Hogwarts: A New History

Chapter LXVIII: Contemporary Magical Innovations

by H. Granger

Spring 2028


Any substance, object, or spell--no matter how pedestrian--can be, in the right hands, an effective weapon. This is a primary tenet of the Magical Defence Arts and the cornerstone for several ancient and contemporary schools of magical combat (Chapter LXI: Defence Against the Dark Arts, Past and Present). For centuries, wizards and witches have enthusiastically explored the uses of boots, chairs, beer mugs, candlesticks, stale loaves of bread, and other common domestic objects, in addition to rocks, sticks, spit, and more objectionable bodily secretions, not to mention every minor curse, hex, and spell (including, but not limited to Hot Foot, Jelly Legs, and Morning Breath) as viable means of defence. Or offence.

However after the initial revelation that, when in dire straits (i.e. defending oneself against a Dark wizard whilst holding a broken wand) a half-brick stuffed in a sock is better than nothing at all, very few innovations occurred in this arena. Therefore, many centuries worth of subsequent developments can easily be filed under 'variations on a theme.'

Until the year 2008 that is, when two of the more brilliant, cunning, and unconventional wizards of our recent era--Harry Potter and Severus Snape--entered into a surprising partnership and unleashed upon the world an entirely new magical hybrid: the Unconscionables, necessity being the mother of invention after all.

Snape lurked in the alley across from the warehouse beside an overflowing and overly fragrant rubbish bin. His dark clothing blended with the shadows and his natural talent at stealth had kept him from notice by the security guards that rotated through the area periodically. Unlike Potter, he didn't need an invisibility cloak to remain undetected.

And while on the topic of Potter, where was the infernal brat? He was now--Snape glanced down at his watch--over ten minutes late. If he took much longer, they stood a real chance of running afoul of another security sweep. Snape frowned then forced away his concern. Relative youth aside, Potter was--Snape admitted, if only privately and at very rare intervals--a highly skilled wizard. Also, their task here was an easy one: into a few warehouses to check out a lead, have a look around while Snape stood watch and cast a few evasion spells now and again, then out again and back to Dumbledore to report. Simple enough that even Potter should be able to handle it, certainly.

Except for the curiously increased patrols, the numerous guards, and the rumors of charmed-object detectors that Snape's operatives hadn't yet been able to confirm. Not to mention his own niggling internal sense that something was about to go monumentally awry.

Snape wiped his damp palms on his trousers then counted off another minute past the deadline; his hastily eaten supper roiled in his stomach.

To best understand the development, function, and impact of the Unconscionables--or Uns as they have come to be called--it is necessary to place this innovation in its proper historical context: the very midst of the Wizarding Cold War (The Wizarding Wars, A Concise History, Volume 14, p. 1854-2720).

Another patrol, eighteen minutes gone by, and Snape was more than slightly vexed at the delay. Where was the dratted boy?

Thirty seconds later, the lights blazed on inside. The metal door to the warehouse banged open, Potter pelted down the short flight of stairs to street level, and Snape had his answer.

Bloody hell.

"You there, stop!" Two men burst through the door and leveled their wands at Potter's back.

Snape stepped out of the shadows and blocked the incoming spells. His hasty counter-spell swept the two men from their feet to lie in a tangle at the base of the stairs. A moment later, Snape ducked out of the alley and fell in behind Potter when he ran past.

"Reconnaissance, Potter, and stealth," Snape said in between breaths. "Do you know the meaning of either?"

"Later," Potter called over his shoulder. "And start counting back from sixty."

Snape mentally paused. "You didn't."

"Okay," Potter panted. "I didn't."

"You idiot. There are volatiles in that warehouse!"

Potter's response was lost in the sizzle of spell-fire from behind. Two of the spells went wide, the other bounced off the charmed armor covering Snape's shoulder blade to burst upon the kerb where it incinerated some loose newspapers on the pavement.

A glance over his shoulder confirmed the presence of three pursuers-- the two wizards from the stairs and another man, most likely a perimeter guard drawn by the commotion. To round things out, there were more unfriendlies up ahead (who'd no doubt been alerted to their presence) and their brooms were stashed up on a roof five streets over.

Merlin's hairy balls!

Snape gritted his teeth and mentally counted down as he ran.

Voldemort (Chapter CIX: Heroes, Villains, and other Hogwarts Notables) had been dispatched some years earlier, slain outright by a teen-aged Potter in what is now a legendary wizards' duel (The Final Defeat of Yet Another Dark Lord, p. 241-573). Shortly thereafter, the Ministry captured numerous Voldemort sympathizers and seized their known assets. (Note: many Dark-affiliated individuals had substantial financial holdings hidden in the Muggle world.) Unfortunately, a number of high-ranking Death Eaters and other sympathetic wizards and witches managed to evade capture by Ministry Aurors.

Thirty-two. Six months of painstaking intelligence work.

"Expelliarmus, somnus!" Potter dispatched one man, a Muggle, who'd come to investigate brandishing an Uzi. Potter snagged the Uzi out of the air and the man slumped to the ground, asleep.

Twenty-seven. A nice quiet, easy mission. In and out, no one the wiser.

"Aqua amnis, gelo!" Snape took out one of the men behind him. The man fell back, feet skidding on the super-slick ice, arms pin-wheeling desperately before fetching up hard against a parked car.

Twenty-one. And Potter had mucked it up in seconds.

With the exception of Snape, Harry, and their pursuers, the street was deserted, a narrow corridor with a few cars parked here and there and brick warehouses lining the road. A man-made canyon, perfectly designed to channel the force of the blast. Damn him!

"Go left!" Snape shouted, trying to herd his infuriating partner down a side street. The height of the buildings should offer some protection from the incipient blast and allow them to evade any men converging on their position from up ahead.

Potter hurdled a downed rubbish bin and dodged spells and gunfire from the men up the street; he yelped as one spell caught him in the ribs. Snape concentrated on not getting singed by the increasingly desperate and powerful spells thrown at their retreat. And on counting, sixteen? Fifteen?

At twelve, he finally caught up with Potter. The boy was the faster runner, but having an Avada Kedavra crackle over his head was incentive enough for Snape to put on a burst of speed. At nine, he felt the exposed skin on his face tingle and his hair stand on end; the side street was too far away and damn it, his count was off!

Out of time, Snape tackled Potter flat and rolled them both into the gutter behind a parked car. With the first of the explosions, he covered Potter's head with one arm, pulled his hood up and over his face, then held on.

Nature abhors a vacuum and thus, following Voldemort's demise, these unscrupulous men and women--including Narcissa and Lucius Malfoy, Nott, LeStrange, Xian, Dejumgabe, and Salvatore (see also Chapter CIX: Heroes, Villains, and Other Hogwarts' Notables)--rushed in to fill the void. Within months, they had banded together to form a cartel known as the Merchants of Darkness.

The darkness behind Snape's eyes turned brilliant orange, then violet, and then lime green, and his ears were assaulted by sounds not meant for human ears. He felt the three titanic concussions accompanying the light show in the pit of his stomach. Moments later, a fierce wind howled down the street ripping the hood from his face and pummeling him with dirt, glass, rubbish, and crackling streamers of wild magical energy.

Beneath him, Potter screamed as the unleashed spells assaulted their personal wards, scrabbling for some way in; the sensation was distinctly unpleasant. Snape carefully ignored the other shrieks from the unprotected men out in the street, focusing instead on strengthening his shield to protect Potter as best he could.

The Merchants of Darkness sorted themselves into six Houses (The Rise of the MOD: A Study in Alternate Dark Management Forms). Each claimed as territory one of the six inhabited continents. These Houses wielded ultimate control over all trafficking of Dark Magic in these areas. From trade in magical animals, to the sale of illicit potions and charmed objects, to gambling, prostitution, and rigging of Magical and Muggle sporting events through the use of subtle hexes and Dark divination, the Merchants of Darkness were involved in them all.

Like Voldemort, the Merchants used extortion, intimidation, arson, and violence to further their ends--chaos often being a precursor to economic opportunity. Likewise, they tended to be magicocentric, disdaining Muggles and the magically disadvantaged (see Squibs and Mudbloods: the Tragic History of Bigotry and Institutionalized Disenfranchisement in the Magical World) as generally useless.

However, this thoroughly modern organization stood in marked contrast to Voldemort's centralized and megalomaniacal cult of ego. Unlike Voldemort, Malfoy and his gang of Entrepreneurs, as they preferred to call themselves, were quite willing to embrace the seamier side of Muggle affairs as long as they were assured of turning a tidy profit (The Entrepreneurs: Maximizing Profit Through the Judicious Use of Terror, p. 46-127).

In further contrast, the Merchants invested heavily in innovative magical technology. This research ultimately rendered ineffective or less-effective many spells (including two of the Unforgivables and several law enforcement staples, such as Petrificus Totalus and Stupefy) and charmed objects suited for defence and/or espionage (Chapter LXVIII: The Partial-Defeat of Two-Thirds of the Unforgivables and What To Do When Cruciatus Doesn't, p. 29-68).

It took an age for the din to die down completely. Trust Narcissa to stock her warehouses with every possible illicit potion and charm, not to mention an assortment of other flammable chemicals. And likewise, trust Potter to go and blow the damn thing up. Given the melange of acrid scents wafting by, the building had probably held a drug lab in addition to the rest.

When the dust finally settled, Snape's ears were ringing, his skin itched and stung, and he felt as if he'd been stomped by a Norwegian Ridgeback. There was also a peculiar and intermittent hissing behind his right ear and his lower back ached. But his arms, legs, and other bits seemed to be attached, so he and Potter must have escaped the main force of the blast.

Snape rolled to the side and shook his companion's arm. "Get up, Potter. We have to go." His query was met with silence. "Harry?" he said more urgently, heart pounding. Surely the boy hadn't been hit by any stray curses. Snape ran his hands over Potter's back and shoulders checking for damage. "Harry, are you alright?"

Beside him, Potter groaned weakly then coughed. "I was, until you smashed me flat."

His heart rate slowed again and relieved, he slapped Potter on the back of the head. "Well then, quit lounging about. We need to go."

"Give me a minute," Potter said, rubbing his side. "That last spell hit me pretty hard. And you're bloody heavy."

"We don't have a minute." He pulled the younger man to his feet and looked around. The street was devastated. And utterly transformed.

Every streetlight was out. In fact, there were no streetlights at all, only huge stalks of what appeared to be rhubarb, with dimly luminous leaves waving in the breeze. The facades of the various buildings along the street bristled with grass, flowers, gnarled roots, and here and there, the odd toadstool. Where once there had been dilapidated cars, now a small herd of bewildered cows milled about the street, which was paved with gold. The warehouse itself had vanished completely and in its place lay a gaping, steaming pit. As for Malfoy's guards, they had at least remained as...primates. Snape shook out his cloak and a flock of spotted moths took flight from its folds, followed by a shower of small toads that hopped off into the night. He decided not to wonder what might have happened to other bits of his clothing where his shields had been thin.

A flash of blue-white lightning illuminated the sky, thunder rolled, and a cold rain began to patter down. Wet wool atop everything else, what a joy. Snape sighed and pulled up his hood.

Potter came to stand beside him on his left and gawked. "Oh, um. The Ministry Clean-Up Crew is really going to kill us."

"Correction, Potter. They are going to kill you," Snape said, biting each word off at its end. He swatted at his right ear, wishing that the infernal hissing would cease; damned moths, must still be a few left in his hood. "It was your bright idea to blow up the laboratory."

"Er. Well. It made sense at the time?" his companion said, staring with fascination at the former guards who were shrieking, ooking, and scratching in a hairy huddle amid the golden cobbles. "I guess we better get going before they regroup."

"Quite," Snape agreed mildly, managing to bite his tongue against the storm of invective that Potter most assuredly deserved; this was neither the time nor place. He turned on his heel and rapidly led the way down the side street and back to their brooms. Snape knew a mild sense of satisfaction that given what had happened thus far, the evening couldn't possibly get any worse.

Except that it did.

During the early years (2000-2003), the organisation grew rapidly, due in large part due to the influx of Muggle cash from illicit activities and widespread money laundering amongst destitute or sympathetic individuals in the wizarding world. Several venerable organisations also lent illicit helping hands as well (see Greed in the House of Gringotts; and Money Magic at the Ministry: Converting Yen Into Galleons In Three Easy Steps).

By late 2003, the Merchants had risen from near financial insolvency (due to earlier Ministry asset seizures) and organisational disarray to a position of international strength. In short, rather than one single Dark Lord, the forces of Light were now confronted with a well-financed and highly vexing plethora of ruthless and profit-minded Entrepreneurs.

It is against this backdrop of social, economic, and political upheaval in the Magical world that the Unconscionables must be understood.

"Potter. I am going to kill you."

"Now, now, Severus," Albus chided, aborting Snape's grab for his wand. Dumbledore took hold of Snape's chin and tilted his head to the side for a better look. Only Harry could see the Headmaster's faint smile and the twinkling of his eyes; Snape's now rather scaly face was turned away. "I must insist that you not perform any magic right now. No telling what might happen considering the, er, circumstances."

"Six months. You ruined six months of hard work in sixty seconds!"

Harry leaned against Albus' desk and covered his smile with one hand. Snape was pissed off enough, no need to laugh outright and make things worse. Well, actually there was need. The nest of little green snakes in Snape's hair, for one, who were now hissing: Ssso sssexy, Potter. Sssnape wantsss, Sssnape wantsss.

To be fair, Snape had a point. Order of the Phoenix intelligence agents had spent months locating Narcissa Malfoy's potion research facility. Their task had been made all that more difficult because new Ministry regulations constrained the use of Veritaserum to interrogate prisoners, not to mention the difficulty of infiltrating the higher levels of her operation. Their goal tonight had been to verify the location, not to interfere. But.

"There were at least two hundred-fifty kilos of Death-By-O in that warehouse," Harry protested. "Not to mention enough Inflammatatus precursor to level ten city blocks." The former was a experimental and highly addictive potion that simulated orgasm--with the unfortunate side effect of permanently frying the pleasure centres in the brain. The latter was the magical equivalent of C4. When detonated by magic, the results were dire. "We've been trying to get that stuff off the streets for eighteen months. I couldn't just leave it there."

"No. Of course you couldn't." Snape's dark voice lashed him with a thousand silken tongues of irony, each word underscored by the hissing snakes over his ear.

Wantss uss, Potter, oh yesss, you wantsss uss.

Cold rainwater dripped from Harry's hair and down the back of his collar. He rather welcomed the distraction. Snape's voice was having its predictable affect on lower parts of his anatomy. "They had a charm-detector. Just like the rumors said, so the cloak was useless. And they'd placed an invisibility counter-spell on the whole damn room. I was caught by two goons the size of gorillas," Harry said. "I needed a diversion."

"A diversion." Only Snape could make sarcasm so damned sexy. The man could read the damned London Floo Directory aloud and make Harry's toes curl. His dark, flashing eyes didn't help matters. Nor did the chorus of sex-crazed snakes writhing in his hair. "I swear, Potter," Snape continued. "Just as soon as I get rid of these...scales. And these snakes. And this tail. I. Am going. To kill you!"

"Hold still, Severus," Albus said, interrupting Snape's whiskey and hot dark chocolate diatribe. "This might sting a bit--yes!" Snape yelped, but his pasty complexion was now free of the green and orange scales.

Snape jerked away from the Headmaster and rounded on Harry. His face was pale except for two bright spots of color over his cheekbones. "Those charm-grenades are experimental, you stupid boy," he spat. "They've never been field tested. You could have been killed, Potter. You might have died. Did you never stop to think of that?"

Snape's voice cracked and Harry stared. Even Dumbledore looked a bit startled, at least at first, then his eyes gained a knowing glint. Harry absently wiped the spit from his face and considered his next move.

"Careful, Severus. People might start think that you actually care if I live or die," he said, feeling a bit bold. After all, Snape had borne the brunt of the magical backlash and had protected him with his own body, otherwise Harry might be wearing his own garland of snakes or frogs.

They stared at one another for a while, Snape with eyes narrowed, and Harry with one eyebrow raised.

"Albus. Where is my wand?" Snape finally ground out.

"I'm very sorry, Severus," Albus said into the tense silence, though he sounded anything but. "The meeting is due to start and I'll need Minerva's help to reverse the rest of the transformations. I'll have to ask you not to attempt any magic until we've sorted everything out."

"Well. That's all right, then," Snape said after a moment of thought. "It will be far more satisfying to kill Potter with my bare hands instead."

Then, quick as a cobra, he struck.

Wizarding partnerships have a long and venerable history (i.e. Merlin-Morgause: the Ill-Advised Charming of Excalibur), although they have become more rare in the past few centuries. Social historians speculate that structural changes in the magical educational system have resulted in drastically fewer cooperative ventures. An often cited factor is the gradual replacement of the traditional Apprentice-Journeyman-Master progression by the modern scholastic approach which emphasises individual achievement rather than cooperative learning.

Snape reached high, wrapping both long, elegant hands round Harry's neck and pinning him against the wall with his greater body mass. Harry, who was shorter and quite willing to play dirty, reached low instead, his hand closing around Snape's surprisingly long and--hard?

Mm, now they were getting somewhere!

"Severus! Harry!"

Snape's eyes glittered and he tightened his grip. Harry heard the roaring of his own pulse in his ears. He grinned, obligingly flexed his fingers, and was gratified by Snape's involuntary wince.

"Gentlemen, enough!"

Snape leaned in, close enough to kiss; Harry's lips parted involuntarily. "I've held up under Cruciatus thrown by five Death Eaters, Potter." His reddened lips curved in a sneer. "Shall we see who blinks first?"

Wantsss, wantss. Ssnape. Potter. Wantsss.

Harry twisted his wrist sharply and Snape gasped. "Yes," he agreed through gritted teeth. "Let's!"

"I said," Dumbledore shouted, "that is quite enough!"

