The Pain of a Promise



Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Aunt Petunia hammered that into me all my life – since I was a tiny waif living in a cupboard. How a small boy, with nothing to keep him company except dust bunnies and spiders, managed to stay clean enough for his obsessive compulsive aunt, will forever remain a mystery, but I must have done a fair job because my beatings never seemed to center on my poor hygiene.

Nor had I ever felt unduly scarred by Petunia's obsession. Until now. Obviously, the psyche can be a cruel thing. Crueler even than a couple of narrow minded Muggles forced into caring for a dirty freak.

No, I'm not dirty.

I scrub harder. The steam from the scalding water billows up and around me, and the heat makes me lightheaded. Regardless, I still don't feel clean so I sigh and begin again. Hair, face, behind the ears, neck, chest. Down, down, down all the way to the toes. My skin has taken on the appearance of sandpaper in some areas, and I don't care. I reach for more soap.

"I am not dirty," I say, the words nearly lost in the rushing sound of the shower. Verbally backing up my efforts can't hurt.

Finally, I feel clean enough to step out of the steaming water; water I've spelled hot again and again. By some miracle, I manage to dry myself and still feel relatively clean. The towel was freshly laundered before I used it, so it couldn't have contaminated me. Too much. This is such an insane thought, and it's proof that, in all likelihood, I'm going crazy. I'm still sane enough, however, that the possibility of losing my mind makes me cry a little. I don't bother to brush away the tears that drip from my eyes and roll down my cheeks. I actually find that they sooth my abused skin.

My tears have always been scalding – I wonder when they turned so blessedly cool.

Even if I wanted to, I wouldn't be able to avoid the mirror. It's huge and reflects every surface in the bathroom. From my corner right outside the shower, all I can see reflected in its surface is my face, but that's bad enough. My face is always dirty. I can never make it clean. I've learned to live with that over time, but that doesn't stop me from trying to change it. I can truthfully admit that I wash my face nearly as often as I wash my hands. Gryffindors never back down from a challenge.

I reach for my pants and jeans and jerk them on, managing to do so with only one soft whimper. The rough denim is agony. My skin is rubbed so raw in places that even the soft flannel of my sheets can bring me to tears if I roll around too much. I don't like to sleep anymore anyway. Too many nightmares.

I had a cream for my skin; Hermione offered it to me a couple of months ago when…when this all started. Nothing gets past our Hermione. She noticed the red angry-looking skin on my arms and face. For a while, I used the cream – and it helped. Then, quite suddenly one day, it occurred to me that the very act of letting the healing balm touch my skin was making it dirty all over again.

I had to throw it away. Now, I just keep my arms covered and a glamour on my face.

After I finish tying my trainers, I realize I can't avoid it any longer. I am now completely clothed, and unless I undress and start all over again, I have no further excuse to avoid the mirror. Thank the gods it's not charmed. Listening to that prattle day in and day out would have tipped me dangerously toward insanity. As if I weren't leaning that way already.

The mirror is even more cruel than usual. Ah gods, my face…I take a breath and speak the spell, and in the blink of an eye, I'm back: Harry Potter. Harry Potter of the glowing peaches and cream complexion, shining ebony (if a bit messy) hair, dazzling smile and… dull, lifeless eyes. Bugger. Well, I can't do anything about my eyes. They are the windows of the soul, after all.

But, on the upside, there are no longer black half-moons painted under them. No more pasty white skin, complemented by bright red patches across my cheeks, where I tend to scrub it raw. No more lank hair, which I noticed had been laying down in a very uncharacteristic way lately.

Must be the weight of my depression pressing it down.

I can't help but roll my eyes at that thought, and the healthy looking boy with the dead eyes rolls his eyes too. How pathetic am I going to get?

I squint at the mirror and realize, perhaps for the first time, that the glamour, in addition to concealing the sorry state of my skin, will also hide any dirt on my face. How will I know it's there? It's possible that I could have something on my face, something I can't see, something dirty, and not even know it. That thought panics me more than I'd like to admit.

I swallow heavily and actually feel my body jerk toward the shower again. No, I can't. I have a lesson with Snape and I can't be late. For a split second, I consider removing the glamour, so I can see any dirt that might find its way to my face, but reality rushes back in, reminding me that Snape must never know. Never.

The journey to the dungeon takes forever; I'm forced to keep a slow pace, nursing my skin as best I can when it chafes against my jeans. It was a smart decision to leave the dorm early. As it is, I just barely arrive on time. Snape's at his desk marking up Potions essays, but he does notice when I enter the room, and he frowns at my downcast eyes.

