He put that aside in a dark corner and allowed himself the pleasure of dropping into a chair. Grand'mère had warned him that this was a lot harder than it looked. After he'd taken a short rest, he drank a glass of water, washed the pestle and mortar, wiped down the counter where he'd worked and, glass in hand, went to wake Severus for the next part of the Garde Ritual.

Even though he'd been careful to wake Severus slowly, his head snapped up at the gentle shake. Kingsley placed a finger on his open mouth to remind him of the silence necessary from him. Severus blinked, quickly remembered where he was and nodded.

He drank the water gratefully.

"If you need to piss, this is the time to do it," said Kingsley softly.

Severus nodded, rose to his feet a little stiffly and went down the hall.

*

The trip to and from the loo seemed almost unreal. Faint light filtering in from the drawn curtains guided his footsteps along the hallway in Kingsley's flat and simultaneously down a forest path thick with fallen leaves and pine needles.

Severus paused in the living room. The odd double vision left him bemused but feeling utterly calm.

He watched as Kingsley relit candles and pulled the table away from the wall. The white rectangle of towel still remained on the floor. Kingsley used his wand to narrow the width and lengthen the extent of the table then lay down what looked to be a pad, covering that with three large white bath sheets.

With a smile, Kingsley stepped towards him and slowly unknotted his robe. Severus pushed down a ripple of unease.

Kingsley patted the top of the pallet and indicated that he was to lie on it.

"Face up, Severus," he said.

*

It was a measure of how much Severus had come to trust him that, apart from a wary look, Severus did not hesitate to do as he asked. He sat on the edge of the table, swung his feet up and lay back down, his eyes unreadable at they stared up at the ceiling.

The oil Kingsley used for this next portion of the ritual released an citrus aroma when warmed. He noted that apart from checking once, Severus kept his eyes focused on the ceiling. Kingsley smiled to himself: that would soon change.

He lay his hands on Severus's head and gave him all the time he needed to get used to the feel of them. While he waited, he massaged Severus's scalp with small, circular movements of his fingers. He knew he had won when Severus finally sighed and closed his eyes.

By now more than aware that he was dealing with some serious baggage, Kingsley was exceedingly gradual as he extended the massage, gently working on the tense muscles until each and every one of them gave up its tension. He took his time, not only because Severus's body needed a fair amount of work to give up its stiffness, but also because it gave him pleasure to learn this man's body.

Severus had interested him those long ago days at Hogwarts. Had he returned that sixth year, they would have become lovers.

They'd gotten to know each other that Yule holiday when Kingsley had had to remain at Hogwarts because of some diplomatic conference his parents were attending. Plaisir was working on some ritual and had thought him too young to be around it.

They'd begun talking because they'd been the only fifth years there. They'd thought themselves above the younger students and the older ones had thought them too young.

He'd been aware of Severus Snape before that. Hard to ignore the intense Slytherin who was better at many of their classes than most senior students. Better at some than their own instructors. Potions especially. Which was how they had begun talking. Kingsley was having difficulty finding his way around the O.W.L.-level assignment and had approached Severus for an explanation. He hadn't expected much help: Severus had a reputation for finding members of other Houses beneath him. However, for some reason, he had not only explained, but had directed Kingsley to the proper shelf in the Library. All done in that snarky, sarcastic tone of his.

Intellectually, they had been surprisingly compatible. Though he had some trouble with Potions, Kingsley was Severus's equal with Charms and Spells. They'd begun meeting at one of the small unused tables in the stacks every morning and, after doing some of the required holiday work, had begun exploring other topics. The Dark Arts and how they should be taught were among those discussions. Each had forced the other to accept concepts he hadn't considered. By the time the rest of the students returned, the table had become their table and they had continued meeting whenever they could. Until that night...

Kingsley smiled as he remembered that kiss in the Astronomy Tower. It surprised him that he could still remember the taste of Severus's mouth...far better than he remembered many of his sexual adventures. And with much fondness. Yes, they would have become lovers and maybe, if he'd been around...

But there was no going back and trying to relive the past. His parents had decided to send him to Beauxbatons and he and the other boy had not become lovers.

Would he and the man?

He watched for any indication that his touch was causing pain. He'd noticed some of the scars back when he'd healed Severus's body after the whipping. He'd found more of them, thin white aged lines, earlier when he'd been gathering the material to individualise the Garde Ritual. There had been far too much pain in Severus's life. And how many scars didn't show?

He was built on long, lean lines. The body was that of a nervous runner, with a wiry, roped musculature. And far too thin. There was an intensity to the Potions Master that called to him. He'd had it at fifteen, not this developed, but already there.

That and the mind. And the eyes. Those brilliant black eyes that saw so much. That shone with fervour whenever he and Kingsley had discussed his blessed potions or the Dark Arts. That's what they had been doing that night under the stars when Kingsley had leaned over and taken possession of that mouth, the thin lips stilling under the assault of his tongue. When he'd pulled away, he'd seen the hunger and the need in those eyes. He'd been so careful with Severus that night. Even at that age, he'd been the more experienced.

If only Professor Sinistra hadn't decided to check on Jupiter's moons that night.

There were a lot of "if's" in their lives.

Severus's cock was also long and lean. A true one-eyed Slytherin snake. Kingsley used his oiled hands on it, not thinking of its attractiveness. Of his need to know what it might taste like in his mouth, Severus's come shooting down his throat. Would it be salty? Sour? Gamey?

As quickly as he could, he moved away from the cock that was beginning to be aware of him: this was not a time for sexual teasing. There could be nothing forthcoming in that area until the ritual was over. He moved on to those runner's legs. Besides, he'd promised Severus and he was not about to abuse that trust.

Right now, protection for Severus took precedence over his own horniness.

"Turn over, Severus."

Those eyes opened reluctantly, the light in them sluggish. He had to help the man, practically boneless after the ministrations of his hands, do so.

Kingsley smiled. He liked this kind of work. He wondered if Severus knew how to give a good massage. If not, he would have to teach him. What good was a lover who couldn't reciprocate?

Because, in spite of the boney hips, the ribs that could be easily counted, the collarbone that was far too obvious, the knobby spine and knees, the fervour and the intelligence were still there. And to those, courage had been added. All of which was very attractive to him.

But more than that, Kingsley liked being needed by his lovers. It didn't have to be a big need, any one would do. Problem was that once the need had been satisfied, the lover wasn't all that attractive any more. Grand'mère had once told him, laughing when he'd sighed over the end of another love affair, that he'd make a better mother hen than most women. Well, there was no denying Severus had needs. Far too many of them. It might take decades...many decades...before those needs were satisfied.

Kingsley smiled as he worked loosening the calf muscles of a leg while Severus's breathing indicated that he'd slipped into sleep again.

*

They were at the final part of the ritual.

While Severus watched drowsily after being awakened, slouched in the doorway of the kitchen, Kingsley carefully poured the oil from the jug through the handkerchief into a wide-mouth transparent jar, another belonging to Plaisir.

Kingsley looked around his shoulder and took a moment to think about the man standing - dare he think more comfortably? - naked in front of him. If he added this next step, it would connect them. Is this what he wanted?

Grand'mère had once told him that decisions based on strong feelings were those one least regretted in life.

Severus yawned, his hand not making it up to his mouth in time. He leaned his head against the wood of the jamb and blinked sleepily.

With a small nod, Kingsley went to the sink and, using the soap Severus had used to shower that morning, he carefully washed his hands and a small knife. When he was satisfied, he shook the water off and went to the jar. There, eyes on Severus, he used the knife to slash a cut in the mound at the bottom of his thumb. He held his thumb over the mouth of the jar and carefully allowed only seven drops of blood to join the oil. Then he quickly used his wand to heal the cut, after which he washed his hands once more.

The oil which had come out of the clay with a yellowish green tinge now turned a reddish brown.

Kingsley gestured to the living room with his head. "It's time."

There, Kingsley refitted seven new candles into the holders and lit them.

Severus took his place in the centre of the towel. Bowl in hand, Kingsley knelt at his feet. He looked up at the man he had chosen to protect. The man he had decided would be his lover.

"Do you trust me, Severus?"

After a moment, Severus nodded.

"Then keep that trust in your mind as I do this."

This time the spells were heavily magical. The air around the two of them grew thick with the aura they cast. Kingsley spoke the words clearly, enunciating carefully. The slightest error could affect all this work.

Each time he poured some of the oil into his hands, he spelled it with special properties. Every time he used his hands to coat a part of Severus's body, he chanted others that would fuse those properties with the strengths the man already had.

The oil went on reddish, colouring the skin so that Kingsley could see if he had missed even the slightest line. The entire body had to be covered in order for the protection spells to work as they should. He began with a foot, massaging the oil onto the sole, between the toes, over them, before tackling the foot itself.

He was particular, going as far as to oil the glans under the foreskin, as much of the anus as he could with his longest finger. As he rose to his feet, he found Severus's eyes, flame light reflecting in their darkness, looking at him with an intensity... He had asked the man for his trust. Not being able to speak it, his eyes communicated that trust to him. Kingsley shivered.

Using the finger of another hand, he nudged Severus's mouth open and coated the inside with the protective oil. He knew that it would taste of spices and herbs, with a hint of the orange. He remembered that from the ritual at Plaisir's hands. Would the addition of his blood make much of a difference?

He dipped his smallest finger into the oil and inserted it into the nostrils; again, and into the ears. When Severus's face was hued with the oil, Kingsley poured the last of it into his hands and used it to coat Severus's scalp and even his hair.

When that was done, he stepped back and, circling Severus, spoke the last spell, the words that would work the magic of the Garde Ritual.

Severus gasped as his skin heated, as it absorbed all traces of the oil. His eyes opened wide and Kingsley knew he was feeling the power of the Ritual that would protect him until the end of his days.

*

"How much protection does it offer?"

They were sitting at the kitchen table, eating reheated ratatouille and cold chicken. Severus was wearing the robe, now and then still checking to see if any of the colouration could be found on his skin. Like the oil, the colour had been absorbed at the moment of mergence.

"It doesn't make you invincible. Unfortunately. So no doing anything stupid that gets you hurt."

That was met with a sardonic raising of an eyebrow.

Kingsley smiled. "What it does is make your own self-protection stronger. For example, should Voldemort decide to use Cruciatus on you, or have you whipped again, you won't feel the pain as much as you have in the past. Which means you're going to have to play at being more affected than you actually are. If you're wounded, it will give you more time to get to help."

Severus picked up his wine glass and examined it carefully. Kingsley waited. He had a feeling he would often have to wait for his man to put his thoughts into words.

"Will it help me to...to balance the tightrope that is my life?"

Asked very cautiously.

Kingsley sat back, giving the question the serious thought it required. "To a certain extent. But its power is mainly physical, not psychological. At least not that I've noticed much." But then his needs had been far different than Severus's were.

"You might find that should you need to block some Legilimency; Occlumency may be a easier to do." He smiled reassuringly. "We'll work on some exercises that deal with mental protection. But not tonight. Right now, how do you feel?"

Severus took a sip of the wine. "Relaxed."

Kingsley laughed softly. "Don't sound so surprised. Considering the amount of time I worked on your body, there shouldn't be a knot of tension anywhere in it."

Severus merely lifted his lips with a small smile that made Kingsley feel he'd received a exuberant compliment. But then it disappeared. The wine glass in Severus's hand became interesting again. Kingsley waited.

"You haven't commented about the Mark."

Said far too calmly. Almost disinterestedly. Kingsley placed his wine down on the table. He kept his voice gentle. "What would you want me to say? That it's ugly? It is. Not just because of what it stands for, but because the getting of it had to have caused you pain. Yes, it mars your skin. But it's no uglier to me than the scars on your back. Some of which are far older than your siding with Voldemort."

Not really a question, but he wondered if Severus would hear it as one.

After a long silent minute, Severus placed his own glass on the table. "My father did not approve of my running. It wore out my boots before I had time to outgrow them. It made him...angry."

"And violent."

Severus shrugged. He suddenly straightened and looked around the room as though reassuring himself of where he was. "If you don't need me any more, it might be time for me to return of Hogwarts."

Kingsley nodded: he'd pushed enough for tonight. He allowed his voice to become all business. "Dumbledore will ask you where you've been. Tell him that you don't know. Not a lie since you have no idea where this particular flat is. Tell him that you were told by an Unspeakable that you were to be available for questioning at any time. Again, not a lie as I can be classified as an Unspeakable. That the Head of Mysteries has decided that Dumbledore needs watching. Which he has. And that using the threat of arrest for the murder of Sirius Black..."

Severus silently questioned that.

"Yes, it is feasible since no one has seen him since end of term at Hogwarts. Your displeasure at his disappearance is well known within Ministry circles because of Fudge. So, the upshot is that you had no choice but to agree, even after you explained to them that you don't have much to do with the Order."

"Yes, after all, why would the Order admit one of my background?"

Kingsley ignored the muttered comment. He continued. "That the one concession you managed to get was that I was to be appointed the one you report to, since they've already used me. That there will be less suspicion among your colleagues if I went to you rather than you come out of Hogwarts to report to some unknown. You rarely leave Hogwarts and to begin doing so now would only cause questions to be asked. You can tell Dumbledore that, this way, the Order can control what information Mysteries gets as they have no idea that I am a member of the Order."

Severus's nod was not all that convinced. Maybe this would help.

"When Voldemort Summons you, you can tell him the same thing, only remember to indicate that one of the men who interrogated you was called Torquil by his associate, who was immediately told to shut up."

Severus raised an eyebrow. "The Head of the Department of Mysteries?"

Kingsley nodded. "Yes. Malfoy will know who Torquil is. So will Dumbledore. You can add that the man limped and had a stiff left arm. That will confirm it for both camps.

"The fact that Mysteries is interested in Dumbledore should increase your value to Voldemort, since Malfoy doesn't have any entry there." Severus, he was pleased to see, quickly caught the importance of that. "You can let it drop that Fudge is worried Dumbledore wants his job - Malfoy will support you in that - and Mysteries has decided not to take any chances. If Dumbledore decides to make a move, they want to be ready for it."

He waited but Severus said nothing. "I'll supply you with more information as we go along."

Severus cocked his head and actually smiled. "Very believable."

Kingsley grinned back, no longer an Unspeakable. "I used to practice on my mother. Mind, she never really believed anything I said. She told me that I was too much like her for that."

He caught the small smirk on Severus's face as he turned to find his clothes.

Both wizards dressed to leave. The flat had been returned to its usual condition and there was only a hint of the magic that had been worked between its walls.

"I'll Apparate with you to Hogsmeade," said Kingsley, "then I have to report to Torquil." Severus only nodded, saying nothing, allowing Kingsley's arms to encircle him from behind. He could have protested that he had his wand and could Apparate by himself. But he didn't. Instead, Kingsley felt the slight resting of Severus's body against his. He nestled his chin onto the other's shoulder and slightly tightened his hold around the man. They were of a height, though Kingsley thought he probably outweighed Severus by a good fifty pounds. Severus, to his great delight, leaned back a little more. "Let me know how it goes with Dumbledore."

A nod and Kingsley managed to nestle his chin a little closer to Severus's throat before whispering the co-ordinates for a rarely frequented alley in Hogsmeade into his ear.

*

Severus parted with Kingsley in Hogsmeade. Reluctantly. And he pondered that reluctance on his walk back to Hogwarts. It was late evening and the streets were relatively empty. Although nearly everyone had gone home to supper, he avoided the main streets. Fortunately, the few people he encountered didn't acknowledge him.

The past two days had been...unsettling. He'd been arrested, abducted, and then had participated in one of the most profound magical experiences of his life. His skin and limbs still hummed with residual magic. If he hadn't checked the mirror before he'd left Kingsley's apartment, he would have been certain that he was glowing.

As he'd suspected, earth-magic was potent stuff; and Kingsley Shacklebolt was a very talented wizard. And a very shrewd man. He'd clearly honed his exceptional intellect over the years.

There was no denying that Severus had approached the ritual with trepidation. That the idea of exposing himself, of having Kingsley's hands upon him, had nearly made him ill. Then, there was also the matter of the spell itself. As a rule, he avoided ceremonial magic, especially rituals he was unable to research thoroughly beforehand. He'd had far too many unpleasant experiences as a child, and later as an adult - courtesy of his father and uncle, not to mention Voldemort - with dubious rituals designed for Dark ends.

But he could not deny that the Garde Ritual had proven to be something entirely different. He had experienced no pain, very little fear - at least not once the ritual was well along - and none of his blood had been shed. It was unprecedented! Kingsley's hands had been...professional, comforting even, in an odd and yet familiar way that defied explanation or analysis. With those curiously gentle hands and that resonant voice of his, Kingsley had called magic from the earth and soothed it over Severus's skin, leaving peace and genuine relaxation in its wake; he had felt as if he were being bathed in light.

Then afterwards, he'd awaited the inevitable questions about the Dark Mark, but they'd never come. Instead, Kingsley had wondered about the other, older marks - reminders of the price Severus had paid, again and again, to defy his father in matters both minor or deadly serious.

Kingsley was an intriguing and powerful man, Severus had concluded, and exceedingly attractive as well. He'd done his best to ignore that last fact until Kingsley had, for no discernible reason, embraced him to whisper the Apparition co-ordinates into his ear.

Severus snorted to himself and quickened his pace as he left the outskirts of Hogsmeade and made his way along the path back to Hogwarts.

He despised playing "What if?" games: the past was past and nothing could unmake his choices - or burn the Dark Mark from his arm. But given Kingsley's concern, his baffling sincerity, the effort he'd gone through to arrange and perform the ritual, and the brilliant strategy he'd devised to outwit Dumbledore, Severus couldn't help but wonder how different his life might have been if Sinistra hadn't happened along at the worst possible moment that long ago night.

Annoyed with himself, he drew his wand and hexed a loose rock on the path. It disintegrated with a satisfying crack. Might-have-beens didn't matter. But what might be, now that was more interesting. Which brought him back to his reluctance to return to Hogwarts. For some reason, Shacklebolt had seemed...interested in him, and not just as a convenient means to an end.

And how likely was that?

He paused to inflict his cynicism on another unsuspecting rock.

Nonetheless, the lure of What Might Be had made Severus want to linger for a while in the man's presence, to talk to him , to hear about his experiences in France, about Plaisir, to argue about ethics and the Dark Arts again, and to maybe...to maybe discover if his lips were as soft, his tongue as wickedly clever as Severus remembered.

Severus shook his head. He was within sight of the castle. Time to don yet another mask, this one of chastened, exhausted 'guest' of the Ministry. There would be time enough to taunt himself with the impossible once he'd survived his interview with Dumbledore. And put Shacklebolt's "protection" to the test.

*

He'd just given the password to the Gargoyle when he heard Minerva calling his name.

"Severus!" she exclaimed, rushing towards him. "Good heavens! What happened? Where did Shacklebolt take you? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Minerva, just a bit tired." Which was a barefaced lie. If anything, he felt invigorated, nigh well invincible, but he needed to maintain the facade. After a two-day interrogation by Aurors, everyone would expect him to be anything but relaxed.

She frowned at him, taking in his rumpled clothing and wind tangled hair, clearly sceptical and worried. "Are you certain? Have you seen Poppy yet?" During the holidays, she rarely dressed in her academic robes unless attending an official meeting. Today, with her hair down and wearing a spring green dress beneath a casual robe, she looked unusually accessible and - though she'd glare at him for saying it aloud - rather maternal.

"Yes, I'm certain; no, there is no reason to bother Poppy." Truth of a sort, but he still felt a slight twinge about evading her questions. Of all the senior staff, he knew that Minerva really did care about his well-being, despite her generally formal manner. During his first years of teaching, she'd even taken it upon herself to mentor him, giving him advice about curriculum development and handling disciplinary problems.

She crossed her arms. "Severus."

He feigned exasperation in turn. "I will get some rest after I've spoken to the Headmaster. Will that do?"

Her expression softened. "I suppose it will have to. But listen, before you speak to him, you need to know - he's been relieved of his position as Chief Warlock for the Wizengamot."

Severus blinked. "You're joking."

Minerva shook her head. "It seems that Lucius's smear campaign is beginning to pay dividends."

"Damnation." Lucius would be insufferable for the next several weeks. And more than ever, Severus would need to provide the Dark Lord with some tangible progress. Kingsley's timing had been impeccable. Nonetheless, a familiar knot of tension settled in his stomach and suddenly, Severus wasn't so worried about being able to maintain his 'act' in front of Dumbledore; it was no longer an act.

"My feeling exactly. Though Albus appears unconcerned, as if he's got some secret plan. I am not convinced. He's been working all hours trying to gain your release, and now this. I think it's all hit him harder than he'd like to admit."

"No doubt," Severus said. They regarded one another silently, then Severus turned to ascend the spiral stair case. He was surprised to find Minerva behind him.

"Severus Snape, if you think that I'm going to let you face him alone, then you don't know me very well," she said with a grim smile, then followed him up the stairs.

*

The office door was ajar. Severus carefully shielded his emotions, knocked lightly then entered, ushering Minerva before him. Fawkes trilled a welcome and immediately left his perch to circle the room once, then land briefly on Severus's shoulder. Startled, he reached up to stroke the bird's throat, enjoying the erstwhile warmth and joy evoked by the magic of the song of the phoenix. Fawkes always greeted him thus, after he'd returned from Voldemort's meetings. That he did so now underscored Minerva's assessment of Dumbledore's concern.

"Headmaster," Severus said, "I came as soon as I was able."

Dumbledore turned away from the window and hurried towards them; he looked genuinely worried.

"At last," Dumbledore said, gesturing towards the chairs set in front of the fireplace. "I was beginning to despair that I would ever have you back with us, Severus. What happened? Are you all right? Have you eaten something? What the devil was Shacklebolt playing at?"

Fawkes departed for his perch and Severus took the comfortable chair furthest from the fire. Despite a sharp look from Dumbledore, Minerva chose its companion. Severus relaxed fractionally; her simple gesture of support warmed him. He also appreciated the distraction she represented for Dumbledore.

Dumbledore fussed with the tea service and plate of biscuits just long enough for Severus to decide that he was probably wise to be sceptical. He skipped the biscuits but accepted a cup of tea. He cradled it in his hands with no intention of actually drinking it.

"I was released from custody a short while ago," he said, taking care to clear his mind and detach from his lingering emotions. Dumbledore was quite likely to press him using Legilimency - subtly, of course - sometime during the 'interview'. "And unfortunately, I have some unpleasant news. The Department of Mysteries knows about the Order, Headmaster, and they have decided that you bear watching."

"What? What did you tell them?" Dumbledore seemed taken aback. He sat down heavily in the chair behind his desk. "Let me hear what happened. From the beginning."

Severus set the cup aside and steepled his fingers. "After Shacklebolt 'arrested' me, we were Portkeyed to an unknown location." He allowed himself to imagine a nondescript room: four bland walls, no windows, a single door, and reflect the image outward from his mind, should Dumbledore care to investigate. "There, we were met by several Unspeakables, none of whom I recognised, and Torquil. Torquil was the one who...questioned me."

Minerva blinked in surprise, and as Kingsley had predicted, Dumbledore sat up straight and his pale blue gaze sharpened. Severus waited, and then...there it was, the anticipated light brush over the surface of his mind. He exhaled and focused his will inward; it seemed unusually easy to strengthen his mental shields in response. The thin thread of magic only ruffled the strands of his benign surface thoughts.

"I always knew that feud you had with him could come back to haunt you, Albus," Minerva said.

Dumbledore's lips tightened. "And what did Torquil have to say, Severus?" he asked slowly. "What was Shacklebolt's role in all this?"

The light touch against his mind became a steady pressure. Severus concentrated on his lingering resentment for the manner of the arrest, of being used as a pawn yet again in another's game, and allowed the questing touch to slip harmlessly over his shield without finding a foothold. "Somehow, it seems that Torquil has learned of the Order. He knows you are involved and suspects my involvement as well. He wanted names, goals, details."

"But what of the arrest?" Minerva wanted to know. "What of these spurious allegations of murder?"

It seemed that Dumbledore wanted to know that answer as well. The steady mental pressure had become an insistent, purposeful throb. Ordinarily, Severus would have been nearly panting with the effort needed to misdirect such an attack. The ease with which he did so now made him want to laugh with delight. If the Garde Ritual was as effective against the Dark Lord, then Kingsley Shacklebolt was well worth his weight in platinum.

"Apparently, it was a simple ruse," Severus said. "One that, given my well-known dislike for Black," he made a sour face, "would seem especially plausible to certain members of the Ministry."

Minerva snorted. "Such as Fudge, you mean."

"Indeed. As for Shacklebolt's involvement," Severus frowned deliberately as Dumbledore intensified his...inquiry, "from what I could deduce, Torquil needed an Auror to make the arrest. Given that Black is his assignment, Shacklebolt managed to volunteer himself to do the deed."

Always a perceptive witch, Minerva had picked up the tension between him and Dumbledore. No doubt she'd also detected the whiff of magic as Dumbledore exerted his will. "There, you see, Albus?" she said into the small silence. "There was a logical explanation, just as I expected."

But Dumbledore ignored her. He sat completely motionless, like a snake about to strike. "And what did you tell them, Severus?"

Severus knew the tone well. He purposefully shifted in his seat a bit, as if made uncomfortable by Dumbledore's scrutiny. Nothing could have been further from the truth however. It actually took quite a bit of concentration to suppress his smug satisfaction at how well Dumbledore seemed to have fallen for his act.

"As little as I could," he said with the precise degree of irritation, reproach, and servility Dumbledore would expect. "Quite obviously, they knew that Black is alive. But they didn't press too hard for answers regarding the Order and weren't inclined make use of Veritaserum. In fact, I suspect that Torquil either knew you had named a Secret-Keeper or - "

"Or he wanted to send you a message, Albus," Minerva said.

Severus nearly bit his tongue. McGonagall couldn't have helped him more if they'd scripted the meeting beforehand!

Dumbledore regarded his Deputy for a moment, then nodded. "Or he wanted to send me a message, yes," he said. When he turned back to Severus again, his eyes were narrowed. "And it took two days for all this to happen."

The pressure was incredible now, but still Severus managed to shrug. "I wasn't inclined to be co-operative," he said through gritted teeth. As Kingsley had warned, the Garde Ritual was clearly not all powerful.