Spell-fire flashed brightly between them throwing Harry over the desk and against the wall hard enough that his glasses were knocked askew and he saw stars. Snape lay sprawled at his feet, panting, face pale and tight with pain.

Dumbledore stepped between them, looking down over the tops of his half-moon glasses. "There are no words. No words. To express just how disappointed I am in the both of you," he said. "Two of my finest instructors. Two distinguished warriors for the Light. Two of my very good friends. Fighting like a pair of first year school boys. I am disappointed, gentlemen. Most disappointed."

Other researchers argue that different factors are to blame. The decline in Ministry funding for basic research, for instance, in addition to changes in the organization and compensation of professional magical personnel (notably, the Patron-Magical Artisan relationship having been co-opted by a more profit-oriented corporate form). Purists insist that corporate-sponsored 'collaborations of convenience' violate the spirit of magical inquiry implicit in the classical notion of a wizarding partnership.

Head down and suitably contrite, Harry fought not to scuffle his feet on the floor like an errant adolescent. Dumbledore still had that effect. Beside him, Snape shifted uneasily. His face was impassive, his snakes were silent, but the green and orange tail that poked through a tear in his trousers flicked back and forth nervously. Harry couldn't help but notice that it seemed rather long and...flexible.

"I expect a certain degree of decorum and cooperation from my staff," Dumbledore was saying, "regardless of any personal animosity they may harbour for one another. You simply must learn to work together more harmoniously, I insist upon it. And to that end," here, he paused to give them both a stern look, "I am giving you each detention for one month."

Harry blinked. "You're giving us a what?"

"Are you deaf as well as mentally challenged, Potter? Our esteemed Headmaster claims," Snape said, curling his lip; his bevy of snakes flicked their tiny red tongues in united disdain, "That he is giving us each a detention." He glared at Dumbledore. "Has it escaped your notice, Albus, that we are no longer your students?"

Dumbledore was unmoved. "If you both insist upon behaving like unruly children then I shall be forced to treat you as such."

"You're joking," Snape said flatly. "Ha ha."

"I am not." Dumbledore leveled a serious gaze upon them both. "You and Harry will meet me here, in my office, at midnight every night, for one hour, for the next thirty days." When Snape looked about to argue, Dumbledore said, "Please feel free to check your employment contracts, gentlemen. You will find that I am empowered to act in any way I see fit when confronted with a disciplinary problem amongst my staff."

Harry was too stunned to respond. On one hand, he was being given a detention of all things--and at a few months shy of twenty eight, wasn't he a bit too old for all that? On the other, he was being given a detention with Snape. Him and Snape alone in a room. Heaven and hell, both. Hm, perhaps Dumbledore knew what he was doing after all.

Snape wasn't having any of it, however. "And what then, Headmaster?" he sneered, sending a cascade of dark shivers down Harry's spine. "Will you have me write 'I will not attempt to strangle Harry Potter' five hundred times?"

Dumbledore raised his eyebrows. "What an excellent idea, Severus," he said mildly. "I think that shall do nicely to start."

When Harry snickered, Dumbledore smiled toothily in return. "And you, Harry, will write 'I will not attempt to castrate Severus Snape' five hundred times in turn. Yes, an outstanding idea indeed. Now, I must go contact the Ministry Clean-Up Crew before the meeting tonight." Dumbledore smiled serenely at them both, then turned and left his office.

He and Snape stared at one another a moment longer, then Snape donned his cloak and pulled the hood up over his head. "This is all your fault, Potter."

"My fault? You're the one who suggested that we write--"

"Yes, your fault!" Snape pinned him with a glare. "The mission, the warehouse, these snakes, the detention, all of it. You exist, Mr. Potter, therefore it is most assuredly all your bloody fault!" Snape snorted once, nostrils flaring, then stalked out of the room, his long green tail hidden in a swirl of billowing black robes.

Harry stood mesmerized, replaying the final flamboyant and vulturish snap of Snape's cloak, feeling the sear of that glare like noontime sunlight on his skin, oh, and the harmonics of Snape's voice filling the pit of his stomach with languid heat.

After a long, heart pounding moment, Harry finally gathered his wits, and exited the room with a broad smile. He felt far more light-hearted--and hopeful--than he had in a very long time.

Whatever the reason, in the past century only five wizarding partnerships have emerged worldwide that have produced true magical innovations. Two of these occurred at Durmstrang. The other three either occurred at Hogwarts or involved Hogwarts alumnae.

It was late, nearing midnight, and the small meeting room was packed, wall-to-wall with members of the Order. McGonagall, Lupin, Black, teachers, students, former students, and other folk, all of whom had turned out to hear the latest update.

Hermione wrinkled her nose at the odors of wet wool, wet fur and feathers, and other more objectionable scents as she tried to edge her way across the room towards Harry. Snape was on the exact opposite side of the chamber, leaning against the closed door, with his hood pulled over his head and only his long nose poking out. Additionally, something seemed to be...moving?...inside his cloak. Hermione frowned.

"Harry!" she called over the din; Dumbledore had yet to call the meeting to order.

He turned towards her and waved. "Hey, Hermione. You made it. How's Draco?"

With the liberal application of elbows and heels to various sensitive parts, she managed to force a path through the gabbling throng to her friend. Harry's dark hair stuck up in wet spikes, his glasses were water-spotted, and there was a smear of mud across one cheekbone. He looked exhausted and yet somehow triumphant as well. "How did it go tonight?"

Before he could answer, Dumbledore appeared and the room quieted immediately. "I'll give you the gory details later," he whispered, then they both turned their attention to the first of the reports from Sirius Black.

Although patience was not her forte, Hermione took her research and Order liaison position at the Ministry seriously. She took copious notes as Black, and then several other Order's undercover operatives reported in. After a while though, she felt an odd prickling sensation on the back of her neck. When she turned, from across the room, Snape was staring intently, perhaps even malevolently, at Harry beside her, his dark eyes glittering from the depths of his hood.

How very, very peculiar. She shivered, then turned back to her notes.

The first notable partnership, that of Dumbledore-Flamel, produced the spell-cloaked Philosopher's Stone (Monsters as Pets, Artificial Life-Extension, Mirrors for Safe-keeping, and Other Bad Ideas, p. 449-724).

As the meeting dragged on, the room became increasingly hot and stuffy and Hermione fought just to stay awake, let alone pay attention and jot down analyses. She pinched herself and took notes a little more intently.

Harry put his arm around her shoulders and leaned close. "You okay?"

"Fine," she whispered. "It's just a bit--"

"Deadly boring?" he said, snickering.

"No, not boring." She was mildly scandalized; vital Order issues were being discussed tonight! "It's just stuffy, and a bit hot in here."

"You can say that again," Harry muttered. Puzzled, Hermione looked up but Harry was staring across the room, at Snape. When she turned, Snape was staring hard at them both, and if looks could kill...

"Harry, what's going on with Snape?"

"What?" When Harry met her eyes, he wore an odd expression that she couldn't immediately place. His bright green eyes were dilated nearly black, there was a hectic wash of color over his cheeks, and he looked as if he'd been biting his lip. Behind her, in the background, she could have sworn she heard a...hiss?

"And as a final positive note, before we adjourn here tonight," Dumbledore's hearty voice jarred her out of scrutiny of Harry and back to the topic at hand. "This evening, in a daring raid, Harry and Severus jointly eliminated a sizable cache of Narcissa Malfoy's illicit potions and magical explosives."

After a stunned pause, the assembled crowd erupted into spontaneous cheers and no few people nearby reached over to clap Harry on the back or give him a hug. Used to the display, and more than willing to corner Harry for the details later on, Hermione watched Snape instead. The Ex-Death Eater and Potions Master-turned-intelligence-agent ignored the hubbub, his expression becoming, if possible, even more thunderous. She couldn't help but notice that not a single person singled him out for a job well done.

"Ministry defence technicians will also be pleased to know," Dumbledore paused dramatically, allowing the conversation to die down again, "that they successfully field tested the new charm-grenades this evening, as well. Three grenades were enough to destroy the entire contents of the warehouse. Well done, I'd say!"

With that news, Hermione could barely suppress her own excitement; Draco would be thrilled!

The announcement was followed by more cheers, more hugs and excited murmurs, and again nary a one for Snape. Hermione felt badly enough to give him a wave and a smile; he crossed his arms over his chest and hastily turned away, still with that hood up, despite the oppressive heat in the room.

"And with that, my good colleagues, I bid you all good evening."

The meeting broke up rapidly after that and Harry--and by virtue of proximity, Hermione as well--was mobbed by well-wishers, the curious, and no few witches prowling for a date. It took quite a while to break free, and by the time she did, a much welcomed cool draft had swept through the crowd from the open door. Snape was gone and when she turned, Harry was looking curiously strained and bereft amid the babbling horde.

The second is the controversial Weasley-Weasley venture which contributed greatly to the diversity of charms and mass-produced charmed objects, especially those whose purpose could be construed as amusing, humiliating, or resulting in mild, albeit visually spectacular, explosions. Scholars still debate if innovations in entertainment should be accorded similar status as more serious endeavours.

Sleep was elusive that night, despite the potion he'd consumed. The room was too hot, then too cold. The fire too bright but once doused, the night was far too dark and full of malevolent shadows. The sheets tangled twice, thrice, around his arms and legs like a death shroud.

"God damn it!" Snape shouted, then rolled out of bed. He stalked into the sitting room and flung himself down on the sofa to watch the stuttering embers in the grate.

The scales were gone, the tail removed, and Minerva had re-transfigured his stubborn nest of tiny snakes--Merlin knew what they'd been hissing, though Potter had certainly seemed amused--back into strands of his own dark, lank hair. The whole affair had been painful, annoying, humiliating even, but...

But it could have been much, much worse, and whenever he tried to sleep, it was. Behind his closed eyes, he'd miscounted, missed the tackle, his shield spell had failed, and the blast had caught Potter broadside. There, in his overactive imagination, Harry lay on his back, broken, eyes wide and blank behind cracked lenses, staring sightlessly at the sky while the cold rain poured down.

"Lumos!" he snapped, thoroughly exasperated with himself. The dungeon became bright as noon and Snape donned a robe and took himself off to his office. There he sat until the sun rose, preparing a fiendishly difficult pop quiz for his fifth years. At least someone else would benefit from his miserable evening.

The third, of course, is the Potter-Snape collaboration which resulted in the Unconscionables.

"Gentlemen, your wands, please."

Weary from a sleepless night and a full day of dealing with dunderheaded brats, Snape still managed a glare before reluctantly handing Dumbledore his wand; he felt naked. Beside him, Potter did the same.

"Here is ink, parchment, and a set of quills. I shall expect your assignments in one hour," Dumbledore said cheerfully, then ushered them into the room and closed and spell-sealed the door.

Trapped.

In an absurd fit of pique, Snape kicked the door. "Sadistic prick," he muttered, then snatched a scroll, a quill, and a bottle of ink from the podium and made his way over to the single table at the center of the room.

"Feeling a bit childish tonight, are we, Severus? Does someone perhaps need a nap?" The bane of his existence gathered his own supplies and took a seat beside Snape on the single bench behind the table.

Snape clenched his jaw. "Bugger off, Potter."

Potter blinked innocently and it was all Snape could do not to kiss--to remove the smirk from his lips with his fist.

After a few minutes, the hostility between them eased slightly and all that was heard--at least for the subsequent half-hour--was the scratching of quills: I will not attempt to strangle Harry Potter. I will not attempt to strangle Harry Potter. I will not attempt to strangle Harry Potter.

All the while Snape wondered if he wrote it enough times, perhaps he might actually make it true.

The Potter-Snape partnership was unique for several reasons. These collaborations are typically entered into consensually and occur between like-minded wizards and witches with similar interests and complementary skills and temperaments. Snape and Potter could hardly be said to possess a single one of these characteristics.

"I'm sorry, Hermione." Dumbledore smiled kindly. "I realize that you'd hoped to speak with Harry tonight, but he and Severus are working on a secret project for me and can't be disturbed."

Hermione put her hands on her hips. "A secret project?" At 12:30 in the morning, and with Snape? None of which fully explained the muffled shouting from behind the closed door; silencing charms weren't perfect after all. "Harry never mentioned anything about a project."

"Ah, but then he wouldn't. It is, after all, secret." Dumbledore actually winked.

"I see," she said, eyes narrowed.

At the time of their venture, Severus Snape, the surly and snide former Death Eater turned spy for the Light (or exclusively for Dumbledore; unfortunately documents that might illuminate this fine distinction have been sealed for the next fifty years), was an acknowledged master of Potions--the youngest ever--as well as a highly skilled wizard in charms and the Dark Arts.

Prior to his work on the Unconscionables, he was already quite famous for his role in the downfall of Voldemort, his subtle revisions on the Veritaserum (increasing potency and duration and lessening the side effects of the compulsion), and for revolutionising the treatment of lycanthropy. By that time, his C.V. was lengthy and impressive; he'd published numerous articles in well-respected magical journals and was a senior member of the faculty at Hogwarts.

And so it went for the next three days and interminable nights.

Snape would douse himself with a sleep potion--in increasing dosages and potencies--he'd toss and turn regardless, visions of Potter dead, dying, or more disturbingly, in the throes of passion, parading behind his eyelids. Then he'd finally throw off the bedclothes and stride off to his office to inflict his frustration on his hapless students. When dawn came, he'd imbibe a stimulant potion or two, have several cups of tea in the staff room, and thus fortified, would set off to terrorise the dungeons for the rest of the day.

Eventually, of course, night would fall, there'd be office hours, essays and exams to mark, detentions to supervise and then Dumbledore would crook his finger and smile. Moments later Snape would find himself locked in a tiny, windowless room, cheek by jowl with the ever-delectable, eminently shaggable Boy Who Lived.

A veritable hell on earth.

Of course, after a silently hostile thirty minutes or so, the sniping would inevitably commence between iteration 205 and 214 of their tedious assignment. Sniping would escalate into shouting by 315, and finally culminate in shoving and overturned furniture by 406.

He and Potter would stand amid spilled ink and torn sheets of parchment, inches apart, chests heaving, faces flushed, and fists clenched. It would be all Snape could do not to drop to his knees, yank down Potter's trousers and...

It was quite enough to drive even the sanest man mad, let alone one bent but not entirely broken although thoroughly folded, spindled, and mutilated, feeling-every-year-over-forty former Death Eater.

"Gentlemen, your wands, please."

Snape could barely see past the red haze and his hands were shaking a bit, but he somehow managed to yield his wand without complaint.

As he walked to the table, he could feel the weight of Potter's gaze on the back of his neck and virtually hear Dumbledore's knowing, self-satisfied smirk.

Snape gritted his teeth and got right to work.

To hell with them both, bastards all!

In contrast, Harry Potter--a popular and rather congenial wizard--was a less conventional academician. After conclusively defeating Voldemort in his seventh year at Hogwarts, Potter unexpectedly took an advanced degree; despite his obvious intelligence and good marks, Potter was an indifferent student, preferring to do rather than think about doing.

Afterwards, he traveled the world a bit, was Seeker for the Chudley Cannons for several years (while continuing to play a vital role in the Order), and consulted for the Ministry during the off-seasons. Upon his departure from the Cannons in 2007, he joined the staff of Hogwarts, at Dumbledore's request, as Assistant Quidditch Coach.

By the fifth evening, Harry was sleepless, his nerves were utterly frayed, and he had long since come to believe that Snape's characterization of Dumbledore--"Sadistic Prick"--was spot on. If anything, the tension between him and Snape had escalated rather than eased over the past few nights.

It always began around iteration 200 of: I will not attempt to castrate Severus Snape. He and Snape would become restless on the too short, too narrow bench. Their elbows would jostle, their shoulders or knees would brush, a snide word or two would be exchanged and the next thing Harry knew, they'd be red-faced and shouting, covered in ink and shredded paper. Shortly thereafter, Harry would find himself struggling mightily not to bend the breathless and deliciously disheveled Potions Master over the end of the table and bugger him senseless.

Tonight, however, was an exception. Tonight, the sniping began almost immediately.

Appearances to the contrary, Potter's appointment was an academic one. In 1996, the Department of Mysteries concluded that the position of instructor for Defence Against the Dark Arts had been intractably cursed by Septimius Quirrell (Journal of Magical Management: High Turnover In Conservative Institutions, Summer 2003; also Cunning and Confounding Curses, Part III, p. 1257-1421). Thereafter, all Hogwarts' DADA instructors were employed under some different and innocuous job category.

By all accounts, Potter's unconventional, hands-on, and no-holds-barred approach to his subject material was wildly successful, and numerous Potter-trained Hogwarts alumnae went on to become some of the finest Aurors and Hit Wizards of the era.

"I really must speak with Harry, Headmaster. I need clarification on his use of the charm-grenades for the Ministry report."

Dumbledore didn't look up from his perusal of a blotched and torn scroll. "Have you tried sending an owl?"

Had he finally gone senile? "You know I can't solicit classified information via owl."

"Why not try during office hours?"

Hermione nearly stamped her foot. "Because I need to speak with him privately. Not anywhere a student might happen along."

Dumbledore re-rolled the scroll and patted her shoulder. "I realise that this must be frustrating to you, Hermione, but Harry and Severus really mustn't be disturbed. Perhaps I can pass along your questions to Harry myself, would that suit?" He turned away to retrieve some fresh parchment and ink from his shelf.

"I guess it will have to," she muttered, with equal parts annoyance and curiosity. She knew that mild, self-satisfied look of Dumbledore's. Exactly what was he up to? And what kind of secret project were Snape and Harry working on behind that closed door?

From a skills standpoint, Potter and Snape had little in common save their knowledge of the Dark Arts (too much knowledge, some critics of the Unconscionables have claimed) and general magical talents; their temperaments and interests were vastly divergent.

Short tempered and even shorter on sleep (and weren't erotic dreams supposed to taper off once past adolescence?), Harry grabbed his supplies off the podium, plunked himself down at the table, and nearly landed on the floor. Snape was hogging the bench.