"At least you're on time, Potter."

I dredge up the smile that's expected, but don't answer.

Snape watches me speculatively as he rises from the desk. Do I pass muster, I wonder? It takes all my willpower not to squirm under his gaze. I'd rather be squirming under his body. Oh sweet Christ, please don't let him see that in my eyes. It just adds insult to injury – still wanting him after what I've done.

"A practical lesson tonight," he says as he approaches. I don't expect he misses my wince over that little announcement. Not that it would change his plans for the evening. His job is not to make me comfortable. Even if we have talked about becoming, in the future, more than just friends.

"Dueling."

I gulp, thinking of my skin dragging against my clothes as I dash around the room, doing my best to avoid his quick-fire hexes. "Very well."

Snape is an excellent duelist, but he's truly no match for me in terms of power. No one is. His experience, however, more than makes up for that, and our duels are more evenly matched than most would suspect. I ignore the pain sparking all over my body and focus on the duel. Soon, the familiarity of both the task and the taskmaster relax me enough that my movements became smoother, more practiced.

Unexpectedly, Snape throws a double stunning hex, and while I manage to avoid the first, I have no such hope with the second. It crashes into my chest and tosses me back against the wall like a rag doll. Every pain receptor in my body fires and I can't stop the scream that rips from my throat.

Suddenly, Snape is there, lifting me from the floor and settling me back against the wall. "Will you never learn, Potter? I swear, sometimes I believe…" Snape trails off and takes a good look at me. I suspect he's getting a damn good view, since I'm less than an arm length away.

"Harry?" he asks quietly, reaching up to stroke my cheek. "Are you all right?"

Uh oh.

I keep my eyes squeezed shut, despite the implicit command to open them. "I'm fine, Severus," I wheeze out. "Just caught off guard." There. Now that sounds perfectly reasonable. I don't expect Snape will believe it though.

"I don't believe you."

The biting remark comes so quickly on the heels of my previous thought that I actually laugh. "Truly," I insist, and open my eyes to prove it. "I am."

He watches me for another moment, his fingers cool on my cheek, and for the millionth time since we tentatively declared our feelings for each other, I wish we hadn't agreed to wait to act on them.

He finally steps back, thank the gods, and motions for me to follow. His lips are pressed tightly together; I suspect a lecture is in my future. I move to the desk and eye the chair warily before I lower myself carefully into it. It hurts to perch on the edge of the uncushioned wood, since my thighs have taken the brunt of my mad obsession, and I know Snape doesn't miss how gingerly I take my seat.

"Harry, I won't pressure you. That's not my way. I'll leave that disgusting display of emotion to your Head of House. However, it is clear something is bothering you and I want to reiterate – again – that you can talk to me if you so desire." Severus pauses and leans across the desk. "You and I have come far together, Harry. I would hope by now you would trust me. I am, whether you believe it or not, more than willing to sit here and listen to your hormone-driven teenage angst. Just don't expect a hug at the end."

I flash the obligatory smile. "You made a joke," I say quietly.

"I am capable."

This time, there is genuine humor behind my grin, and I thank the fates for giving me this man, and for making him care about me. He deserves so much better. "I appreciate that, Severus," I say. "But I can…" never tell you, "work it out on my own." You can never know what I've done.

Gods, Snape's eyes see right through me. All the way to my soul. I close my own, grateful for the darkness, and the measly protection it offers. The silence drags on and on, and it's obvious he is waiting for something more from me, but I have nothing to give. Soon, it starts. The inevitable tick in my brain. I clamp down on the compulsion, but it swiftly overwhelms me.

I'm beginning to feel dirty again. From past experience, I know that if I give the suggestion free reign, I will actually start to feel the individual particles of filth working their way through my robes, sliding across my shirt, and burrowing past the small space between the buttons and their tiny holes, where they would finally reach my skin. There they would settle and multiply, a physical impossibility, I know, and yet I know they would.

I shut off this dangerous line of thought.

Buried deep in my heart, the tiny boy that still occasionally guides my actions thrashes to escape. Tell him, he urges. He won't hate you. But I don't believe that. Neither will I risk it. Let him continue to believe that I am pure and good – not a liar. Not a weak little child who couldn't resist the first handsome man who asked to touch him.

I jump to my feet. "I have to go." I try and fail miserably to keep the desperation from my voice. After a thoughtful look, Snape answers me.