The pressure ceased. "No, I don't suppose that you were." Dumbledore said mildly. He picked up his own tea cup and took a sip.

"More than information about the Order," Minerva said, tapping her chin with one finger, "I suspect that Torquil wants information about the Prophecy."

Dumbledore stood up and paced behind his desk. "Well, I suppose that it was too much to hope that, once the rumours about Voldemort's return surfaced, the Department of Mysteries would ignore the evidence lying beneath their very noses."

"Their interest in the Order is not inconsiderable, however," Severus said. "As a condition of my release, I was told that I must be available at any time for 'interrogation,' preferably here, at Hogwarts."

"What? That's absurd," Minerva said. "The charges weren't even valid!"

"And when has that ever stopped the Ministry?" Severus didn't have to feign his bitterness.

"You really didn't expect anything different, did you, my dear?" Dumbledore said to Minerva, looking as if he'd swallowed a bitter potion. "First Umbridge and now this. It seems as if the Ministry is determined to gain a foothold here at Hogwarts, through methods fair or foul."

His resentment didn't come as much of a surprise to Severus. The old man might smile and cajole and twinkle when the situation warranted it, but at the end of the day, he wanted to control both Hogwarts and the Order with an iron fist. "At least Shacklebolt managed to get himself assigned as my contact," Severus ventured into the tense silence.

Minerva looked somewhat mollified. "Well, that's something. At least this way, we can control what information Torquil gets regarding the Order."

If anything, Dumbledore looked even more displeased. "Ah yes. Kingsley Shacklebolt does seem to have made himself quite useful, hasn't he?" he said with obvious reluctance. When Minerva frowned at him, Dumbledore held her eyes briefly then sighed. "I really must thank him for his timely intervention."

"Assuming that Severus agrees," Minerva said, glancing at him, "this might also be an excellent opportunity to gather some intelligence about the Department of Mysteries. Arthur has been concerned about what extra steps we might take to safeguard the prophecy."

Dumbledore nodded. "Yes, yes," he said, "an excellent suggestion, Minerva. I don't suppose that you would care to add an additional bit of espionage to your duties, now would you, Severus?"

Severus nearly rolled his eyes. Which god had he pissed off so spectacularly as to merit yet another pack of lies to manage? Although he supposed that this was the price he paid for initiating his own game, rather than constantly being a pawn in the games of others. At least this way, he had an excellent excuse to spend more time with Kingsley. "But of course, Headmaster," he said, swallowing his annoyance, "anything to bring down the Dark Lord."

Severus gritted his teeth when Dumbledore smiled and said, "I knew we could count on you, dear boy."

*

Three interminable hours later, Minerva and Dumbledore were still wrangling over the details of how the Order should best manage this newest set of reports. Bidding them both good night, Severus was finally able to make his escape.

Although Kingsley's protection spell had performed far beyond Severus's expectations, Dumbledore didn't need exotic skills like Legilimency to pry information from the unwilling or the unsuspecting. As a result, Severus made his way down to the dungeons with a pounding headache and feeling utterly wrung out. And famished. His brief supper with Kingsley was too many hours in the past.

He stopped by the kitchens to get a snack before bed only to come face to face with a deeply annoyed Xiomara Hooch who was sitting at the table near the fireplace.

She inhaled sharply as if to speak but Severus held up his hand. "For pity's sake, woman! At least let me get some dinner before you start in on my second interrogation of the evening."

Her eyes narrowed but she held her peace as he scavenged a plate of cold meat and cheese from one of the cold boxes. While he was selecting some fruit she tried to surreptitiously cast a diagnostic charm on him. "Damn it, Xiomara, I'm fine."

"You're exhausted."

"And your grasp of the obvious is stunning," he snapped, brushing past her on his way out of the door.

She followed him, hard on his heels. "We were worried about you, you annoying git!"

"Duly noted," he said, walking briskly and forcing her to keep pace with his longer strides.

"Well excuse me for giving two gobs of hippogriff spit about the fate of your narrow poxy yellow arse!"

Severus paused outside his door and smiled. "No one can turn a phrase quite so elegantly as you, Madam Hooch."

"Why, thank you, Severus." She smiled briefly in return, then frowned as he released the wards and opened his door. "But don't think that I'm letting this go, just because you...Bugger!"

She'd stepped on the back of his boot when he stopped suddenly on the threshold.

"Damn it, Severus!" She thumped him on the shoulder until he moved to one side to let her see.

There, on the mantelpiece sat Lucius Malfoy's large tawny eagle owl, a cream coloured envelope clutched in its talons.

Severus sighed and leaned his head against the door jamb. "This evening just gets better and better."

7.

One of the good things -- if not the only good thing -- about arse-numbing meetings was that they allowed Kingsley to think while he pretended to be interested in the usual boring rehash. All he had to do was murmur the occasional "Uh-huh," and nod once in a while. Those speaking never seemed to notice that his eyes had glazed over just moments after they'd begun pontificating their importance.

The Garde Ritual had been harder on him than he'd considered. Especially the decision to activate the connection between Severus and himself.

Merde, the whole Ritual thing had been a gamble, now that he thought back on it. It had needed Severus to trust him completely and he'd put that to the test by 'arresting' him in front of all those people. Oh, it had been necessary. But he really hadn't known the cost to Severus would be so high. Listening to him puke up his guts and not barging in to help hadn't been easy. Nor had walking away when Severus had asked him to.

That wasn't Kingsley's style, walking away when he was needed.

But it had been important to do as it had helped to rebuild some of that lost trust.

He sighed and had to refocus on the meeting to indicate that he wasn't disagreeing with whatever idiotic comment had been made by the Junior Auror reporting.

Trust and Severus Snape.

Damn the man. He'd been hard to approach as a student; as a man, it had been nearly impossible. Every time Kingsley thought he was getting somewhere with Severus, it was rudely brought to him that he wasn't.

He was careful not to sigh aloud again. Nor to snicker. Grand'mère must be rocking with laughter wherever she was at the trouble he was having. Yes, Grand'mère, he had had it too easy for most of his life. A smile, a deepening of his voice, a gentle touch and he had had anyone he'd wanted eating out of his hand.

Severus was making him work for every little step forward. Maybe that was why Kingsley wanted him so much. Whatever relationship would develop between them, Severus would never make things easy. And Kingsley appreciated things that hadn't fallen into his hands, that he'd had to work hard to get.

Hopefully, the Garde Ritual would help ease his way into Severus's life. Kingsley had meant it when he'd told Severus that he took care of his people. Once Severus truly understood what that meant, to the marrow of his bones, they would be able to move on to the next stage of what Kingsley expected to be a long and fulfilling relationship.

He stiffled a yawn. Why did this idiot need twenty minutes to communicate what a one paragraph memo would have done?

He plastered the illusion of interest on his face while he decided that a visit to Hogwarts might not be out of line. Just to check on how Severus was doing, of course. The Garde Ritual could take so much out of a wizard.

Kingsley settled back in his chair and pretended to care that someone was attempting to smuggle in flying carpets.

*

Far too many hours later, he escaped the bowels of the Ministry and Apparated to Hogsmeade. From there, he followed the path to Hogwarts, walking so rapidly that, despite the lovely evening, he took little notice of his surroundings.

Albus Dumbledore was currently at the Ministry, still fighting his removal from the Wizengamot, and that knowledge, coupled with the fact that he was off to visit Severus for the first time since staging the 'arrest', made it impossible for Kingsley to keep the smile from his face. Even the fact that Severus had been Summoned to Voldemort last night, and that they would need to discuss the implications of what had transpired, couldn't dull his enthusiasm.

That pleasant anticipation carried him along the path and right up to the doors to the Hogwarts dungeons themselves. From there, it was only a short, uneventful walk to Severus's office down the hall. With a whistle and a grin, he bounced down the flight of stairs into the dungeons only to have his arm grabbed by an unseen assailant and to be nearly swept off his feet and into an empty and dark classroom at the base of the stairs.

Kingsley let his wand slip from its sheath along his forearm and into his palm, preparing to throw a bit of spell fire at his attacker. But before he could utter a syllable, he found himself pinned against the closed door by a shorter, but definitely solid body, with a wand pressed against his throat.

"Not so fast, Shacklebolt," a woman said.

"Lumos," another woman said and torches along the walls ignited filling the chamber with light.

Kingsley blinked in amazement and confusion. "Professor McGonagall?" he said, addressing the taller woman who'd lit the torches. "And Madam Hooch?" he croaked as the elbow against his diaphragm pressed a bit harder. "Is something wrong, ladies?"

Hooch twisted her wand against his throat and he winced. "Wrong?" she asked, "Whatever might have given you that idea?"

McGonagall put one hand on her hip, her wand was gripped easily in the other. "Easy, Xiomara, give the man a chance to speak."

"Speak? Speak about what? Whatever is going on in here? Has something happened to Severus?"

Hooch's yellow eyes narrowed to slits. "Yes, as it so happens, something has happened to Severus. Apparently, he has been suckered into some new game of yours. I warned you, Shacklebolt..."

McGonagall's lips were pressed in a thin line; she said nothing.

More than a bit puzzled by the hostility, Kingsley said, "Er, game, what game? I'm not playing a game with Severus. And, could you be so good as to move that wand?"

"You know exactly what game, you lying bastard," Hooch said, pressing harder against him.

McGonagall put her hand on Hooch's arm and gently forced the wand away from his throat. "That's enough, Xiomara," she said, frowning a little. Hooch lowered, but did not sheath her wand. "What Xiomara is referring to, Mr. Shacklebolt, is that little arrest you staged in the Headmaster's office a few days ago."

Only a short while ago, it was 'Kingsley.'

"Oh, that," Kingsley said, thoroughly nonplussed and more than a little wary of both women, wondering if they were playing a game of divide and conquer with him.

Hooch snorted. "Yes that, you fool!"

McGonagall crossed her arms. "Well?"

Uncertain as to who knew what, Kingsley decided to play for time. "Why, what makes you think that was a game I was playing? I am an Auror. I am trying to locate Sirius Black." He looked back and forth at both witches. "And no one has seen him since that night a year ago when Professor Snape..."

"Oh please," Hooch said, with a sneer. "We weren't born yesterday. Do you think that it somehow escaped our notice that you were the only Auror in the room on the morning of the arrest?"

McGonagall was openly scornful. "And do you think that neither of us noticed that Severus returned from his "interrogation" in surprisingly good condition for having been imprisoned for two days? Severus refused to speak of it, but then, I wouldn't expect him to. He rarely trusts anyone with so much as a hang nail."

Kingsley glanced at Hooch, still uncertain what Minerva knew. "Ahhhh, yes, well...well, you see, Professor McGonagall, it's this way..." What the hell was the matter with him? These were two witches, both older than he was. Hooch may have been in as good condition as he was, but that was no reason to feel so...so young and...guilty.

Hooch sneered. "Oh, this ought to be good."

McGonagall held up a hand. "Let's hear the man out. Perhaps he really does have something of interest to say." But she sounded as if she doubted it.

"Well, you see, Professor, I..." He gave up trying to guess, and sighed. "Professor McGonagall, just how much do you know about the situation here?"

"Assume that I know nothing, Mr. Shacklebolt," McGonagall said crisply, raising one eyebrow, "That way, I can be certain that you'll share with us the entire story, rather than more bits of that creative fiction you obviously convinced Severus to tell Dumbledore."

Offended, Kingsley snapped at her, "I, Madam, do not create fiction! In fact, I have no idea what you think any of this is about. Perhaps you should be the one to tell me..."

"Ha! See, I told you, Minerva. We'll find out nothing from him."

The two women shared a meaningful look. "I'm beginning to see your point. However, let us humour the good Auror, for the sake of good relations with Hogwarts alumnae."

McGonagall turned back to Kingsley. "Let us tick off the points one by one, shall we?" she said, holding out her hand. "Point one: you and two members of the Ministry of Mysteries - not the Ministry of Law Enforcement - show up in Dumbledore's office and arrest Severus for a murder that we, and you, know did not take place." She touched her index finger with her wand.

Kingsley bit back a grimace. "Er, Yes, well. How perceptive of you to notice... As for Sirius Black...I didn't know that both of you knew that he wasn't dead. I can only assume that..."

Hooch interrupted him. "We certainly knew that, even if he were dead, Severus would never have killed him!"

"Ahem," McGonagall said, "Point two: the four of you depart for points unknown for two days. Despite all of our connections, none of us are able to obtain any information about Severus and his whereabouts or the evidence for the so-called charges." She touched her longest finger with her wand.

"Two days?" Kingsley said faintly, "Was it really two days?"

McGonagall snorted. "Please don't try our patience, Mr. Shacklebolt. We can count, just as well as you."

"Yes, well, you see, it was important for me to talk to Professor Snape in complete security."

"I'll just bet," Hooch grumbled under her breath.

"Uh, tell me," Kingsley ventured, "does the Headmaster know that you two know about Sirius Black?

Hooch scoffed. "That we know what about Black? That he's a complete arsehole? Well, yes, we certainly knew that!"

"Gee, I'm pleased to hear that. Do you think the Headmaster noticed?"

McGonagall quelled both Kingsley and Hooch with a look. "Yes, Shacklebolt," she said. "Dumbledore knows that we know that he's alive. I personally know precisely where he is at this moment, if you should doubt our word on the former. Don't attempt to change the subject. Point three," she touched her ring finger, "Severus is returned to Hogwarts, in surprisingly good health given the usual treatment parolees are subjected to.

"And finally, point four: Severus tells Dumbledore that Torquil wants a spy within the Order, probably wants the contents of the prophecy, and that - conveniently enough, you have been chosen to collect Severus's reports." McGonagall put her hands on her hips. "You seem to be rather intricately mixed up in all this, Mr. Shacklebolt, so forgive us when we seem a bit sceptical that you aren't playing some game of your own, with Severus as your own personal game piece."

Kingsley equivocated. "Well, since you know all that, you must also know that secrecy is paramount. There are things I cannot tell you. Reasons of security. I am certain that you two ladies are more than trustworthy, but my hands are tied. I have orders to obey...."

McGonagall's eyes narrowed. "Whose security, exactly? And orders to obey whom?"

Hooch glared at him and a shower of sparks burst from her wand. "And why do I get this feeling that we're about to be sold a load of hippogriff dung?" she growled.

Kingsley resisted the urge to gulp. "Whose security? Why that of the Order, of course."

"As I said, crap. Complete and utter crap."

"We are at war, ladies!" Kingsley protested. "I am not in charge here..."

McGonagall pursed her lips. "This arrest was not made with Dumbledore's approval, so I question your assertion that your attempt to weasel out of responding is made with Order security in mind."

"Yes, well...others have shown interest...well, they might have..."

He'd chosen unfortunate words. Hooch pounced immediately. "What the bloody hell are you talking about? What 'others'? What kind of interest? Our only interest here is in Severus Snape's safety. Something that you seem to be determined to put in jeopardy with whatever game it is that you're playing."

Kingsley looked from McGonagall to Hooch. Neither woman appeared to be willing to give any quarter. "Look, ladies. Madam Hooch...I gave you my word that I would do all in my power to help Severus Snape..."

"You'd damn well better!"

McGonagall cut in smoothly. "Interesting phrasing, Mr. Shacklebolt. Where are the Order's interests in all this?"

Feeling a bit desperate, Kingsley said, "It's not a game. Xiomara, please, tell her about our conversation. I had to get Severus somewhere safe...for some hours...I did him no harm. The arrest didn't hurt him either. You said it yourselves, he came back in far better shape than he's been for some time. As for the Order's interests...well, a healthier Snape is a better spy for the Order....isn't he?"

"You should have been a barrister, Shacklebolt, the way you argue," Hooch said, with a wry twist of her lips.

But McGonagall was not impressed. "Xiomara has told me about your conversations. But what you haven't explained is why you took Severus. For what purpose?"

"That I can not tell you."

McGonagall's slight smile was at odds with the unpleasant glint in her eye. "Oh, but I do believe that you must. Otherwise you might find it very difficult to collect your "reports" in future."

"I'm sorry...It's between Severus and myself. If he decides to tell you, that's his decision, but I can't be the one to say anything." Kingsley felt sweat spring up between his shoulder blades. "I have full authority to be here. There's nothing you can do about that..." He trailed off weakly as McGonagall's smile became downright nasty.

"Heh. He really has no idea, does he, Minerva?" Hooch said fingering her wand.

McGonagall's lips curved in a small dark smile. "No," she said to Hooch, "I don't believe that he does." She turned back to Kingsley and her fierce expression reminded him all too forcefully that amongst lions, the lionesses always led the hunt. "Listen carefully, Mr. Shacklebolt, as I dislike repeating myself. Albus seems to have bought Severus's story - or perhaps I should say, your story. But neither Xiomara or I are convinced. Should I happen to cast the least bit of doubt on your fable, Albus will make your life hell. He already has more than enough cause as it is. And let me be clear, even if I am not inclined to involve Albus, I am the Deputy Headmistress at this school and I will see to it that you and Severus are never allowed to converse without my direct supervision."

This time Kingsley did gulp. "Ma'am. Please. Look, I'm serious. I mean Severus no harm. Hell...Xiomara...Professor McGonagall...you have to believe me."

Hooch took a step closer and Kingsley found himself nearly flattened against the door. "We do?" she said with a snarl, "and why exactly is that? What makes you any different from any of the others?"

"Others?"

McGonagall frowned at Hooch. "Never mind that," she said, then returned her attention to Kingsley. "The fact is that we have no guarantee that you will not attempt to use Severus's position or skills for your own gain. Though he'd deny it with every breath, as a spy, Severus is vulnerable to blackmail. As a wizard skilled in both Dark Potions and the Dark Arts, he is doubly vulnerable. A well-connected individual - such as an Auror - might well take advantage of that fact to further his own career, for instance. You ask us to believe that you mean well, but why should we?"

Feeling trapped, Kingsley sighed. "Severus puts his life on the line for the Order every time he answers one of Voldemort's Summons."

"Damn straight he does!" Hooch snapped.

McGonagall held up her hand to quell Hooch then gestured for him to continue.

"I took him with me so that I could... give him some special instruction. Something that would help him should he ever be in trouble. But since you know everything...I assume you know that Severus is not that popular with many members of the Order?"

McGonagall snorted. "One would need to be blind not to have noticed that."

Kingsley nodded. "Well, I for one don't trust any more than they do."

"Is that so?" McGonagall said slowly, smiling as if he'd just correctly answered a particularly tricky question in class. What was she so damn pleased about?

"So," he continued boldly, ignoring the Snitches fluttering in his stomach, "I will not put Severus's safety only in their hands. I needed to remove him from any influence so that the protection I instructed him in could be done so where Severus could fully concentrate on it. Not have to worry about any comments, or being thought 'cowardly' for accepting my help."

"So why the phony arrest then?" Hooch wanted to know. "Why not just take him aside for a weekend?"

"Why indeed?" McGonagall said thoughtfully, "Unless...unless...oh, I see," she finished, chuckling outright.

Hooch frowned. "What?"

McGonagall ignored her. "So then, Mr. Shacklebolt, am I also to assume that you also trust neither Xiomara nor me where Severus's safety is concerned?" she asked, but she was smiling openly now.

Kingsley felt cold, knowing that he'd given away some vital piece of information, but not certain precisely what it was. "I have no doubt that Madam Hooch has Severus Snape's well-being at heart," he said haughtily, "but you, Professor McGonagall, are the Head of Gryffindor House. You're not exactly known for your care and concern for Slytherins, are you?"

"Oh, bravo and touché! A lovely attempt to put me on the defensive, Mr. Shacklebolt. Xiomara is correct, you really should have become a barrister." Rather than upset, however, McGonagall seemed very pleased. "I will concede that you have a point. You don't necessarily know that I take Severus's safety quite seriously. However, those theatrics in the Headmaster's office were certainly not designed with me or Xiomara in mind. Since you and Severus are on such...good terms now, why don't you ask him if he believes in my good intentions where his welfare is concerned."

Seeing a chance to flee with some bit of his dignity intact, Kingsley decided to snatch at it while he could. Surely no man could be blamed for running from two such formidable witches. "I shall be delighted to...if you would be so kind as to allow me out of this room to have to opportunity to speak with him?" He casually inched his fingers towards the door knob. "As for the scene in the Headmaster's office...perhaps you should be asking Severus about that?"

Hooch was unimpressed. "When you finally stop dancing around the subject and answer our question, then yes, we'll let you go."

"Precisely," McGonagall agreed. "You went through the trouble to stage an arrest, to whisk Severus away and teach him some obscure method of protecting himself against Voldemort, because...why? That's quite a lot of effort for a man you haven't seen in nearly twenty years, regardless of whether you appreciate the risks he's taking for us as a spy. Do you understand now, why we're rather...suspicious of your motives?"

Suddenly, Kingsley did see exactly how his actions might have been interpreted. "Yes, well," he temporised, "you have to understand that this situation is not a normal one for me. I have never ever had to explain myself or my actions to anyone other than my superior."

McGonagall's lips twitched. "Yes, that much is obvious," she murmured. Hooch laughed outright.

"However," Kingsley said, with as much dignity as he could muster, "in the interest of peace and in recognition that all three of us are indeed concerned for Severus Snape and wish to see him come out of this war in one piece, able to enjoy victory as much as any of us...." He dropped his hand away from the door knob when Hooch tilted her wand." Look, when I was here at Hogwarts, Severus and I were...well, I would like to think that we were friends."

That was better received. The hostility in the room eased a bit and both Hooch and McGonagall looked interested in what he had to say.

"And though it's been many years, I think that Severus and I ...I think it might be allowable to say that we..."

McGonagall tapped one finger on her forearm. "Yes?"

Kingsley looked from one witch to the other for help. None was on offer. They were really going to force him to say it, weren't they. "Well, I would like to think that we have laid the groundwork..."

Hooch exhaled noisily. "Oh, will you get to the bloody point?"

The corner of McGonagall's mouth twitched.

"Well, let me just say...I can't speak for Severus....but for myself...."

"Say something, man! We'll all have died of old age before you finally spit it out!"

Kingsley took a deep breath. "Look, I gave Severus my word that I would protect him to the best of my ability. That includes protecting him from his 'allies' as well as his enemies. And I gave you, Xiomara, the same promise..."

He would have likely stammered along in that vein for quite a while if McGonagall hadn't interrupted him.

"Oh for heaven's sake, Shacklebolt!" she said, "Is this about what you and Severus got up to on the damned Astronomy Tower all those years ago?"

Hooch blinked. "What?" she said. Then, "Oh. Oh. You must be joking. All this sneaking around, all these convoluted explanations and lofty justifications because you don't trust the members of the Order and because you fancy Severus? Why the hell didn't you say so to begin with?"

Kingsley felt his cheeks grow warm and thanked Merlin for his dark complexion. Although given the broad smiles on the two witches' faces, he suspected that they knew anyway. "And if something more happens to come out of it," he said, struggling to sound dignified, "well, frankly, ladies, that is also between Severus and myself."

McGonagall and Hooch looked at one another for a moment, then they both laughed.

Kingsley scowled. "And I would prefer that neither of you mention the matter to him before I have had the opportunity to discuss it with him."

Having calmed her mirth with visible effort, McGonagall said, 'Let me assure you, Kingsley, you are welcome to keep the, er, intimate details of your...involvement to yourselves."

Hooch grinned wickedly. "Speak for yourself, Minerva. I want to hear all about the juicy bits."

"And you have our word," she continued, with a mock glare at Hooch, "that we won't discuss your, ah, intentions, with Severus." She paused for a moment and when she spoke again, the room felt as if the temperature had dropped several degrees and her words were deadly serious. "But make no mistake, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Severus's emotional welfare is as important to us as is his physical welfare."

Hooch fondled the handle of her wand. "Exactly."

McGonagall nodded. "Do we understand one another here?"

Kingsley swallowed with effort. "Yes, I understand."

"Well then," McGonagall said genially, "Shall we escort you to Professor Snape's office?"

He eyed both witches warily. "Er, I think I know the way."

"Oh, but we insist," Hooch said, prying him away from the door, then opening it with a flourish of her wand. "Don't we, Minerva?"

"But..."

McGonagall was smiling again. "Indeed, Kingsley," she agreed, "do allow us to escort you. It wouldn't do for the course of true, er, love to go astray so early on in the process. Now, would it?"

Knowing he'd been out-flanked, Kingsley glumly allowed the two women to escort him down the hall and to Severus's office.

*

Of all the professions Severus had imagined for himself, drumming elementary potions knowledge into dim adolescent minds had not even made the list. If he'd thought about teaching at all, it had been at a more advanced level. As a master to several dedicated apprentices, perhaps. Or instructing professionals in the use of some new innovation, especially one he'd created.

Instead, he'd spent the last 14 years shackled to a desk in the very same school - the same damned classroom! - he'd been so desperate to leave behind as a child.

To add insult to injury, as Head of Slytherin House, he was also responsible for the emotional and psychological health of seventy-odd children. The stereotypical first year student found curled behind a suit of armour crying for his mother was the least of his yearly problems. He had to contend with cheating, harassment, drug abuse, students with difficulties at home, not to mention the inevitable spectre of unwanted pregnancy - two this year alone. Damned horny kids had more of a sex life than he did! The Ministry and school governors added their own brand of subtle torture and outright idiocy to the mix with ever more ridiculous curriculum and administrative requirements each year.

There was no pleasant holiday spent in Greece or Italy or Spain for him, no!

Instead, wedged in between his varied duties as a spy - what was he now, a triple agent? - he had spent the bulk of his holiday hunched over his desk justifying his grading policy, his teaching methodology, as well as the contents of his 5th and 6th year syllabi to a pack of unimaginative Ministry bureaucrats. He'd also been forced to respond to a dozen or so nervous parents who were worried about rumours of Voldemort's return, to disgruntled parents, whose little darlings had managed to bollux up their O.W.L.s or otherwise fritter away their educational opportunities, with several letters of reference written on behalf of former students tossed in for good measure.

Severus swept an armload of papers and books off his desk.

Damn them all, and himself most of all for getting himself into such a position!

He tossed his quill aside and put his head in his hands. Neither the headache gathering behind his right eye, nor the pain in his shoulders, nor the dull throb of the Dark Mark on his forearm took note. Clearly the benefits of his long run at dawn had already worn thin.