"Shove over, Snape."

"The wizarding world may believe you were born in a manger, Potter, but that is no excuse for displaying barnyard manners."

He closed his eyes and counted to ten. "I said shove over."

"Say the magic word."

He tried counting to twenty this time, in goblin first, then in elvish. "God damn it, Snape. Move!"

Silence.

When Harry opened his eyes, Snape actually smiled. "Make me," he said distinctly, each word pouring over Harry like honey on hot blueberry scones.

And all at once, the heat and malevolence in Snape's eyes, the challenge in his voice, the citrus and brimstone scent of the man himself overwhelmed Harry's senses; his inner cauldron of rage and frustrated lust boiled over.

Their other few points of commonality--a shared but emotionally fraught history (Chapter CCXIII: Famous Pranks Gone Awry) and seven rocky years as student and teacher--serve as a potent reminder that familiarity often breeds contempt rather than fondness.

From behind the closed door came a series of interesting sounds. First, there was a shout, then a thump, more shouting, sounds of a scuffle, and finally a very ominous silence.

Hermione nibbled on the feather end of her quill for a moment then gave Albus a considering look. Despite the sounds of mayhem from behind the door, he looked completely unconcerned.

"On second thought, Headmaster," she said. "Why don't I just wait?"

"What?" The old sneak actually sounded startled. "Oh, that won't be necessary, Hermione, truly. I will be happy to pass along your message to Harry. It's getting late after all." He reinforced the suggestion with more than a touch of unseen magical force. However, Hermione was as skilled as she was stubborn and so she pushed back just as hard.

"Oh, it's no problem." She forced a bright smile. "I'm here anyway, and you said that they'll be finished within the hour. Not much time left at all."

Albus stared at her over the rims of his glasses. Undeterred, Hermione glared right back.

"Very well," he said, with a distinct lack of good grace.

Triumphant, Hermione tossed down her quill and crossed her arms.

Suffice it to say that by the time that Potter returned to Hogwarts in 2007, despite their effectiveness as a field unit for the Order of the Phoenix (Tales of the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 16: Daring Deeds of the Deadly Duo), there was little, if any, love lost between them. At least initially.

Harry stood abruptly and kicked the table aside. One well-placed shove and he'd pushed Snape over the back of the bench to thump heavily then sprawl on the wooden floor, stunned. A split-second later, Harry was on his knees, straddling Snape's hips, pinning his wrists over his head.

Snape twisted and heaved; he was taller and heavier, but Harry had better leverage. His captive glared up at him from beneath the curtain of his tangled black hair. "When words fail, those lacking in couth and intelligence inevitably resort to violence."

"You stubborn, greasy prick!"

"Quite." Snape curled his lip.

Those lips fascinated Harry. Thinnish, yet beautifully curved, a tasty red against the paleness of Snape's face. The lower lip looked bruised, as if Snape had bitten it. Or as if he'd just been thoroughly kissed. Harry smiled.

Confused and clearly uncomfortable with the scrutiny, Snape flushed then squirmed as much as Harry's weight would allow. Harry felt a hard bulge pressed against his own rather stifled erection, and smiled more widely.

He'd imagined Snape this way, countless times. Spread out, dark and pale against his sheets, panting, hair disheveled, flushed and sweaty from making love. It was such a simple matter then, to shift his weight, to lean forward and--.

Snape's eyes widened. "No," he gasped and turned his face to the side.

"Yes." Harry tilted his head and went for Snape's lips anyway.

"Potter, no."

He sounded so serious that Harry drew back in surprise. "Why not?"

"Because." Snape avoided his eyes although he didn't struggle.

Harry released Snape's wrists anyway and took hold of his chin, forcing their eyes to meet. "Because what?"

Snape closed his eyes and sighed. "You don't really want me."

Harry pressed down with his hips; their erections ground against one another. "Try again."

"It's not enough that I simply do not want this." Snape sounded exhausted, defeated even.

"No, it isn't." Harry frowned. "We've been headed this way for months, for years, Severus. I've seen how you look at me, as if what those snakes said the other night left any room for doubt."

Snape grimaced at that but then looked at Harry directly. His eyes were bleak. "Because, Harry, if you must know. I may want you, and this...this lust may seem all very inevitable. But you can't give me what I want."

For a long moment, Harry considered the other wizard sprawled beneath him. Snape was not a casual man. He did nothing haphazardly or frivolously and was private to the point of paranoia, concealing all emotions except ire or boredom beneath a blank facade. A difficult--but not impossible--man to read; not a man to tumble into bed on impulse. And it suddenly occurred to him that, to a man like Snape, Harry's patient, hopeful multi-year silence--a wait generously filled with casual, eager, and generally nubile distractions--must seem like...

"Oh."

"Yes, 'oh'. And now, if we're finished with this thoroughly humiliating interrogation, let me up."

"I don't think so."

"What? Damn you, Potter!" Snape did struggle this time, nearly managing to unseat him. "Why not?"

"Because I can," Harry said, pinning Snape's wrists again. Snape actually growled at him. "What I mean is, I can give you what you want."

For a moment, Snape looked thunderstruck, then the hope faded from his face and his eyes narrowed. "I will not be manipulated, Potter. I am not a charity case and I don't need your--"

Harry exhaled heavily. "Severus."

"What, damn you!"

"Shut up." Then Harry leaned down and claimed Snape's mouth in a hard kiss. After a good long while, he pulled back taking in Snape's glazed eyes with satisfaction. Actions spoke louder than words after all.

Given these factors, it is rather inexplicable that Snape and Potter should have paired together, allegedly at Dumbledore's insistence, to investigate strategies to combat the Merchants of Darkness. Although, it is precisely this uncanny decision-making for which Dumbledore was justly famous (see Albus the Inscrutable: Truly Omniscient, Or Just A Damned Good Guesser?).

The door banged open.

Dumbledore's head jerked up mid-snore and Hermione was startled out of a light doze. She leapt to her feet. "Harry!"

"Miss Granger. Headmaster." Snape exited the room with Harry in tow, one pale hand wrapped tightly round Harry's right biceps.

Hermione goggled at the two wizards. Their hair was wild and tangled, their robes were torn, their faces were sweaty and flushed, and ink splotched their clothes and hands. Harry wore what looked like a series of inky finger prints over his throat and Snape sported a palm print on his left cheek and a smear across the bridge of his nose.

Snape loomed briefly in the doorway like a hail-laden storm cloud then stalked forward, dragging Harry with him. "Your assignments, Albus," he said, tossing two scrolls at Dumbledore. His voice could have flash-frozen the lake and the squid solid in one go.

"And I'll just reclaim these, shall I?" Snape snatched two wands from amid the clutter on Dumbledore's desk. "Come along, Professor Potter. We still have a few more things to...discuss."

Hermione didn't like the sound of that, nor did she like the glazed look on Harry's face. Had Snape poisoned him or something? "But Harry, wait! I need--"

Harry finally spoke; his voice sounded queerly distant and his eyes were unfocussed. "Hi Hermione, bye Hermione. Kind of busy right now. Send me an owl, okay?" He waved at her vaguely.

"But--"

Snape turned his withering glare on her. "Another time, Miss Granger. Albus. Good night." And with that, he departed, slamming the outer door closed behind him.

After a moment, Hermione realized that she was staring blankly at the closed door. When she turned around, Albus was sitting at his desk and re-rolling the 'assignments'.

He quirked one white brow. "And shall I forward that message on to Harry for you?"

Dumbledore had the nerve then to smile.

Nevertheless in the spring of 2008, Dumbledore--apparently frustrated with efforts to rein in the Merchants of Darkness--did so, an act that changed the course of the Wizarding Cold War and led to the development of the Unconscionables.

"Gentlemen, your wands, please."

Albus the Meddlesome knew something, that much was clear. His tone was too bland and his half-smile bordered on smug. Harry gritted his teeth but handed over his wand anyway. After all, he was moments away from some truly spectacular sex. He could afford to be magnanimous, even to someone as annoying as Dumbledore in an I-Know-Something-You-Don't-Think-I-Know mood. One sideways glance at Snape's clenched jaw, however, and Harry reckoned that if Dumbledore offered them a tin of those god-awful Lemon Drops, then the Headmaster had better be prepared to duck or run. Fast.

Wands deposited, writing supplies in hand, he and Snape stepped over the threshold and into the room. When the door swung shut and was spell-locked behind them, Harry turned to Snape expectantly. "So. Did you bring it?"

"Of course, you fool." Always the charmer, his Severus.

"And you think it's really going to work?"

"Honestly, Potter," Snape said with some asperity, pulling two vials from a pocket in his robe. "If I can stopper death, I can most assuredly stopper up a few thousand words."

They took their usual seat at the much-battered bench and Snape spread two blank scrolls on the now-rickety table. "Observe," he said, and with a flourish, opened the first vial and poured its contents onto one page. The spelled ink pooled, glistening for a moment, then the center blot suddenly spawned hundreds of neon black tendrils. They crawled rapidly over the page like so many long-legged spiders, scribing glowing words onto the paper. A flash of light, a puff of smoke, and the page was covered with 500 iterations of I will not attempt to castrate Severus Snape rendered in Harry's messy scrawl.

"Hm," Harry muttered. "It's missing something."

Before Snape could unleash a scathing response, Harry opened a bottle of ordinary ink, flicked it over the scroll and pressed his fingers in the blots. He crumbled the scroll then ripped the resulting stained mess in a few strategic places. "There. Much more, er, authentic."

"Mm," Snape said, sounding slightly mollified. He then opened the second vial of words over his page. After the obnoxiously neat letters stopped writhing and smoking, he passed the scroll to Harry, who promptly set about 'authenticating' it.

"Not bad at all," Harry said, admiring the results with satisfaction. All they needed to do now was shout a bit and throw the furniture around to keep up appearances. "Do you think Dumbledore'll call us on it?"

Snape's expression was sour. "No doubt we will be made to pay somehow."

"Yeah, I'm sure of it," Harry agreed a little glumly, thinking of chaperoning first year field trips, of staff togetherness retreats, and other 'team building' activities. Sadistic Prick didn't begin to describe Albus when he got creative.

"However," Snape said with a silky purr, leaning close. Harry shivered as the sound tickled each vertebra on its way down to the base of his spine. "I'm sure there are more...interesting ways to use our remaining time than discussing Albus' possible response to our duplicity."

God, that voice! Harry swallowed hard. "Such as?"

"Such as," Snape replied, shrugging out of his robe and opening his trousers. He wasn't wearing underwear.

"Oh, um." Harry pushed the table aside and knelt between Snape's spread thighs. The discarded robe cushioned his knees nicely.

"Exactly so, Mr. Potter." A long fingered hand fisted in his hair and pulled Harry forward and down, exactly where he wanted to be. "A pity you were neither so prompt nor diligent while you were my student."

Harry would have said something witty or snide except that his mouth was very full and Severus' words had conjured a towering wave of lust that swamped all rational thought. Like an auditory Imperius Curse, Harry thought muzzily, except that, unlike the Imperius, he had no inclination to resist.

"Just like that." Snape exhaled on a faint moan.

And as Harry licked and sucked and nibbled, according to Snape's muttered instructions of "Harder, it won't break," and "Use your fingers, oh," or "Ease off on the teeth, you idiot!" As every espresso and caramel toffee syllable, sigh, and moan drenched his ears and skin, seeped into his pores, and soaked his bones with their passion, Harry wondered if there were some way to bottle Snape's voice, just like those words in the vial. To stopper it up in a fine crystal decanter, allow it to mellow, growing thicker, heavier, then pour it out again and lap it up, bathe in it, or drown in its dark heat.

The Unconscionables are one of a general class of magical hybrids now known as sentiosymbiotic charm potions (see Survey of the Not-Quite-Entirely Dark Arts, p. 497-602). As their name implies, these hybrids possess characteristics of both charmed objects and potions. Unlike charmed objects, which can be detected by magical means, sentiosymbiotics bond directly and seamlessly with a wizard or witch's innate magical energy.

Harry couldn't get the idea out of his head.

Three days and nights of teaching, overseeing detentions and Quidditch practices, of attending Order planning sessions, of scraping by on a measly few hours of sleep, not to mention screwing Snape senseless in their non-existent spare time. Seventy-two hours and the idea still ambushed him at odd times. Now, for instance.

It was late afternoon, less than an hour before dinner. The halls were quiet, as was his office, and he wasn't expected anywhere in the next forty minutes. There were no students to tutor or to discipline, no useless meetings to attend, no distractions; a perfect time for productivity. He could be marking exams, fine-tuning his lesson plans, or even catching up on his correspondence, which had long since outgrown his in-box and now lurked in a increasingly discontent stack at the edge of his desk.

Instead, he was trapped in his seat with a hard-on that could pound nails and an image in his head of: himself, tied naked and spread-eagled on Severus' wide, comfortable bed, while a fully clothed and sneering Snape poured a jug of thick, pearlescent black essence over Harry's trembling body. It smoked when it touched his skin, writhing like a live thing, twisting over his limbs, around his erect prick, snaking down between his spread cheeks, and into his...

"Argh!" Harry shouted, then rubbed his eyes to erase the image, delicious though it was. To distract himself, he pointed his wand at the looming pile of correspondence. It obediently reorganized itself according to degree of urgency. Nine howlers rumbled ominously on top of the stack.

The first three were from Hermione and Harry dispatched those, unopened, with a muttered, "Incendio." The next two were from Draco and required no less than four hexes and the repeated application of a heavy marble paperweight to subdue. The rest included library overdue notices, late fees for his soon-to-expire Apparation license, and finally, a still-smoking missive from Minerva regarding what he and Severus now called The Staff Room Incident; so much for keeping their new relationship low profile.

Harry brushed away the grime of sullen ashes and reached for the topmost letter. He lifted the flap and raised his eyebrows. The note was a bit on the colorful side for Hermione and the heated prose and angry penmanship lacked her usual polish.

Damn it Harry,

I have been patient.

He winced, recalling too well their hasty exchanges in the hallway when she'd tried to corner him between classes or during busy office hours; the plans they'd repeatedly made to meet to discuss the performance of the charm-grenades. Meetings that, given the choice between being grilled or being...drilled by Snape, Harry had of course, failed to keep. So yes, Hermione had been awfully patient about everything, all things considered.

I've waited for you during your office hours. I've waited for you in Dumbledore's office while you and Snape worked on your so-called Secret Project. And what kind of project involves shouting, throwing furniture, and ripped clothes? After all these years, aren't you two at the point where you can at least have a civil moment together?

I have taken time out of my busy schedule to wait outside your classroom or to join you for lunch or dinner so that we could talk. And yet each and every time, you are either too busy, late for some meeting (and I would have thought that you'd be a bit better organised these days, being an instructor and all!), or you are--in Dumbledore's words--Unavailable.

Harry James Potter, I must say that I am now officially out of patience.

She'd invoked his middle name; Harry's stomach dropped to his toes.

I didn't think it would be necessary to impress upon you, of all people, the seriousness of our situation. It is imperative that our researchers receive a full accounting of the performance of the charm-grenades. Yes, we have done exhaustive testing, but tests are no substitute for use in unpredictable field conditions.

I shouldn't have to remind you of this, Harry.

The Ministry Clean-Up Crew studied the site of the explosion as thoroughly as possible given the time limitations and we have Albus' summary of the events, of course, but that is not enough, and neither you nor Snape have filed a field report covering the incident.

And just for the record, I do not consider your terse, one sentence replies to the questionnaire I sent you via Dumbledore to constitute a proper report.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. As usual, Hermione was right. He felt marginally better that Professor Oh-So-Organized Snape hadn't filed his report either, but that didn't excuse their lust-induced and sleep-deprived negligence.

We are at a critical phase in our research, absolutely critical. The MOD are on the rise, illicit potions and Dark-charmed devices are filtering into the Muggle world at an alarming rate. If the magical community doesn't do something to contain the problem, Muggle governments will be forced to act. Despite its elegance, one-on-one dueling is outdated and is now mostly ineffective due to the Malfoys' innovations. We need better tools, weapons that act on a larger scale, ones that any wizard can be trained to use, not just the gifted. Draco and I are doing our best, but we can't operate in a vacuum.

Damn it, Harry, we need your report!

Send it soon or I will be forced to resort to howlers.

Yours,

H

Harry leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. They did need better weapons. He'd heard Hermione's rant frequently enough. But when it came to a new magical arsenal, the Ministry researchers were of the Fred and George school of Bigger Is Better. Harry liked a good searing fire ball as much as the next wizard, but Snape's constant harping, over the years, about Stealth, Cunning, and Subtlety had made its impression on him.

Sure, he'd leveled the warehouse with only three charm-grenades, but he'd also unleashed a storm of rogue magic that had transfigured an entire city block. And perhaps more importantly, he'd destroyed the evidence that might have sent Narcissa to Azkaban for twenty years. True, he'd improvised in an emergency, and Dumbledore had been accommodating--Harry hadn't yet been reprimanded--but he also couldn't deny the consequences of his hasty act.

He still owed Severus an apology for all that.

Hermione and Draco were right: they needed better weapons. Better ways to interrogate prisoners, to locate and eliminate caches of illegal magic, better ways to infiltrate and thwart MOD organizations before it was too late. But lately, Harry had begun to think that, unlike with Voldemort, Less just might be More when it came to this new threat. Rather than brazen and bold explosions, they needed something sneaky, something cunning and sly. Something subtle, quiet, like silk over skin, and yet also painful: a gold-coated brick to the back of the head.

Trouble was, despite his stint at university, Harry was crap at research; he had no idea what variety of Less might do the trick. Nor did he know how to go about creating it, let alone convincing so-called Greater Minds at the Ministry that it would work.

Harry sighed again and closed his eyes, trying to imagine what shape something Less might take. But all he could see was that damn crystal decanter tilted over his splayed body, pouring out its dark, lightning-shot liquid over his bare skin. Come for me, Harry, the phantom-Snape demanded, and Harry helplessly--

--gasped and opened his eyes.