Of course, his breakfast meeting with Dumbledore and McGonagall hadn't helped matters, either.

As expected, Voldemort had called for him shortly after he'd returned to Hogwarts following his 'arrest.' As Kingsley had predicted, the Dark Lord had been pleased with what he had to report. Lucius, of course, had been less so. And as Severus had expected, come the next morning, Dumbledore wanted to continue to gnaw the matter to death over tea and scones.

The one positive note was the breakfast meeting had been cut short so that Dumbledore could go contend with the Wizengamot.

Not short enough, in Severus's opinion.

His wards chimed and someone tapped on his office door.

He sighed. At least it was a diversion. "Come in," he said.

The knocking continued.

"The door. Is. Open."

Apparently, his visitor was deaf. Whoever it was began to pound insistently on the door.

"Bloody hell," Severus said, standing and striding over to the door. "I said come in!" he snapped, yanking it open.

The sight that greeted him was...interesting. Kingsley Shacklebolt stood on the threshold, hand poised as if to knock. He was flanked by Minerva and Xiomara, both of whom were smiling in a most disturbing manner.

"Good day, Severus," Kingsley said. He had very peculiar expression on his face.

"Kingsley." Severus raised his eyebrow and looked from Hooch to McGonagall.

"We found him wandering around the hallways," Xiomara said brightly. "Figured we'd show him to your office. Wouldn't want him to get lost, now would we?"

"Certainly not," McGonagall agreed. "Go on now," she said, giving Kingsley a little shove. He stumbled past Severus and into the room. "It was a pleasure chatting with you, as always, Kingsley, but we don't want to keep you two from your...meeting."

With that, both she and Hooch smirked at one another, then departed.

"See you this evening, Kingsley," McGonagall called over her shoulder.

Thoroughly nonplussed, Severus stared at Kingsley for a moment then shut the door. "What the devil was that about?"

Shacklebolt didn't answer. Instead, he stepped gingerly over the mess of papers on the floor and collapsed in the chair opposite Severus's desk. "I swear to you, Severus," he moaned, "those witches will be the death of me."

*

Kingsley rubbed his eyes and wondered how the hell a simple mission had become this complicated. And it didn't help that Severus, leaning back against the door, was watching him with an endearingly befuddled expression on his face that made Kingsley want to kiss it off.

"I find it difficult," Severus began slowly, "to imagine how that could be."

Kingsley snorted.

"I know that they tend..."

"Tend? Tend! Par Toutatis, Severus!" He threw up his arms in exasperation. "They're like two lionesses protecting their cub!"

Severus thought a moment. Then, "And who exactly is the cub?"

Kingsley glared at the man. "Well, who the hell do you think it is?" And when there was no answer forthcoming, no expression of comprehension on Severus's face, he pointed to the idiot.

And the only response he got was a disbelieving eyebrow quirking.

"Damn it, Severus, they practically threatened to castrate me if any harm comes to you through me."

Severus smirked. "Come on, Kingsley. You're a Spy Master. You mean to tell me that two old biddies like..."

"Have you ever seen Hooch play?"

Severus pushed away from the door and went to sit on the edge of his desk. Kingsley noted that he had no qualms at all walking on the debris of what looked to be a fit of temper on the floor.

"Yes, I've seen her play. She does coach all House teams, including Slytherin."

Kingsley shook his head. "No, I mean professionally. Did you ever seen play in her heyday?"

Severus shook his head. "I've never been that keen on the sport."

"Well, I have. I was seventeen and, let me tell you, I still remember the expression on her face when she slung her bat against a Bludger. And it is an image I can do without. She was bloody terrifying. And she can still be. And every time I meet her, the threat seems to escalate."

Severus thought about that and shrugged. "And does Minerva terrify you as well?"

Kingsley stopped the growl from escaping his throat. It was obvious that Severus didn't see his colleagues the same way he did. In fact, if his eyes weren't deceiving him, there was the beginning of a smile in Severus's.

"You remember how McGonagall always does that cat-to-witch transfiguration to impress unsuspecting first years?"

Severus nodded. Damn, the smile was definitely there.

And damn the things he had to reveal about himself to get this man on his side. "I am not particularly fond of cats."

Severus had the kindness to bite down on his smile.

"And one minute I was contemplating kicking the bloody animal out the door and, in fact, had my foot raised to do so when..."

Severus nearly choked trying to swallow his laughter.

"I was never one of her favourites after that," he ended his confession ruefully.

Severus looked up, met Kingsley's eyes and then Kingsley listened as the man he had rarely even seen smile gave up the losing battle. There was a roughness to Severus's laugh, a sound that made Kingsley feel less unhappy about being the butt of that laughter. He watched as Severus tried hard to get his response under control, but every time he looked at Kingsley, it would begin over again. He bent his head to his chest, his arms wrapped around himself. His body jerked as though it didn't quite know how to handle this noise coming out of itself.

When this was over, Kingsley promised himself, Severus would know how to laugh with ease. He would see to it.

He waited until Severus wiped the tears from the corners of his eyes before revealing, "And she knows about the Astronomy Tower."

Severus looked blank for a moment, not making the connection.

"There are truly no secrets in this place. Sinistra blabbed."

Then he regretted saying it as the remnants of laughter left Severus's face. He found he didn't like that. Not in the slightest. Kingsley stood up and went up to him. He looked at Severus and decided he really hated that blank expression that masked Severus's face whenever his walls went up.

"Not that it matters to me, of course," he said. Then he took Severus's chin in his hand and holding his head still, he bent and claimed his mouth.

There was no response at first. Severus stilled and Kingsley wondered if he was even breathing. He pulled back just enough to see the look in Severus's eyes. Not rejecting. Not repulsed. Stunned. And so he took that mouth once more and worked at getting to know it again.

*

In addition to the requisite acting skills - and the ability to wholeheartedly believe two mutually contradictory things at once - a spy needed superb powers of observation.

He needed to peer beneath the raiments of civility and faux nobility with which men and women cloaked themselves and lay bare their baser motivations. In so doing, he could predict, with a fair degree of accuracy, what any wizard or witch was likely to do in any given situation.

All things considered, Severus considered himself a rather good spy. Especially given that he hadn't set out to become one.

And yet, Kingsley Shacklebolt had managed to confound him. Yet again.

With a kiss.

He opened his mouth to...something - protest, maybe - but Kingsley took advantage of the motion with a thrust of his delightfully clever tongue.

Severus stood stock still, fingers clenching the edge of the desk, and every single cell of his body a-quiver.

Kingsley drew back for a moment and grinned at him. "Kissing is far more pleasant when both parties participate, Severus," he said, then took Severus's face in his hands and set about encouraging a response. With enthusiasm.

The corner of the desk dug into the back of his thigh. A hank of his hair had caught painfully on the ring Kingsley wore on his right hand. Important papers were being crushed beneath their feet, and for Merlin's sake, this entire act between them was a monumentally bad idea!

But the gentle tug of Kingsley's teeth on Severus's trembling lower lip, the slither of his tongue against soft- and hard-palate, over then behind Severus's front teeth, the slow glide of their lips against one another, roused in Severus a desperate thirst for touch, for this intimate exchange of breath and soft, wet heat. A thirst that seemed as if it had gone unassuaged all of his life.

Over the years, he had grown adept at withstanding and countering hexes, curses, and poisons. Not to mention the occasional pounding from fists or boots. How had he never known that every magical or mundane defence against attack he'd ever learned could be thoroughly undone by a single kiss?

But another hallmark of the effective spy was adaptability. The ability to seize the moment, to amend any plan, no matter how well-laid, to his own advantage. And after years of dealing with duplicitous and opportunistic wizards like Lucius, Voldemort, and Dumbledore, Severus considered himself something of a master of that particular art.

He broke the kiss, pried Kingsley's fingers from his hair, and pushed the man back a step. "Not here," he said, then turned on his heel and led the way across the room and down the short hallway to his personal quarters.

*

His sitting room was chilly, despite the earlier heat of the day. The torches and candles that burned in wall sconces and on the mantel-piece did little to chase away the omnipresent dampness or the evening gloom.

Kingsley followed him into the room and looked around, taking in the many bookshelves, the stone walls, with their cracked plaster overlay, his worn leather couch and chair, the rather threadbare, if much-beloved, divan, and the bright-patterned kilim rugs scattered about to the brighten the place up a bit. Kingsley frowned then leisurely waved his wand at the fireplace and said, "Incendio."

The stacked logs caught fire and the flames leapt high in the grate. Severus had a bare moment to appreciate the gleam of the reflected flames in Kingsley's dark eyes, against the bronzed blade of the man's cheekbone, before he was tackled flat on the divan with Shacklebolt atop him.

With their faces only a scant few inches apart and their bodies pressed together so deliciously, Kingsley grinned down at him. "An excellent idea, Severus," he said with no little smugness, "and far more conducive to what I had in mind. At least to start."

A very different sort of fire ignited in the pit of Severus's stomach. He slid his hands up Kingsley's back, over the fine linen robe that was stretched tight across the broad shoulders, then stroked his fingertips lightly across the smooth mahogany skin of Kingsley's scalp. Kingsley's eyes narrowed slightly and he hummed with pleasure.

Severus smiled. "Enough talk," he said, enjoying Kingsley's blink of surprise, then he leaned up and brought their lips together.

Years ago, they'd shared a long kiss atop the Astronomy Tower. Severus remembered that moment with perfect recall. The evening had been mild, but with enough of a breeze so that he'd worn his cloak. The sky had been clear, perfect for stargazing, had he been so inclined. And he'd been so damned terrified that another secret desire would be snatched from his grasp at the very last moment. Yet again.

Instead, Kingsley had touched him, the gentlest brush of his fingers against Severus's cheek. Those long, brown fingers had curved along the wing of one eyebrow, down the bridge of his nose, then dipped down to stroke over his chapped lower lip, again and again. It seemed as if no one - not even in the dimmest of his memories, even those of his mother before she'd got so sick - had ever touched him so...intently, with such deliberate care.

The resulting sensation had blazed up his spine and burst in his chest. It had been so large and bright! Severus hadn't known what to do - with his hands, his mouth, with any part of what he felt. Then Kingsley had slipped one arm under his cloak and pulled him close, cupped his cheek in one large palm. Their lips had touched and Severus had known, in that moment, what it felt like to be wanted, to be worthy. To have a single desire be so thoroughly and overwhelmingly fulfilled. One that had nothing to do with books or spells and that involved the unprecedented reciprocation of someone else.

He'd had cause to replay the incident again and again in the privacy of his mind. Especially since, while they were lovers, Lucius had insisted that, "Only queers kiss, Severus. How disgusting." And the rare boys-for-hire tended to draw the line at that kind of intimacy.

That threadbare recollection - and the phantom sensations it recalled - had nothing on the heavy, warm reality of Kingsley's body lying full length upon his. With each slow, deliberate rock of Kingsley's hips against the ridge of his own hard cock, the memory frayed a bit more. The fingers that loosened the buttons on his robe, his jacket, his shirt, that laid bare the touch-starved skin of his chest and belly, also loosened the memory's weave; misty threads of it tore free and streamed away in the gale of his rising lust.

It was the whisper of his name, over and over, amidst the sweetness of every kiss dropped upon his lips, his cheeks, his eyelids, down the length of his throat to his chest, each one blurring into the next that finally unravelled the remaining threads.

They dissolved into nothingness when the kisses reached his navel and Kingsley's hands settled on the buckle of his belt.

Severus opened his eyes with effort. Kingsley was sitting across his hips and smiling.

"Surely you're not going to stop there," Severus said, mildy ashamed of the shakiness of his voice.

The divan lay at an angle to the fireplace and with the flames playing over his face, Kingsley's expression looked truly wicked. "Stop?" he said, with mock dismay. "On the contrary, my dear Severus," Kingsley clasped Severus's hands then leaned down, casually pinning him to the cushions, "I have hardly yet begun," Kingsley said, each word licking against Severus's kiss-swollen lips.

Subsequently, the world dissolved into a melange of sighs, and moans, and bright sensations as skin slid across newly bared skin and their lips and tongues met wetly again. And again.

All of which explained why it wasn't until a log on the grate burst apart with a pop and a shower of sparks, startling them both, that neither he nor Kingsley noticed the head in the fireplace loudly saying, "Ahem!"

Neither of them were actually naked, though that wasn't much consolation, given that Kingsley's hand was wrapped around Severus's bare cock and both of his own hands were shoved down the back of Kingsley's trousers.

Minerva McGonagall did not look pleased. "I have been calling you both for the last five minutes."

"Maudite merde!" Kingsley said, then rolled off him and straightened his clothing. Fortunately, the divan was not directly in the line of sight of the fireplace. Otherwise McGonagall would have caught a most impressive eyeful.

"You're the idiot who lit the damned fire," Severus grumbled. He sat up and pulled the edge of his robe across his lap. "For Merlin's sake! What the devil is it that is so damned important that it couldn't wait?"

"It's Potter," Minerva said.

Both he and Kingsley glanced at one another then Severus turned back to the fire. He felt as if he'd been doused in cold water. "What? What about him?"

Even through the flicker and pop of the green flames, he could see that Minerva was worried. "There has been an attempt on his life."

8.

Severus stepped through the Floo at 12 Grimmauld Place and into complete pandemonium.

He moved aside to make room for Kingsley's arrival and goggled at the chaos in the front parlour. Minerva had not understated the case. The place was seething like freshly-kicked nest of red-headed - or in Granger's case, bushy-haired - hornets. Black, Lupin, and several other senior Order members hovered around the edges of the room shouting at one another.

Behind him, Kingsley released a low whistle. "McGonagall wasn't joking. And I'd forgotten that Hermione Granger and the Weasley children were here."

"Ah yes, they do add a certain je ne se quois to the overwrought gothic decor," Severus muttered.

Kingsley sniggered and Severus allowed the corner of his mouth to twitch in response. It was an odd, but pleasant, sensation to have someone he trusted at his back when entering a hostile situation. Even if it was also a bit disconcerting, since his body still hummed from Kingsley's nearness and he could smell the man's scent on his skin and clothes.

Following Minerva's summons, he and Kingsley had got dressed and promptly convened in her office. There, Minerva had - thankfully! - got straight to the point. She'd briefed them on the situation then Floo'd to her contact in the offices of the Prime Minster to attempt to manage the fallout. The consequences of two Dementors appearing in a Muggle neighbourhood could not be hand waved with a convenient wide-angled memory charm and a few cheering potions. It was left to Dumbledore and Arthur Weasley to deal with the fall-out from Potter's unauthorised use of magic.

Despite the uproar in the parlour, their arrival still caused quite a stir. All heads turned in their direction and Severus intercepted no few hostile glares as they stepped away from the hearth. Predictably, everyone started demanding answers at once.

From what he could decipher from the babble, everyone was aware that something had attacked Potter and his Muggle cousin, though the accounts vary wildly as to both the means and success of the attack. He mentally gave points, for creativity, to the twin Weasley menaces' whimsical proposal that Potter had been attacked by a rogue swarm of Nargles.

"Kingsley...Severus, thank heavens you're here!" Molly Weasley pushed through the horde and made as if to grab his arm. Severus glowered at her and she pulled up short, wringing her hands. "Have you...have either of you heard anything? About Harry? Anything from V-Voldemort, Severus? Did you know that he was planning this?"

Severus bristled as her tone shifted from pleading to accusatory in the space of a single breath. "Potter is just fine," he snapped. "The boy managed to get himself and his cousin to safety."

"Well that's something, isn't it, Snape." Moody had stumped over to stand beside Molly. "Though I doubt it's any thanks to you."

And so it began. Severus didn't bother to rein in his snarl. "You can stuff your insinuations, Moody."

"Oh, I'm not insinuating a thing," Moody said. "Unlike the rest of this lot, I'm just not afraid to call'em as I see'em."

Before Severus could retort, Kingsley smoothly cut in. "And the way you see it, Alastor," he said, "is quite clearly not the way it actually is." He raised his voice slightly. "Here is what we know. Harry and his cousin were attacked - by Dementors - a few blocks away from their home."

Several people gasped and the babble started up again. Lupin and Black, both looking more dishevelled than usual, pushed through the throng of children to lurk behind Moody. "What the hell happened?" Black demanded, "Where was Mundungus? He was supposed to be watching Harry."

Kingsley raised his hands for quiet. "The boys were walking home from a nearby park and encountered the two Dementors. Harry was able to cast a Patronus and both boys escaped. At this moment, they are both safe, at home. As for Mundungus, no one has seen or heard from him since late this afternoon."

"A Patronus? Amazing!" "He did it! See Ron, I told you so!" "Who released the Dementors?" "Where the hell is 'Dung?" "How did they know where to find Harry?" "What about You Know Who?"

It was evident that Kingsley had experience addressing an unruly crowd. His expression remained pleasant and his voice was calm and reassuring. Severus was impressed; he would have hexed the lot of them into silence and been done with it.

"We don't yet know why Fletcher wasn't at his post. Nor do we know who released the Dementors," Kingsley said, "and at this time, there is no reason to suspect that Voldemort had anything to do with the event."

From their spot at the back of the horde, Podmore and Diggle frowned. Moody scoffed openly and Black snarled.

"As if I believe that!" he said, taking a step towards Severus.

Severus glared back. "I couldn't possibly care less what you might believe."

Black looked likely to protest but shut his mouth when Lupin took hold of his arm. "Even assuming that is true, Kingsley, what about Harry's use of magic?" Lupin asked in that infuriatingly mild way of his. "I can't imagine that Fudge would miss this chance to use that against him."

"Unfortunately, you are quite right," Kingsley said, "though I believe we should discuss that," he paused and looked pointedly at Black, "and any other issues...privately."

Molly took that as her cue. "Okay, children, that's it. Everyone out!"

"Not a chance, Mum," said one of the twins. "We're not missing this!"

"Yes, you are. Now, out! I'll let you all know about Harry later." She had them turn out their pockets, confiscated several sets of the twins' Extendable Ears and Dungbombs, then hustled the children out the door to the accompaniment of much grumbling.

With them gone the room felt a good deal larger, and the hostility was far less restrained, even after Molly returned and set the privacy charms.

"'Dung is missing and somebody set a Dementor on Potter," Moody said, "so explain to me exactly why you think that Voldemort isn't involved."

"For one thing, Moody," Severus said through clenched teeth, "it makes no logical sense. Voldemort's primary objective is to obtain the entire contents of the prophecy. Given what happened fifteen years ago when he attacked Potter, he will not risk any harm coming to the boy until he has fully understood its implications."

"So you say, Snape," Black sneered.

"So Voldemort himself says," Kingsley replied so firmly that both Lupin and Molly blinked with surprise. "He has threatened each Death Eater with torture and execution should any harm come to Harry as a result of their actions."

"Oh, and our source for that information is so reliable," Black muttered. Lupin elbowed him in the ribs. But Moody and Podmore also were nodding their heads in agreement.

Beside him, Kingsley tensed. "Are you questioning Dumbledore and McGonagall's judgement, Sirius?"

Black made as if to answer, but Severus had had enough of their hostility and distrust. "This from a man whose own friends - not to mention members of this very organisation - found it plausible that he'd sold out Potter and Evans. Ah yes, Black, do share with us your novel interpretation of the word 'reliable.'"

"Severus!" Molly said. "That was completely uncalled for!"

"See here," Diggle piped up. "No one's accusing anyone of - "

Black closed the distance until they were only a few feet apart. His wand was already in his hand. "At least I'm not a known traitor. A coward who switched sides just to save his own skin."

To save his own skin! Severus nearly laughed aloud. Had it not been for the manner of his mother's death he might well have remained loyal to the Dark Lord unto death. After all, he richly rewarded those who gave him their fealty, rather than spitting on them. The way the members of the Order of the Phoenix did him at every turn.

He narrowed his eyes. "A traitor? No, Black," he said, allowing his wand to slide from its sheath along his forearm and into his hand, "instead you are a convicted murderer. The fact that the murder for which you were sent to Azkaban is not the one - of the two - of which you are guilty is incidental."

"Back down, Snape," Moody said, and came to stand beside Black. He scowled, twisting the scars on his face grotesquely. "Seems to me that Black's got a right to question your so-called loyalty. And Voldemort would have every incentive to get Potter out of the way. Having the boy dead or soulless would suit his purposes just fine."

Lupin frowned and held up his hand. "Hang on, Alastor," he said, "Severus does have a valid point regarding the prophecy. Without knowing its full details, Voldemort might easily believe that any threat to Harry could result in - ."

"And we all know how much you loathe Harry," Black continued, loudly interrupting Lupin. He jerked away when the werewolf made as if to touch his shoulder. "Wouldn't surprise me if you'd set this all up just to get back at James through his son."

Severus bit back the hex that sprang instantly to mind. After everything he'd suffered to protect the infernal brat, to repay a life debt that had been engineered by this arrogant prick in the first place, and this was his thanks!

"The scope of your paranoia is impressive," he spat, "but then, why should any of us be surprised at your penchant for conspiracy theories? After all, you conspired, most successfully I might add, to commit premeditated murder when you were still just a school boy. No wonder your friends - and allies - were so quick to believe you capable of betraying the Potters."

His statement was met with a shocked silence.

Then Podmore demanded, "What the hell are you talking about, Snape?" Molly and Diggle's expressions wavered between outrage and confusion. Moody was silent, his magical eye whirring in its socket. But Lupin had blanched, paper white.

To his left, Kingsley quietly said, "Severus?"

"Shut up, Snape," Black warned. "Or I'll..."

"You'll what? Kill me? Give it your best shot then. Assuming you have the stones to do the dirty work yourself. Somehow I doubt that Lupin will be quite so accommodating this time round."

With barely a growl of warning, Black levelled his wand, point blank, and shouted, "Verbes Blattis!"

"Protego," Severus said, bringing up his wand to counter. After years of no-spells-barred duelling with Lucius, Black's attack was absurdly easy to deflect.

The hex bounced off his shield, forcing Podmore and Diggle to duck, and took a goodly sized chunk out of the plaster gargoyle perched atop the window. "Care to try again, Black?"

"Sirius, Severus! Both of you please calm down. This isn't helping Harry one bit!" Molly said, foolishly stepping between him and Black.

"Molly, get the hell out of the way," Moody said. "Let'em get it out of their systems."

Black pushed her aside. His face was dark with rage and his wand hand was shaking. "It's too bad you didn't die back then, Snape. Would have done us all a world of good."

"Damn it, will the both of you just stop!" Lupin shouted.

"Ah, but then, had I died, who would have warned you all about a traitor in the Order?" Severus tracked Black's movement with his eyes, prepared to counter whatever hex he threw next. "Who would have warned the Potters? The Longbottoms? Not that my efforts mattered, since you bolluxed up every plan quite nicely."

The blood drained from Black's face and his lips grew thinner. The hatred simmering behind his eyes nearly matched the loathing that seethed in Severus's own guts.

"And just remember, Black, had you killed me back then you would have condemned your own lover to a horrible death, to be put down like a rabid beast. I thank Merlin that you hate me, seeing what the fates are of those whom you profess to love."

The words had barely passed his lips when Black transformed and leapt for his throat, fangs bared.

Molly screamed. Lupin shouted, "Sirius, no!"

But Severus was prepared. He had already angled his wand and begun to cast a defensive spell when he caught a sudden movement out of the corner of his left eye. A slight breeze ruffled his robe and hair. Something dark passed in front of him, knocking his aim awry; his hex blasted away a corner of the moth-eaten rug.

A split-second later, the enormous black dog lay on the floor, growling and snapping, with Shacklebolt's knee pressed into its furry belly and both large hands wrapped around its throat.

Severus could do nothing but stare. Of all the Aurors and Hit Wizards he'd ever encountered, he'd had never seen anyone move that quickly without Apparating. When he glanced around at the others, he found that he wasn't the only gob-smacked person in the room. Even Moody's jaw was slack with surprise.

"Animagus Reverto!" Kingsley shouted and a furious, wild-eyed and struggling man re-formed under his hands.

"Let go of me, you bastard!" Black yelled, heaving fruitlessly against Kingsley's superior strength and leverage.

"That is enough," Kingsley said. His expression was hard and his voice was thick with menace. Black gulped once then lay still. Severus himself couldn't help but swallow hard when Kingsley turned to him and said, quite mildly all things considered, "Yes, that is quite enough, from both of you."

He felt the cold trickle of sweat between his shoulder blades. He stared at Kingsley. The man with whom he'd so recently shared a languid and delectable snog was nowhere in evidence. Severus sheathed his wand slowly, with great care.

Kingsley released Black and then stood, brushing off his robes. "I am well aware that this is a stressful time for all of us, that we are concerned about Harry's welfare," he said, glancing first at Molly then at Black. "That some of us have concerns regarding the intelligence we receive about Voldemort's plans." This time, he looked to Moody and Podmore. "And that we do not have ideal companions in this effort," he concluded, dividing his disapproving gaze between Severus and Black, who was just pulling himself up from the floor with Lupin's help. "However, as members of the Order of the Phoenix, despite our differences, we are all united by a single important purpose: the defeat of Voldemort."

Kingsley settled his robe then pinned everyone in the room with a haughty stare that clearly said: And I shouldn't have to remind you of that fact.

"In Dumbledore's absence, McGonagall has asked us to do what we can to locate Mundungus and to consider ways to protect Potter in the event that he is expelled from Hogwarts. To that end, I suggest that we dispense with the hostile scepticism, not to mention the...outbursts, and get to it. Immediately."

The room was silent for one long moment then Molly said briskly, "Exactly. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Kingsley." She drew her wand with a flourish. "Why don't I conjure us a pot of tea and some sandwiches. Then we can get down to business. Everything looks a bit brighter on a full stomach, wouldn't you agree?"

Molly's babbling fractured, but in no way banished the uneasiness that shrouded the room. Severus took a deep breath, to slow his breathing and his heart-rate, and stood back as the other wizards cautiously made their way to the side board for the sandwiches and tea. To a man, they gave Kingsley - who wore a benign smile - a wide berth, eyeing him with either resentment, from Black, or surprise mixed with no little respect and awe, from most of the others. Lupin simply frowned and divided his attention between Severus and Kingsley, a flat stare that brought an instant scowl to Severus's face.

"Severus?" Molly said, "Won't you have some tea?"

He nearly snorted. Molly Weasley was convinced that food could smooth away every conflict.

However before he could, as per usual, decline her offer, the Dark Mark blazed to life on his arm. He gasped at the force of the Summons, his knees nearly buckling.

Kingsley turned to him immediately, with a look of alarm. Molly clapped her hands to her mouth and Moody and Black exchanged an indecipherable glance.

"I must go," Severus said, then turned and walked swiftly to the door.

"Severus, wait," Kingsley called after him.

But there was no time. When he pushed back his sleeve, the Mark stood out starkly against the flesh of his forearm; its throbbing call brooked no delay.

He slammed open the door, scattering two red-headed eavesdroppers in the process - thank Merlin for Imperturbable Charms! - and stalked down the hall intent on getting past the house wards to activate the Mark for transport. All the while he tried to clear and calm his mind, and to weigh what he could and could not disclose to the Dark Lord about this latest meeting of the Order. He tried not to worry that the fallout from this latest fiasco involving Potter wouldn't cost him his life.

Kingsley caught up with him on the front stairs. "Severus, please wait," he said, and some odd note in his voice brought Severus to a halt, and made his heart pound in his chest.

He waited.

"Be careful," Kingsley said finally.

Severus closed his eyes but didn't turn around. "I always am."

"No, you are not. Just remember, nothing reckless."

Despite the circumstances, Severus felt a smile stretch his lips. "Nothing reckless," he agreed, starting a bit when a warm hand closed over his shoulder.

"Promise me."

He sighed, exasperated and pleased all at once. "Very well, I promise," he said, surprised to realise that, for the first time in...for the first time ever he had a reason, beyond duty and mere habit, to be cautious and to ensure his return.

Then he touched his fingers to the Mark and allowed its magic to snatch him away to Voldemort.

*

Kingsley watched the space where Severus had stood and wondered if that would be the last time he'd see the man. He gave himself a shake, disparaging such negative thoughts. Severus would return and that was that. If he didn't, Kingsley would deal with it but, first, he had something else to deal with.

Back inside, he paused in the doorway, looking at his fellow members of the Order. Moody was commiserating with a grumbling Black in a corner. Molly was filling cups in obvious hope that the warmth of the tea would cool heated spirits. At the sideboard, Lupin was looking at him, a slightly puzzled expression on his face.

Good. It was time that Lupin and he had a little talk. With a gesture of his head, Kingsley indicated that he wanted to speak privately with Lupin. He got a slight nod in return and, without attracting anyone's attention, Lupin joined him in the hallway.

"Kitchen?"

Lupin nodded and led the way, dropping tiredly into one of the chairs around the long table.

Kingsley shut the door behind him and quietly charmed it to giggle should someone approach it from the hallway. He took the chair opposite Lupin and waited.

Lupin opened the conversation with, for him, a fairly aggressive: "Am I correct in assuming that you've set yourself up as Defender of all things Severus?"

Kingsley felt his face grow cold and he allowed his anger to tinge his voice. "It would seem that I am many years too late for that if what I think took place actually did occur."

Lupin lost the attitude and sighed, rubbing his face with his hands. "It's been twenty years. You'd think they'd let it lie."

Kingsley gentled his voice a little. "Perhaps if you tell me exactly what happened, I might be able to tell you why they can't."

"Sirius and Severus have hated one another since they first met on the Hogwarts Express," Lupin began quietly. "Sirius, James, and I had met a day earlier in Diagon Alley and we sat together on the train. Severus was sitting alone in a compartment when we walked by on our way to the sweets cart. Sirius was showing off. He made some comment about the Snape family fortunes - or lack thereof - and the way Severus was dressed." Lupin paused and passed his hands across his eyes. "As you can imagine, Severus took exception."

Kingsley snorted. That was likely an understatement. From what he'd gleaned from Severus's dossier, his branch of the pureblood Snape family had fallen upon hard times after his grandfather was prosecuted for supporting Grindelwald. The Ministry had confiscated nearly all the family assets. What little remained went to service a sizeable amount of debt on loans, poor investments, gaming and duelling. To compound things, Severus had started school a year earlier than usual, at his mother's insistence. He would have been small, poorly dressed, and appeared to be an easy mark for any boy out to make himself look important to his friends.

"He set Sirius's brand-new cloak on fire." Lupin said, shaking his head. "Things only escalated from there."

"What I witnessed this afternoon was grounded in something a bit more significant than a burned cloak, Remus."

Lupin sighed. "Yes, well. You know how things are."

Kingsley had a suspicion, but crossed his arms and simply stared at Lupin until the man reluctantly continued.

"Well, the Potters weren't too keen on the Snapes, given their support of Grindelwald. So James wasn't especially fond of Severus either. And he and Sirius...fed off one another."

"And Severus was their usual sport. Yes, I do remember that quite clearly. I also seem to recall that you and Pettigrew seemed to find 'the sport' rather amusing as well."

Lupin looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Uh, yes. Well, at any rate, in our fifth year, just after the Defence O.W.L, James and Sirius went a little too far."

"And bound Severus and stripped him naked in front of a crowd of our classmates," Kingsley said coldly. He hadn't been present at the lake when it happened, but he could have hardly missed the gossip in the days that followed. Afterwards, Severus had made himself scarce, had returned all of Kingsley's notes unopened, and they had never spoken again.

"As I said, they went too far," Lupin said somewhat defensively. "But what Severus did in return, well...I'd say that he got adequate revenge."

Kingsley cocked his head. "Explain."

"Severus was good friends with Evan Rosier and Martin Wilkes, both of whom were a year older than us. He also knew Lucius Malfoy. And Bellatrix Black-LeStrange."

"Get to the point, Remus."

Lupin's lips thinned. "When Severus came back for our sixth year, he was...different." Before Kingsley could ask, Lupin hurried on. "He was even more aloof, he was colder, meaner, and he had new clothes and galleons to spend. Sirius's younger brother, Regulus had been sorted into Slytherin a few years earlier. Suddenly, he had a new best friend."

The puzzle was coming together to form a very unpleasant picture. Kingsley exhaled heavily. Severus didn't simply get angry, he got revenge.

"You've got a good idea what Sirius's parents were like. Pureblood. Fanatical. Dark Arts practitioners. Voldemort supporters. By that time, Sirius had left home and was living with the Potters. But he still would get news of what Regulus was up to, from school and family members who were still speaking to him. He found out that Severus had got his brother into a meeting with Voldemort. Sirius has always blamed Severus for his brother's eventual death."

Lupin went silent, but from years of detective work - of interrogating suspects - Kingsley could tell that the picture was still far from complete. "And Sirius wasn't pleased. But given family influence, Regulus might have gone to Voldemort anyway. So what aren't you telling me, Remus?"

"Damn," Lupin muttered, then put his forehead in his hands. "Around that time, Vector assigned us in pairs for a term-long project."

"Let me guess, she paired you and Severus."

After a long moment, Lupin nodded. "Yes."

"And I take it that Sirius wasn't pleased about that either." There had been numerous rumours about Lupin and Black during their fifth year. It wasn't a stretch to imagine Black as a jealous lover, especially not when Lupin would have been 'consorting with the enemy.' Kingsley felt his stomach tighten with dread. "So what did Black do to retaliate?"

From the pallor of his face, Lupin didn't seem to be enjoying the recitation either. "He lured Severus to the Shrieking Shack one night - I'm not sure how he managed it - the night of the full moon, in fact."

Kingsley closed his eyes as the final pieces fell into place. He'd always wondered what was kept in the Shack - a ghoul? a monster? Now he knew. "Where you had already transformed."

"Yes." Lupin's face was bleak. "James found out about it and went to stop Severus. But it was nearly too late. James just managed to pull Severus back. It was sheer luck that either of them got away in time."

Kingsley stared in horror. When asked why he protected Harry Potter, Severus had told him: 'I may be filthy, cowardly, Death Eater scum, but I always pay my debts.' He finally understood the bitterness he'd heard in Severus's voice.

"I didn't know anything about it until the next morning, Albus called us all to his office. I...apologised to Severus, but he never accepted it. Can't say I blame him: Sirius's apology was less than sincere and James...Well, he was quite blunt about stepping in to save Severus more because of what would happen to me if I killed or turned him than because of the danger he was in."

"And what did Dumbledore do in all this?"

Lupin wriggled unhappily. "Nothing very much. He swore Severus to secrecy on pain of being expelled from school for being out after curfew. It would have meant..."

"Total humiliation for him. Not to mention the fact that his father would probably have killed him for being expelled." Kingsley ignored Lupin's wince. "And I'm sure none of it had anything to do with the fact that Dumbledore would not have wanted it made public that he'd allowed a lycanthrope to attend Hogwarts," Kingsley said, raising his eyebrow. "Tell me, how was Black punished?"

Lupin found the far wall suddenly very interesting.

"Lupin," Kingsley lowered his voice again, "how was Black punished?"

"He was given several months of detention."

"With whom?"

"With the Headmaster."

Kingsley snorted. "Some punishment. Well, from both their behaviours, I doubt very much that either of them can be made to see the event as past and done with." He stood up at the slight giggle coming from the door. "However, I will ask Severus to do his best from rising to the bait if you do something about Black's baiting him. And, with a little luck, we should both be able to keep them apart. If not, I might suddenly have to locate, to the relief of all good citizens, that dangerous escaped lunatic. Ah, Molly." He smiled pleasantly at the woman who stood uncertainly in the doorway.

"Is everything all right here?"

Kingsley nodded. "I think things are much clearer than they have been, Molly. Don't you agree, Lupin?"

Lupin, he noticed, shot daggers at him with his eyes before he too stood to reassure Molly.

*

Dawn had come and gone several hours earlier. The summer sky above London was a uniform, sullen grey; not a single blue patch broke through the monotony. It had rained overnight and a wet mist still clung to the streets and fog swirled along in the wake of the many pedestrians as they rushed by on their way to work or morning appointments.

Despite fatigue and lack of sleep, Severus squared his shoulders and pressed on towards the next disagreeable destination on his itinerary: Chez Black.

After leaving Voldemort, he'd accompanied Lucius to Malfoy Manor, only to endure a few hours worth of ranting about Fudge. From there, he'd made six Apparation hops in rapid succession to confuse any trackers; he could barely put one boot in front of the other without falling on his nose. Not that Madam Black's portrait, her idiot son, and that damned creepy house elf weren't security risks enough! The Fidelius Charm had its limits after all.

Severus turned off the main thoroughfare and made his way down a series of increasingly grim side streets and finally into the small, seedy square where 12 Grimmauld Place was concealed. A group of disaffected-looking teens loitered in front of one ramshackle house smoking and several drug deals were in progress at the corner. How the once-mighty House of Black had fallen; the grim spectacle brightened his mood a bit.

With his Disillusionment charm in effect, he slipped past them all and up the front steps unnoticed. The door opened before he could put his hand on the knob.

"I'm glad that you're back." Kingsley said, taking his arm and gently pulling him into the foyer. In the dim, dusty light, Kingsley's face was greyish with exhaustion and his forehead was creased with worry.

Something warm bubbled up from deep inside Severus, despite himself; he managed a weary smile. "Yes," he said simply, leaning against the door and closing his eyes for a moment. The light brush against his mind only made him smile even more widely. Where once, a similar touch would have sent him into an offended rage, this near-caress was oddly comforting. "I am fine, Kingsley."

"You're exhausted."

"That too," he agreed, blinking and straightening up. "But alive. And sans hexes. Or Unforgivables." Much to Severus's relief, the protection offered by the Garde Ritual had proven to be as effective against Voldemort as it had been against Dumbledore. Though the Dark Lord had probed at his mind relentlessly, Severus had found it relatively easy to shield against them.

Kingsley raised on eyebrow but said, "Well come on then," and gestured towards the kitchen, "the meeting is still going on and we could use your input."

"And my report," Severus said, lowering his voice. Kingsley paused and turned back to him. The Auror cast an Obscurus charm - "to confound any of the Twins's listening devices" - then side-by-side, they passed the snoring portrait of Madam Black and started down the hallway to the kitchen.

"Not that there's much to tell." Severus continued, "As I suspected, neither the Dark Lord nor any of his inner circle were involved in the attack on Potter. He was especially annoyed with Lucius's handling of Fudge - who is presumed, at the moment, to be the likely culprit. Or possibly Macnair's contact, Umbridge. I spent a few tedious hours in Lucius's study listening to him rant on and on about the idiocy of Ministry bureaucrats."

"Umbridge." Kingsley rubbed his hand over his chin. "I hadn't considered that possibility."

"Macnair is currently out of the country, otherwise, like Lucius, he would have been called to account last night. Fudge doesn't have the stones to go after Potter so overtly. Knowing her by reputation only, I'd put my galleons on Umbridge," Severus said, "or one of her lackeys."

Kinglsey snorted. "That should make things very interesting, then," he said, then made his way towards the kitchen.

Severus frowned. "Why?"

"Because Dumbledore is planning to accept Umbridge's appointment to the Defence position."

"Merlin save us," Severus said. "From what I hear, the woman is a menace."

"Given what has befallen the last few wizards who've held the position, I'm not surprised that no one else wants the job. Besides, Dumbledore says he wants her where he can keep an eye on her."

Dolores Umbridge was reputed to be an officious, narrow-minded, power hungry bigot. Severus did not relish the thought of orchestrating his ever-expanding range of espionage activities with Umbridge underfoot. Xiomara, who had an active - and 'deviant', according to Umbridge and her ilk - social life, would have more than a few unpleasant words to say on the subject, no doubt.

Beside him, Kingsley halted. "All right, what aren't you telling me?"

Severus sighed. If he hadn't been guarding his mind, he might have suspected Kingsley of having used a bit of Legilimency. "As it happens," he said, "in addition to our other responsibilities, each of us have also been tasked with resurrecting the Master's former network of allies. Here, and abroad."

They stared at one another in silence. Kingsley's expression was grim, but mostly unsurprised. "What of the disinformation campaign?"

"What of it?" Severus shrugged. "The 'faithful' will see through the lies, of course."

"Or they will be shown the error of their ways."

"Yes," Severus said, feeling the exhaustion settle more deeply into his bones.

"Damn," Kingsley said, opening the kitchen door. Severus took a deep breath, then followed him.

The usual motley band of suspects were gathered round the long table, with the notable absence of Black. Lupin and Bill and Arthur Weasley were arguing with Moody over a floor plan of the Department of Mysteries and the mound of dirty rags that was Fletcher huddled at one end near the stove, snoring loudly.

Molly stood up at his arrival. "Severus, you're back! You look famished. I just made some porridge. Let me dish you up some with a good measure of brown sugar and cream."

He waved her away wearily as he pulled out one of the chairs and sank down into it. His digestion was finicky enough in the best of times, let alone while sitting in Black's kitchen at a table full of people who intensely preferred that he wasn't.

Another feather-light touch ruffled the surface of his thoughts and a large, warm hand settled on his shoulder. "What about a cup of hot chocolate?" Kingsley said, inches from his ear. He might as well have suggested a long, slow fuck up against the wall given the decadent inflection in his voice.

Severus managed a laugh; the dry, rusty sound startled Lupin and Molly. Lupin's eyes flicked between him and Kingsley then narrowed. Molly's lips tightened. "Only if you're making it," Severus replied under his breath.

Kingsley's answering laugh sent an thrill along Severus's weary nerves. The hand slid up beneath his unkempt hair, to cup his nape slightly and then released him. "Very well, hot chocolate it is."

He barely had the steaming cup in hand before Moody pounced. "So, Snape. What did your Dark Lord have to say about what happened to Potter?"

He was far too exhausted to be angry. Instead, Severus pinched the bridge of his nose, sighed, and got on with his report.

*

Kingsley pulled his chair away from the table and stretched. They'd hashed and rehashed the events and Severus's report till there was not a crumb left to analyse. Neither Voldemort, nor the Death Eaters had released the Dementors, though Moody remained openly sceptical. Kingsley allowed his hand to drop in a natural way onto Severus's slumped shoulder and tugged slightly. "As there is nothing we can do until Dumbledore makes a decision about Harry, I think we shall leave you."

Lupin, he noticed, glared at Black before he nodded. Whatever Black had been about to say never came out of his mouth. Much to Molly's relief. Moody had no comment to make mainly because his mouth was hanging open as he snored away in his chair. The others were trying hard to remain awake, with varying success.

Severus slowly found his feet as though waiting to be challenged for doing so. Kingsley could feel the exhaustion rolling off him in waves. It was time to get him...get them both home and into bed.

With no formal good-bye, they exited the kitchen, passed Madam Black who only snarled at them, her eyes following them as they left the house. On the front steps, Severus opened his mouth, possibly to say his adieu when Kingsley placed his arms around the man and Portkeyed them to his flat.

Once there, he expected at least a token protest from Severus, but the fact that all he did was yawn and sag against Kingsley showed just how very tired he was.

Kingsley managed to direct him into his bedroom without Severus making any comment. It was the matter of a couple of spells to undress the both of them. Severus was asleep before his head hit the pillow. Kingsley examined the drawn features in the morning light and thought how right Severus looked in his bed.

He slipped under the sheets on his usual side of the bed then spooned himself behind the man who, though asleep, grunted, more in acknowledgement than protest. He placed his arm around Severus's waist and, holding him close, finally allowed himself to find his own rest.

9.

After decades of rising early - to attend to morning chores as a child or to squeeze in a bit of time for his own projects, in between the demands of school or work or spying - it felt positively decadent to awaken late in the afternoon, after a long, luxurious snooze, in a comfortable bed, shared with a congenial bed-mate.

That last was especially unusual.

Most of his liaisons were quick affairs. Casual conversation over drinks - at a café or, Merlin forbid, some club Xiomara had dragged him to - followed up with a grope in an alleyway or a hasty shag in a stale hotel room rented by the hour. Lucius certainly hadn't been inclined to linger. Unless whatever they'd got up to required spells to staunch the bleeding.

The Headmaster would have skinned him alive had he brought someone back to share his dungeons quarters for an evening. Assuming, of course, that Severus were inclined to allow another man - and whatever annoying habits of clutter or snoring or incessant chatter or thrashing about in his sleep he might possess - into his sanctuary.

Which he most certainly was not.

He'd slept alone for years. He was accustomed to it.

He preferred it.

Although, he had to admit - if rather reluctantly - that there was something to be said for lying in bed, side by side, limbs entangled, skin against bare skin, with the right person.

Apparently, Kingsley Shacklebolt was that person.

The man was sprawled across the bed, on his stomach, with one arm flung over Severus's chest and a long, well-muscled thigh jammed between Severus's thinner and much paler ones. The instep of one elegant brown foot brushed lightly against Severus's left sole. The entire situation - awakening in a bed not his own, with another person plastered all over him - should have been annoying, uncomfortable.

It was neither. Something that caused him no few moments of concern.

Kingsley's earlier divestment spell had been rather selective. Severus had retained his shorts and short-sleeved undershirt. Kingsley, on the other hand, was entirely nude. The coverlet had been pushed down as they slept to reveal the man's impressive shoulders, his smooth back, the leanness of his waist as it tapered down to the muscular curve of his arse; one cheek now completely exposed. Kingsley's face was turned away, buried in the pillow, and the late afternoon sunlight painted his exposed skin reddish-brown, the colour of polished, well-oiled mahogany.

Severus felt a flutter in his stomach and swallowed hard.

He should rise immediately. Pull on his clothing, get the hell out. Return to Hogwarts.

This man was his keeper. One in a very long line of them, since he'd been a child. An afternoon of positively incandescent snogs aside, there were numerous compelling reasons why...turning on to his side and stretching out his left hand, why stroking his fingers down the smooth, warm expanse of skin, from nape to tailbone...why expecting anything, hoping for anything, was a very bad idea.

But his body, with its traitorous, starving fingers seemed determined to ignore the bare-faced facts.

"Well, well," Kingsley said. The damned man was awake! He turned his head and regarded Severus steadily. His single earring caught the light, casting a bronze reflection on the pillow. "And here, I thought you'd bolt as soon as you were awake."

Severus paused, his fingers went still on the nape of Kingsley's neck. The man was too damn perceptive. "Are you calling me a coward, Shacklebolt?"

Kingsley pulled his arm back and leaned up on his elbows. "Hardly that, Severus. Merely...overly circumspect." His eyes were so dark that Severus couldn't distinguish pupil from iris. "But I do believe we can remedy that," Kingsley said. "Immediately, in fact."

A slight shifting of his muscles, the dry rustle of the bedclothes, and the white flash of Kingsley's smile was all the warning Severus had before Shacklebolt pounced.

For some reason, every long, wet, deep kiss they subsequently shared was even more incendiary this time round.

Perhaps it was the delectable quantity of bare skin beneath Severus's questing fingertips, the sculpted muscles and sinews that flexed and shifted as they rolled across the width of the featherbed. Perhaps it was the rising heat of their bodies, the rhythmic thrust of Kingsley's naked erection against his own cloth-covered one, mimicking perfectly the slow, lascivious slide of their tongues against one another, again and again. Perhaps it was the scent of their arousal, the warm musky pungency of their sweat on the sleep-warmed sheets, a scent that called to mind illegal Dark potions. Ones that engendered lust and compulsion and surrender in the unwary. Perhaps it was the memory of this man stepping between him and the slavering dog who'd been hell-bent on ripping out his throat. Perhaps...

Whatever the case, Severus found that he did not care. His shirt was rucked up under his armpits, his shorts rode low on his hips exposing the tip of his prick. His fingers slid hungrily over Kingsley's shoulders and back as the man sucked and bit and licked at his throat and nipples, and ground their hips together, smearing wetness over their bellies.

"Mot de la belle Epona," Kingsley said against his ear, "you have no idea how much I want you."

Those roughly spoken, astonishing words loosened something...some stubborn knot of resistance inside him. Suddenly, the slick glide of Kingsley's tongue was no longer enough. Severus wanted his mouth filled with something longer, hotter, and far more hard. He wanted to coax forth sharp, bitter fluid from the tip, to lap it up. He wanted to make Kingsley moan.

"Likewise," he growled, and with a well-timed wriggle, he tipped Kingsley off and onto his side. Severus slipped one hand between their bodies then grasped both of their cocks in his hand, with every intention of finding the rapid, heated rhythm that would send them both over the edge.

Kingsley gasped once, then groaned and rested his forehead against Severus's shoulder for a moment. "No, Severus," he said softly, closing his hand over Severus's. "Wait."

Severus froze, privately mortified that he'd somehow misunderstood, but Kingsley was smiling up at him; a lazy, mischievous smile that thawed the ice in his stomach and made his toes curl.

"Not just yet, mon ami," Kingsley continued, then rolled to his knees and stripped Severus of his shorts in one bold, fluid motion.He laughed softly then leaned over and lapped at the corner of Severus's tentative smile. "There is no rush," he whispered, then commenced a series of feather-light kisses that trailed down Severus's throat, past his collar bone, his nipple, and along each of his ribs. "No rush at all." The light caresses made Severus shift restlessly against the bed sheets craving more; he bit back a betraying moan.

"There is nothing pressing we need to attend to at the moment, now is there?" Kingsley murmured. His lips had reached the hollow of Severus's left hip bone; his beard stubble tickled the sensitive skin there and his low, pleased chuckled sent a shiver up Severus's spine. "And I, for one, prefer to take my time with a new lover. A great deal of time."

A threat and a promise, both.

One that was most pleasurably kept when Kingsley's mouth dipped lower...lower, to finally close around Severus's all-too-eager prick.

He did gasp then as Kingsley worked wicked sexual magic with his tongue: slippery, hot and wet, with long, leisurely licks from root to tip that made him sigh and shake. Tiny nibbles and nips along the length that ignited sparks behind his closed eyes, that made his back arch and his entire body writhe. Over and over, his muscles grew taut, then relaxed again as the wash of sensation - the glide of Kingsley's mouth, the sweep of fingers along his inner thighs, across the ridge of his shin, the ticklish arch of his foot - waxed and waned then waxed again.

"Mmm," Kingsley hummed smugly around his cock, and the sudden vibration set Severus's nerves afire. From the base of his spine, he felt the essence of his magic rise up, white-hot, called to the surface by the nearness of Kingsley's own magical nimbus. Before he could catch his breath, Kingsley whispered a spell. An instant later, two slick fingers found their way behind his taut balls, trailing along the sensitive heated skin, teasing his opening, and then finally - finally! - into the place that he most desired them, but still felt ashamed to ask.

Severus put his hand to his mouth and bit down hard to stifle his undignified howl.

All at once, the sensations ceased as Kingsley drew back. Severus blinked. Kingsley lifted his head and firmly pulled Severus's hand away from his mouth. "I want to hear you, Severus," he said, with a dark smile, "I like to know that I am pleasing my lover."

The words struck him like a fist to the gut. Too many years and partners had taught him silence; it was a difficult habit to break. But then Kingsley's mouth swallowed him up again, Kingsley flexed those long, clever fingers deep inside him and without warning, the last bit of resistance was swept aside. "Yes," Severus gasped, abandoning all reserve to bend his knees and thrust his hips up, into wet heat, and down again, into fullness and bright sparks of delight. "Oh, please, yes!"

And somehow, though he could scarcely draw breath and his heart was hammering against his ribs, he found a rhythm. The rhythm that narrowed his world down to friction and heat and lust, that reduced his vocabulary to sighs and moans, until his mind went white with its intensity and he finally came with a shout.

A short while later, Kingsley lay beside him on the rumpled sheets as Severus panted and willed his heart to slow. Kingsley had his head propped up on one hand and he looked supremely smug. Severus scowled at him through the tangle of his hair.

"Don't give me that look, Severus," Kingsley said, drawing the name out like a caress. It pleasantly ruffled Severus's already sensitive nerves. "It seems to me that you needed that." He continued, "Been a while, has it?"

Severus bristled. "And if it has?" he said, and made as if to sit up. But Kingsley casually pinned him with one long, muscular leg and an arm wrapped around his waist. He rolled them both to their sides and pushed aside Severus's hair with his nose. "And if it has..." Kingsley nuzzled a path up the nape of his neck; Severus gasped. A jolt of pure lust lanced through his belly and liquified his muscles and bones. "...if it has," Kingsley was saying, "then we best make certain that you have had the full experience."

He closed his eyes and feigned a put-upon sigh. "And what, pray tell, constitutes this 'full experience?'" he asked, though he had a damn good idea. Especially given that Kingsley had settled tightly against his back and nudged his left knee forward.