He sat stunned for a full minute, his body immobile while his mind raced from one possibility to the next. When the brainstorm finally released him, panting and staring wild-eyed around his empty classroom, it was the work of a moment to pack up his things, don his cloak, mutter Nox, then spell-seal the office on his way out the door.

A mousy second-year Ravenclaw with a double arm load of books was lurking in the corridor. "Professor Potter? I was wondering if you had time before dinner to explain the..."

With a distracted "Later, Mr. French," Harry pushed by the disappointed student and nearly raced down the corridor towards the library. The library! He couldn't help smiling. Hermione would have been so proud.

Structurally, sentiosymbiotics consist of four components: 1) a potion matrix, 2) an ineffable essence, 3) a charm conferring a pseudo-sentience upon the synthesis of 1 and 2, and 4) a spell that activates the sentience charm. When the prepared solution is applied to the body (usually in lotion form), it immediately seeps into the pores, locates and bonds directly with the user's internal magical centers, and becomes one with his/her intrinsic magic.

If the preparer of the hybrid has supplied a spelled interface, the wizard or witch may consciously control aspects of the enchantment (such as strength, range, and number of persons affected). Otherwise, the hybrid operates in a default mode, independently.

Just after curfew, Snape arrived home from rousting a gaggle of trysting Hufflepuffs from behind the rose bushes. He paused before the fireplace to warm his hands and smiled. Their squeals of dismay and subsequent scramble to sort out socks, shoes, and underclothes had been particularly satisfying.

He tossed his cloak over the back of the chair and glanced at the time. Still three hours to go before his and Potter's formal...assignation. Then he settled down at his desk to red-ink his way through a stack of insipid first year essays on systems of magical measurement. No matter how often and thoroughly he explained it, the idiots never seemed to grasp the theory of significant digits.

The minutes ticked by with agonizing slowness. Snape had used up half a bottle of ink and had crushed eight overly inflated Ravenclaw egos--for Merlin's sake, did these idiots really believe they could accurately calculate mass to ten decimal places with a set of student scales?!--when he heard the sound of running feet in his hallway. Moments later, the breached chamber wards prickled their warning against the bridge of his nose. Snape looked up as Potter burst through his door brandishing a sheaf of papers.

"Severus!" he said breathlessly.

Snape returned to his marking. "You missed dinner."

"I know." Potter dragged a chair over to the desk and plunked himself down. "I was in the library."

That made him pause. "I didn't realize that you knew where the Hogwarts library is, Mr. Potter."

"Ha ha. Seriously though. Quit that and pay attention." Potter plucked the quill out of his hand and pushed the essays aside.

Snape glared but Potter's stubbled cheeks were flushed, his eyes were bright, his lips were bitten and wet, and his hair stood up in unruly spikes. Snape's heart stuttered in his chest.

"Look," Potter said, spreading his wad of papers across the desk and weighting the curled ends of the scrolls with books, quills, and other odds and ends at random. He tapped one page insistently. "I've got an idea."

The glare drained from Snape's face. In the field, that phrase was Potter-speak for: Bugger The Plan, Let's Blow Something Up. Granted, Harry's I've got an ideas had gotten them out of a tight spot or two in the past, but still.

"Don't give me that look. Just listen okay?"

Snape sighed and propped his chin on his fist. "Very well. Tell me about this brilliant idea."

"So," Potter said, rubbing his hands together. "You know how we haven't exactly filed our mission reports yet?"

And whose fault was that? If the pestiferous wretch weren't quite so...delectable, Snape might actually squeeze in a bit of real work now and again. He'd certainly given up on sleep.

"And how we owe Hermione and Draco reports about the field performance of the charm grenades?"

He knew all too well, as the post-howler-scorch-marks on his ceiling could attest. Damn the Malfoy spawn to a purgatory of recurrent impotence; that would neatly dispatch both his godson and the ever annoying Hermione Granger with a single metaphorical stone.

On second thought, abstinence might make Granger even more insufferable.

"And how you're always going on and on and on," Snape snarled and Potter hastened on, "about how this war is different and how we don't need bigger explosions but instead we should focus on better recon and stealth and interrogation and whatnot?"

Was the boy actually conceding that Snape had a point about the absurd direction current Ministry research had taken? Surely the sky had fallen.

"Well, I was thinking about that and trying to imagine what a something that was subtle and sneaky and stealthy might look like."

Potter grinned triumphantly and Snape frowned, waiting. "And?" he said, drumming his fingers on the desktop.

"And." Potter slapped his hand down on the topmost page. "And this!"

Snape tore his gaze away from Potter--whose glazed expression too closely mirrored coital rapture to encourage rational thought--and peered hard at the this before him; Potter's handwriting certainly hadn't improved since he'd been a student. After some squinting and rotating of the first page, Snape digested the thesis. He deciphered the second--a series of diagrams--a bit more easily. Then, picking up speed, he scanned the next page. Then the next, and the next, until, "Damn it Harry, where's the rest?" and somewhere in the middle of an ingenious and nigh well devious proposal on page five, Snape was forced to conclude that every wizard, even the academically...indifferent like Potter, could stumble upon a good idea every now and again.

And what an idea!

Oh, it needed a fair bit of refining, of course. There were gaping holes in the suppositions, an over-abundance of hand waving in the details, and a distinct shakiness in the theoretical underpinnings--all familiar Potter trade marks. But even so, there was true beauty here.

Beside him, Potter twitched in his seat then stood and began pacing around the chamber. Snape closed his eyes, blocking out all distractions, and hmmed as the idea bubbled hopefully in his mind.

Add a bit more theory and the concept could become stable; stir in equal portions of research, controlled testing, and Dark Intent to confer depth, body, and versatility; sprinkle with a dash of Maybe and bit of Luck, and what? A spell? potion? charm? what the hell was this anyway?! that could bind without magical seam, that could enfold or hide the barest essence of a suggestion.

Fascinating.

In Snape's professional opinion, Potter's greatest strength lay in improvisation. The man could tweak a spell here or there and use it in ways it was never intended to be used. He had witnessed Potter transform a gentle spell to grow vines, with the addition of a single vowel, into an horrific, lethal spell to wither veins--and on-the-fly, in the midst of a duel no less! As Snape mulled the implications of Potter's this, he was impressed anew at the other wizard's talent for transmogrification.

But anyway. This, this essence Potter alluded to, how was it gathered, how could it be contained? Snape frowned, thinking hard. What if it were diffused in a potion? Ingested or...no, too delicate. Perhaps applied topically. Yes. So it would become a natural, undetectable extension of a wizard's own power. Of course!

Such a potion would be fiendishly difficult to concoct, but not impossible, at least not for someone of Snape's talents. But he needed to know more--what was its exact nature? What was its specific gravity, its viscosity, was it perishable, what characteristics did the potion matrix need to...

"Well?" Potter said and Snape blinked. Well indeed.

"This essence you mention. On pages four, seven, and thirteen." Snape gestured towards the relevant pages. "Exactly what is it?"

There was a very long silence and Snape stared, amazed, as Potter blushed crimson, to the very roots of his hair.

"Um, well," Potter muttered, looking down at his hands. "I thought maybe..."

"Speak up, boy!"

"It's er your voice," Potter said, all in a rush.

His voice? Snape tapped his chin and considered. "Sit down, Potter," he said finally. "I believe that we have work to do."

Ineffable essences are highly concentrated properties of physical space that convey emotional information. Each of the Unconscionable essences has a physical basis in one of the five senses and manipulates the affected party's emotional state via that sense. When infused into the potion matrix, applied to the enchanter and then activated the amplified essences imperceptibly manipulates the emotions of those in the enchantment's sphere of influence. This may result in pleasure, pain, or occasionally other, more exotic emotional states.

Great care must be taken in the distillation of the ineffable essence (Snape-derived essences are especially potent and volatile) as well as their application as unexpected side effects have been known to result. The collection of these essences is a complicated and rather intimate process; please see Theory, Analysis, and Structure of the Unconscionables for details.

After nearly two and a half hours of furious scribbling and sketching, of summoning reference books from shelves, of shredding numerous sheets of parchment and of spattering ink, of following Potter's sketchy thesis to its logical and shocking conclusion--not to mention shouting at one another at top of their lungs--Snape sat back and stared at their handiwork with a sense of awe and dread.

The theory had been fleshed out a bit, the suppositions had been firmed. They had the barest sketch of an experimental plan, and though Potter's arithmancy was, quite frankly, abysmal, Snape's own was excellent--he'd taken a second degree in the subject, after all. Therefore, he had complete confidence in the snarled and spiky runic equations now scrawled over the lengthy scroll. And he wasn't ashamed to admit that their preliminary implications frightened him.

One variable stood out repeatedly: Thurisaz, the rune of destruction and defense, the projectable form of applied power.

And in its place, Harry proposed to substitute his voice.

Snape was not a vain man. His nose was proud but beaky, his hair was usually limp from potion fumes, his clothing often smelled of brimstone and things far less savory, and bleaching charms made his teeth ache; he was condemned to bear their natural yellowish color. He had been a short, skinny runt for too many years before a growth spurt finally ganglyfied him at sixteen, leaving him towering and awkward. He'd eventually grown into his looks, more or less, but for years, he'd been nothing much very special.

It was still quite the mystery what Harry saw in him today.

Doomed to a life of Striking and Imposing--but never Handsome, Good-Looking, or even (Merlin-forbid!) Cute--Snape had ignored his appearance altogether in favor of further cultivating his outstanding intellect and mastering the tri-fold arts of: the Voice, the Sneer, and the Snide, Sarcastic Putdown. And master them, he did. For years, those skills, in addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of hexes and well-known reputation for exacting revenge, had made him justifiably feared by his classmates, and as an adult, amongst his students and colleagues as well.

No, Snape was not vain, but he had reduced children, old women, and petty bureaucrats to tears with his voice. He'd shredded egos, terrified doctoral candidates into pissing themselves, and incited to riot on more than one occasion. Hell, he'd even induced Harry Potter to orgasm no less than five times using only his bare, magically unadorned voice.

And now his...lover, a man who was ostensibly one of the Good Guys, proposed to use it. In a spell, potion, thing. As a weapon.

"You do realize, Harry," he said, after a long moment, "that if this works...if we should actually manage to implement this proposal..."

"I know," Potter said quietly, pushing his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose. The youthful gesture was at odds with the old, knowing look in his eyes. "It's subliminal, it's insidious. It's..." He trailed off, clearly fishing around for a better term.

Snape took pity on him. "Unconscionable," he said, without a trace of hubris. "It is utterly unconscionable."

The action of sentiosymbiotic charm potions is subtle, quite undetectable by magical means. They are long lasting (as they are powered in part by the individual's innate magic) and perfectly suited to situations requiring stealth and/or subterfuge. Until the development of sentiosymbiotic charm potions, wizards and witches achieved comparable effects via charmed or transfigured objects or active spells and potions (such as the Imperius, Cruciatus, and Polyjuice Potion), all of which can now be detected and/or defended against.

Hybrids operate subliminally. Unsuspecting individuals who come under their influence remain unaware of the enchantment, obviating the need to cast subsequent Confundus spells or memory charms to remove the event from their memories as there is no noticeable "event" to elide.

This subliminal action is one of the primary characteristics that make the Uns so very unconscionable. For this reason, their manufacture is now strictly regulated by the Department of Magical Law Enforcement (see MLE: Regulations Concerning Controlled Magical Substances, Spells, and Other Magical Whatnot, Section 198.5.2:6:957).

At 11:58 PM Snape rapped once on Dumbledore's office door.

"Keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking," he muttered to Harry, then they both, laden with books, quills, and scrolls, opened the door and stepped through. Two people waited inside: Albus of course and, unsurprisingly, the infuriating Miss Granger.

"Severus, Harry." Dumbledore said with a bright smile. "Prompt as usual."

Snape turned to their erstwhile stalker first. "Miss Granger," he said, thrusting two scrolls into her hands. "Here are our reports on the performance of your excessively disruptive charm grenades. A complete waste of time, in my considered opinion. They are utterly worthless for real field work in this new era and quite on their way to being made obsolete by more ingenious innovations."

Granger gaped briefly and when her lower lip began to tremble in a involuntary, gratifying way, Snape sneered and turned to Dumbledore.

"Albus. Here are this evenings assignments." He tossed two scrolls at the Headmaster. "Henceforth, there will be no more of this absurd busywork and we will be keeping our wands. Potter and I have work to do."

"Is that so?" Dumbledore beamed as if he'd just been handed a box of fine cigars. Or chocolate frogs.

By way of answer, Snape adjusted his armload of research and swept past them both on his way into the inner chamber. Behind him, he heard Potter say, "Hi Hermione, bye Hermione. Sorry I can't stay and talk. Need to get started on this right away."

Then the door closed behind them and they were left in silence.

Snape set his books on the table and turned to find Potter watching him.

"Do you really think we can make this work?" Potter asked, clutching his books so tightly that his knuckles were white. His green eyes were intense, a nearly tangible caress against Snape's skin: there was something else, something far more significant than an unknown charm or potion or spell at issue here.

Could they make it work?

He felt a queer flutter in his stomach and his palms were damp. Relationships, like research, were unpredictable, dangerous, a journey into the unknown. But, he reminded himself, research was also exhilarating and rewarding, regardless the experimental outcome.

Could he and Harry actually make it work?

"You do your part, Harry," Snape said finally, sounding far more confident than he felt. "I will do mine." And then, he added silently, we shall see.

There are five sub-categories of the Uns, each corresponding to one of the senses: sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell. Vox was the first to be developed.

Historians disagree about the reason why the Unconscionable of Sound was invented first and Potter and Snape have been oddly reluctant to confirm or deny prevailing theories, directing inquiries to their as-yet unpublished research notes.

But the choice is likely related to the fact that, in addition to his unparalleled skill at Potions, Severus Snape also possessed an extraordinary speaking voice and was quite facile at using it to subdue and otherwise intimidate unruly students under his tutelage. It is possible that, during the initial experimentation stage, Potter and Snape decided to capitalize upon an essence that was ready to hand.

Albus, Severus, and Harry. Had the three of them gone mad?

Hermione clutched her pair of long-sought-after reports and divided her attention between the Headmaster and the door behind which Snape and Harry had just disappeared.

Despite his characteristic snideness Snape had looked positively thrilled at the prospect of being locked in a room with Harry. For his part, Harry--with his flushed cheeks, shining eyes, and oddly disarrayed clothing--had looked, well, 'demented' was the kindest adjective she could think of. 'Crazed' also might do in a pinch. And finally, Albus had cast aside his customary congenial reserve and was now snickering over the sheaf of papers Snape had foisted on him.

When, after a while, it became clear that no elaboration on the little drama just enacted would be forthcoming, Hermione tucked the reports into her sleeve, turned on her heel, and left the room. For this she'd rousted herself out of a warm bed with a willing (and devilishly inventive) partner?

As Ron might say: barking mad, the lot of them!

It is likewise a matter of debate how the pair arrived at the radical notion to use the ineffable essence of Snape's voice as a weapon. Terrorized lower-level Potions students not withstanding, the voice-weapon connection is a rather unorthodox one and contemporaneous defensive magical research at the Ministry was proceeding along much more conservative lines (see Ministry Defence Research: the Fine Art of Making Things Go 'Boom').

Much later that night, lying abed, sated and teetering on the edge of sleep--long after she'd arrived home, after Draco (predictably horny young male that he was) had pounced on her at the threshold sending cloak, wand, and reports everywhere, had pulled up her skirt, pulled down her panties, had dropped to his knees, then provided a lengthy sample of his rather stunning oral talents--the scene in Dumbledore's office languidly replayed itself behind Hermione's closed eyes, revealing details she hadn't noticed before.

Even as Snape had delivered his scathing assessment of the charm grenades, his attention had been focussed elsewhere. On Harry, in fact. Dumbledore had stood in the background, smiling, with a wicked, knowing glint in his eyes, and Harry--Hermione bolted upright with a gasp.

She looked down at her shagged out lover, remembered his frenzied greeting at the front door, and realized: No wonder Harry's expression seemed so familiar!

Draco rolled to his side and blinked sleepily. Most of his face was still mashed into the pillow and his words were nearly unintelligible. "Wha' is't, love? Ba' dream?"

"Harry and Snape," she said aloud, wondering. And Albus. Where did Dumbledore fit into all of this? And there was still the question of the 'secret project'. What were the three of them up to?

"H'rry 'n Sn'pe, what about'em?"

"I think they might be...together," she ventured.

"Huh." Draco's eyes slid shut again. "'Bout time they figured it out," he mumbled into the pillow, then snuggled back under the blanket. A few moments later, he began to snore.

About time they figured it out?!

Feeling rather disgruntled and left out of the loop, Hermione sat for a while, staring into the dark, testing out the idea of Harry and Snape together, strange though it seemed. They'd hated one another for years. Their antipathy was the stuff of legends. And now, lovers? It was completely and utterly inexplicable. Ron would pitch a fit! But then, Hermione thought, stroking her fingers across Draco's scruffy cheek, given that she was in bed with a magical supremacist and ex-Death Eater, she supposed that odder matches had, in fact, been made.

Some historians--especially critics of Potter's intellectual abilities and Snape's rather dodgy past--claim that the invention of the Uns was a fortuitous accident--most likely a Dark potion gone awry. Others point to the influence of Albus Dumbledore, speculating that he may have guided the two more junior wizards in their research.

Contrarians (and insiders) however note Dumbledore's infamously laissez faire approach to management, and point to Snape and Potter's impressive magical skills, their awareness of the urgency of the fight against the Dark, and the marriage of their other unique talents: Slytherin cunning and Gryffindor boldness and ingenuity.

The problem with research, Harry thought sourly, was that it took valuable time away from everything else. Sleep, in general, and sex, in particular.