"Perhaps a demonstration is in order," Kingsley said mildly.

Severus opened his mouth to retort, but his half-formed words were obliterated by the bright sting of penetration - it had been quite a while - followed by the luxurious sensation of fullness as Kingsley thrust once, then twice, until he was deeply inside him. He clenched his hands, remembering the silk-over-steel sensation of Kingsley's cock in his hands and felt an absurd pang that he hadn't got to taste it.

"If you hadn't already guessed, mon cher," Kingsley whispered hotly into his ear, "I am going to fuck you now." Another long thrust and Kingsley set about making good on his promise to take a great deal of time.

The pace that Kingsley set was slow, languid at times. Kingsley's fingers slid over his damp skin, lightly stroking, always touching, until the sensation shimmered into infinity, like sunlight on a swiftly flowing river. Severus turned his head and Kingsley captured his lips, sliding his tongue inside with slow, gentle thrusts that perfectly mimicked every languorous rotation and thrust of his hips.

And after a while, as Severus became accustomed to the exquisite pressure inside, and adjusted to odd gentleness of Kingsley's hands, the tender words and endearments whispered into his ear, Severus decided that he might willingly give Kingsley Shacklebolt all of the moments he had left in the world.

*

Kingsley smiled at the man softly snoring in his bed. So, his Severus was not disinclined to participate in sexual behaviour. In fact, if the afternoon showed things as they truly were, he very much liked it. Even if he had seemed hesitant, a little clumsy at times. He wondered how long it had been since Severus had writhed in a bed under a loving hand. He'd been so tight, so deliciously tight. And, if he'd read Severus correctly, surprised to discover that loving could be a slow and languorous activity.

He'd lain very quiet when Severus had begun exploring him. Hesitantly, as though expecting to be told not to intrude into private space. And Severus had tried hard to silence his voice when Kingsley's touches had grown erotic.

That would not happen again, Kingsley promised himself. He'd told Severus that he wanted to hear Severus's pleasure, and he did, just as he would not deny Severus the pleasure of hearing his when Severus took control. After he'd removed Severus's hand from his mouth, Severus had no choice but to cry out at Kingsley's touch. Still a little too restrained for Kingsley's satisfaction, but it was a beginning.

He was pleased to discover that Severus loved to bottom. Whether naturally or because of his previous experiences, Kingsley would eventually find out. But, right now, he would see to it that his lover... He smiled: yes, finally, his lover. That his lover would get all the loving attention he needed to understand that he was being claimed, not just as spy in the enemy 's camp, not just as a bed-warmer, but as someone of importance in Kingsley's life.

He leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on the nape of his neck, pulled Severus closer and succumbed to his own post-coital desire to snooze.

*

Much later, long after the sun had set and Kingsley had lit a few candles on the bedside table, Severus lay on his side facing the window, with Kingsley spooned up behind him.

It was getting late and he'd been away from Hogwarts for far too many hours. He really should get dressed and go, deal with the mountain of paperwork he'd left behind in his office, including the phoney 'report' that he needed to get to Torquil. But Kingsley was nuzzling the back of his neck again and his muscles and bones seemed determined to ignore all suggestions from his brain to get a move on.

Eventually, Kingsley stopped and leaned over to trace the now-faint Dark Mark on Severus's outstretched arm with the tip of his finger. Despite himself, he tensed, anticipating the inevitable question.

"Did it hurt?"

Not what he'd expected, but nonetheless Severus closed his eyes against the memories. "Yes. No. It was..." He sighed.

It had been late winter, a few months after his eighteenth birthday, when he'd knelt before Voldemort and taken the Dark Mark. Lucius had stood beside him until the final moments, then Severus had left the circle of other aspirants and walked forward to meet Voldemort alone. He'd wisely skipped breakfast and lunch, but even so, anticipation and fear had made his guts roil. Following a brief interview - after all, Voldemort had known him personally for several years, he had knelt and accepted the Mark. Despite his best intentions, he'd cried out, in shock and pleasure, when the complex sigil carved itself onto his arm and settled into his bones and blood. It was done. And afterwards, he had truly belonged somewhere: he had people - powerful men and women - bound closer than kin, who would always stand at his back, who were convinced they could change the world. Even after Voldemort's Order was broken, even in the intervening years, he was still entangled in those powerful bonds.

Severus shook off the memories and returned to the present. "...A word has not been invented for what it was, nor for what it is," he said finally.

Kingsley's fingers skimmed the Mark lightly. In response to the passive magic in the touch, the intricate skull and snake design rose to the surface and made its presence more prominently known. Severus's resulting shiver had nothing to do with the sudden breeze from the open window that ruffled the curtains.

Kingsley pulled the sheet up over their shoulders. "Does it hurt? Now that he's returned?"

How could he explain the agony and exhilaration, the lust or implacable, cold purpose that the Mark could radiate according to Voldemort's will?

"Severus?"

"Sometimes." He swallowed hard and moved his arm out of reach. "If he has called someone through the Mark, every other Mark...resonates, for lack of better word. If he is annoyed, or feeling some other strong emotion - and has relaxed his shields - sometimes I can sense it. For a long time, after Potter banished him as a baby, the Mark was entirely quiescent and nearly invisible except for the faint hint of a scar. I felt nothing from it."

"But...?"

"But then, six years ago, I felt something. A tingling, a pricking in the Mark. It grew more visible at times," Severus said, "And then I knew for certain that Potter hadn't killed him all those years ago. I knew that it was only a matter of time until he returned."

"Is it...can he..." Uncharacteristically, Kingsley seemed at a loss as to how to frame his question.

There was no point in forestalling the inevitable. "No doubt, you want to know if the Mark is bi-directional, is that it?" he said, rolling to his back and looking Kingsley in the eye.

The other man shifted a bit but still kept his arm draped across Severus's chest. In the dim light of the room, his eyes seemed more dark than usual. "Yes, that is what I wanted to know."

Severus exhaled. "The answer to that question is a qualified 'yes.' The Mark itself is a very complex magical device - in addition to some intricate arithmantic and runic components, it contains the barest essence of the Dark Lord himself, his magical signature, if you will - but it does have limitations. Otherwise I would not have been able to defy him. Nor continue to spy."

Kingsley cocked his head and frowned. "What sort of limitations?"

"Distance, for one. The farther away an individual Mark is, the more difficult it is for him to 'read' it through the Master Mark. However, when in his immediate presence, or if he happens to touch it, well..." Severus pushed himself up. He sat back against the pillows and wrapped his arms around his knees, "In that case, Occlumency comes in useful, I do assure you."

His partner looked aghast and immediately moved to sit beside him. "Severus, I had no idea."

He shrugged. "No reason that you should. The study of such devices is an arcane branch of knowledge. I realise that you're well-read, Kingsley, but I wouldn't expect anyone, except someone so Marked, to find it of interest."

"But Severus! From what I understand from your file," Kingsley paused, looking a little sheepish, "you had changed allegiances prior to contacting the Order, before you studied Occlumency with Dumbledore. How did you manage to escape detection in the meantime?"

Despite himself, he shivered. "Luck," he said flatly. "Luck, and the fact that I was not then a senior member of his Order. My talents were in magical innovation, Dark charms, potions, that sort of thing. It was rare that I was alone with him, and I always, always delivered on whatever I had promised him. There was no reason for him to suspect me. It didn't hurt that I have some natural talent for Occlumency."

"Even so, Severus."

"I did what I had to do. What I have to do." He shrugged again. "Things became much more difficult after I became an instructor at Hogwarts and made the offer to spy on Dumbledore on the Dark Lord's behalf. If I take care not to think or speak of him, if I do nothing to draw his attention to my Mark, then I'm safe enough." They all were, all of Voldemort's Marked, given the sigil's limits; certainly Lucius was as scrupulously careful with his thoughts and his speech as Severus himself.

"This - achieving Voldemort's downfall - is personal for you, isn't it." Kingsley said. It was not a question.

Severus stared hard at Kingsley. What exactly did the man know, and how? Only two people in the world knew precisely why he'd renounced his allegiance as a Death Eater: Minerva and Dumbledore. He couldn't imagine either of them sharing that secret with anyone. Not if they cared one whit about his life and safety, as they constantly protested that they did. "Personal? Yes, it is," Severus said simply.

He waited for Kingsley to press him, either verbally or magically, but the man did neither. Instead, he reached across and took hold of Severus's Marked forearm again.

"How fascinating," Kingsley said. Rather than trace the Mark again with his fingers, he instead tilted Severus's arm so that the candle light flickered over the sigil. "An elegant and rather brilliant adaptation of classic rune-making."

It seemed that the curious, intelligent boy with whom he'd spent time with in the library was alive and well in the fully grown Auror; Severus couldn't help but smile. Nonetheless, something in Kingsley's words pricked at him uncomfortably. "Ingenious, isn't it?" he agreed. "Whatever else people may think of him, he is a very gifted wizard."

"And you say that he managed to permanently imbue the Mark with some bit of his own magical essence? Like a signature of sorts."

Severus felt that odd prickle over the back of his neck again and frowned. "Yes, as part of the enscribement ritual. As far as I can tell, it is one of the things that enables him to securely transmit the Apparation co-ordinates when he calls."

"All of that," Kingsley continued softly, "infused into something that might easily be mistaken for an unusual scar."

An unusual scar. The phrase echoed strangely.

Severus went rigid.

Distantly, he could hear Kingsley call his name but he was too appalled by his sudden flash of insight to pay heed.

In addition to every Death Eater, one other wizard bore an unusual, rune-shaped scar, courtesy of a run-in with Voldemort: Harry Potter. A boy who'd had uncannily prophetic dreams about the Dark Lord's activities in the past year. Who shared the unusual gift of Parseltongue with Voldemort.

He could hear the blood pounding in his ears.

How had none of them thought seriously of the possibility before?

Severus found himself out of the bed and gathering up his discarded clothing. There was no time to shower away the decadent scent of sex that still clung to his skin. "I have to go."

"Severus?" Kingsley was immediately beside him. "Severus, what's wrong? Where are you going?"

He pulled on his underwear and trousers then jammed his feet into his boots, giving up his socks for lost. "I must go back to Hogwarts." Already, he was mentally rummaging through the restricted section of the Hogwarts library, some lesser known stacks at the Athenaeum, and his own extensive notes on script-mediated magical bindings.

"Dumbledore already knows that you're here. I owlled him this morning, before we went to sleep."

He buttoned up his shirt and donned his over-robe. "No," he said making his way to the door, "That doesn't matter. I need to - "

Somehow, Kingsley got to the bedroom door before him. "Severus," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Before you walk out of this room, I would like an explanation."

The man was still naked. The comfortable bed lay rumpled behind them. Severus's resolve wavered. After all, a few hours wouldn't matter one way or the other, would it?

It will to Dumbledore, the annoying voice in his mind reminded him. And of the two men, he'd much rather run afoul of Kingsley.

"Listen carefully then, as I don't have much time," Severus said settling his cloak around his shoulders, "Fifteen years ago, the Dark Lord learned of a prophecy involving a child who would bring about his downfall. Two infants fitted the conditions, Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom."

"Ah." Kingsley nodded slowly. "So this is the prophecy that Dumbledore has alluded to."

"Unsure of which baby the prophecy had marked, he decided to kill both. Unfortunately for him, he hadn't heard the entire prophecy and his Seers were unable to clarify matters. Also, the Order of the Phoenix learned of the plot - "

"From you."

Severus nodded. "Yes. And therefore neither child was easy to locate. Two Death Eaters were dispatched to locate and kill the Longbottom infant. They failed. The Dark Lord himself went after the Potters."

"And killed James and Lily, then cast the Killing Curse at Harry," Kingsley said. His eyes narrowed and he rubbed his chin.

"But because Evans had sacrificed her life for that of her child, the curse failed in a very curious fashion. It struck the infant then rebounded."

"Striking Voldemort and decanting him from his body, leaving Potter with a - " Kingsley's eyes widened and he immediately looked at Severus's covered left forearm.

"With a lightning bolt shaped scar. Amongst other things."

"Sweet Merlin." Kingsley sagged against the door-frame, one hand covering his mouth.

Severus stepped through the bedroom door and out into the hallway. "I'll send you word when I know anything conclusive," he said, heart pounding in his throat, then he exited the flat and Apparated to Hogwarts.

10.

Kingsley nodded politely to Professor Sprout as he made his way through the hallway by the Great Hall. She looked surprised to see him then scurried away, probably to report his presence to someone in authority. Wouldn't be Dumbledore, as he was away at meetings about his status with the Wizengamot at the moment.

It had been almost three days since Severus had left him, running off not to escape the situation, but to find backing for his theory on Potter's scar. He had a pretty good idea that the man probably hadn't got much sleep. One track mind, his Severus had. He'd had it when they'd been boys in school and nothing he'd seen up till now had caused Kingsley to change his mind.

Probably not eaten anything either. Bloody prat.

He smiled when the wards parted to allow him into Severus's rooms. Well, that was progress. And, yes, it was obvious from the mugs of cold coffee, the plates of curling sandwiches, the tumbled piles of books and the reams of crumpled paper scattered about not just the desk, but the room as well, that he'd not been wrong about his man.

Still, no body.

Kingsley quietly opened the door to the bedchamber, expecting to find said missing body, but the bedcover didn't even have a wrinkle in it. A quick look in the bathroom indicated it too was vacant.

A frisson of worry wormed up his spine. Had Severus been Summoned?

"He's gone running."

Kingsley spun, wand in hand, ready for action.

Hooch held her hands up, showing they were empty. "Easy, easy. No need to over-react."

Kingsley sheathed his wand. "My apologies. I didn't hear you coming in."

She nodded. "The wards are spelled to allow me in. I see that they're set for you too now." With a sly grin, Hooch backed out of the bedchamber. Kingsley took another quick inspection and saw the pile of clothing on the floor to the other side of the bed. With a rueful shake of his head, he went and joined her.

He found her sitting on the couch, her feet up, much at home and making the point. He dropped into Severus's chair and casually crossed one leg over the other.

"So, is it safe to assume that things are going well between the two of you?"

Kingsley just smiled.

Hooch laughed. "Irma says he looked less tense. She got a good look at him when he raided the Restricted Section of the library. She says that he actually asked for permission before he helped himself. Not that he waited for her response, of course, but the fact that he asked first left her speechless for a good half-hour. She couldn't remember the last time Severus politely requested to raid the books. Minerva doubts that he ever did." She laughed, crossing her arms behind her head.

"He's gone running, you said."

She nodded, that grin of hers growing very knowing.

"Do you have any idea when he left?"

She ignored that. "So, you managed to get him into bed, did you? With no Minerva interrupting you at the crucial moment. Did he disappoint you?"

Kingsley didn't think she was asking just to tease him; she was truly curious. He closed his eyes and silently wished he hadn't been an only child. "Is there nothing sacred to you, Hooch?"

She laughed. "Get real, Kingsley. All those brothers, remember."

He met her laughing eyes and shook his head. "Well, neither Severus nor I come from large families. Privacy..."

"Get over yourself, Kingsley." She sat up, dropping her booted feet heavily onto the floor. "He just about had 'well fucked' stamped on his forehead. I just want to know if he's going to keep you interested, now that you've had him."

And suddenly the tone and the expression in her eyes were not so amicable. Kingsley remembered that she and Minerva had promised to make him pay if he hurt Severus in any way.

He sighed loudly, examined his fingers, his only revenge making her wait for it. "If there is any decision made to break up this relationship, I can say...with a certain confidence...that it will not be mine."

Hooch grinned again.

"Tell me, is there anyone in this place who is not concerned with Severus's sex life?"

She laughed, with a certain sympathy. "Well, it's just your luck that Minerva, Irma and I are the only ones here right now who know him well enough to see the difference. We all took turns checking in on him these last days while he was working away on whatever it was." She stood up and leaned over as though to confide. "Minerva caught him humming at one point. Not something we've ever heard him doing." She patted him on the shoulder on her way out. "Keep up the good work. He left about two hours ago."

Kingsley sat back in the chair and wondered if he sent his parents a bottle of champagne, would they understand how truly pleased he was to have been an only child?

He transfigured his clothes into running gear then went off along the trail he and Severus had taken all those weeks... Par Belénos, it hadn't been that many weeks exactly. Just felt like it.

He had a good pace going. With a little luck he might meet Severus as he was coming back along the path. With that in mind, he nearly missed seeing his lover lying in the clearing where, that last time, they had first agreed to work together.

Severus was lying on his back, legs stretched out in the warm afternoon sun. His eyes were closed, his hands clasped over his chest, and, yes, there was a slight snore competing with some bumblebee buzzing in the area.

Kingsley stopped, ran in place a few minutes to cool down then went to make himself comfortable, sitting back propped against a nearby tree, content just to watch Severus. The last time they'd been here, Severus's face had been etched with tension. His natural state. The fact that even now the lines on his face were less so might have had something to his being 'well fucked'. Kingsley smiled, crossing his arms over his chest, and waited to see how Severus would respond when, on waking, he would see him here.

"How long have you been here?"

Kingsley grinned. Even watching he hadn't caught the moment when Severus had awakened. "Not that long. About an hour."

"A lot of time to waste."

Kingsley cocked his head. Not the words, but the undertone caught his attention. Oh, dear. Maybe he should have come check on his skittish lover before this. He moved so that he was on all fours and then he advanced, like a cat, on his prey. He bent and licked the side of Severus's face.

The eyes snapped open and glared tiredly at him.

Kingsley slowly licked the tight mouth until he felt the lips relax and part for him. He drew the kiss out, taking the time to reacquaint himself with the sharp taste of his lover. Severus lay still, allowing him to do what he wanted with his mouth. By the time Kingsley raised his head just enough to check, Severus's eyes were shut, his breathing rough and his mouth beguilingly wet.

Kingsley's lips leisurely tracked a path from mouth, across the jaw line, up to an ear. "Hello, Severus," his voice a soft, deep rumble. "Have you missed me?" And he used the tip of his tongue to trace the whirls in Severus's ear, which, he was pleased to see, caused Severus to shiver.

Severus had to clear his throat in order to respond. "Why? Did you go anywhere?"

Kingsley rested his forehead against Severus's head and chuckled. "My contrary lover. I missed you, you know. But I thought you might prefer to work undisturbed. I'll know better next time."

Severus shrugged, not enough to unsettle Kingsley's head. "Not important," he muttered.

Kingsley stretched out beside Severus, his hand gently clasping his chin and turning it so that they could look into each other's eyes. "Yes, it is. You're important to me, Severus. I'd like to think that you remember that. Maybe a little reinforcement?" He tugged the black shirt from Severus's running pants and slipped his hand under and upwards, finding the small nubs that responded immediately to his touch.

"Here? In the open?"

Kingsley grinned at the wary tone. "Why not? It's a beautiful day. The sun is shining. The birds are chirping pleasantly. The bees are busy with the flowers. This is a lovely place. I can't think of anything I'd like better right now than to be deep inside you, listening to you make those little sounds of appreciation, your cock hard and leaking in my hand."

Severus flushed slightly, the tip of tongue his wetting his lips. "And if we happen to be seen?"

Kingsley looked up and around the clearing. "Then, in that case, I think we should move this under those trees. The shadows there are dark enough to hide us from prying eyes. Unless..." he looked back into the matte black of those eyes and wondered, "unless you find you don't have much of an interest in having me deep in you?"

His hand snaked under the waistband and found evidence of Severus's interest.

Severus remained unmoving. "What about lube?"

Kingsley grinned wickedly, delighted to see Severus swallow hard at the sight. He pushed himself up onto his feet and patted himself down, before remembering that what he was looking for was in his regular clothes. Severus propped himself up on an elbow, brushed the hair off his face and watched as Kingsley transfigured his running gear back and found what he was seeking in one of his robe's pockets. With a grin, he tossed the small metal container of salve over to Severus who caught it in his free hand.

"Will that do?"

Severus took his time opening the container, examining the contents and going so far as to sniff them. Kingsley let him get away with that, using the time to spread his robe in the shade under the trees. Then, with a smile, he offered Severus his hand and pulled him to his feet. Wrapping his arms around the slim body, he backed them both to the improvised blanket and an afternoon of lazy love-making.

*

Pleasantly sated, Kingsley lay, his head on Severus's bony shoulder, a leg nestled between Severus's two, his hand slowly stroking a hard hip. He did so, not just for the pleasure it gave him to touch his lover, but also as a means of keeping him still. His Severus was not one much for a post-coital cuddle. He'd learn.

"You haven't asked after what I've discovered. Is it because you don't think it's important?"

Kingsley smiled to himself. Ah, yes, that one-track mind. "Actually, I was thinking about something more important."

There was a moment's silence, then, "What could that be?"

Kingsley propped his chin on the bony shoulder and gave Severus the benefit of his most serious look. "I was thinking about how to go about convincing you that coffee is not the perfect food."

The black eyes blinked. There was a flash of surprise and then actual humour. "You can't. Because it is."

Kingsley sadly shook his head. "Then I shall most certainly be checking up on you more often, Severus. At this rate, you're going to disappear on me." And he gave the hard hip a little tap.

Severus made as though to shift Kingsley off him, but Kingsley allowed his weight to keep him where he was. Merde, but the man was far too skinny. He truly did need feeding up. All that nervous energy probably burnt off whatever few calories he was getting before they had time to flesh him out a little.

And he needed to get away from all this. Away from a place and situation where those nerves could do nothing but take control.

Severus wisely gave up trying to shake him off after two attempts. "Will that matter?"

It didn't take skill in Legilimency to sense the withdrawal into self-protection. Not that Kingsley couldn't understand the need: life had taught his Severus some hard lessons.

He reached over and took Severus's far arm in his hand, bringing it over to his mouth. He placed a gentle kiss on the inside wrist of the clenched hand, his tongue lazily tracing the slightly raised blood lines. When the hand relaxed enough to open slightly, Kingsley raised his head, propped it up on an elbow and shook his head.

"You have no idea, do you, how important you are to me?"

Severus swallowed hard but met his eyes. "You need me to spy for you. To bring you information. Remind me to give you that 'report' for Torquil before you leave."

Kingsley wanted to wince at the hard tone but wondered just whom it was for. Himself or for Severus? He brought the wrist to his mouth again and rubbed his lips against it.

"Do you remember the Garde Ritual, Severus?"

He nodded.

"The last bit. In the kitchen. When I added the blood?"

Another nod. There was curiosity in those eyes.

"I could have added your blood, you know. In fact, that's what the ritual called for. The blood of the one to be protected."

"You added yours."

Said in a cold tone.

Kingsley ignored that for a smile. "I added mine. Thereby adding not just my protection to the magic."

There was a long moment of silence and stillness as Severus processed that information. "Not just?"

Kingsley nodded.

"What else did it do?"

"It made you mine."

There was a small start and the eyes turned incredulous. "It made me yours?" Severus's usual sarcastic tone was back full force. "For how long?"

Kingsley grinned. "Grand'mère wasn't too certain. Her best guess was a couple of hundred years."

"A couple of..." Sheer astonishment.

Kingsley cocked his head and waited while his lover processed that. It was interesting to watch. His eyes closed, shutting out the world. His breathing hitched, then forcibly settled. Other than the rapid beating of his heart, Severus was completely still.

Kingsley let his hand stroke the soft skin at Severus's waist, offering comfort. "You can break the bond at any time that you want, Severus," he finally said, gently. "The ritual for that is fairly simple. I can let you read it the next time you're at the flat."

Severus's lower lip disappeared under his teeth.

Time to change the subject, to let Severus digest all that.

"So what did you discover in all that research that sent you running to sort it out?"

Severus sighed and opened his eyes. "How do you know..."

Kingsley grinned. "I recognise information overload when I see it. The house-elves must love cleaning up after you."

Severus scoffed. "They know better than to touch my things. Please, stop touching me. It's not that I...don't like it, it's just that it makes it hard for me to think. Unless you want sex again?"

Kingsley mentally rolled his eyes. He was going to have to fight for every inch he went forward with this lover of his. At this rate, it would take a couple of hundred years for Severus to accept...

He grinned. "Sorry, love. I'm not seventeen. I just like to touch you."

Severus shrugged as though he couldn't understand that, but Kingsley gave him the space he needed. He rolled into a sitting position and waited for Severus to do likewise.

*

Feeling off-balance, Severus took the opportunity to pull on his discarded clothing while he organised his sex-jumbled thoughts. He left his feet bare and let the cool grass tickle his toes.

So. Kingsley had altered the Garde Ritual, adding his own blood, thereby binding the two of them together. For several hundred years.

Right. And werewolves mated for life.

Severus gingerly leaned back against a convenient tree trunk. He shifted onto one arse-cheek to ease the lingering post-sex soreness and tried to suppress his annoyance. Why on earth would anyone - least of all someone like Kingsley - wish to bind himself to an ugly, ill-tempered, nigh well impoverished schoolteacher with a dodgy past and what was likely to be a very abbreviated future?

Assuming that Kingsley wasn't merely winding him up, of course. Severus was well acquainted with ritual magic, especially those spells involving blood or bindings. No aspect of the Garde Ritual bore any resemblance to the Dark spells that he'd heard of or seen cast. There had been no pain, no sacrifice, no visceral - if silent - howl of protest from his magic at having been violated, penetrated, or leashed by the caster of the spell. Granted, the Garde Ritual was non-European protective magic, differing both in structure as well as in basic intent, but regardless...

Severus shook his head, forcing the questions away. He would most definitely pursue the matter later. In detail. And Shacklebolt would damn well make that journal available to him as soon as possible. But for now, he had a report to make.

He turned to face Kingsley and began. "I will spare you a recitation of the theoretical underpinnings of my analysis and get straight to the point." Fortunately, Kingsley had also got dressed in the meantime, making his presence a good deal less distracting. "It is almost a certainty that Potter's curse scar is, in fact, a bidirectional conduit into the Dark Lord's own mind. It is nearly as certain that he is, at this time, unaware of this link."

Kingsley frowned. "But you don't think that situation will last."

"No. I suspect, as does Dumbledore, that the only things that have kept the Dark Lord unaware of the connection are Potter's age and his unusual lack of curiosity. Unusual in a child his age, I mean."

"His age? What exactly are you saying?" Kingsley leaned forward and the sun and the shadows cast by the leaves overhead dappled his skin bronze and gold.

It took Severus a moment to recapture the thread of his report. "I am saying that, as Potter matures - sexually as well as physically - so will his magic. There are very good reasons why Hogwarts is as heavily warded as it is - besides just defence." As he warmed to the topic, he decided that he simply could not resist a bit of a lecture. "During adolescence, as a child's physical body becomes more capable of channelling and sustaining magical energies, his magical field also becomes more complex, transforming what was once mere potential into actuality. Eventually it achieves the degree of cohesion one finds in a mature wizard or witch."

"And here I thought that you were going to spare me the theory," Kingsley said with a twinkle in his eye.

Severus sniffed. "Unlike the Dark Mark, which merely contains the Master's signature, Potter's scar was actually the vehicle through which he transferred some of his own magical essence and power into the boy. The fact that Potter and the Dark Lord are both Parselmouths is no coincidence. At the moment, that link is primarily passive and appears to be accessible to Potter only on a subconscious level. Most frequently in his dreams." Severus paused to search for the best way to phrase his next point. "However, because the process of magical maturation is a revelatory one - bringing forth what was hidden or nascent - that link can not and will not remain dormant. There will come a time when Potter's magic will reveal that link to him consciously."

Kingsley rubbed his chin. "And when it does, Voldemort will know." Then he reached out and picked a twig and two leaves out of Severus's hair.

"Yes. And stop that." Severus swatted him away.

"I can't help it, you look like you've been rolling around under a hedge."

"I can't imagine why that might be," he said repressively. "Once that happens, the Dark Lord will immediately become aware of foreign magic interacting with his own. It would be a simple matter for him to then follow that magic back to its source - to Potter."

"And we can't know exactly when that will happen."

"No, we can't. I suppose that a master arithmancer might be able to narrow it down to within a few months, give or take, but..." Severus trailed off, twisting some grass between his fingers.

"But puberty isn't predictable, is it?" Kingsley said in a thoughtful tone. "What makes you certain that Voldemort doesn't know of the link's existence now?"

"One of the Dark Lord's talents is the ability to acquire and fully possess a host."

Kingsley looked at him sharply. "We - I wasn't aware of that."

"Oh, yes." Severus nodded, noting the slip. "When he was discorporate, he survived, gaining strength by inhabiting the bodies of animals and Muggles. When he encountered Quirrell in Albania, he was, with some effort, able to possess the man completely and direct his actions and his magic from within. He was even able to manage a partial physical manifestation via Quirrel's body. Suffice it to say that, were he aware of the link with Potter, he would have already possessed the boy somehow and used him to retrieve the prophecy orb from the Department of Mysteries."

"Merde!" Kingsley said, shaking his head. "So we have some time, then. But look, isn't there some way to shield Potter's mind? To close off the link? Perhaps use Occlumency. Otherwise, the boy is a walking security risk."

"Occlumency," Severus said sourly. He pulled on his socks and trainers then stood. "Yes, that has been suggested."

Kingsley remained seated and raised his eyebrow. "By whom, Dumbledore?"

"Yes."

"And let me guess, he wants you to teach the boy?"

It was fortunate that Kingsley didn't laugh, otherwise Severus would have been forced to hex him. "Yes. Dumbledore would be the obvious choice, however, there is a complication."

That sobered the grinning Auror completely. "Severus, what's happened," he asked, climbing to his feet.

Severus leaned against the tree and crossed his arms. "During several interactions with the boy, and immediately following Potter's return from his confrontation with the Master several weeks ago, Dumbledore thought that he...saw him behind Potter's eyes."

"What? What the hell! So it's happened already, and he hadn't told anyone?"

"No," Severus said, "not exactly. Listen, he positively despises Dumbledore. And when Potter is in Dumbledore's presence - "

"Dumbledore is, by definition, in Potter's thoughts," Kingsley said, obviously quick on the uptake. "Thoughts which in turn are partially transmitted through the link making Voldemort aware of it, at least subconsciously."

"Twenty points to Ravenclaw."

"Only twenty?" Kingsley said with a slight smile. He gathered up his over-robe, shook it out and draped it over his shoulders. "Fine. So Potter can't be in Dumbledore's presence for an extended time. You and Potter have some...history. I could certainly teach the boy."

"Ah, yes, you could," Severus said with a sly look. "Assuming that Dumbledore trusted you enough to teach his precious pet saviour."

Kingsley snorted. "There is that. So, when do these lessons start?"

"That's the thing," Severus said, frowning. "They don't. Dumbledore wants to wait."

"To wait? Why?"

"I don't know, and even Minerva was unable to budge him on that point." In fact, Dumbledore had been oddly insistent about it, despite Minerva's very persuasive arguments. "I suspect that it has something to do with the Headmaster's wish that Potter not be overburdened by too many responsibilities at once. Dumbledore was very clear: we are to wait until it is absolutely certain that the link is active."

"That's insane!" Kingsley buttoned his robe with angry motions. "In the meantime, what are we supposed to do? Keep the boy in the dark?"

"That's it precisely. We are to treat Potter, his friends, the Weasley children, and Black as extreme security risks. Dumbledore plans to limit his contact with the boy." Severus shook his head. "While I am certainly not fond of Potter - he is an abysmal, indifferent, and disruptive student, with a penchant for ignoring the rules as it suits him - I do believe that he should be prepared for the fact that he will face the Dark Lord again. Children do best when they understand what is expected of them." Severus eyed Kingsley who was now re-dressed in his full, rather elaborate Auror robes. "Planning to run back to the castle in that?"

Kingsley glanced down at himself with annoyance. He pointed his wand at himself and transfigured his clothing into running attire.

"Quite a fancy bit of wand-work."

"Useful trick for an Auror," Kingsley said, grinning. "You never know when you might need a disguise on a moment's notice."

"I see." Severus said. Since a goodly portion of the man was exposed again, Severus took the opportunity to look his fill.

"Do you also see something you like, Severus?" Kingsley drawled, then stepped close and began to brush more leaves and pine needles out of Severus's tangled hair.

"Stop that, Shacklebolt," he said, swatting at the man's hands.

"Honestly, Severus, I don't understand the problem. I'm only trying to make you look marginally less disreputable."

"You can't make a sow's ear into a silk purse," Severus said bitterly.

"Not without a wand," Kingsley said, his voice low and suggestive. He moved so close to Severus that their bodies were pressed together. "Fortunately, I have several." He advantage of Severus's distraction to nuzzle his throat and ear.

Severus nearly rolled his eyes. He did pull out of reach. "I thought you said you weren't still seventeen."

"Ah, but you inspire me."

"Ha!" Severus walked back to the clearing. The sun was still bright though a few threatening clouds had drifted in during the afternoon. He took a moment to enjoy its warmth on his upturned face.

Strong arms wrapped around him from behind. "You do realise that, don't you Severus?" Kingsley whispered in his ear.

It was tempting to believe that it was true. That there could be something more to all this than the casual mixing of business and lust. But Severus was, above all else, a pragmatist. "I realise that if we don't start back to the castle now we are likely to get caught in a storm."

Kingsley sighed and released him. "Very well, let's go."

Severus started down the trail, and after a ten minute warm up, he set a punishing pace back to Hogwarts. As he ran, he also schemed: once he'd run Kingsley into the ground for an hour or so, he'd slow the pace and demand that Kingsley make that damned journal available to him for study. Then they'd see just how far Kingsley's good will and supposed interest stretched when the man was too exhausted to think about sex.

*

He never got the chance.

A cloudburst caught them half-way back to the castle and the downpour made it impossible to carry on a conversation. Then, Minerva caught up with both of them in the stairwell to the dungeons with orders from Dumbledore.

Kingsley was to report to Headquarters to meet up with Tonks, Moody, Lupin, and several other members of the Order then escort Potter back to 12 Grimmauld Place. Severus was to prepare a report on his findings about Potter's scar and any updates he'd had regarding Malfoy's plans for obtaining the prophecy orb.

And Minerva, maddening wench that she was, just glared at them both impatiently, "Well, what are you waiting for? You've got your orders," when they lingered in the corridor after her pronouncements.

Kingsley gave her a sour look. "I'll speak to you later, Severus," he said. He cast a drying spell on himself, then re-transfigured his clothing and stalked up the stairs and out to the Apparation point.

Minerva eyed Severus steadily. Though he wanted to growl aloud at the unfairness of yet another report and being forced to share space with Black, he knew enough to keep his mouth shut and to make a strategic retreat.

*

So this was where the Boy Who Lived lived when not at Hogwarts. A regular suburban house, the duplicate of the dozens that had been constructed at the same time. Boxes of similarity which housed no real differences of attitude. The worst of Muggle-dom.

They had no trouble entering, as though any Muggle lock would be more than a whispered Alohomora's effort to give entry. Some of his companions were more interested than he was: they were less familiar with Muggle things. Tonks managed to upset one of the chairs onto the floor. In the dark silence, the sound was far too loud. Kingsley indicated that Tonks should stand by him: Moody looked seconds away from hexing her. She grinned at him, repentantly, but then her attention returned to the room and its contents.

"Might as well get him down here," muttered Moody, waving his wand and casting another Alohomora.

Lupin shared a look with Kingsley that said 'Here we go.'

"Lower your wand, boy, before you take someone's eye out."

Kingsley smiled when the boy didn't immediately do so. Good. He had some sense of self-preservation. They could see him fairly well, but from what had been said prior to their taking off, Harry knew only Moody and Lupin. He was right to be wary. Especially since the false-Moody had tried to kill him.

"It's all right, Harry. We've come to take you away."

Ah, Lupin was known and recognised. That was better. And Tonks adding light to the situation helped.

"I see what you mean, Remus." Kingsley hoped the use of Lupin's first name would establish some credentials with the boy. Lupin must had guessed his purpose because his only reaction was a raised eyebrow at the never-used familiarity. "He looks exactly like James."

And he did. Which made Kingsley wonder why he was so surprised by the fact. Merlin knew, there had to be a reason for Severus's visceral reaction to the boy. Though, Elphias Doge was right: he did have Lily's eyes.

So this was Dumbledore's 'saviour'. Poor kid. The house had a certain smugness to it, but even if the taste in decorating left him wincing, it did reflect a certain comfortable style of life. The boy was dressed in obvious hand-me-downs and looked far too thin for his liking.

Moody, of course, had to challenge the boy's identity. So, the lad could indeed call up a Patronus. Not a bad accomplishment for one of his age. That would bear remembering.

The boy's eyes reflected his astonishment at their presence though his face gave nothing away. Tonks had his attention - that purple hair was good for something - though he politely acknowledged all the introductions Lupin made. And he certainly didn't seen reticent about the notion of leaving this place.

He also had no reticence about using Voldemort's name, though that did upset most of his companions. Kingsley shook his head: how were they going to win this war when those fighting it reacted that way on merely hearing the name of their enemy spoken?

Kingsley snickered to himself: Harry was not particular squeamish in other ways. Moody did his old remove the eye thing and the boy didn't bat an eyelash when asked for a glass of water. So, though he looked like James, he certainly didn't act like his father. The James he knew would have groaned the loudest of them all at Moody's stunt and probably told the old wizard to get his water himself as he was closer to the sink. And he didn't preen the way James would have with everyone's attention on him. In fact, the boy seemed rather uncomfortable.

But he did have some of James in him. He perked up a little at the mention of flying to their destination.

"Remus says you're a good flier."

He caught the flicker of pride in the boy's eyes. But it wasn't followed up by the typical James boasting though, according to Lupin, the boy was a natural on a broomstick, possibly even better than James.

By now Tonks had decided to take the boy under her wing. Being closest in age to him, she had picked up that he needed to get away from being the focus of all their attentions. Kingsley had to give her credit, she was good at the casual conversation that put people at their ease. He wasn't surprised to hear her father had been a slob: those two left feet of hers had to come from somewhere.

Sturgis Podmore nudged Kingsley. "Any idea what this thing is and does?"

Kingsley looked over at the white box on the counter. He had to think a moment to identify it. "It's called a mi-cro-wave."

Podmore grimaced. "So where's the water?"

"I think the wave refers to the electrical current that it uses."

"I thought that eklektisity was in the walls."

"It is. But that thing pulls it out of the walls and uses it to...to cook, I believe." He really wasn't all that up-to-date on Muggle fads.

Podmore looked stunned then he shook his head. "I thought they cooked over fire of some kind. No place for a decent fire in that. These Muggles. They certainly like to complicate matters."

By then Tonks and Harry were back. The boy carried a Firebolt in his hand. He had to be a good flier to be able to control that calibre of broomstick!

Moody spelled the boy with the Disillusionment Charm so that he, like they, would blend in as they flew. And of course, the old man had to add a little excitement to the situation by trying to scare the boy. Tonks made a joke of it and the boy's shoulders lost some of their tension. Which only came back when Moody offered to sacrifice them all in their "attempt" to get him to Headquarters.

"No one's going to die," Kingsley smiled at the boy, hoping he would remember just how paranoid Moody was about everything. His "Constant vigilance" could be trying on anyone's nerves.

And then they were off. Flying high and he wondered again just why the hell Dumbledore had agreed to this idiotic trip through the night sky when all they'd had to do was use a Portkey to get the boy to safety.

Maybe he felt the drama of the situation would make an impression on the boy for his further participation in Dumbledore's plans. From the little he'd seen of Harry, he suspected that was overkill. The boy might be naive, but that was from lack of training, not lack of intelligence. Nor seriousness.

The thought passed through his mind as the cold penetrated even his robes as they once more exchanged places in the formation whether his required participation in this night's work might not be Dumbledore's little bit of revenge.

Even Tonks, the most malleable of them all, lost her temper when Moody wanted to double back yet again! Enough was enough, par Toutatis!

12 Grimmauld Place was no less welcoming than it ever was. At least, the Weasley kids were there and Harry had wanted to go to their place. Maybe the presence of children in the house would do it some good. Though, as he passed the blessedly silent portrait of Madam Black, Kingsley doubted it.

The kitchen door opened and Molly Weasley took over. While all the welcomes and greetings were going on, Kingsley slipped around her and went into the kitchen.

"You look frozen."

The voice was a surprise. There had been no mention of Severus being here when all this had been planned. Kingsley looked into the eyes of his lover and felt warmed.

"I am." And, grinning like a boy, he slipped his hand around Severus's nape, sharing his coldness.

"Merlin!" Severus pulled away. "Why the hell didn't you just use an illicit Portkey..."

But he went over to the counter and fixed Kingsley a mug of what proved at first sip to be doctored hot chocolate.

He moaned his pleasure, wrapping both hands around the mug, and dropping into a chair. "What are you doing here? Not that I have any objections to seeing you, but I thought you wanted to avoid this place as much as possible."

Severus pulled up the chair next to him and took the time to place his robes to whatever personal specifications he had in mind. Kingsley said nothing, just continued sipping on the hot drink, wincing occasionally as feeling returned to his toes and fingers. Finally satisfied, Severus looked up.

"Dumbledore wanted me to give a formal report, in person."

"Ah." Kingsley took a sip of his drink. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Severus suddenly very interested in his hands. He glanced up and caught Kingsley watching him.

"And I was waiting for you. As you have for me."

The chocolate was not the only thing that warmed Kingsley up.

11.

The late afternoon sun slanted through the warped glass of the window beside Severus's private cubicle nestled in an out-of-the-way library at the Athenaeum. His desk was piled high with open books - biographies, histories, and several Old Church Slavonic dictionaries and grammar texts. Numerous sheets of parchment were scattered over every inch of the desk, not to mention the floor.

With a satisfied sigh, he leaned back in his chair and smiled. The seeming chaos around him bore witness to a very fruitful few hours of research into an ancient text that had recently come into his possession. The private journal, as it happened, of a herbalist-turned-monk who'd had a keen interest in potions for healing and rejuvenation. A gift from Kingsley.

It wasn't Madame de Beaufort's journal, but it was a rather expensive - and intriguing - peace offering nonetheless.

After he'd helped to collect Potter from his Muggle relatives, Kingsley been conspicuously absent for the subsequent five days. Severus had surprised - and annoyed - himself by missing the man. It wouldn't do to become attached, no matter how pleasant his company or how enjoyable the sex.

His mind was well aware of the fact. Unfortunately, his libido didn't seem to be impressed by the reasoning.

He ran his finger along one fragile page with its tiny, spidery writing. He felt an inevitable sense of kinship with Gavriil of Beograd, a wizard who'd escaped persecution by hiding in plain sight: he'd donned the robes of a monk and entered the Muggle church. The man's insights, witty or caustic by turns, into the idiocy and hypocrisy of his unknowing gaolers, reminded Severus of his own unvoiced observations about the Death Eaters. And about the Order of the Phoenix.

Gavriil had had his midnight doubts: was it better to hide oneself away, rather than to stand and fight against the purges? He'd known the terror of discovery should he slip up in the most minor of ways. He'd felt the grief of denying his magical birthright and of spouting the required propaganda against his own kind. He'd felt the frustration of hiding his knowledge of herbology and healing beneath a facade of piety, of wrestling with the desire to investigate or experiment when scrubbing pots or cooking supper or kneeling at prayers. He'd felt the bitter loneliness all the more deeply because he'd chosen this life and it was nothing but exactly what he deserved for the choices he'd made.

Severus knew the wintry sting of the latter all too well. He also knew better than to think that a few conversations lacking in veiled threats or cunningly crafted insults, or a rare and expensive gift, or even a few good fucks, could transmute a man who now held his most dangerous secrets into something so rare and unprecedented as a friend.

"I thought I might find you here, surrounded by musty old tomes that haven't seen light in the last century."

He turned quickly to see Lucius making his way along the narrow space between two rows of bookshelves. After he'd scrambled for the past two days to scrounge up a few hours to himself: so much for the rest of his afternoon.

"Good afternoon, Severus." Lucius was impeccably dressed in a dark grey linen suit and over-robe. His hair was tied back with a black ribbon. He looked sleek and smug. "What are you up to? With books and papers scattered about and dusk all over your robes you look like some mad archivist who's just stumbled upon Merlin's secret papers."

"Hardly. Just doing a bit of research." Severus closed the journal and shuffled his papers together before Lucius could get a good look at them. "You seem as if you're up to something yourself," he said, looking Lucius up and down. "It's not as if you're dressed for a casual tea."

"One does need to dress for the occasion when one is having tea with the Minister," Lucius said, stepping close and perusing the top-most open book on Severus's desk. "Hm. Old Slavonic? Why on earth are you sifting about in a grammar of a long dead language?"

Tea with the Minister? Severus's interest sharpened though he schooled the curiosity from his face. "As I said, research." He stood up and shut the book with a snap. Severus collected his notes and the journal and shoved them into his satchel. Then he rapped his wand on the top of the desk. The canopy rolled down closing off the contents of his desk from view. "Now, you said you were looking for me. What did you want?"

Lucius raised one eyebrow. "Ah. Something for him, I assume?"

Although decorative, Malfoy could also be a monumental pest. "Assume whatever you like, Lucius. Again, what did you want?"

"Honestly, Severus, you're as prickly as a hedgehog today. I'm sorry to have interrupted your 'research.' I was in the area and I merely wished to thank you for sending over last year's potions' syllabus. Narcissa has already plotted out a plan of attack."

Severus nearly rolled his eyes. Unlike Binns, he changed his lectures and practicals each year, and he always made the previous year's syllabi available to parents who requested them. The fact that Narcissa always did made this one of the flimsiest excuses for a clandestine meeting he'd ever heard. "You're welcome," he said, arms crossed, waiting for the real reason Lucius had sought him out.

Lucius smiled, obviously in too good a mood to be ruffled. "You truly have no conversational skills, do you?"

"No patience for small talk, you mean," he retorted. "Now what's all this about?" He infused his voice with enough open curiosity to appease Lucius's habitual desire for an audience to his 'brilliance.'

After making a grand show of ensuring that they were alone, Lucius leaned close and said, "Very shortly, both of our lives may become a great deal simpler."

Severus felt his stomach tighten. "How so?"

"Our dear Minister is running scared," Lucius said with a smirk, "and he has decided that it would be best for all concerned were Potter not to return to school in the autumn."

"Oh? And just how is he planning to accomplish this? Have the boy declared mentally incompetent and confine him to St. Mungo's?"

The smile that curved Lucius's lips was positively devilish. "Let us simply say that Potter may well find a pair of Dementors to be a...walk in the park compared to what he will face next."

Severus quickly put two and two together to yield yet another threat to Potter's safety that he was honour bound to thwart. "You are - and have always been - a tease, Lucius," Severus said, covering his annoyance and worry with open disgust. The bastard was obviously not going to explain any further, but with Fudge's involvement, coupled with the timing Lucius hinted about, and Severus could easily guess that whatever they had planned had to do with Potter's upcoming hearing.

"A tease?" His friend chuckled and put one hand on Severus's shoulder. The fingers stroked him lightly. "Only because you've insisted upon playing this ridiculous game with me for the last fifteen years."

He pulled away quickly. "It is no game, Lucius."

The urbane smile faded from Lucius's face. "No, it is merely your absurd and antiquated notions of morality and honour."

Severus's jaw tightened automatically. Refusing to cuckold a powerful witch was neither an absurd, nor antiquated notion. Nor was refusing to sleep with an occasional sadist, friend or no.

In an abrupt shift of mood, Lucius smiled again. "For that, I shan't tell you what Fudge has planned."

With conscious effort, he relaxed. "You weren't going to tell me anyway."

"We'll never know, will we?" Lucius said. Then he added, "Let us hope that whatever it is that you're working on here pleases him as much."

Severus suppressed a shiver. "I have no doubt," he said blithely.

"Well then," Lucius said, "I won't take you away from your 'research' any longer. Good day."

Lucius departed in a swirl of linen and expensive cologne. Severus sank back in his chair and morbidly stared into space.

When he finally looked up again, the sun had passed the window and long, evening shadows were creeping through the library. An owl was now perched on top of the hutch on his desk tapping its claw. When he held out his hand, it thrust an envelope towards him bearing Dumbledore's seal.

Severus took the letter and closed his eyes.

For a brief few hours he had been free, without masters - congenial or otherwise - if only in the private space of his mind. He supposed that it was inevitable that he would think of Gavriil, whose master, likewise, would have called him from his brief respite in the gardens and back to prayer - and bondage - at sundown.

He gathered up his things, spell-locked his desk, then slowly made his way through the stacks and back towards Hogwarts.

*

"I thought you were going to be in your laboratory today, Severus," Dumbledore said, stepping back from the door to allow him to enter, "I didn't expect to have to send a search owl after you."

Severus choked back his first response. "I apologise, Headmaster. I needed to head in to Hogsmeade briefly."

"A 'brief' trip to the bowels of the Athenaeum?" Dumbledore said smiling, "I wonder if that is even possible."

Severus counted to ten, slowly. It was one thing to know that his movements were often monitored. It was quite another to be smacked in the face with it. But before he could comment, Dumbledore had turned with a swirl of garish yellow robes, resumed his seat by the hearth. "Well, you're here now. Sit down, have some tea. We have things to discuss."

McGonagall and Arthur Weasley were there, both seated on the sofa, so Severus took the chair across from Dumbledore. He ignored the teapot and the biscuits. "Good evening, Deputy Headmistress, Arthur," he said, looking from one to the other, trying to determine the source of the tension in the room. The Athenaeum didn't allow witches and Weasley was not a member; though he doubted that was the reason for McGonagall's rigid spine and Arthur's worried look. "I am sorry if I kept you waiting."

McGonagall waved his apology aside. "It is not a problem, Severus, we really were just getting started." She pursed her lips and gave Dumbledore a hard look. "We were discussing the matter of Potter's hearing."

Her emphasis on the word 'discuss' meant that she and Arthur had been arguing with Dumbledore, who was being his usual inscrutable self.

Severus debated if to share with them his conversation with Lucius. The threat to Potter was vague enough that Dumbledore might anticipate it on his own, thereby giving Severus plausible deniability where Lucius was concerned, should Dumbledore thwart Lucius and Fudge's plans. On the other hand, if Dumbledore knew Severus had been in the Athenaeum, he might also know that Lucius had dropped by. Omitting any scrap of information could be perceived as disloyalty. Then, too, there was the damned matter of the debt to James Potter.

The headache, that never seemed far away these days, crawled up Severus's spine and began to hammer at his brain.

"Well," he finally said, "I may have some information impart on that score."

"Is that so, Severus?" Arthur leaned forward and set his tea cup aside. "What is it, what have you heard?"

"I ran into Malfoy this afternoon. Seems he had tea with the Minister today. He dropped several hints that Fudge wants to see Potter expelled, and that, in Lucius's words, 'Potter may well find a pair of Dementors to be a...walk in the park compared to what he will face next.'"

As expected, his statement caused quite a stir. One in which McGonagall and Dumbledore actually snarled at one another and Weasley, unwisely, attempted to play intermediary. With his headache worsening, Severus decided to just sit back and watch the show. The portraits on the walls nodded and whispered amongst themselves as the discussion dragged on.

"You can not continue to protect Potter by keeping him ignorant, Albus," McGonagall snapped.

"Minerva. I fail to see how not worrying the lad about dire things that may not come to pass at all constitutes keeping him ignorant."

"Fore-warned is fore-armed."

"Surely there is some room for compromise here," Arthur ventured. "I agree that, with his link to You-Know...to Voldemort, that anything we tell Harry has the potential to be used against us. However, if Fudge really is planning something, mightn't it be a good idea to let Harry know? So he can be on his guard? And really, Albus, I realise that you have some concerns about being in Harry's presence, but couldn't your not attending the hearing give the impression to, er, other parties, that you're distancing yourself from him? That he doesn't have your full support?"

McGonagall pounced. "That is exactly the problem, Albus. If this were simply a hearing for misuse of magic for any student, your presence would hardly be necessary. But this is Potter. He has no guardians to support him, nor to argue on his behalf. Though Merlin knows that Black would jump at the chance if he could. And worse yet, he is entirely ignorant of legal procedure in our world, barring that which he might have absorbed second-hand courtesy of Granger's obsession with the written word." She set her tea cup on the saucer with a sharp clink. "We all agree that he must not be expelled. Your presence at the hearing could be the deciding factor."

Severus propped his chin on his knuckles and vaguely wished that he'd poured some tea. Anything to distract himself from either his growing headache or the discussion at hand.