Since Harry had gotten The Idea, Snape was all about Inquiry and Experimentation and not the tiniest bit about Sex. To be fair, their demanding teaching schedules, coupled with staff and Order responsibilities, and Dumbledore's increasingly unsubtle hints about Seeing Some Progress now that he'd found out about The Idea, was mostly to blame. But still. It was frustrating in the extreme to have finally gotten the man into bed, after years of fruitless lusting, only to have them both consistently fall asleep, exhausted, before the festivities could begin.

Exhaustion in the service of a good cause--battling evil, say, or shagging oneself silly--was all well and good. But falling asleep into a bowl of soup, dozing off mid-lecture, or stumbling into the Great Hall wearing his robes inside-out due to research-fatigue--all of which Harry had done in the past few weeks, to the amusement of his colleagues and students--was the absolute shits.

It didn't help that Severus was entirely in his element. Snape stalked around his dungeon office (Harry's cluttered cubby having been declared "woefully inconducive to the maintenance of a proper research attitude," not to mention "poorly stocked in the way of reference materials, and honestly, Potter, do you read anything besides Quidditch magazines?") in a theatrical swirl of robes and convoluted logic that left Harry alternately lusting and befuddled.

"Are you even listening to me, Potter?"

"Er."

"I thought as much." Snape paused mid-stalk and glared. "Need I remind you that this was your idea?"

"Um."

"That, thanks to your ill-considered babbling, Dumbledore now expects 'Great Things' from this little venture into insanity?"

As if Snape had held up any better during Albus' interrogation two weeks ago. As if either of them would fess up to snogging their brains out instead of dutifully serving the terms of their detention. Harry grumbled under his breath.

"You could at least pretend that you're interested in this line of inquiry. It does us no good to have successfully bottled my dulcet tones," he said, holding a vial of dark, glittering fluid aloft, "and yet have no way to unleash them." Snape turned on his heel and strode across the room.

Harry sighed and slumped further in his seat; therein lay the problem.

After countless hours in the library, he had eventually cobbled together a way to...harvest Snape's voice, for lack of a better word. He had tweaked a containment spell, lined its interior with runes, charmed it to react to both audible and inaudible frequencies and magical force vectors of Snape's voice, then bound it all into a chunk of pure rose quartz. The process involved far too much arithmancy for his taste but eventually, Harry had managed to fashion a rather ingenious audio trap. A handful of tuned crystals scattered around the bed and under the pillows while they made love, and--given Snape's vocal artistry during sex--voila! In that fashion, he'd collected more than enough raw essence for experimentation.

Severus hadn't been much pleased at the method of collection but, whatever.

The distillation process had been far tricker. Together, he and Severus had spent hours at the chalk board, in the lab, haunting the Restricted Section, pestering Flitwick, scribbling on, then wadding up sheets of paper, and shouting at one another while they tried to work that one out.

Once they'd succeeded, Snape had devised a potion into which the distilled essence of his voice could be infused and bound. It was quite a bit of genius, that, Harry had to admit. But now, three-quarters of the way to success, they were stuck. By itself, the essence seemed to do nothing, it merely seethed, darkly lovely, in its vial. When poured out, it briefly lay on the skin, scintillated a bit, then seeped into the pores, to no discernible effect.

"It's clear that the potion binds successfully with the magical centres in the body." Severus stabbed and accusatory finger at a scroll of experimental results as he paced. "But it's completely inert, when, theoretically, it should be seething with effects!"

He slapped the offending sheet with the back of his hand, then with a final disgusted snort, tossed the paper aside and strode back to the chalk board to reexamine the alchemical notations that described the potion matrix. "We need to activate it somehow, to control it," he muttered, tapping his chin. "We need to access these terms of the equation." Snape drew circles around five sets of runes on the board. "I don't suppose you have any suggestions, Potter?"

Harry blinked. "Wha--?"

"I thought as much."

"Hey!" he protested. "It's not like I ever claimed to be good at this. You're the research expert here. Exactly what do you expect me to do?"

Snape paused and glared down at him. "Make something up! That's what you usually do, isn't it?" He turned and swept back across the room.

Back and forth. Six long strides to left, a snappy turn on the heel, and six steps back to the right. Snape crossed the room half a dozen times, pausing every now and then to scowl at the chalk board, rifle through their notes, or jot down cryptic notations in his lab book. Meanwhile, Harry rubbed his temples, stifled several yawns, and struggled--unsuccessfully--not to think about sex.

Severus had had that effect on him for years.

Harry had always liked girls just fine. And after weathering an awkward and distressingly celibate fifth year, the girls had eventually returned the favor. Tall, short, skinny, plump, Harry honestly didn't have much of a preference, so long as they genuinely liked him for him, and they could make him laugh; laughter having been in short supply most of his life.

It had taken him a while longer to clue in about guys. It hadn't been something he'd been expecting and besides, for a while, it seemed that girls were everywhere!

But then, one spring morning, Severus--clad as per usual, in high collared black robe, with white shirt cuffs peeking out beneath its long sleeves--had swept into their seventh year Advanced Potions class radiating menace and dark power. In the dusty light, from the window high up in the wall, Snape's normally sallow skin became luminous, his hair was glossy, not greasy. All Harry could do was to stare, helplessly, and wonder what those broad shoulders might feel like under his hands, what those long, supple limbs might feel like wrapped around his, what Snape's velvet voice might sound like roughened by passion.

In that moment, Harry had seen the light: his appreciation for male beauty had tipped the scale from abstract to undeniably carnal.

From then on, 'til the end of the year and beyond, lean, well-defined muscles and lightly stubbled chins had taken their erotic place beside soft, curvy hips and breasts. Suddenly, good-looking men seemed to be everywhere!

And more to the point, one man in particular, Severus Snape, who had only to flick his wand or stroke the pages of his book or curse Harry's name just so, and Harry would be saying a silent prayer of thanks for loose wizarding robes or oversized jumpers.

He'd been like a puppet on a string with Snape as the puppet master.

Puppet. String.

Stunned, Harry sat up straight knocking a stack of notes to the floor.

Snape whirled on him. "Harry? What is it?"

Harry's mouth was suddenly dry. "I don't know," he said slowly, trying to organize the images swirling in his mind. Predominant amongst them was a flash of Dudley playing games on his computer, joystick in hand. "I think I just got another idea."

"Merlin preserve us," Snape muttered, then went to get his notebook and a quill.

It is unusual for a magical innovation to move immediately from theory, to laboratory, to field use without a lengthy and well-documented trial phase (see MLE: Regulations Concerning Field Trials of Magical Innovations, Section 493.19.4:18:1127), but again, the Uns proved to be an exception.

Snape and Potter had barely penned Vox to parchment before Dumbledore had deftly circumvented Ministry regulations (Brilliant Moments in the Eternal Battle Against Excessive Bureaucracy: Vol 11, p. 39-60) and approved its use by selected senior field operatives.

All was quiet in Harry's classroom that morning as he administered a rare essay exam to his fourth year Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws. He'd handed out the tests a half-hour ago, and the students were well along, their quills scratching against their papers.

Suddenly, Harry heard rapid foot steps in the hallway. The feet stopped in front of his door, there was a shouted Alohomora, a bright flash, then the door burst inward and thudded to the floor with a great bang and a shower of glass.

"Professor Potter, I'd like a word!"

Framed in the empty doorway, hovering like a vengeful sex god, er banshee, loomed a fetchingly disheveled Severus Snape. His hair was tangled, his lips were bruised, and one sleeve of his robe and shirt was nearly torn off, exposing a large portion of creamy skin.

Harry wanted to bend him over the desk, jerk down Snape's trousers, and take him, right then and there, students be damned.

"Um, everyone," Harry said, standing up and swallowing hard. "Please gather up your things and leave your tests with me. We'll continue this exam, uh, next week. How's that?"

The wide-eyed, motionless, and openly lustful students divided their attention between Harry and Snape.

"Now, you miserable brats!" Snape shouted.

Nearly as one, the student body leapt to its feet. They hastily gathered their papers and books, pushed past Snape, and fled the classroom, but not without one or two wistful gazes over their shoulders.

When the hallway was finally clear, Harry turned to his lover with no little concern.

"Severus? Is everything, uh, okay?"

"Okay?" Snape said darkly, eyes narrowed. "Is everything okay?" He stalked towards Harry. Harry took an involuntary step backwards. "What the bloody hell did you do with that charm?"

"Uh..."

"Black humped my leg in the staff-room, Hooch felt me up behind the broom shed, Minerva and Flitwick double-teamed me in my classroom, and," here Snape paused with a slightly wild-eyed expression, "Albus pinched my bum!"

"Oh, um," Harry said, struggling to hide a grin behind one hand, and his raging hard on behind the desk. "I guess the spell interface could use a bit of an adjustment, eh?"

"A bit?!"

When Dumbledore first deployed Vox, he chose a two-pronged approach: it was used in intelligence-gathering operations, specifically to coax information from reluctant sources, and it also facilitated the infiltration of operatives into previously inaccessible MOD organizations. Shortly thereafter, Ministry officials also obtained samples of Vox.

"Well excuse me if I find it difficult to believe that Potter has invented something that will revolutionize the magical defense sciences."

Hermione frowned. "Harry's not stupid."

"No," Draco agreed. He glanced down at his watch, then quickened his pace down the hall. "He's just not all that smart either."

"He wiped the floor with you in Defense Against the Dark Arts!"

"Yes, and I kicked his arse all over Hogwarts in every other subject," he said with a cool smirk. "What do you want to bet that it was all Severus' idea, and Potter was just along for the...ride." He waggled his eye brows suggestively.

Her temper finally snapped. "You can be such a prat, Malfoy! He was fifth in our class."

"Frooze-pop." Draco gave the password to the gargoyle at the base of the stairs, then rolled his eyes at her. "Oh, please. The only reason he scored that high was because you practically chained him and Weasley to a desk in the library and shoved books down their throats. Otherwise, they'd both have been scraping the bottom of the cauldron with Longbottom."

Hermione, who had been first in their class, forbore to mention that she had kicked Draco's second place academic arse all over the school as well. Instead, she went for the jugular. "You're just jealous."

"Jealous? Of Potter? Ha! That'll be the day."

"Yes, jealous. Because he's beaten you in everything that you think matters. Because he's famous, and played pro Quidditch. Because he's publicly recognized for his work, rather than being the Ministry's best kept dirty little secret."

"Right, of course!" Draco smacked his forehead dramatically. "I'm jealous of a lucky freak with an ugly scar. Who barely squeaked through university on the skin of his teeth. Who played for a piss-poor excuse for a team--the Chudley Cannons? Spare me!--who now teaches introductory hexes to a bunch of ignorant brats. You know what they say: Those who can, do, those who can't teach," he ranted on, conveniently ignoring the fact that Harry had not only killed Voldemort, but had also led the Cannons to their only winning seasons in over a century. "Oh, and let's not forget that wonder boy also gets pronged in his spare time by my godfather. Jealous? Why yes, exactly. That's me. Draco Jealous Malfoy."

Hermione glared. "You know, Draco," she said, stamping up the winding staircase to Dumbledore's office. "Sometimes, I have no idea what I see in you!"

Draco said nothing. He merely flicked his long, pink, glistening, flexible tongue in her direction.

Hermione tossed her head; the man was infuriating when he was right!

At the top of the stairs, she rapped politely on the door then pushed into the office. There was a loud thunk and a muffled curse as the door caught on something and stuck. She squeezed through the narrow opening and was presented with a rather fascinating tableau.

Snuffles had a narrow-eyed and disheveled Snape pinned up against one wall. He was standing on his hind legs, front paws against Snape's shoulders, barking, growling, and snapping at the man's prominent nose. Snape, in turn, had both hands buried in Snuffles' shaggy ruff and was trying his best to choke him senseless. Harry was shouting and he and Lupin were struggling to pull them apart.

For his part, Ron was sprawled on the floor directly in front of the door--which would account for the thunk--in an apparent dead faint. Minerva crouched at his side, patting his hand and cheek and--cooing? Had everyone's hormones gone wonky? She loved Ron and respected McGonagall tremendously, but...eww.

And amid the chaos and cacophony, Dumbledore sat at his desk serenely drinking a cup of tea.

"Lemon drop?" he offered, holding out a tin, as she and Draco stepped over Ron and into the room.

Faced with pressure from national Muggle law enforcement agencies to contain the Entrepreneurs, and having been forbidden the use of Cruciatus, and constrained by international magical accord in their ability to employ Veritaserum, some of these individuals began testing Vox to interrogate prisoners. They experienced resounding success.

"Well, now that's been sorted out. Shall we begin our meeting?" Dumbledore sheathed his wand, flicked his sleeves free of hex-residue, then took his seat at the head of the table.

A scratched and bruised Sirius was tied to his chair with unbreakable spell ropes. Severus, similarly ruffled and bound, glared at him from the opposite side of the table. Harry sat beside Snape, looking worried and torn between comforting one versus the other. Hermione, Draco, and Remus, filled in the spaces between them. Draco kept scowling at Harry and giving Snape a thumbs up, Remus shot Sirius meaningful looks, and a very pale and stunned Ron Weasley sat near the end of the table while Minerva patted his knee.

So Harry and Severus had gone public. Hermione rolled her eyes and took out a quill and some paper for notes. Sirius' reaction was no big surprise, but honestly, she'd thought that Ron was made of sterner stuff. Especially given his recent coziness with Minerva. And what was it, Hermione wondered, about herself and her friends? Malfoy, Snape, and now McGonagall. Couldn't any of the three of them fall for someone, well...normal?

Albus cleared his throat and called the meeting to order. "I asked you each here tonight to share with you an astounding new invention created by Harry and Severus. An invention that I believe has the potential to turn the tide of our current battle against the Dark."

Hermione felt a thrill of excitement. This must be the secret project they'd been working on! Beside her, Draco raised one silver brow.

"You are wise to be skeptical, Draco," Albus said, with a twinkle in his eye. "I was as well, at first. In fact, when I first set Harry and Severus to this task, I must confess that I had high hopes, but rather low expectations for useful results." Here, he paused and leveled a glare at Harry and Snape. "However, after receiving a...practical demonstration the other day, I am now quite thoroughly convinced. I believe that you will be, too."

"My friends," he said, placing a vial of an iridescent black liquid on the table. It seethed and roiled a bit behind the glass. "May I present to you...Vox."

Intrigued by these successes, medi-witches and -wizards at St. Mungo's began dousing therapists with Vox to more effectively treat patients with addictions and the magically disadvantaged (see Use of Sentiosymbiotics to Augment and Facilitate Spell-Casting in Magically Disadvantaged Populations, Journal of Magical Medicine, Autumn 2010, also Kwick-Spell No More! and Once A Squib: How Vox Changed My Life).

Three hours of lecture and discussion later, Snape and Sirius had been freed and were coexisting in relative peace, with only the occasional snarl, growl, or acerbic comment exchanged, Ron had regained his color and his usual sangfroid, and everyone around the table was thoroughly convinced, indeed. Even Draco, though he persisted in the fiction that Vox was all Snape's idea.

For her part, Hermione perused Harry and Severus' preliminary report and its accompanying stack of research notes with conflicting emotions. On one hand, her brain was sizzling with excitement. Vox was brilliant, diabolically clever! Just imagine: pseudo-sentience, adaptability, subliminally, it was unprecedented! She was a witness to the birth of brand new magical form, and she was itching to see what it might do in a series of controlled trials. On the other hand, she was rather peeved. With the advent of Vox, she and Draco, and their line of research at the Ministry had been rather conclusively upstaged. Given the intermittent twitch beneath Draco's eye, it seemed that he also shared her pique.

Sirius and Remus, two of the Order coordinators of covert operations, seemed eager about possibilities for field deployment, and Ron, as a representative of the MLE, was intrigued by the law enforcement implications of Vox, especially given the new restrictions on the use of Veritaserum. Minerva, however, was far less sanguine.

"Albus," she said urgently. "Vox is quite an interesting discovery, I grant you. However, I have some grave concerns regarding its ethical implications. If this assessment is accurate," she indicated the sheet of conclusions at the end of the report, "then Vox may well be more morally questionable than the Imperius Curse." She shot Snape a pointed look.

Snape sneered back. "If you've an accusation to make, make it, and quit beating about the bush."

"It's not an accusation, Severus. Merely a rather obvious statement of moral fact."

Snape and Draco scowled, Sirius sneered, and both Lupin and Harry seemed about to protest, but Albus held up his hand staving off the incipient revolt. "Issues of ethics aside--and I agree, Minerva, there is some cause for concern--given recent events, I believe that extraordinary measures are needed for extraordinary situations."

Lupin looked suspicious. "Exactly what sort of extraordinary situations?"

Dumbledore sighed. "Although we've long been expecting it, earlier this afternoon, it was made official. Several Muggle governments have issued the Ministry an ultimatum: we must neutralize the Merchants of Darkness, or they will attempt to do so on their own. I doubt I need to impress upon you all how disastrous that could be."

A moment of collective, stunned silence followed his pronouncement. As Dumbledore said, the news wasn't entirely unexpected, but they all had hoped there would be more time.

Minerva spoke up first, "But Albus, even so, surely you can't be suggesting that we forego--"

"Testing," Hermione cut in, completing her thought. "We need extensive and controlled testing to determine the scope of Vox's practical uses as well as its moral implications. We can't dispense with that!"

"Testing indeed, Miss Granger," Snape snarled at her. "To which end I included an experimental test plan in the appendices of the report." The additional words, You oblivious twit, hung in the air, implied but unspoken.

Hermione gritted her teeth. No matter how old she got, Snape had the ability to make her feel like she was eleven years old again. What on earth did Harry see in the obnoxious, infuriating, admittedly slightly-less-greasy-than-usual prat?