Eventually, things wound down, with McGonagall growing increasingly shrill and Arthur looking furtively towards the door. Then, unfortunately. Dumbledore seemed to realise that throughout it all, aside from a few clarifications of Lucius's vague warning, Severus hadn't contributed to the discussion at all.

"And what do you think, Severus?" he said, gazing at Severus over the tops of his glasses. "We haven't heard much from you this evening."

As if any of them genuinely cared what he thought. Severus sat up straighter. "Given that the hearing is tomorrow morning," he began, and then was saved, literally, by an owl - this one from Poppy - that flew in through one of the open windows.

"Trouble?" McGonagall asked him.

"Madame Pomfrey requires my presence in the infirmary." He glanced at Dumbledore. "I do believe that you all have covered my concerns quite well. If I may be excused?"

Dumbledore held his eyes a moment longer, then nodded. "Yes, of course, Severus. I think that we've probably gnawed this topic to death, don't you all agree?"

Severus stood, amid murmurs of dissent and dissatisfaction, and quickly made his way to the door.

"Oh, Severus," Dumbledore called out.

He turned. McGonagall and Arthur were standing, still in heated discussion. Dumbledore walked over to him, detouring around the scattered bric-a-brac and clutter in the room. "You wouldn't happen to have spoken with Shacklebolt in the last few days, have you?"

Puzzled, Severus shook his head. "No, I have neither seen nor spoken to him in quite a while."

"Hm." Dumbledore stroked his beard. Severus felt the faintest brush against his thoughts. "Arthur stopped by his office the other day and was told that he'd been called out of town on some errand. You wouldn't happen to know where he might have gone?"

He allowed genuine confusion to colour his tone. "No, I'm afraid not."

The light touch became a steady pressure. "Are you quite certain? He didn't mention anything to you, in passing perhaps?"

Apparently Dumbledore wasn't buying whatever piss-poor excuse for a cover story Shacklebolt had constructed, leaving Severus with the clean-up. "Yes," he snapped, "I am quite certain."

The pressure eased suddenly and Dumbledore graced him with a placid smile. "Ah. In that case, perhaps you could find the time to drop by headquarters in the next day or two? Give us an update on any new developments?"

"As you wish," Severus snapped.

He barely managed not to slam the door on his way out.

*

It was quite fortunate, Severus reflected grimly, that when it came to casting hexes, the thought was not synonymous with the deed. Otherwise, he currently would be occupying a cell in Azkaban for having cursed Albus Dumbledore and Poppy Pomfrey into a pile of cinders.

After sixteen hours in the laboratory in the service of Poppy, he now found himself on the front steps of Black's house, this time in the service of Dumbledore. Shacklebolt, his so-called handler - who was supposed to keep his exposure to Moody and Black to a minimum, not to mention the rest of the Order's obnoxious, sanctimonious prigs - was nowhere to be found. The only bright spot in the evening was that it was raining again, so he had another chance to ruin Black's hardwood floors.

Severus stepped through the door then swept down the hall, past a glowering Madam Black, scattering Weasleys and splattering the walls with rainwater from his wet cloak as he went. He'd almost made it to the kitchen when Lupin stepped out the shadows at the end of the hall.

"Out of my way, Lupin," he said, reaching for the doorknob. But Lupin closed his hand over it first.

"Severus," he said, his mild tone at odds with the hard glint in his eye. "Minus Shacklebolt tonight, I see."

Severus frowned. "What of it?"

The werewolf ignored him. "You and I need to talk."

"I have nothing to say to you."

Lupin narrowed his eyes. "Ah, but I have something very important to say to you."

"I don't have time for this, Lupin. I am on a schedule. Unlike you, I actually have important things to do."

Beyond a slight tightening of his jaw, Lupin's expression didn't change. "That's quite all right," he said. "This won't take long at all." He swung open the door and gestured grandly with his hand. "After you, please."

Something in Lupin's expression made Severus want to reach for his wand. He barely suppressed the urge. "Fine," he said, and stalked into the empty room. "Just make it quick."

"Not to worry, Severus, I certainly shall," Lupin said, then closed the door behind them.

For some reason, the sound sent a shiver down Severus's spine.

12.

Kingsley found Severus working away on a potion in the personal lab part of his classroom.

He grinned as he looked around. The room brought back memories. In those days, Rainswater taught the subject. He'd been a smarmy arse, doling out marks 'influenced' by whom one's father was. Severus, without powerful family ties, had had to fight for every mark Rainswater had reluctantly given him. Even back then, he must have sensed that Severus would one day replace him. Dumbledore had hated the old tradition of 'selling' one's position to one who could afford to pay for it, either in cold, hard cash - Rainswater's preference - or post-retirement ties. Ties that provided such perks as heading one's own lab under benevolent and very generous patronage.

One day, he would have to ask Severus the real story behind Rainswater's leaving and his getting the position.

After Rainswater, the Potions instructor at Beauxbatons, Mademoiselle de la Potinière had been a breath of fresh air: strict but with a sense of humour and a flare for the dramatic. He wondered how Severus would have fared with her. He had taken Potions so seriously, never seeing the potential for fun or humour in it. Not like the Weasley Twins.

Mind, he wisely kept his own contact with the Twins to the most minimum: if they drove him crazy, what must they do to Severus?

"Are you coming in or is this when you tell me that I have yet another report to produce for my masters?"

Oh. Like that, eh? Kingsley pushed his shoulder off the door jamb and closed the door behind him.

"Am I interrupting something important?"

Severus frowned over his shoulder. "All potions are important. Not that I would expect you to understand that."

Kingsley looked around before selecting one of the nearer desks on which he made himself comfortable. "I sent you a message before I left. Didn't you get it?"

Severus huffed, all his attention still focused on his potion. "I got it," he finally conceded.

"And did you get the book I sent you from Paris?"

Severus's response was so grumbled as to be unintelligible. Kingsley smiled. He was courting. He liked courting. Usually he courted with boxes of chocolate, hard-to-find tickets to some sold out Quidditch match, even jewellery. Once, he'd found a small crup to replace one that had died of old age. His past lovers had been, he had to admit to himself, less than intellectual. The thought crossed his mind that maybe, all along, he had been waiting for a certain irascible, hard-headed, snarky, contrary Potions master. Whom he was courting with rare books.

He'd put out word to the agent who had supplied his grandfather with hard- to-find political tracts that he was in the market for ancient texts that dealt with potions. Didn't matter the language, the period, the culture. The man had found him a tome, the private journal of some wizard practising, very carefully, in what the Muggles called the Dark Ages. A time of wizard pogroms. The script had been tiny, the language some Slavic antecedent. He'd known as soon as he'd held it that it would be something Severus would treasure.

Though, it seemed, not enough to forgive him for being away for ten days, reporting in Paris to his masters.

"They're worried," Kingsley kept his voice nonchalant, as though he wasn't divulging the purpose of a top secret meeting, "about this connection between Harry and Voldemort. They agree with you that it has the potential to be a major disaster unless dealt with immediately. Unfortunately, they also think that Dumbledore will be harder to approach now that he's got himself a real fight on his hands with the Wizengamot."

Another grunt, less disgruntled. Kingsley thought Severus would like to hear that someone other than himself thought he was right.

"What's been happening here?"

Severus sent him one of his patented incredulous looks. Damn, but he wanted to kiss that expression off his face! Instead, he forced himself to wait - otherwise Severus would be right in accusing him of visiting only when he wanted sex.

"You don't know?"

When had sarcasm become a turn-on?

"Some. Just the gist of things. I'd like to hear your take on it all."

Severus gave his potion a final stir, placed the long-handled spoon on the table, and turned off the heat before facing Kingsley. He slipped his hands into his sleeves across his chest and grimaced slightly. "Well, Potter's been cleared of the misuse of magic. I understand from Arthur that there was a last minute brouhaha about the time and location of the meeting, but he managed to get Potter there. Fudge played his usual fool self. The idiot managed to roust the entire Wizengamot out of bed to deal with a simple matter of underaged magic. Albus, of course, played last minute miracle worker and the upshot of it all is that Potter is foaming at the mouth."

Kingsley thought a moment, remembering the scene he'd overheard...they'd all overheard...coming from the upstairs bedroom the night they'd delivered the boy to the Black residence. "Puberty."

"Oh, yes. Among other things. He and Black are not taking well to being kept out of things."

Kingsley nodded. "Do you blame them?"

Severus shrugged. "None of my business. I'm just the job boy here."

Kingsley gestured to the cauldron with his hand, "What are you making up?"

Severus rolled his eyes. "More of the base for the potions that Pomfrey needs in the Infirmary."

"Not something of your own?"

Severus positively snarled, "Now when would I have the time for that? As the resident potions maker, it is my responsibility to ascertain all necessary potion stock has been replenished in time for the start of classes. That, on top of the paper work I need to do for my syllabi, my responding to Voldemort's Summonses, the 'reports' and potions I have to produce, and 'contacts' I must reinitiate to appease him. Then the reports that I have to produce for the Order. Oh, and let's not forget my new tasks of satisfying the Department of Mysteries and its representative."

Kingsley hid his surprise at the work load Severus was committed to...by others. "When do you get time to work on things that interest you?"

Severus barely managed to get hold of his temper. "Oh, am I permitted to have interests that differ from those of my masters?"

Kingsley was getting a little peeved at yet another thinly veiled reference to himself as Severus's master. He allowed his voice to indicate a certain displeasure. "That's enough, Severus. Just tell me what's wrong."

"What's wrong? Why should there be something wrong?"

This time the sarcasm got under Kingsley's skin, not much, just enough for him to bristle. "Spit it out."

Severus pulled away, his robes flaring out around him as he stiffly moved to the other side of the room. "I understand from Lupin that you've got his version of what happened."

Kingsley had to think a moment before he got the reference. And he remembered that his Severus was used to being left to deal with matters on his own. "Yes. That's exactly what I got: his version. I haven't brought it up because, frankly, I wanted to ask you why you and Black behaved..." He tried to interject a little lightness into the classroom. "...Like cats and dogs."

It backfired: Severus had no sense of humour where Black was concerned.

Severus turned to face him, face white with repressed emotion. He bit out the words, "Why bother? I'm certain that Lupin's recounting was more than accurate. It is, after all, the officially approved version."

Kingsley regrouped quickly. "When did you go to Grimmauld Place?"

Severus shrugged, as if it weren't important.

"Severus. Please." He should have remembered that Severus responded better to a quiet and polite tone than to anything else.

It was as if something snapped in him. Severus almost crumbled into the chair of the nearest desk. He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. "Look, this isn't a good time for me. I've been up all night with those potions. They're not complicated but they are time-consuming and I'm tired. The Potter thing is escalating and it's affecting everyone here. Minerva went so far as to yell at Albus the morning of the hearing. For a while there, we thought he wasn't even going to appear at it. And then we got word that the circumstances had been changed and he barely made it in time."

Severus looked up and Kingsley could see the weariness etched upon his features. "Potter was upset by the whole situation and, for once, I don't blame him. For some reason, Albus is playing with the boy's emotional state. He's ignoring Black and his requests to be put to some use, as apparently, there is no project that would not constitute a security risk. Arthur and Molly have finally cottoned on to their roles as wardens to our two security risks and neither of them is comfortable with that. Molly especially. She thought she was doing her maternal bit with helping Black get himself accustomed to normal," he sneered, "life. As a useless fugitive, that is."

Kingsley digested that news while Severus rubbed fingertips against his temples, probably trying to deal with what seemed to be a major headache. He got up slowly and approached the desk where Severus had propped up his elbows. He crouched low enough so that he could peer up into those black eyes.

"And while you were there, Lupin approached you and..."

Severus closed his eyes, still rubbing his temples. "And told me that he'd promised you to keep Black away from me but that you had promised him that you would keep me 'under control.' He wanted me to remind you that he had thought it preferably if you kept me away from Grimmauld Place as, though Albus might think otherwise, it is still the property of one Sirius Black. And that unless I was accompanied by you personally or commanded to appear by Dumbledore, I was not to cross the threshold again."

"And then?" Because there had to be a then. Severus's voice was too carefully neutral.

"And then he wondered how long 'my new master' would be interested in someone who had pissed himself repeatedly when James Potter had put his life on the line to save the other's pathetic skin."

Kingsley had to hand it to Lupin: he'd struck all of Severus's insecurities in one fell swoop.

He stood up and went to stand behind Severus. He removed Severus's hands from his head and replaced them with his own. Slowly he worked at releasing the tension accumulated not just from the hours of working on a potion, but on all that had happened since that afternoon in the clearing.

"Can you leave the potion now?"

Severus gave himself a little shake, pulling away from the hands. "Yes. It needs to cool thoroughly before being bottled."

"The bottling, can anyone here do that?"

Severus glanced over his shoulder. "Poppy could. I suppose."

Kingsley smiled. "Then I think you should send her a note to that effect." He reached over to Severus's desk and found paper and quill. "Now."

Severus only looked at the paper and quill. "Why?"

Kingsley leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on the pulse throbbing away at Severus's temple. "Because we are not going to be here to do so. You've accused me of being your master, Severus, and so master I shall be. I'm taking you back to my flat. You need sleep and, knowing you, food. And then, when you've rested and eaten, we're going to talk. Now be a good lad and do as your master commands. Write that note so we can get out of here."

*

Feeling peevish, Severus summoned a school owl and dispatched the note to Poppy. Anything to get rid of the man. Shacklebolt's 'orders' and pity-kisses aside, even with one to-do item crossed off his list, he still had hours worth of work to do. He stalked back to his desk.

And never made it.

"Let go of me." Severus snatched his arm out of the other man's grasp. "I have no intention of going anywhere with you."

"No?" The infuriating Auror grinned at him. "Then why did you write the note? Besides, I wasn't aware that I'd given you a choice in the matter."

"Oh, piss off, Shacklebolt." Severus turned away with a huff and straightened the papers on his desk. "Poppy can bottle the damned potion, but I have other work to do. Unless you'd care to finish up this report on rejuvenating potions for the Dark Lord, and these nine letters to the worried parents of incoming first years, and the two letters of reference for former students applying for apprenticeships, not to mention the other miscellany on my desk yourself? Oh, and I suppose that you can brew the Wolfsbane as well?"

He curled his lip then walked around the corner of his desk. Yes, Kingsley Shacklebolt was his 'master,' and yes, food and sleep sounded positively divine at the moment, but damn it all, he'd already spilled his guts to the man, and he had work to do.

"Ah. I can see that I need to take a different approach."

Suddenly, Severus found himself at the door to his lab. Thoroughly annoyed, he clutched the door-frame with all his strength. Shacklebolt was damned strong. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" His wand was inconveniently out of reach on his desk. "Accio wand!"

"We'll have none of that." Shacklebolt shifted and Severus's wand hit his palm with a loud smack. "Now, shall we do this the easy way, or will you insist upon making things difficult?"

His feet barely touched the floor as Shacklebolt dragged him through the classroom. "Fuck. Off."

"You are nothing if not predictable, Severus," Shacklebolt said. "Nox!"

The lights in the classroom doused themselves and when next Severus blinked, the door swung shut and he and Shacklebolt were standing in the hallway. The wards locked into place with a loud clank.

"You see?" Shacklebolt said, grabbing his arm and dragging him bodily down the hall - to the obvious amusement of several of the portraits, "If you weren't so exhausted, I would never have been able to get the drop on you."

"Or if I wasn't reluctant to hex an Auror into the next century," he snapped, resigned to his fate, but determined not to let on.

"Or that. Which I fully admit that you are capable of doing, mind. If you weren't walking and talking in your sleep." When they reached the base of the stairs Shacklebolt didn't even pause.

"I am quite capable of walking on my own two feet." Severus supposed that his assertion would have been more convincing if a rogue stair hadn't chosen that moment to leap up and trip him up. He barely managed to save his dignity with a death grip on the bannister.

His 'master' clearly wasn't fooled.

"You can barely put one foot in front of the other," Kingsley said, taking his arm again and starting up the stairs. "And if you think I'm going to let you Apparate in this condition, you're mad."

Severus tried to pull away again but Shacklebolt was too damned strong. Or he was too exhausted. Perhaps the man, annoying as he was, had a point. "I have work to do, Shacklebolt, you can't just drag me out of here."

"Blah, blah, blah." Shacklebolt pushed open the door to the outside.

It had rained earlier and the grass was still wet and slippery. But the clouds had blown away and the first stars were visible in the dusk. Out of habit, Severus slowed for a good look at them.

"We can stargaze another time, Severus. Here, grab this."

He found himself wrapped in a warm embrace from behind and pulled against a long, hard body. Shacklebolt was holding a large silver coin in his face. That damned Portkey again.

Severus sighed and relaxed all at once. Really, what was the point in fighting anymore? "Given the frequency with which you quite literally drag me off to your flat, I am beginning to think that you have an abduction fetish."

He heard Kingsley laugh just before the magic of the Portkey snatched them both away.

*

Kingsley looked in again on Severus. Head still burrowed under the pillow, the bedclothes pulled up as far they went, the mound that was his lover didn't even produce Severus's soft snore. Kingsley shook his head and went back to the kitchen.

He had spirited Severus out of Hogwarts and here with Severus still protesting that there was work he needed to do. Once in the flat, Kingsley had merely led Severus to the bedroom, undressed him, spelled him clean - the smell of potions was far more noticeable in the fresh air - and then tucked him into bed. He'd even threatened to spell him Morpheus, but the grumbling had quickly faded. Did the man never get enough sleep?

Other than cocooning himself in the bedclothes at some point, Severus had been sleeping since then. Kingsley wondered if he would sleep at all that night. He fully intended to wake him for the supper he was putting together. Then he smiled: well, there was more than one way of tiring his man out, a more pleasant way for both of them.

When supper was about ready, Kingsley went to rouse Severus only to find him awake, lying on his back, staring at the ceiling.

"How are you feeling?"

"Irritated." But there was no hint of that in the voice. Nor in the face that remained staring upwards.

"That's an improvement." Kingsley didn't bother to hide the smile from his voice. The head turned just enough for him to see the questioning eyebrow. "It means you're no longer exhausted. Back to your own sweet self."

And got a bark of laughter. Severus sat up and glared, though rather weakly, at him. Kingsley went over to the closet, pulled out the bathrobe that Severus had used during the Garde Ritual and tossed it at him. "A shower will make you feel even better. Your toothbrush is the one with the green handle. Supper will be on the table by then."

"I'm not hun..." but Severus's stomach picked that moment to growl loudly.

Kingsley grinned but didn't comment on the noise. "Your wand is under your pillow and you'll find towels in the cupboard. No green ones, I'm afraid, though I could get you some if you like?"

Severus frowned. "Contrary to popular belief, my favourite colour is not green," he said as he grabbed the bathrobe and drew it on before he slipped out of the bed. Kingsley found the sudden modesty amusing.

"You might like to hurry. It's roast beef and the works. The Yorkshire pudding tastes much better when it's hot."

Severus paused. "Yorkshire pudding?"

Kingsley nodded.

"You...you remembered that?"

"That day when we discussed things worth fighting for? I told you that I'd kill anyone who touched my black beans and rice, and you scoffed at me, said Yorkshire pudding was worth fighting for, not something as mundane as beans and rice."

"I believe I said good Yorkshire pudding," Severus challenged.

"Then you'd better hurry and see if mine is any good."

The only compliments he got for his supper was a grumbled "Not bad," and the fact that Severus ate most of the pudding himself.

*

They moved into the sitting room. Severus, brandy in hand, was casually perusing the shelves of books. Kingsley made himself comfortable in his favourite chair, feet propped up on an ottoman, and watched Severus familiarise himself with the room.

Before adjourning from the table, Kingsley had surreptitiously activated all wards that protected the flat. He wanted no interruptions of any kind. He waited until Severus finally took possession of the couch, swinging his legs up and tucking the robe modestly around himself.

"We have to talk about it, Severus."

Severus paused, his glass halfway to his mouth, and then carefully rolled the snifter between his hands. "About which 'it', Kingsley?"

"All of them, if that's what you want. I'd like to start with your feeling that I've made myself your master, as you keep saying."

There was silence while Severus took a sip of brandy. "Well," he turned to face Kingsley, "isn't that what you really are?"

"I would like to think that I am your friend as well as your lover."

Severus shook his head. "Look, there's no need for that. Let's be honest, please. I have a feeling that the next months will be less than pleasant and I would prefer that you treat me with a modicum of honesty."

"Honesty?" Kingsley allow his confusion to show. "When have I been less than honest with you, Severus?"

Severus made a gesture of frustration with his hand. "This friend and lover business to begin with."

"Do you truly believe that it is impossible for me to want that?"

"What you want is the same thing as everyone else: information. You've made it very clear that you, like Albus and, Merlin knows, even Voldemort, control my life. I have no say in it." Before Kingsley could respond, Severus held up his hand. His eyes were life-less in an expressionless face. "It is only because of Albus - and to a lesser extent, Minerva - that I am not in Azkaban. My every movement is subject to his examination and approval. If my freedom belongs to Dumbledore, the Dark Lord holds my very life in his hands. One failure on my part and the Killing Curse would be a mercy. And you, I report to you now as well, and again, I am caught between Dumbledore and the Dark Lord. So, you see, I am at your mercy. You, too, control my movements and...'actions.'"

Actions. Was that Severus's euphemism for sex? First things first. "Your master, as you see it."

Severus nodded wearily. "One of several."

Kingsley cursed himself in several languages. He stood up and paced the room. How the hell was he ever going to break through all those defences Severus had used to barricade himself...to protect himself. Damn it, he should have made an effort to come back sooner.

"All right. You want honesty."

Severus sounded more tired than he'd ever heard him. "Please. Give me that at least."

Kingsley rubbed both hands over his scalp and took a deep breath. "You are the most...thick-headed...blind...Slytherin Hogwarts has ever produced. Fuck's sake, Severus, how dare you sit there and tell me that I am using friendship and love as a means of controlling you!"

Severus went to get off the couch but Kingsley was there, placing his hands on Severus's shoulders, forcing him back down. "No, you started this, now you listen...you idiot! How about the fact that you are using my feelings for you to manipulate me into this...this anger!"

Severus's head titled back and Kingsley suddenly had a feral animal in his hands. "What the hell feelings can you possibly have for me, Shacklebolt! I'm really only your fuck toy. One hole's as good as another!"

Kingsley actually saw red for a moment and then he forced it back. There was pain in Severus's eyes and voice. Kingsley took a deep breath and released it slowly. Then he dropped to his knees by the couch and lay his head down in Severus's lap, wrapping his arms around him. The body in his embrace was cold and stiff.

"Oh, damn it all, Severus, how do I make you understand..." He choked back the pain that had suddenly risen in him. "Grand'mère warned me..."

Severus sat very still. Kingsley remained as he was, his face hidden in Severus's robe, for long minutes, trying to contain the pain and, yes, the fear. Had he truly known just how much he wanted this man, even after all this time?

And then he felt a hand gingerly rest on his shoulder.

"You say you want me. For more than what I've said. I...I find that hard to believe, Kingsley. I mean, you've read my files. And look at me."

Kingsley wiped his eyes against Severus's hip and raised his head. "I have looked at you, Severus."

"Then what the hell can you see that...inspires you to want to be my friend, let alone my lover."

Keeping his arms around the man watching him with a face that was etched with self-doubt, Kingsley sat back on his heels. "I cared for you back then, Severus. I wanted to be your lover then."

"Back then? Why?"

"Because though you were - and still are - a skinny runt, in my eyes, you shine. Don't scoff at me, Severus, it's true. Have you any idea of what you look like when you're discussing potions? Or any idea close to your heart? Your eyes shine with intelligence. Your face grows beautiful. Your voice...par Toutatis, Severus, your voice should be registered as a dangerous weapon. It's satin and silk and velvet all in one."

He could see the past hurts and the need to believe warring in those eyes.

"Yes, you're not the handsomest of men, Severus. You live on your nerves. You're bad-tempered, suspicious. You're skin and bones these days. But when you let down your barricades, you call to me. When we were students, you made me think about things I never would have without your pushing me. Those talks we had in our alcove in the library...did you know that I studied up for them? I didn't want you to think I was an ignorant Quidditch player. I was afraid that if I couldn't at least follow what you were saying, you'd walk away.

Severus was completely still, his lips parted with astonishment.

"And you needed me then, Severus, as you do now. You take life far too seriously. Not that I blame you. The gods know that you have reason to. But you don't take care of yourself. Oh, Minerva and Hooch try, but they each have other responsibilities and other people who take up much of their concerns. You pay lip-service to them, but they don't have the...the hold over you that's needed to get you to rest properly. To eat. To take care of yourself."

"I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Kingsley." Familiar words from this man, but they carried no heat. Kingsley knew that he was at least listening.

"I know it upset you when you found out about the modification I made to the Garde Ritual." The hand on his shoulder tightened, and Kingsley hurried on. "Yes, I should have discussed the matter with you. It was rather overbearing of me to make that decision on my own. But, you see, I've been in charge of many things in my life. Things which have been and are matters of life and death. I've learnt to make decisions on the spur of the moment, and yes, I do so without consulting many of those involved in that decision. Something of me you're going to have to deal with. You're not the only one who needs his arse kicked once in a while."

Though the hand did not release its grip, his lover snorted at that.

"But I've missed you, Severus. I've had lovers...men and women I've taken to my bed and cared about, but I've never felt about them what I feel about you. I want you in my life. I need you in my life. Grand'mère, many years ago, told me that I found the game of love far too easy. That the one I truly needed would make me work hard for his love. And because of that, it wouldn't be a game any more. It would be a matter of life or death for me. As it is with you."

Severus flinched at the word 'game,' and Kingsley wrapped his fingers around his lover's hand and gently kissed the knuckles. "This is not a game to me, Severus. Never."

He looked up and caught Severus's dark eyes. Hope warred with wariness in their depths. "I would love nothing more than to wrap you up in cotton and take you somewhere safe, far away from all this. I would love nothing better than to spend all my days listening to you, watching you create potions to your heart's content. Spend my nights making love to you. Giving you pleasure. Watching the light in you chase out the darkness.

"But that wouldn't be real. This reality is the one we have to deal with and I want to be there for you. And I want you to be there for me."

"To..." Severus had to clear his voice. "To kick sense into you?"