"And a very thorough plan it is, Severus," Dumbledore said, in an apparent and obviously wasted effort to soothe Snape's ruffled feathers. "An excellent strategy," he paused and looked over the rims of his glasses, "had we the time to implement it. Unfortunately, we do not." He turned and gazed at Harry consideringly. "For that reason, I suggest that we arrange for a field test immediately."

"Wait a minute." Sirius leaned forward in his seat and frowned at Dumbledore. "Not that I doubt the effectiveness of Harry's creation." He smiled thinly when Snape shot him a death-glare. "But, taking an untried magical..." he fished around for a word, "thing like this into the field could be, well, asking for trouble."

"Like that's ever stopped Potter before," Draco muttered.

Dumbledore ignored the interruption. "While I understand your concern, Sirius, I'm sure it's nothing that Harry...and Severus can't handle."

Snape spoke up quickly. "Oh no, Albus," he said, shaking his head emphatically. "Absolutely not. I refuse. Not again. Not another mission with Potter." Beside him, rather than be dismayed by Snape's apparent disloyalty, Harry actually grinned instead. Oddly enough, so did McGonagall.

Dumbledore quelled Snape with a look, then divided his attention between Sirius and Remus. "Gentlemen, I will need you both to submit a mission outline to me by tomorrow evening. Confer with Severus, if need be. I suggest that you choose a difficult, though not excessively dangerous target. Perhaps something that might help us recoup the intelligence losses we sustained when Harry tested the charm-grenades on Narcissa's warehouse."

With those words, Harry blushed and Snape's expression hovered oddly between annoyance, worry, and dark satisfaction. Under the table, Hermione briefly squeezed Draco's hand in silent support at the mention of his mother's criminal activities.

"But what about the MLE?" Ron wanted to know. "I mean, a field test is all well and good, but we could really use this new...thing to interrogate some political prisoners. We could get more useful intelligence that way, with less risk."

Draco curled his lip. "And to think McGonagall was just lecturing Severus about ethics abuses. Good to know that stalwart MLE employees, like Weasley here, are ever so concerned with due process and protecting our civil rights."

Hermione sighed. The two men were a volatile mix under the best circumstances, even more-so than Draco and Harry. Things had become downright hostile when she and Draco had started dating. Harry, at least, could agree that Draco had quite a fine bum. Ron had yet to say anything positive about him at all, unless, "he's awfully...blond" could be said to count.

"Shut up, Malfoy. If it weren't for her testimony, you'd've been snogging a Dementor the day after you graduated."

"Ronald Weasley!" Minerva snapped and Ron subsided, looking slightly abashed. Sirius, on the other hand, snickered a bit and said, "Go Ron!" not quite under his breath.

Hermione winced on Draco's behalf. How could any of them have guessed that, upon being forced to receive the Dark Mark, torn between conflicting loyalties and unsure of Snape's true allegiance, Draco would have sought out--and received--Minerva's protection.

Unfazed, Draco leaned back in his seat with a cool smile. "My morals, or lack thereof, aren't at issue here, Weasley. I'm not the one proposing to violate the terms of the International Wizarding Treaty of 1947, in regards to the ethical treatment of political prisoners."

"Funny coincidence that you should know that particular law so well, isn't it, Malfoy?"

A few more increasingly hostile comments later and Harry had leapt into the fray, Lupin was struggling to be a neutral peacemaker, and the fragile balance of the meeting had degenerated into the usual circus of sniping, table thumping, finger pointing, and some rather creative curses. Minerva and Dumbledore's shouts of: "Gentlemen!" and "Boys!" had no effect on the rising din.

Bored and nearly choking on the cloud of testosterone in the room, Hermione ignored the raging argument and watched Severus watch Harry instead. Snape sat, arms crossed, uncharacteristically silent, wearing a very slight smile. Harry was standing, leaning over the table and yelling. His hair was its usual mess, his face was slightly pink from shouting, and the muscles in his shoulders bunched and stretched against the fabric of his tight t-shirt as he shook his finger at both Draco and Ron. He looked altogether edible.

Snape apparently agreed. He was all but undressing Harry with his eyes. When he noticed her attention, he turned, their eyes met and held, and Snape actually grinned.

And then, as if that hadn't been shocking enough, he winked at her.

Although there were no few bumps along the way, once Potter and Snape adjusted the formulation of the enchantment, Vox proved very effective indeed.

The hour was late as Snape made his way from his quarters to the Staff Room for a relaxing cup of tea before his midnight rendezvous with Harry. Thankfully, the halls were empty and dark. Any other night, he might have welcomed the chance to scare the piss out of a few roaming scofflaws. But in less than an hour, he and Harry would begin their ill-advised field test of Vox. He had enough on his mind without cluttering it further with a disruptive, albeit satisfying, student-teacher exchange.

The door was ajar but the room was dark. Lost in thought, Snape foolishly muttered, "Lumos," as he entered. And stopped abruptly, gasping, his eyeballs scorched as much by the sudden light as by the activities of the room's occupants. Two large tabby cats who seemed to be...oh, for Merlin's sake!

"Minerva, you bare-faced hypocrite!"

Snape passed a hand over his watering eyes and by the time his vision was clear, the two amorous felines had reconstituted themselves into a pink-cheeked, red-eared, flame-haired Weasley and one tight-lipped Deputy Headmistress.

"Get your mind out of the gutter, Severus," McGonagall said primly. And not all that convincingly given that the top buttons of her robe were undone and her hair was loose from its usual bun. "I was merely wishing Ron good luck. For the mission this evening."

"Is that what they're calling it these days?" Snape muttered, then turned away to fill the tea kettle and set it to boil. Who knew that Weasley had such discerning tastes? Minerva had been quite the...hellion in her youth. As well as in middle-age, apparently. Snape stifled a snicker.

"Excuse me? I am at least vertical, Professor Snape, as well as clothed. In something other than a tea cosy that is."

Minerva was spared his scathing reply by the arrival of Hogwarts' resident mutt. Acting Assistant Quidditch Coach, rather.

Snape took some cups from the cupboard and set out milk and sugar. "Felines and now canines," he said. "The staff room is a veritable pet shop tonight. Too bad it's not the full moon. We could round out the menagerie with a large, slavering wolf. Always a crowd pleaser."

The dog shimmered and Sirius Black took its place. "Shut up, Snape. You child molester."

"I'll thank you to refrain from making offensive comments about our esteemed Deputy Headmistress. Ronald Weasley is, in fact, of age."

"Hey!" Weasley had apparently found his tongue. McGonagall, her hands occupied with rewinding her bun and her mouth bristling with hair pins, merely gifted Snape with a silent, but potent, glare.

"Well, well," Dumbledore said, as he entered the room, followed by Harry, Lupin, and Sibyll Trelawney, of all people. "Given your spirited banter, I assume that you are all looking forward to this evening's mission?"

About as much as a long, relaxing Cruciatus, Snape thought. He fussed with the tea service to cover his slow perusal of the bulge in Harry's tight leather trousers. Damn, but the man was hung.

"I see darkness," Trelawney blurted into the collective pause. "A foul stench, slippery corruption. Evil rides the wind tonight in the shape of a pale man. Beware the shadows! Beware!"

"Yes, yes. Thank you, Sibyll," Dumbledore broke in hastily. "Thank you very much for that insight. Now, Harry and Severus assure me that the improvements to Vox are working as expected, so I'm sure we can expect great things tonight."

Harry grinned but Snape rolled his eyes. Talk about an exaggeration. Vox was nowhere near ready for uncontrolled field testing. They had a lofty sample size of twenty experimental subjects, if one counted most of the faculty and Harry's class of fourth-year Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws. Snape tended not to count Black, just on general principles. Muggle government threats aside, Albus should know better than to attempt to circumvent proper magical testing procedure.

Undeterred by the mixed reactions round the room, Dumbledore made a great show of checking his watch. "So, gentlemen," he said brightly, looking at Snape, Harry, and Weasley in turn. "It's time. Midnight, on the dot. Places everyone!"

"Hope you took an antihistamine, you perverted prick," Black said a moment later, then dumped a transformed, tabby Weasley into his arms.

The tea kettle whistled in the background as Harry led the way into the corridor. So much for tea and relaxation.

Minerva stopped him on his way out the door. "Make sure you bring him back in one piece," she warned, scratching behind Weasley's ears.

Weasley immediately began to purr and Snape gritted his teeth. "But of course, Minerva," he agreed, fighting the urge to squeeze the orange fur ball in question until it squeaked. "Merlin forbid anything happen to your furry little boy-toy," he added under his breath. Weasley's ears immediately went flat, he hissed, then went so far as to take a swipe at Snape's nose with one paw.

"Watch it, Weasley," Snape muttered. "Or I'll see to it that you choke on your next hair ball."

With a snort, he tucked the cat firmly under his arm, settled his cloak about his shoulders and strode down the hall and out into the night. As he crossed the lawn, heading for the apparation point, his morose thoughts inevitably turned to gold cobbled streets, to hairy apes, and to tiny, hissing green snakes. Snape sighed. He didn't need Trelawney's bogus predictions to know that they were walking into their doom.

After perfecting Vox, they moved on to explore the other four senses. Visum and Contactus (both Snape-derived essences) were next, followed by Vapore, and finally Gusto, the two Potter-derived essences. Later, Potter and Snape generalised the structure of the hybrid to support non-sensory ineffable essences as well.

Snape inhaled deeply and was rewarded with a powerful--and unpleasant--wave of deja vu.

Dressed entirely in black, blending seamlessly with his surroundings, he was crouched in an alley, beside an overly full rubbish bin across from one of Lucius Malfoy's warehouses. He was also struggling not to sneeze. To his great misfortune, he hadn't taken the antihistamine that Black suggested, and Weasley's fur, spread liberally over the front of his robe (again, thanks to Black), was clogging his sinuses and making his nose itch.

Damned furry mammals. Give him something cold-blooded with scales or slime any day!

Thirty minutes ago, Harry had entered the warehouse on yet another allegedly simple, straightforward mission devised by Black and Lupin.

Rumor had it that the Malfoys had several drug laboratories hidden in the vicinity and their task was to locate them and report back. Of particular interest to Weasley was the possibility of locating an operational O! lab, the current bane of magical law enforcement and scourge of wizarding society. Business productivity was down sharply due to days lost to recreational drug use, crime was up, and St. Mungo's addiction program was bursting at the seams. Dumbledore had already expelled three students this year for selling or using O! on school premises.

O! was the brain child of Narcissa, who was quite a talented Potion Maker in her own right. In fact, she'd been second behind Snape in their class. The two of them had got on quite well. Too bad that the Snape family was distinguished, but rather impoverished. And too bad that, rather than allow her to attend university, Narcissa's parents had immediately married her off to Lucius Malfoy, a much older, wealthy and well-respected man, who'd already buried two wives by then. Young wives who'd both, coincidentally, proved to be barren and who had later died of 'natural' causes.

Snape knew better, on both counts. He was well-versed in the symptoms of poisoning after all. He'd also crafted the potion--at Narcissa's frantic, albeit discreet request--that had convinced Lucius' lazy sperm to finally get on with it.

Snape shook his head and forced his attention back to the present. That was decades ago. He and Narcissa had both made their choices, he had (inexplicably) a young, sexy lover now, and inattention could be deadly in the field.

The shadows seemed to grow darker and more foreboding as time stretched out and Harry failed to appear. Suddenly, the lights flared on inside.

Unfortunately, the door didn't bang open a moment later and Potter didn't run headlong down the stairs. Snape's stomach dropped to his toes. Damnation! "Weasley," he hissed under his breath. "Get out of here!"

In the next instant, a bolt of light from behind Snape's left shoulder caught Weasley mid-leap. Snape felt something cold and hard pressed behind his right ear. He froze.

"So," said a familiar, rather dim-witted voice in his ear. "What have we here? A nosy little weasel and a perfidious snake. Lucius will be so amused."

"Crabbe." The elder. A large, stodgy moron who unfortunately was silent on his feet and quick with a wand. Even so, the hour was late, Snape was annoyed, Merlin-knew-what had happened to Harry inside the warehouse, and he simply couldn't resist. "Been making free with a few dictionary spells lately?"

"Shut up, Snape. You two-faced, back-stabbing prick. Drop your wand and put your hands where I can see them." He punctuated his comments with several painful jabs of his wand.

"Ah, now that's the vocabulary challenged idiot I've come to know and love over the years." Snape let his primary wand slip to the ground, then slowly raised his hands. A tall, heavy-set man stalked over, snatched up the fallen wand then poked at Weasley's limp body with his foot. "And if it isn't Crabbe The Younger, too," Snape said with a sneer. "Clinging to daddy's coat-tails as per usual, I see. Not that you're qualified to do much else, given that you flunked out of school in your fifth year."

That got a response. "Fuck you, you greasy git! I wouldn't have flunked out if you'd have given me a pass in Potions."

And Transfiguration, and Care of Magical Creatures, and Astronomy, and Divination (how stupid did one have to be to fail Divination?), ad nauseam. Ah, the wonders of a selective memory.

"Despite my many talents, Mr. Crabbe, I am not a fiction writer."

"Fuck you!"

"You're repeating yourself." Snape barely had time to append a sneer when a large hand wrapped itself around the back of his neck, the fingers pressing just over his carotid artery, and began to squeeze. He'd always known that his sarcasm would get him into trouble eventually.

"Just give me an excuse, Snape. I'd love to snap your spindly little neck."

"Oh, please. Spare us both the bad melodrama," he gasped out, ignoring the weakness in his knees and the spots dancing before his eyes. "Lucius would have your balls on toast if you killed me before he got his chance."

"Perhaps," Crabbe conceded. "But I don't think he'd blame me for an accidental Max-Cruciatus, now would he?"

Snape had one moment to brace himself before the enhanced curse hit, snuck through his charmed armor, and excruciating pain flared through every nerve.

He came to, face up, throat raw from screaming, and lying in a stinking puddle of muck. At least Trelawney had got that part right. When the world finally stopped spinning and Snape no longer felt like retching up his boot soles, he realized that the alley was crowed with several other familiar faces, in addition to Crabbe and Company.

Far too many to hex all at once, even if he were fully lucid and could get to his second wand. Damn!

"Severus Snape, Ronald Weasley, and Harry Potter. All in one night." Goyle Senior stepped out of the crowd and kicked Snape in the ribs. "Lucius will be so pleased." Snape didn't bother to scream this time; he didn't want to puncture a lung. No witty rejoinders came to mind either, it was all he could do to stay conscious and breathe.

"On your feet, Snape," a dark-haired woman said, probably a LeStrange, given the coloring, the accent, and the bucked teeth.

He was hauled painfully to his feet, then shoved in the direction of the warehouse. The idiotic horde of them laughed when, unsurprisingly, his legs gave out and he went sprawling.

"Come along, Professor. Now's not the time for a nap." Someone dragged him up by the arms again and this time they held him upright.

"You too, Weasel. Wakey, wakey!" Crabbe the younger said, then with a grin, hefted Weasley by his tail and took great care to bang him against the wall a few times.

Snape winced sympathetically, then staggered along with his captors, across the street, up the stairs, and into the warehouse.

Even assuming he lived long enough to report back to Dumbledore, he suspected that Minerva or Sirius would remedy that condition just as soon as they could.

Of the five Uns, Vox is most credited with altering the course of the War. Although it was first used for espionage and interrogation, wizards quickly discovered a more direct use for it. With Vox, a wizard could infuse more traditional combat spells with a strong element of compulsion, thereby rendering their opponents more likely to yield with a minimum of fuss.

Some days, it didn't pay to get out of bed.

Tonight, after hundreds of missions and more than a decade, their luck had finally run out. Damn Lucius Malfoy, his Dark Arts research department, and his modified, ultra-sensitive Sneakscopes to the hottest corner of hell.

Harry was bound and gagged, tied hand and foot to a straight-backed metal chair in an empty office just off the warehouse proper. The left side of his face throbbed, the back of his head ached, his eyes watered from the harsh light of the bare bulb overhead, and his ribs complained with every breath; Malfoy's Muggle security goons had not been gentle. He also rather desperately needed to piss.

That would teach him to get suckered in to tea with the Headmaster in his office right before a mission.

A short while later, two of his ex-classmates, Vin Crabbe and Greg Goyle, lugged Severus' and Ron's limp bodies into the room and deposited them on the floor near the wall. They took great delight in tormenting Harry for a while, smacking him on the back of the head, deactivating his charmed body armour, smashing his glasses, and generally grinning like the maniacal idiots that they were. Eventually, they tired of their game and left Harry to squint nearsightedly at his friends.

Severus was battered, covered in muck, and like him, bound and gagged. Given the vague shimmer around Ron, Harry suspected him to be magically bound into cat-form. Both of them seemed to be breathing, though deeply unconscious, and Harry was growing frantic from worry. And from the need to piss.

Despite its mundane appearance, the gag was imbued with enough magic to completely muffle his enraged shouts...not to mention any effect that Vox might have. Even more annoying was the fact that his attempt to scuff-hop his chair across the room to get closer to his friends had the sole, unfortunate, effect of tipping the chair onto its side with a loud bang, not to mention a perilous jarring of his bladder.

Bloody hell!

As if on cue, the metal blinds over the window on the door rattled and Lucius Malfoy, cool, collected, and insufferably smug in an expensive suit, stepped into the room. He had several wands poking out from his breast pocket and his long, white hair and pale skin shone in the glare of the overhead electric light. At least Trelawney had got that part right.

Two anonymous muscle-bound hulks trailed behind him, followed by, surprisingly enough, a perfectly coifed and immaculately dressed Narcissa Malfoy. Narcissa had become a bit of a recluse after Draco's defection, although it certainly seemed that she'd discovered the wonders of home shopping.

"Well, well," Lucius said, leaning on his serpent-headed cane. "Potter, Snape, and Weasley. Delivered, as good as gift-wrapped, directly to my doorstep. How convenient."

"And what shall I do with this surfeit of riches?" Malfoy continued, circling Harry's downed chair. Harry had the absurd desire to bite Malfoy on the ankle as he passed by; pity about the gag. "What do you think, Narcissa? They've all been trained to resist the Imperius Curse, but there are other amusing things we can try. What about a nice Max-Cruciatus, for instance?"

Harry nearly swallowed his tongue. Neither his bladder, nor his dignity would survive a Cruciatus.

"Lucius, dear," Narcissa said, wandering over to Severus and pressing her fingers against the pulse point in this throat. Apparently satisfied, she swept the tangled hair away from his face with a curiously tender motion. "Why don't we revive them and question them instead? Perhaps with a dose of Veritaserum. As you say, they're trained to resist torture, and hexing can be so very...messy."

You don't know the half of it, Harry thought.

Severus' second wand had been confiscated and he was in no condition to help fight their way out. If they kept Ron bound as a cat, his offensive abilities would be limited. But, when they ungagged Harry to administer the Veritaserum, there just might be a very small window within which to activate Vox.

Lucius appeared to consider it. "We did just have the floors cleaned," he said after a pause. Then, with a wave of his wand, he righted Harry's chair and roused Severus. Snape struggled to sit upright, obviously in pain.

Narcissa conjured a wire cage, dumped Ron's limp body into it, then Enverated him. "Nice kitty," she said, then smiled placidly when Ron hissed and swiped at her through the bars.

"Whom shall I interrogate first?" Lucius mused. "What about you, dear Severus? Any words of wisdom to share with the group?" He waved his wand and the gag disappeared from Severus' mouth in a flash of light.

"Oh, go to hell, Lucius," Severus ground out. His voice sounded raw and scratchy. Harry's eyes narrowed and his blood pressure rose; he recognized that post-Cruciatus hoarseness.

Lucius smiled. "What language! Where's that charming, cultured, silken tongued viper I knew all those years ago?" He stepped over the cat cage and chucked Severus under the chin with the head of his cane. "I'd say that Potter here, and his Mudblood associates, have been a corrupting influence."

Severus merely sneered. "You, on the other hand, haven't changed a bit. You're still an overdressed, pompous imbecile with delusions of adequacy."

Lucius growled and raised his cane, but to Harry's surprise, Narcissa swiftly stepped between them. "Now, now, dear," she said. "He's just trying to provoke you. You know how he is."

"Yes, I know," Lucius said, frowning. "Only too well. Regardless..." Malfoy mused briefly, dangling his wand between two fingers, and then whatever Severus' plans, they came to naught when Malfoy flicked the wand and the gag was back over his mouth. "Enough of that. What about Special Agent Weasley here? Our intrepid law enforcement...pussy. Perhaps he'll be a bit more entertaining." Lucius lifted the cage and shook it hard a few times. Harry winced at the yowls and thumps that ensued. "Indeed," the pale man drawled. "That was vastly amusing. Don't you agree, Narcissa?"

"If you say so, dear." Narcissa plucked the cage away from her husband and held it just beyond Ron's enraged paw and claw length. "Although I don't think the pretty kitty enjoyed it quite as much as you did." She handed the cage off to Goon Number One then sashayed over to Harry's chair. "Personally, I'd rather speak with Harry Potter," she said, stroking one painted nail over the bruise on his cheek.

"Speak to Potter?" Lucius said with disbelief. "Whatever for? I thought I'd spare us both the irritation and just kill the nuisance outright."

"Honestly, Lucius," Narcissa said languidly, with an artful touch of exasperation. "We owe the boy a debt of gratitude."

Harry blinked in shock. Lucius looked outraged. "Gratitude? For what?" he demanded.

"For getting rid of Old Snakey, of course."

Old Snakey! Harry nearly choked. Narcissa, seemingly pleased, smiled at him then leaned in and kissed his cheek. Up close, her breath carried a strange, sweet odor and when she pulled away, he could see that her eyes were dreamy and vague. Had she been dipping into her own potions?

"Hm. I suppose you have a point," Lucius agreed reluctantly. Malfoy stalked over to Harry's chair and leaned close. "Our most sincere thanks, Harry Potter," he said, with an ironic quirk to his brow, "for ridding us of that frothing, scaly lunatic and clearing the way for far more profitable forms of oppression." Then he grinned, drew back his cane, and jabbed Harry in the stomach.

Harry gulped, tried to think dry thoughts, and desperately wished that he could cross his legs.

Lucius jabbed him a few more times for good measure while Harry squirmed in his chair. Narcissa tut-tutted and stroked Harry's hair. "Oh, Lucius. Don't hurt the poor boy too badly. I want him to tell us about Draco."

"Draco." Lucius paused in his abuse and glowered at his wife.

"Yes, dear. Draco. Your son."

"Son. Indelible stain on the otherwise pristine Malfoy name is more like it."

Narcissa was unfazed. "Now, now. Family is still family. Don't you agree, Harry?"

Had the woman lost her mind? Harry was long past caring about Malfoy family values. The mission had gone tits up. He and his partners had been hexed and beaten bloody. Lucius Malfoy was an annoying, smug prick. Narcissa was a ditz. And most importantly, Harry really had to take a piss!

Malfoy sighed and stepped back. "Fine," he said, clearly at the end of his patience. "Ungag him and let's get on with it."

"Very well." Narcissa turned to Harry, winked--winked?!--then raised her wand.

Harry had no time to consider Narcissa's odd behavior: this could be his chance! He took a deep breath and dove inward with his senses, down into the vast well of his magic. There, amidst the blue-green swirl and sparkle, he sought out and reached for the bright strands of the Vox spell-interface that twined lazily round his spine.

The interface was nothing like he'd imagined it would be. He'd vaguely hoped for something...wieldly, like a button or a switch. Severus had laughed a good ten minutes over his "appalling Muggle naivete." No buttons, no switches, not even a joy stick. No such luck. Instead, he'd ended up with a fistful of red and gold linguine bristling from his spine.

Narcissa whispered a spell and when the gag disappeared, Harry grabbed a waving strand at random and hoped for the best. "Let me go!" he shouted hoarsely, channelling the force of his command down his spinal column and out through the nearest gold-red strand of the interface.

Narcissa blinked. Lucius sneered. The two hulks by the door smirked. The skin over his entire body tingled and out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Severus struggling in his bonds and frowning. Apart from that, nothing else happened.

Uh oh.

"Let you go? Oh, I think not, Mr. Potter," Malfoy said, stepping close and tilting Harry's chin up with the end of his cane.

Harry gritted his teeth and decided that, when he finally got loose, the second item on his to-do list would be to break that goddamn cane over Malfoy's bloody head!

"I won't let any of you go," Lucius continued. "Not after the irritation that you, especially you, Potter, have caused me over the years." Malfoy's icy gray eyes narrowed. "Starting with the theft of my house elf."

Given that Harry was still immersed in the pool of his intrinsic magic, searching ever more frantically for the control strand, it took a moment for Lucius' words to sink in. "Are you still pissed about that?" he asked with disbelief. "Get some therapy, Malfoy, and get over it."

Which was precisely the wrong thing to say: Lucius backhanded him, snapping his head to the side, slicing open his cheek with the jewel on his ring, and nearly tipping the chair yet again. Harry gritted his teeth, rode out the shock waves, and begged his bladder to please be patient.

"You have to understand, Harry," Narcissa said calmly, "that Dobby was in the Malfoy family for well over a century. Lucius was quite...attached to him."

Over against the wall, Severus thumped the back of his head against the cinderblocks and snorted. Harry was inclined to agree. The entire situation bordered on the surreal.

"Whatever," he said, and continued his internal fumble for control over Vox.

"Whatever, indeed, Potter," Malfoy agreed, and stalked in a slow circle around Harry's chair. "Whatever, whatever. Whatever shall I do with you?"

"I already made a suggestion. You didn't seem to like it much."

Lucius chuckled. "Regrettably, no. Would you like to try again?"

Feeling rather annoyed, not to mention desperate, Harry mentally pursued a rebellious white-gold strand. It writhed away from his grasp. "How about you do us all a favor and just bugger off."

"Such language," Malfoy tsked, then slapped his goddamn cane against his palm. Harry couldn't help but flinch. Bastard.

"Perhaps I shall torture you until you answer every one of my questions."

Torture was starting to sound like a good idea. Harry's back teeth were nigh well floating, and a bit of torture would, at least, be a decent reason for a grown man to piss his pants.

"Ministry plans. Names and locations of Order of the Phoenix operatives," Lucius continued with a thoughtful expression.

A floating strand of crimson floated past Harry's inner eye and he reached down...and down...and grabbed for it. Yes!

Malfoy was still pacing back and forth, droning on, ticking off points on his manicured nails. "Undercover MLE agents. The status of on-going investigations. Everything! And I do have a lengthy list."

"Whatever!" Harry's frustration finally boiled over. "Just get the fuck on with it, willya?"

Malfoy paused and turned. "Excuse me?" He had a very peculiar expression on his face.

Mouth dry, tongue vibrating strangely, with his voice echoing strangely in his ears, Harry licked his lips and carefully enunciated, "I said: Get the fuck on with it already!"

"At last, Potter!" Malfoy wore a frightening...lustful?...smile. "You finally make some sense!"

Harry had one fleeting moment to notice Narcissa's wide blue eyes, to hear a startled yowl from Ron as Goon Number One dropped the cage, to catch a glimpse of Severus struggling against his bonds, before Lucius tossed his cane aside--thank god!--grabbed Harry roughly by the chin, tilted his face upwards, and took his mouth in a kiss that promised to remove his tonsils, excavate his fillings, and suck the lips from his face.

Oh shit. Wrong bloody strand!

And while Harry groped around in the murky reservoir of his magic for the right strand goddamn it!, while Narcissa and the two goons mobilized to pry Lucius off, Malfoy did a considerable bit of uncomfortably intimate groping of his own.

Finally, after far too many long, hot, sloppy moments later, they managed to pry Malfoy loose. "My, my, my!" Lucius said breathlessly; his hair was mussed and his mouth swollen. "Now I see what Draco was on about all those years ago!"

Oh shit.

Harry slowly turned his head. Over against the wall, Severus stilled and his eyes suddenly narrowed. Shitshitshit.

So much for domestic tranquility. "Thanks a lot, Malfoy," Harry muttered, and then, to hell with finesse, he gathered all the waving strands in his mental fist and held on tight.

"I didn't quite hear you, dear boy, what did you say?" Despite their best efforts, Malfoy managed to break away from Narcissa and the two security hulks.

Was the man deaf as well as raving pervert? "I said, drop dead, Malfoy." Harry's entire body tingled and his voice seemed to echo over and over again in his ears.

Malfoy chuckled. "Drop dead, hmm? Haven't heard it called that befo..." Without warning, Lucius gasped, his body became rigid as a board, his eyes rolled back in his head, and without further ado, he crashed to the floor with a thud.

About damn time, Harry thought with satisfaction.

The two goons stared. Severus shook his head in disbelief. Narcissa gasped. "My god, what did you do?"

Harry felt an ominous twinge down low and spared no time for conversation. "Shut up!" he said. "And untie me!"

Narcissa closed her mouth abruptly and bent to release the spell-ropes.

"Free Severus!" Harry snapped when she'd finished, then lunged up and out of the chair and knelt beside Lucius' body to rifle through his pockets for their wands. He paused for a moment to viciously snap Malfoy's cane in half and toss the pieces across the room.

"Not so fast, Potter," Goon Number Two said and both men advanced.

Harry didn't waste time. "Go to hell," he said, and the two men stopped in their tracks, struggled mightily, then failed not to raise their wands, pointed them at their foreheads, and...disappeared. The flash of light was followed by a loud pop! and a subsequent whoosh of displaced air.

After several hours of misery, the night was definitely looking up!

When he turned, Severus had been freed and was standing beside Narcissa with a look of slack-jawed amazement. "Potter, what the bloody hell are you...?"

"No time to explain," he replied, wincing as his bladder spasmed yet again.

He tossed Snape a wand, held on to the other two, yelled, "Sit! Stay!" at Narcissa, who abruptly slumped down the wall, then took off through the door shouting, "Drop dead!", or "Freeze!" or "Go to hell!" at everyone else he encountered.

Harry suspected that much later, after they'd tallied up the bodies and the property damage, he might be shocked by the carnage wrought by his frenzied passage. But right at that moment, he had but a single goal: locate the altar of the porcelain god and make a very generous and heartfelt offering.

As Vox gained wider use, the Ministry's rate of capture of MOD-affiliated personnel and seizure of Dark Magical contraband sky-rocketed. By 2010, Vox-related initiatives had crippled the Entrepreneurs in Europe and the United States, and were making significant inroads in the more urban parts of Asia and Africa.

The Ministry also launched two Vox-enhanced, controversial and highly-successful public relations campaigns, one to woo former MOD-sympathizers back into the metaphorical fold and the other to discourage the use of illicit magical substances (see Just Say No to O!: Anatomy of a Subliminally Enhanced Anti-Drug Campaign).

Although the Entrepreneurs were successful from an economic standpoint, their organisation was spread quite thin globally and the production of magical contraband was not well integrated into most local economies. Thus, they were quite vulnerable to these, and other, Ministry tactics.

It was nearly dawn by the time Harry, Ron, and Severus had been patched up by the medics, interrogated--er, debriefed rather--by a cadre of pissed-off Ministry officials and were able to catch a port-key back to Hogwarts. Minister Arthur Weasley accompanied them.

Upon their arrival, they were ushered immediately into Dumbledore's office for yet another, slightly less irritating debriefing: Albus had at least offered them tea and chocolate.

Thirty minutes later, the sun was up, the meeting was winding down, and Harry was hoarse from talking. He was exhausted, sore, had a headache pounding a white-hot spike through his skull and he longed for a generous tumbler of Fire Whiskey, neat, followed by a healthy chaser of sleep.

With as much stealth as he could muster, he slipped back along the wall and inched towards the half-open door and freedom.

He might have succeeded had it not been for Ron's ill-timed exclamation of: "...couldn't believe it when Malfoy hauled off and planted a big wet one on Harry. Complete with tongue!" during a sudden conversational lull.

Dumbledore twinkled at him, Snape glowered, Draco wore a look of utter horror, and Hermione and Sirius seemed distinctly nauseated. The other occupants of the room completely failed to muffle their snickers.

Even so, all was not lost. Freedom--and sleep--might have yet been within his grasp, until Severus banished all hope with a sneer. "Ah, yes," he drawled with his usual silken malevolence. "It seems that Potter has quite the penchant for snogging various and sundry Malfoys."

The room fell silent for a single heartbeat while that revelation sunk in. Any lingering guilt he might have felt about abandoning Severus to his fate evaporated like snow in July.

Then Hermione, who was always quick on the uptake, said, "Harry James Potter. When you said that Draco had a 'nice bum', I didn't realize that you were speaking from experience!"

Harry groaned, rubbed his temples, and wished that the dose of Vox hadn't already worn off. Telling the lot of them to bugger off would have made a satisfying end to a thoroughly unpleasant evening.

"And you, Draco. Exactly what do you have to say for yourself?"

"Well. I do have quite a nice bum, don't you agree?"

"I should have known something was fishy when I discovered your collection of seven inch, color-coded bu--"

"Eeww! I really didn't need to know about that, Hermione!"

"Gifts! I told you, those were gifts! Gag gifts. You know, novelties."

"Novelties my ar--"

"Language, Miss Granger."

"Oh, heh. Speaking of which. Did you keep that hot pink one? You remember, the one with the--"

"Harry! Say it isn't so, mate. You're not cheating on Snape with Malfoy, are you?!"

"Yes, Mr. Potter. Do enlighten us."

"I am not cheating on anyone!"

"Pink...pink. Oh! Yes, yes. The one with the spikes and the charm that made it--"

"Malfoy!" Thud.

"Oh dear. Ron? Ronald? Severus, what have you done? You promised me you'd take care of him! Remus, Arthur, help me get him to a chair."

"Me? I've done nothing at all. I can't be held responsible for your prudish and histrionic choice in partners. If you can wait just one moment, I'm sure I have some smelling salts here in my robes to assuage Mr. Weasley's vapors."

"You obnoxious little upstart! I should have turned you over my knee when I had the chance."

"What's this about cheating? Snape, are you two-timing Harry? Why you, I oughta--"

"Heel, you vile cur. I am not 'two-timing' Potter."

"Yeah? What was all that with Narcissa tonight, then? You two looked awfully cozy. Something you'd like to 'share with the group', Professor Snape?"

"Stop trying to evade the original question, Potter. Did you, or did you not, have a relationship with Malfoy here?"

"Narcissa? Hey, Severus, didn't you used to date her?"

"I knew it!"

"Lupin, you imbecile. That was nearly thirty years ago."

"True love knows no expiry date. I seem to recall something about a thwarted elopement, Severus, and a veritable blizzard of howlers from her parents to yours, or am I quite mistaken?"

"You eloped?!"

"We. Did not. Elope. And--"

"Not from lack of trying, if I recall correctly. Severus all but climbed up a rose-strewn trellis to her balcony, so the story goes."

"--mind your own business, Minerva, or I'll introduce young Mr. Weasley here to a few old photos I have featuring one leather clad 'Madcat McGonagall' and the Hellacious Hooligans."

"You dare!"

"Mad cat? Pictures? What? Where?"

"Never mind, Ronald, dear. Just rest. You've taken quite a shock. No thanks to Severus here."

"Ah yes, Minerva. You were quite, er, something during your school days."

"Stay out of this, Albus. Wipe that smirk off of your face, Arthur, it's undignified. And Potter, Granger, you both look like idiots with your mouths hanging open like that."

"Wait a minute, here. You. And my mum?"

"Just think on it, Draco. You could have inherited the horrid Snape nose rather than the signature white-blond Malfoy coiffure."

"You. And my mum."

"You realize, Madam Madcat, that this means war."

"You realize, Severus 'Stinkpot' Snape, that you do not frighten me in the least."

"Stinkpot! Oh god, Remus, do you remember that?"