Kingsley nodded. "So I modified the Ritual to make you mine. But it also made me yours, Severus. It works both ways. I'm sorry I didn't make that clear to you."

"It's just that's not the way it usually works in my experience."

Kingsley laid his head on Severus's lap. This time, a hand slowly stroked the smoothness of his scalp. "I'd like to change that experience of yours, Severus."

"You want to be my friend, my lover," Severus said, his voice rough and shaking. "We barely know one another, Kingsley."

"I know enough." Kingsley looked up, his chin propped on Severus's thigh. "I love touching you, Severus. And I think you lo...enjoy that as well."

"You do it a lot, Kingsley. I am not used..."

Kingsley cocked his head. "Would you like to get used to it?"

Severus frowned. "And what happens if this...friendship doesn't work out?"

Kingsley rubbed his face against Severus's towelled stomach. "It will. If we both want it to. I mean, take a look at us, Severus. We're both hard- headed, stubborn, determined men. If we both want this... And I do. Do you?"

"Yes," whispered Severus, "though I shouldn't...I want it more than I thought possible."

Kingsley raised himself to take Severus's mouth. Before he reached it, Severus's hand barred him. "Kingsley, if this is a game..."

Kingsley caught Severus's hand and brought it to his mouth. "I told you. No game, love. I swear...par le dieu du voudoo."

And then his mouth claimed his lover's.

*

Later, when he thought about it, Kingsley concluded that they had danced their way to bed.

Arms around each other, mouths always tasting some part of the other, hands splayed so as to cover as much skin as possible, they'd taken only the smallest of steps in order to drag the moment out as long as possible.

He knew his words hadn't totally convinced Severus. He would probably have to fight a residue of doubt the rest of their lives, it was so deeply ingrained. But words had been used to hurt his lover and he could understand his distrust of them. So he used actions to express his love. His hands skimmed over the bony body with great gentleness, his mouth savoured its texture. He couldn't stop his own need for words, so he spoke them in the language of his grandmother. Severus had done studies about voudoo so he probably could follow some of what he was saying but, instinctively, Kingsley knew that if he spoke them in English, Severus would automatically block his heart to them.

Apart from wordless sounds, Severus himself was quiet. Kingsley looked up once to find those eyes on him, even blacker than normal, hungry with a hunger that Kingsley wondered if Severus even acknowledged to himself. He would feed that hunger, he promised his lover, feed it until he was no longer famished, feed it to satiation. And then he would feed it again. Until Severus was more than replete. Until he would have no other option than to admit that he was loved.

"In me, Severus," Kingsley gasped as his lover's hand stroked his aching cock.

"What?"

Kingsley licked the line of sweat that ran down Severus's ribs. "I want you in me. I want you to fuck me, Severus."

Severus shook his head as though he needed to clear it. "You want me to fuck you? Kingsley...that's not necessary. I like..."

Kingsley raised his head. "So does that mean I can't like it, too?" He pulled away long enough to reach for the bedside table, open the small drawer and rummage around until he found the small bottle of oil. He placed it in Severus's hand, his own closing over it. "It's been a while. Take your time opening me up."

Severus stared at the bottle before finally offering, "It's been a while for me as well."

"It's like riding a broom. Once you know how..."

Severus actually giggled, a soft, nervous sound. "I was never all that good on a broom."

"Then you'd better hold on to me tightly when you do ride me."

And he did. Tight enough to leave bruises, though he did take, in Kingsley's final estimation, far too much time preparing him. He was working through his fourth language curses when he got what he wanted, his lover's cock slowly penetrating him, finally deep in him.

And then he stopped cursing because he didn't have the intelligence to find any words other than "Severus!" and "Oh, fuck!" Which he chanted more and more incoherently as Severus demonstrated that there were things he did indeed know how to do.

*

Severus awakened slowly and lay still, trying to remember where he was. His internal clock said it was early morning, several hours before dawn. A candle was burning low on the bedside table and a slight breeze from the open window ruffled the curtains and brushed its cool fingers over his bared skin. Behind him, a warm and heavy presence shifted on the mattress. The large brown hand, attached to the arm flung over his midsection, splayed its fingers over his belly for a moment, then went limp again. The events of the entire evening came back to him in a rush.

It seemed that he had a friend now. And a lover.

Both notions made him twitch.

With great care, he rolled out from under Kingsley's arm and off the bed. He donned the terry cloth robe then padded silently to the bathroom and closed the door.

After he relieved himself, Severus stood in front of the mirror. As he stared at his reflection, he was overwhelmed with a feeling of déjà vu. He'd stood in front of another mirror, eyes dark and wide with terror, in the moments before he'd consented to the Garde Ritual. A ritual that had somehow bound him and Kingsley together, until some unknown future time.

As friends, and as lovers.

All his life, Severus had known that the people and things in his world were subject to change without warning. An ally or friend could, in the space of a single breath, become an enemy. An offer of support, no matter how sincerely tendered, could be - would be - withdrawn at any moment. A carefully researched choice, one promising satisfaction and delight, could become in an instant a literal hell on earth.

And so, he'd learned that the only person he could depend upon, the only person who ever always had his best interests at heart - especially when his very life was on the line - was himself.

'Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best,' his mother had often told him. Only he'd long since ceased to hope for anything. The price of hope was pain, and after so many years, he was very tired of the pain.

So why then, was he here, even contemplating the possibility of hope?

He turned away from the mirror, doused the light, then went to stand in the bedroom doorway. The candlelight painted exotic, tawny shadows over his...lover, where he lay sprawled the width of the bed, Severus's pillow clutched under his arm.

Kingsley wished to be his lover, wished to belong to him, two words thick with meaning and fraught with certain doom.

Words that implied that somehow, Severus-the-Ugly had a right to claim, to lay his hands upon Kingsley's beauty, to make demands of his strength. That Severus-the-Death-Eater-Scum had a right to depend upon his knowledge and skills, to know that in any fight, Kingsley would have his back. That Severus-the-Deviant-Waste-of-Space had a right to the books on these shelves, to a place in the wide comfortable bed. A right to occupy the couch in the living room, to expect a place at the dinner table. A right to be part of Kingsley Shacklebolt's life and his plans. A right to believe that he could make plans.

"Stop thinking and come back to bed, Severus." Kingsley was looking at him, eyes slitted in the near darkness.

How many times had Kingsley asked for his trust? How many times had he proven himself worthy of it?

Severus nodded to himself, then pushed off the doorway and walked to the bed.

Kingsley threw back the covers and relinquished the pillow. "Here, get in."

It was more difficult to undress under Kingsley's gaze, but he did so quickly, and scrambled under the covers.

Kingsley settled close to him, one broad warm hand on his hip. "One of these days, I swear you're going to think yourself to death."

That made him laugh. "Perhaps," he said, turning on his side and smiling at his...his lover. "But not tonight." He deliberately leaned into Kingsley, giving him plenty of time to move away if he chose. Their lips brushed. Once. And again. Severus gently parted his lover's lips with his tongue. Kingsley groaned and wrapped his arms around Severus, pulling him on top.

"Mm," his lover mumbled, vibrating Severus's tongue and setting off sparks behind his closed eyes. "Most definitely not tonight."

*

Kingsley woke wrapped around Severus, who was holding him. It was, he decided, a very good way to awake. He looked up and found those eyes watching him, still a little unsure but also revealing a sense of satisfaction that thrilled Kingsley, knowing that he was responsible for that look.

He turned his head and gave the nipple close to his mouth a small lick.

"If you're thinking of a repeat performance," said a rough, slightly sarcastic voice, "you're in for disappointment."

Kingsley chuckled. "I don't think I could survive a repeat performance."

They lay silent, cuddling. Kingsley wondered how long it would last: Severus was never one to dawdle once awake. But, wonder of wonders, long moments passed and still he didn't move, other than his hand which traced small circles on the back of Kingsley's shoulder. Was this actual progress?

"Did you really want me that night at the Astronomy Tower?"

"Yes." Kingsley looked up. "I didn't know that my parents had planned to send me to Beauxbatons the next year. I..." They were heading into difficult territory again, but with Severus all territories had their difficulties. "I wrote to you. You never answered. Other than sending my messages back."

He could feel the body under his tense and he wondered if there would be a way out of this quagmire. But, to his surprise, though he didn't relax, Severus also didn't move away.

"There were...reasons for that. I...I was afraid to open them. To find what I thought I might find in them. I wanted to...to keep that memory of us at the Tower and I was afraid that what I would read would destroy that."

"What did you think you were going to read, Severus?"

Kingsley tilted his head so that he could watch the expressions warring on Severus's face. To talk about that time or not?

"Mockery, I suppose."

And Kingsley knew that there was suddenly one less barricade up. Now to see to it that it didn't go back up again. He had to tread carefully, but this was another of those 'its' they had to deal with. "You mean about what happened between you and Potter and Black. I wasn't there, Severus. I was writing Divinations that day."

The eyes were carefully blank. "Don't tell me that you didn't hear all about it. It was fodder for gossip even when we came back at the beginning of Sixth Year." Even with Severus's attempt to keep his voice unemotional, Kingsley could hear remnants of his humiliation, of his bitterness.

"Yes, I heard about it. I tried to see you. Do you remember that? Every time I got within twenty feet of you, you took off. You sent back those notes as well."

Severus shrugged. "I didn't think they would be much different than some of the others that I actually opened."

Kingsley raised his hand to cup the tight jaw of the man remembering past hurts. "I didn't find it funny, Severus."

Another shrug. Though the face leaned a little into his touch.

"May I ask you a question about that time, Severus?"

A sigh and then a small nod.

"You were the best duellist in our year, probably of any year. You arrived at Hogwarts knowing more hexes than I learnt in all my time there. Why didn't you just hex those idiots? With one of those really dark ones you knew? There were enough people who'd been the butt of their so-called jokes who would have applauded you."

"Maybe. But then I would have been expelled." Severus bit his lower lip a moment then explained. "Black and I had an...altercation on the train, before school even started. I hexed him. Then, right after the Welcoming Feast, Dumbledore ordered me to his office for one of his little chats. He knew what had happened and he was well aware that my father was a notorious duellist. He made it very clear that should I use anything other than the mildest of hexes and spells, I would be sent home immediately. I was a charity student and had been allowed to attend Hogwarts a year early due to the magnanimity of the Board. I was to remember that and behave accordingly.

"And Hogwarts was my only way out of a situation at home that was... intolerable. I had made my mother a promise to do the best I could and find myself a good position. She pulled Merlin-knows what strings to get me into school early. I had sworn to myself that I would find a way of getting her away from my father. Somewhere safe where she wouldn't have to worry about each thing she did or didn't do, each word she said or didn't say in order to avoid another beating."

"Merde!"

"It didn't take long for anyone to understand that Potter and Black were the Headmaster's special pets. Even then, I suspect that he was trying to court Potter's family to the cause, and if he could drive a wedge into the House of Black, so much the better." Severus shrugged again. "I could retaliate as well I could, but every time I did, Slytherin inevitably lost points. Whenever McGonagall caught them out, she punished them, but afterwards...it only ever made things worse. After a while, even my own House preferred me to tolerate their 'pranks' rather than lose more points."

Kingsley propped his head up on an elbow, the better to see those eyes, though he kept his free hand splayed over Severus's abdomen, maintaining touch. "What happened that night at the Shrieking Shack?"

Severus dropped his head back onto the headboard and laughed. It was not a happy sound. "That was me still believing that with proof, I could have justice. That if I could just prove Black and Potter guilty of a major rule infraction, the Headmaster would have to deal with them as he did with the rest of us. Black had been loudly dropping hints that they were up to something. I followed them a few times. They used a stick to freeze the Whomping Willow and then disappeared inside. A few days later, Black and Potter were leaving the library as I was coming in. Black knocked into me. A note just happened to fall out of his pocket."

"And you picked it up."

Severus sighed. "More the fool, I. Yes, the note appeared to be from Lupin, telling Black and Potter to meet him at the 'usual place' at midnight."

"The Whomping Willow, I presume?"

"Yes," Severus said shortly. "Once past the tree, I found myself inside a tunnel. At the very end, I found a door. Beyond that door, as I'm sure you know, was a fully grown werewolf. I had my wand in hand, even got off a few good hexes at first, but...I was piss-scared. When I turned to run, I tripped. Dropped my wand."

"Fuck, Severus!"

"Somehow, Potter was behind me. He later swore he had no idea why I was there. He pulled me back and managed to get the door shut. Black thought it was all very funny, that I'd got what I deserved for spying on them, and for supposedly 'seducing' his brother. For once, Potter didn't find it so amusing. Not because I could have been killed, but it meant that Lupin's secret was out. But not for long. Dumbledore made it very clear that I'd been out of bounds, that I now owed Potter a life-debt and, unless I wanted to be kicked out, silence."

He met Kingsley's eyes for the first time since he'd begun his explanation. "Had I been expelled at that point, I wouldn't have qualified for any kind of apprenticeship. The best I could have hoped for was to be a clerk in Knockturn Alley, an errand-boy working for starvation wages for some business that didn't require any kind of official documentation."

Kingsley blinked with amazement. "And yet, you still went to Dumbledore, after..." Kingsley began, but Severus shook his head.

"No. Not Dumbledore, McGonagall."

Ah! Kingsley's mouth dropped open as another piece of the puzzle fell into place.

"After I...changed my thinking about the Dark Lord, I contacted her. Anonymously at first, then later, when I felt had nothing left to lose, I met with her in London. I knew she was working for the Order - the Order of Fools, as we called it - and," Severus's voice grew hoarse, "she had always been fair to me, even when I gave her ample reason not to be. She had even called me out of class a few days...afterwards, and promised me, Headmaster or no, that if I wished it, she would personally set things to rights with Black."

Beneath his hand, Severus's body was rigid with tension. "Did you take her up on her offer?" Kingsley asked, though he suspected that he already knew the answer.

"What would have been the point? Whatever the situation, Black always had a free pass." Eyes hard and face set with anger, Severus stared into the distance. "I hate him. I really wish he had died in Azkaban. He really wishes I had. He hates me because of his brother, and because Dumbledore actually kept his promise to me to keep me out of Azkaban when I agreed to spy for him during the first Voldemort days. Well, not completely out of prison. It was several months before he managed to get me out. But he did. Me, not Black. And that Black can neither forget nor forgive."

There was nothing Kingsley could say that would ease the memory of that time. So he pulled Severus down and held him close.

*

"At this rate, I shall be as fat as a pig ready for slaughter in no time."

Kingsley laughed at the disgruntled look Severus was casting his breakfast. "I don't think you have anything to worry about just because you've eaten two normal meals in a row."

"I rarely have anything but coffee in the morning."

"Probably wouldn't be a problem if you hadn't had anything but coffee for the previous three meals as well. Especially as you insist on drinking black sludge. At least, you could use cream and sugar."

Severus shuddered dramatically. "What? And ruin good coffee?" Then he glared at Kingsley who had laughed. "My mother never paid as much attention to my eating habits as you do."

"Too bad. Eat."

Severus waited until he'd forked some egg, a piece of ham topped with a bit of tomato before he grumbled. "You're being overbearing again."

Kingsley laughed. "Tough."

As he constructed his second mouthful, Severus asked, "Whom have you assigned to see that I eat, as you call it, normally?"

"No one. I intend to drop in on you at the most unexpected times and case out your rooms. And I'd better find the plates empty, the contents in your stomach, not in the wastebaskets or bins."

While Severus chewed that one over, Kingsley prepared himself for some snarky protest. Instead Severus continued eating, striking when Kingsley no longer expected it. "It might be better to give me some notice so that I have those reports you've told Dumbledore you will be collecting for my...our masters."

Kingsley swallowed, took a sip of his café au lait then sat back, staring at the man who was casually running a piece of bread over the last of the yolk in his plate.

"I went to Paris to report to Central Command, as I think of them. Monsieur le Ministre, my boss. Torquil, who is, I suppose, our boss. And my father, in whose house the meeting took place. He's instituted a monthly poker game for some select old friends and they use that as cover. Moreover, Papa's agreed to liaise between Command and some other concerned Ministries of Magic.

"I brought them up to date on everything, including the work you've been researching about Marks. My boss has assigned one of his best researchers to see what else can be dug up on bidirectional conduit. This situation cannot be the first ever occurrence. Voldemort had to refine the Mark and he had to learn about that somewhere. Whatever he discovers will be forwarded to you through me. Monsieur le Ministre is not a proponent of the 'need to know' school of defence.

"Torquil has assigned some of his people to keep an eye on 12 Grimmauld Place. He's also contacted a reliable source whose daughter attends Hogwarts. There are some skills that appear to pass genetically. It seems that Torquil has had his eye on this girl for some time. She'll be keeping watch on Potter from as close up as she can. No, I can't tell you who she is: I don't know. They wouldn't tell me.

"She'll report any concerns to her father. Seems they use a code for all messages. Torquil says the girl invented it. His people haven't been able to break it as yet. There's a variable that only she and her father know. It's driving him crazy.

"My father has approached several foreign governments confidentially and has discovered that they, too, are keeping close watch on activities over here. Minister Fudge is not widely respected and certainly not considered reliable. Should they feel they have information to pass on, my father will be their contact. He's chairing an international committee these days, on multi-lateral trade and tariff regulations. Nice and boring, but gives him the right cover for moving from one country to another at any time.

"I explained to them all how I had arranged for my visits to you to be accepted, although reluctantly, by the Headmaster. And how I set myself up to be your...handler."

He waited for some negative response to that one, but all he got was a raised eyebrow and a certain disdainful look. Damn, but they really were progressing!

"I've also made it clear to them that should events indicate, I was pulling you out and it would be up to them to guarantee your safety."

Severus grew very still.

"My father totally agreed."

Severus blinked. Then he stared into his coffee cup. "I'm certain that he'll be less agreeable when he discovers I'm in your bed."

Kingsley grinned. "I doubt that. I told him about us."

"You did what?!"

Kingsley shrugged, ignoring the stunned look on his lover's face. "Mother wants me to bring you to meet her. I told her that we were rather busy right now, but I'd see what I could do."

"Your...mother? Knows?"

Kingsley got up and began clearing the table. "Little hard to hide it. Her principal talent is mind reading."

"Mind reading?" Severus looked disbelieving. "Legilimency and Occlumency are one thing, but mind reading?"

Kingsley nodded. "She has just a touch. Grand'mère said that it came from her side of the family, that her grand'mère had the talent."

Severus only shrugged a little and Kingsley let it drop. Severus would experience his mother's talent for himself when he and Venise would meet one day.

"Anyway, I was talking about you at supper when she interrupted and told me to get my mind out of bed. She was blushing. I can't think of the last time I saw her blush that way."

Severus's mouth was wide open. Kingsley leaned over and, with a finger, closed it. "Wish Grand'mère were still with us. She'd have loved you."

And, as though this conversation hadn't broken all sorts of wizardry societal taboos about the acceptability of homosexual relationships, he placed a quick kiss on Severus's lips and went to see to the kitchen.

*

Severus sat, stunned for a moment, then followed Kingsley into the kitchen. "Has anyone actually ever denied you anything, Shacklebolt?"

Kingsley looked up from scraping off the plates. "Pardon me?"

"You hardly can have never encountered bigots in wizarding society, whether they take exception to your skin colour, your foreign background, or your choice of bed-partners."

"Ah." Kingsley straightened up. "Well of course I have."

"Well then, how in hell do you just go around blithely...flaunting yourself and your...unpopular ideas in front of all and sundry without getting slapped down?"

Kingsley set the plate aside, leaned against the counter, and frowned, obvious puzzled.

"You're in a high profile profession, Kingsley. You're an Auror. You have an international reputation. So do your parents. How can you behave as if none of...of this matters?"

"Severus, my parents are well aware of my sexuality. My mother could hardly not be, given her magical talents. Mother may be somewhat disappointed, since I am not likely to provide her with grandchildren. But listen, my Grand'mère herself had female lovers and ritual partners before she left Haiti with my Grand-père. She was delighted when I showed similar inclinations. Powerful magic can be raised with partners of the same sex. Such is not to be dismissed or discounted."

Severus knew that he was gaping stupidly but was powerless to close his mouth.

"Besides, you Brits are horribly uptight," Kingsley said, rinsing the glasses by hand and placing them in the dish drain. "Children are free to 'experiment' but once they come of age, they're expected to marry and have children. In France, same sex lovers are hardly a novelty, at any age. Love is its own magic, Severus, and it is respected, whatever form it assumes."

When Severus finally seized control of his jaw, he found that he had a million things to say and no idea where to start.

Kingsley put his hand on Severus's shoulder and rubbed gently at the base of his neck. "Am I to assume that your colleagues are less than pleased that you prefer men?"

Severus snorted. "That's an understatement. In fact, there is a morals clause in my teaching contract that stipulates that I am to 'comport myself in all areas of my life, private and public, with the utmost discretion and rectitude so as to present an exemplary role model for the Hogwarts student body.' I'm sure you can guess which aspects of my private life people like Dumbledore find most objectionable."

Kingsley blinked. "You're joking."

Severus gave him a long steady look. "The Hogwarts Board of Governors is composed primarily of representatives from old, pureblood families. The men don't especially find my 'lifestyle' morally objectionable - so long as I am reasonably discreet in my affections. After all, most of them have mistresses. But my failure to marry and beget children is not looked upon favourably by either the wizards or the witches. I'm not doing my part to ensure the survival of British wizardry, you see. As for the others on the Board, there is a concern that I might not be 'safe.' That I might take it into my head to proposition one of the students."

"What?" Kingsley shook his head. "One of the students? And what about Hooch? It's hardly a secret that she's dating the team physician for the Pride of Portree."

"Xiomara is a woman and she is not a member of the academic staff. Both facts give her considerable lee-way," Severus said, "I assure you though, many parents, such as Molly Weasley, do not approve of the way she conducts her personal affairs. Some years ago, Xiomara invited someone to stay the night with her at the castle when school was in session. Dumbledore tore a strip off of her the next morning, make no mistake. She signed the morals clause, too, after all."

Kingsley was still shaking his head. "I can't believe what you're telling me. And Molly?"

"Oh come on, Kingsley. You can't have possibly missed her attempts to set Lupin up with Tonks. Nor her general disapproval for all things Sirius Black."

"No," Kingsley said slowly, "I'd noticed. But I'd assumed that her problem was with Black's stint in Azkaban, and his fugitive status."

"No doubt, that's part of it, as is her distaste for 'degenerate morals.' But I assure you it's not the entire story. When I first became a teacher, several parents lodged complaints, Molly Weasley being one of them. Ostensibly, the concern was that I was 'far too young to assume the weighty responsibilities of instructing impressionable children.' But believe me, the real reason was concealed in the subtext, especially since my former relationship with Lucius was an open secret."

Kingsley was silent for a long time. Long enough that Severus suspected that, with his words, he'd put an end to their relationship before it could truly begin. He sighed and turned away, determined not to feel disappointed. It had been a pleasant fantasy while it lasted.

"Severus, wait." Kingsley stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said softly, "I didn't understand."

Severus shrugged. "It's all right. You've been out of the country a while. As you said, France is different. There's no reason why you should have known. I understand why wouldn't wish to continue with - with this, but I thank you for your offer."

"What?" Kingsley stepped around to face him. "What are you talking about? Of course I want to continue 'this.'" He gripped Severus's upper arms and shook him a little. "Do you really think that I would let some petty bigots dictate whom and how I love?"

"Kingsley, listen. Black and Lupin already know. No doubt they smelled us on one another - werewolf and Animagi senses, remember? Hooch and McGonagall know as well. Molly and Dumbledore may suspect. But with the exception of Xiomara, they are all members of the Order; they won't say anything. I doubt that your fellow British Aurors would be quite so sanguine about your involvement with a man, let alone one known, in some circles, to have been a Death Eater." Severus pulled away from Kingsley. He took a deep breath and wrapped his arms around himself. "I don't even want to contemplate what Lucius or the Dark Lord or any of the other Death Eaters might make of our involvement."

Without warning, Severus found himself wrapped in a powerful embrace. His face was mashed against Kingsley's neck. "Damn it, Severus, listen to me," Kingsley said harshly into his ear. "I don't care about any of that. Whether anyone else knows or disapproves, they can all go hang." Kingsley stepped back slightly and tilted Severus's face up so their eyes met. "I agree, we may need to be discreet. For your safety. But you belong to me and I belong to you," he said fiercely, "Anyone who says otherwise - anyone who attempts to come between us - will regret it. I promise you that."

Severus snorted but lifted his arms and embraced Kingsley anyway. "Brave words, Kingsley, but far easier said than done."

Kingsley laughed, a deep, rich sound that made his toes curl. "I shall enjoy proving you wrong, mon cher, mon très cher ami," he said smugly, then leaned in for another kiss.

He closed his eyes and relaxed into the sensations. Voldemort had returned and Severus was, once again, a spy. But the bitter exhaustion with which he'd faced resuming his duties and renewing his quest for vengeance had receded, thanks to this man. Somehow, in Kingsley Shacklebolt, he'd acquired not only a 'champion' - to Dumbledore's displeasure - but also a friend, and a lover. Unbelievable! Severus smiled against Kingsley's lips and chuckled to himself.

Kingsley ended the kiss and tilted his head. "What?"

Severus smiled a bit wider, feeling warmed and hopeful both, despite his lingering misgivings. After all, the Fates rarely smiled upon him. But at the moment, in Kingsley's presence, he found it possible to believe that the future held far more than just pain, defeat, and loss. "Nothing. Nothing at all," Severus said softly, then leaned in to kiss his lover again and again.


Disclaimer: Most of these characters belong to J. K. Rowling. We're just having a bit of fun in her sandbox.

Summary: Shortly after the events in Goblet of Fire, several new members join the Order. One of them takes an unusual interest in Severus, but to what purpose?

Warnings: Slash, rated NC-17.

Pairings: Severus/Kingsley, Severus/Lucius (implied).

Notes: This story starts shortly after the events in Goblet of Fire and tries to stay faithful to the timeline of Order of the Phoenix. Although it stands alone, this story is the first in what is projected to be a three-part series. It is also our first experiment in collaborative writing. We hope you enjoy it! There are a few plot threads we've intentionally left dangling...those will be addressed in the next installments. :-)

Many, many thanks to Luthien for being willing to beta and Brit-pick this monster!

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