"Shut up, Black. Or shall I call you 'Wee-wee'?"

"Hey, that was pumpkin juice!"

"Not according to Harriet Bulstrode."

"Bulstrode? She was lying, she wasn't even there. And it was pumpkin juice."

"Likely story."

"You. And my mum?!"

As fascinating as Harry found each new revelation, years of combat, Quidditch training, and close association with Fred and George Weasley warned him to get, and get quickly, while the getting was good. After tonight, Snape could fend for himself!

Three steps towards the door. Two steps, and when exactly someone had snuck lead into his boot soles and lined his cloak with bricks? One step, he was through the doorway and had nearly made good his escape when Albus and Arthur broke away from the gabbling throng and intercepted him in the hall.

"One moment, Harry, if you please," Dumbledore said, putting a hand on Harry's arm. "Just to clarify, you truly have no idea when, or if, Lucius might awaken?"

Harry sighed and shook his head wearily. He and Severus had been over this ad nauseam with the Ministry drones and medics from St. Mungo's, none of whom had been overly thrilled about it either.

"And, you really wouldn't happen to have even a vague hunch where those you wizards that you, er, Voxed to hell might have gone?" Arthur asked. His expression wavered between fear and hope.

"Er. Hell maybe?" He ventured hopefully.

The two older men exchanged an indecipherable glance, then Albus grinned suddenly at Harry. "Well, then," he said briskly, with a dangerous twinkle in his eye. "I suppose they'll turn up eventually, eh?"

Harry shrugged: or not.

When knowledge of the use of the Unconscionables became widespread, magical ethicists and Dark magic critics were outraged. Serious questions were raised:

Were the Uns merely unconscionable or, in fact, truly Unforgivable? What agencies were monitoring and regulating their use? Who would enforce the regulations, given that the Ministry was gleefully abridging the rights of prisoners and tax-paying citizens in their campaign against the Dark? What in the name of Merlin were Potter and Snape thinking, and wasn't it just like a former Death Eater to invent something so diabolically clever and ethically dubious?

The complaints were numerous and the two innovators were called upon repeatedly to explain and/or defend their work before ethics review panels, thus prompting Snape to utter his now famous words: "Exactly what part of unconscionable escaped your feeble, collective understanding?"

In the two weeks following the first field test of Vox, Narcissa was out on bail and into rehab, Lucius remained comatose, numerous summoning spells had failed to turn up any of Malfoy's Hell-Voxed lackeys, and the Department of Public Information stone-walled all press queries with: "Can neither confirm nor deny." Unofficially, opportunistic bureaucrats rubbed their hands together with glee, and demanded--in increasingly shrill tones--more unauthorized samples of Vox.

Snape couldn't be arsed to care about any of it. In his opinion, the only relevant consequence of that ill-fated night was that, in addition to their usual dampness, the dungeons had taken on a rather arctic chill.

The hour was extremely late and Snape and Harry lay side by side in the bed, grimly staring at the ceiling. With two pissed off and habitual insomniacs sharing one bed, there wasn't a great deal of either sleep, sex, or good conversation to be had.

Snape shifted restlessly and tugged the bedclothes up to his chin. He knew that he was being unreasonable. About a lot of things. But then that seemed to be Situation Normal whenever a Potter (or a Black, Lupin, or Dumbledore for that matter) was involved.

Potter, the predictable, spiteful little pest, tugged the covers back. "Quit hogging the blankets, Snape," he said peevishly.

"Since this is my bedroom, Potter, since they actually are my blankets, and since this particular antique, handmade quilt has been in my family for over 150 years, I am quite within my rights to hog them as much as I please!"

"Is that so."

Two could play that game. "It is."

"Well then," Harry snapped, throwing back the covers and sitting up. His eyes glittered in the dim light and his perpetual case of bedhead was worse than usual. "Maybe I should just leave you to them."

A blade of bitter-cold stabbed Snape, just beneath his breastbone. "Well then, perhaps you should," he replied, pleased that his voice didn't waver.

Harry snatched his robe from the foot of the bed then sneered. "I'm sure that you and your...mouldy old blankets will be very happy together." He stood up and thrust his arms jerkily through the sleeves of the robe.

"I've done just fine so far." Liar.

"Oh yes. True love: you and your right hand. You antisocial prick."

"Some of us choose not to squander our affections on a different partner every single night."

Potter inhaled sharply. "And some of us aren't so fucking oblivious that we ignore the...the opportunity that's right under our oversized noses!"

They stared at one another for a long moment in the near-darkness. Then Snape's eyes narrowed. How dare Potter! After years of lusting from afar, of sublimating his affection beneath absurd heroics designed to keep the infuriating prat alive, of watching the man bed every wizard and witch who wandered within pecker range. Years! And yet somehow, Snape was supposed to just know that the Wizarding world's favorite hero, the man voted Most Shaggable Bachelor by Witch Weekly for four years running, was waiting for Snape to make a move?!

Furious beyond words, Snape still managed to react with maturity and restraint.

He hefted his pillow carefully, swung it in an arc, and smacked the sanctimonious expression right off Potter's face.

"You obnoxious, supercilious brat!"

"Greasy git!"

Potter snatched up another pillow and the battle was joined.

"It was five years ago! I was bored, Draco was lonely, he'd just gotten the divorce. We were drunk. We were horny. What do you want me to say?"

"Ah, but you were both somehow, miraculously sober enough to locate and activate the hot pink, spiked sex toys, is that it?"

One of the pillows burst and a blizzard of feathers filled the air, contributing to the seething, invective-spiked whirlwind centered over Snape's bed.

"So we were drunk a few times, so what? It's not like I was ever engaged to my godson's mother!"

"You don't have a godson. And, as I've explained only a few thousand times, we were never engaged!"

"Right. It was a pre-engagement ring. That makes all the bloody difference."

"Of course it makes a difference, you idiot!"

They'd utterly demolished the bed pillows so Snape started in on the cushions from one of the bedside chairs. The one he chose was satisfyingly weighty.

Unfortunately, Potter was annoyingly agile. The cushion smacked against one post of the bed and split down the center. The post itself fared no better. It splintered and the canopy collapsed. Snape ducked and rolled off the bed just in time. He yelped when he stepped on one of Harry's damned quartz crystal audio-traps.

"Her parents never would have accepted my proposal. We both knew that. It never could have worked, no matter what we wanted."

"Ha!" From the other side of the demolished bed, Harry jabbed a finger at Snape. A de-feathered pillowcase dangled from his other hand. "So you admit that you wanted it to work!"

"Of course I wanted it to work, I loved her!"

With a stricken look, Potter suddenly clutched the pillowcase to his chest and looked away. "And do you still love her?"

"What?!"

"Do you still love her?"

Snape rolled his eyes. "That was thirty years ago, Potter. You weren't even born yet." Suddenly very tired, he tossed the cushion away and rubbed his eyes. Thirty-years, and therein lay the problem.

How long would it be before the novelty wore off and Potter left? How long before someone else would come along, not Draco perhaps, but someone like him? Attractive, congenial. Young. How in hell did Minerva find the emotional fortitude to keep taking younger lovers?

"Just answer the question, Severus. Do you still love her?"

Before Snape could answer, Harry sighed and went to poke at the smoldering embers in the fireplace. "I never saw you with anyone. Or even look at anyone, for that matter," he said very quietly. "I asked around--I even cornered Dumbledore, if you can believe that--but there wasn't even a hint of a rumour. Never any dates, dinners-for-two, holidays to exotic places with an unnamed special someone." Potter laughed shortly. "For a time, I even thought that maybe you and Remus...but then, when he and Hermione...well, what was I supposed to think?"

Realisation dawned and Snape felt suddenly very warm inside. And very much like an idiot. He went to stand by Harry in front of the hearth. "I'm not in love with her, Harry," he said. "I haven't been in love with Narcissa for a very long time."

"Really?" Harry sounded hopeful. His hair and shoulders were covered in goose down and tufts of white cotton batting; he looked delectable.

"Really," Snape agreed. "And there were never any sex toys involved," he added severely.

Harry looked a bit abashed. "It's not like it was anything serious, you know. Between me and Draco, I mean."

Snape's smile faded and a familiar blade of bitter-cold pricked him again. He looked away. "I know."

He tried not to shiver when Harry moved closer. He tried not to sigh when Harry slid his hand under Snape's hair to stroke the back of his neck. He failed on both counts.

"It wasn't serious with any of the others, Severus," Harry said softly, nearly in his ear. "Not like the way it is between you and me."

Snape's heart thudded painfully. How can you be sure? he wanted to ask. He couldn't bear to look at Potter, and yet he couldn't bear not to.

When he finally gathered the nerve to turn, Harry was looking back at him with shining eyes. He wore a familiar, stubborn, expression that clearly said: Because I can.

Even unto this day, the debate rages on. Fortunately, like Veritaserum, the production of the Unconscionables is extremely difficult, as is that of the ineffable essences; although no known essences have the demonstrated potency of those derived from Snape or Potter. Individuals seeking an in-depth understanding of the Uns must register with the Ministry and complete approved courses in ethics and production.

In subsequent months, the dungeons thawed and became, at times, downright tropical in clime.

And though Snape complained loudly to anyone within earshot about the impossibility of conducting original research whilst maintaining a full teaching schedule, acting as Head of Slytherin House, and also running an intelligence organisation (with occasional--and inexplicable to all except Potter--references to the general unpleasantness of treading upon sharp-cornered quartz crystals in the dark when on the way to the loo), Ministry officials never had reason to complain of a dearth of Vox samples available for testing.

The Wizarding world owes a debt of gratitude thrice over to Potter and Snape. First, for their role in the fall of Voldemort and secondly, for setting aside their prior differences and collaborating on the invention of the Uns, without which the Wizarding Cold War would have been more protracted and involved a far greater loss of life and property.

And finally, ethics questions aside, we also owe them a debt for this undeniably great step forward in the adaptation of unusual substances for the purposes of magical defence and offence. When a wizard can cripple an opponent with a Vox-enhanced whisper, or stop his heart literally with a Visium-augmented death glare, then facing a Dark wizard whilst holding a broken wand becomes a much less daunting prospect indeed.

Hermione took an agenda from the stack beside the door. Then, careful not to drop her notes or spill her coffee, she elbowed her way through the milling throng of reporters and Ministry security personnel. Although she'd missed the first twenty minutes of the press conference--the Floo traffic had been horrendous--she wasn't concerned; Harry and Snape had already sent her a copy of their notes. Besides, Draco could field questions from the audience too, if need be.

With no little effort, she forced her way down the crowded aisle to the front of the Great Hall. There, Harry, Dumbledore, and Minister Weasley sat at a long table loaded with books, scrolls, and other reference materials. Slightly off to one side, Snape strode back and forth in front of a chalk board covered with diagrams, sneering and spitting as he lectured the assembly about Vox. His silken voice was clearly audible above the murmur of the crowd.

With the exception of a few wizened and hard core magical theorists in the front row, most of the audience looked dazed. So did Harry, although Hermione suspected that was due less to the lecture and more to the impressive way that Snape filled out his dress robes.

She winced and started down the row of seats reserved for Ministry and Order representatives. She'd clearly by-passed Sleep Deprived and gone straight to Delirious if Snape was starting to look good.

Remus winked at her from his seat at the end of the row as she ducked by him. Hermione sniffed; bigot or no, at least Draco knew how to spell: S-E-R-I-A-L M-O-N-O-G-A-M-Y. She stepped over Sirius' outstretched legs (was the man actually snoring?) and made for the lone empty seat between Draco and Minerva. Beside McGonagall, Ron was sitting very upright in his seat with the slightly bug-eyed, overly-interested look of a man who'd consumed far too much Pepper-Up.

When she sat down, Draco looked at her pleadingly. After taking a moment to gloat, Hermione took pity on him and handed over the coffee. He lifted the lid, took one deep draught, then another, then slid down in his seat with a blissful sigh.

McGonagall leaned over and gave her a nudge. "Men," she said under her breath. "No stamina. It's all downhill once they turn 25."

Hermione covered her smile with one hand and settled the notes on her lap with the other. "I think there's still a bit of life left in Malfoy," she confided under her breath.

"Don't delay," Minerva said, with a sidelong look at Ron. "The clock is ticking!"

She thought she'd strangled her laugh in time but Snape paused in his recitation and scowled at her and McGonagall anyway. Hermione half expected him to take points.

"So," Hermione said quietly, as she rearranged her notes, with the agenda on top, and tried to look attentive. "What'd I miss?"

"Nothing much of any account," Minerva said with a snort. "Just Severus flapping around like an overgrown bat. There, he's off again. Flap, flap, flap. Do you suppose he's of vampire or fruit bat stock? Before Potter came along, I would have put all my galleons on the former."

This time, it was Dumbledore who gave them both a hard look.

McGonagall was undaunted; apparently she still had it in for Snape because of those pictures that had found their way into the Daily Prophet a few days ago. "Although I must say," Minerva said with a sly wink, "having a man around who is accustomed to hanging from ceilings and light fixtures could be a very fine thing, indeed."

With that, Hermione finally lost control of both her notes and her quivering diaphragm.

Arthur Weasley thumped his gavel on the table and glared impartially around the room. "Everyone, quiet, please! Although I know you are all excited by Snape and Potter's research, please save your questions for the question-and-answer period following the lecture."

"Excited, ha! As if they're not all really here to find out if Potter and Snape are shagging or not."

No wonder Draco had left this seat free. Minerva was exactly the worst sort of seat mate: smart, with a quick, rapier-sharp wit, and a trouble maker with a capital 'T'.

Not unlike either Ron or Draco, for that matter.

Fortunately, Draco was far too tired--and sore--to kick up a fuss today. An evening spent with Hermione in control of his box of 'novelties' guaranteed that. He was also allergic to the key ingredient in Pepper-up Potion; thank god for small favors. If she had to listen to him whinge one more time about Pain-in-the-arse Potter this or Snape and Narcissa that and, she'd be forced to do something dire.

Up at the chalk board, Snape jabbed his finger at a convoluted diagram and hissed something intriguing about "unidirectional vest pocket dimensions." Now, that hadn't been in the notes.

Hermione decided it was best not to encourage McGonagall and turned to Draco instead. "I take it they finally figured out where all Malfoy's Hell-Voxed minions got to, then," she whispered.

Having quaffed two-thirds of the coffee, Draco finally came up for air. He scowled. "Yes. And leave it to Potter blindly stumble over something that serious theorists have been trying figure out for centuries."

Hermione patted his hand. "Well, at least Snape figured out how to get your dad out of that coma," she said. Draco's expression became even more thunderous.

When Snape picked up a piece of chalk and tried to add a notation to the diagram, the board suddenly cringed back and scurried off on its casters to huddle against the wall. The audience burst into laughter and Harry jumped up and went after the rogue board with a flurry of anti-animation spells.

Beside her, Minerva tucked her wand back up her sleeve with satisfaction, utterly unchastened by the glares from Harry, Arthur, and Dumbledore.

Hermione slid down in her seat and hid her face behind the agenda. Upon further reflection, perhaps Ron and 'Madcat' really were good for one another.

In the spring of 2015, Potter and Snape retired from teaching at Hogwarts. However, they continue to lecture, make refinements on the Unconscionables, complete their memoirs, as well as collaborate on other publicly and privately funded research projects (see Ministry Defence Research: Joint Private-Public Ventures and Independent Contractors and Research Annals of The Phoenix Foundation: 2015-Present).

Snape unlatched the bedroom window and let it swing wide. A mellow, late summer breeze floated in along with the sounds of bird song and the scent of freshly mowed grass. It seemed like a lifetime since he'd sleep so deeply and for so long.

All too soon, the courtyard below would be teeming with hormonal imps hell-bent on rule breaking, squandering their educational opportunities, and making his life a living torment. But for now, with the start of term still a few days away, he could savor the quiet and freedom.

Despite the imminent return of the little monsters, the new academic year had promise. Refinements on Vox were going well and the backbone of the Merchants seemed to be weakening, if not already broken; Gringotts was interested in purchasing the commercial rights to their spin-off research on vest-pocket dimensions; he and Potter now had spacious shared quarters in Ravenclaw Tower (neutral territory); and Snape had stepped down as Head of Slytherin House. Ostensibly to spend more time on research, but with the added bonus of freeing up more time to spend with--and would wonders never cease?--his lover.

Behind him, sprawled the entire width of their bed, said lover slept the sleep of the, if not just, then the righteously well-shagged. Potter's hair stuck up at all angles, and given the warmth of the room, he had thrown aside most of the covers so that his naked body was quite delectably exposed; Snape felt a curl of heat low in his belly.

He had reports to write, a half-dozen experiments awaiting him in his lab, and he'd slept long enough; he really should get the day started.

Then Potter shifted--long muscles rippling beneath his tanned, gleaming, slightly sweaty skin--and looked up at him. "Sev'rus?" he said blearily. "'Time'sit?"

Snape didn't bother to suppress his slow, smug, possessive smile. All prior thoughts of research evaporated in a cloud of lust.

Potter's eyes widened.

He took two steps from the window, kicked aside a scattering of rose quartz audio-traps, and leapt for the bed.

Potter yelped. Then sighed as Snape's tongue found its way between his lips.

When, after a good, long, sloppy, spine-tingling time, Snape pulled back, Harry was looking up at him. His mate's formerly heavy-lidded, pliant, "mm, sure I'm up for a fuck if you do all the work" expression had faded, only to be replaced by...

Snape had a sense of impending doom. He knew that look.

"Severus?" Harry blinked at him as though in a post-coital haze.

Did he dare ask? "Yes, Harry?" Apparently so.

"I think..."

Snape mentally winced, awaiting the inevitable.

"...I think I've just got another idea."

Snape groaned and rolled away from his lover. He banged his head against the headboard a few times, then went to find some parchment and a quill.

Both wizards currently share a home in Hogsmeade and, from all appearances, have resolved their interpersonal conflicts.

Finis.

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