"Very well, you may go. Same time on Wednesday."

I stumble from the room and barely make it to the Slytherin prefect's bath before losing what little dinner I have in my stomach. I have this insane urge to rip off all my clothes and scrub myself from head to toe. Instead, I mollify the need by scrubbing my hands in scalding water for ten minutes. In the background, above the sound of the gushing water, I hear soft, desperate sobs.

I think it must be me.

The next night is Tuesday. Like every Tuesday, it flies by, when all I want it to do is go on forever. Unfortunately, evenings arrive on Tuesdays just as they do on every other day of the week. At eight o'clock sharp I find myself once again standing outside Professor Sliter's classroom, as ordered.

Professor Sliter joined the staff as the youngest DADA teacher the school had ever known. He was extremely well qualified and very well liked. Of course, Severus doesn't care for him, and never hesitates to make that opinion rather well known. I believe his feelings are reciprocated. There's a tacit understanding there, between those two, and I think they genuinely hate each other.

It makes this so much harder.

Professor Sliter, Martin, as I have been told to call him, is devastatingly handsome. How could I help the small crush I had on him all those months ago? I never let on about it, and yet somehow he knew, and pursued me, and I've been suffering ever since. My juvenile feelings for Martin have long since faded, but the sex continues, probably because of my lingering affection for Severus. I suspect Martin is jealous about the feelings I keep hidden for the surly Potions Master. He calls my desires for Severus aberrant, but they don't feel unnatural to me. I never defend myself though, unable to tolerate the deep shame I feel every time he reminds me of my continued betrayal of the man I secretly love.

I try not to give him too many opportunities to ridicule me. I'm such a fucking coward. One million points from Gryffindor.

I'm outside the door right on time, but I can't go in yet. Not with my eyes filled with helpless tears and my knuckles bone white from clutching the cloth of my robe. I won't let him see what he's done to me, even though I suspect he already knows. The raw, bleeding skin all over my body rather speaks to that. This has been going on for months, and every day I'm terrified Severus will somehow discover my betrayal. If I keep Martin happy, perhaps he never will. It is a slim thread of hope, but one I can't help but cling to. Finally, I do what I can to compose myself and knock on the door, entering when I am directed to do so.

I'm going to get fucked tonight.

It's his smile that gives it away. I can read him more easily than he thinks, but he will always have so much power over me that it hardly matters. He's threatened to tell Severus, and I can't let that happen. I've betrayed the one man I truly love for nothing more than a quick fuck and now I'm paying the price. And that trust, that fragile trust Severus and I have managed to forge, is not being held in my heart, where it should be, but in the hands of a jealous, manipulative madman.

Some nights I think that I should have told him immediately, the first time it happened with Martin. I think…I think he could have helped me – if I had come to him right away.

Epiphanies have no sense of timing.

"There you are," Martin says as he comes around the desk. "You're late."

He takes me in his arms and kisses me roughly, and an image of Severus rises up in my mind. "Fight him," the image says.

"I can't." I whisper against Martin's lips and the other man pulls back.

"I beg your pardon?" he asks dangerously. I blanch and my stomach turns over. Had I eaten any dinner, it would have undoubtedly ended up on the floor of the classroom. That has happened before, and Martin never lets me forget it.

"Nothing, Martin," I whisper, trying to pull the other man toward me again.

Please don't ask. Please.

"You can't what, Harry?"

I can see the futility of my position. Nothing I say will be good enough, and so I say nothing. When his fingers dig cruelly into my arms, I wince, knowing it has begun. "Slut," Martin snarls.

I close my eyes and drift away.

When I open them again, I'm on the floor. My robes are all the way across the room, draped over a chair, my shirt is unbuttoned and hanging from my thin shoulders, and my trousers and pants are bunched around my ankles. A lingering ache in my ass tells the rest of the story. I was right. I got fucked tonight.

Sometimes, I weigh the benefits of drifting in my safe place while we are together. I wonder if what Martin says occurs between us really does happen. It wouldn't be beneath him to lie, and he knows that more often than not I don't remember. But I know my body, and there's no hiding the lingering remnants of my own orgasm.

I don't want to remember that I enjoyed it.

"That was entertaining, as usual, even though you zoned out again," Martin says as he pulls up the zip on his own trousers. "You were especially vocal tonight. Care to hear a sample?"

"No," I whisper as I fight back my tears.

"Oh, why not?" Martin asks. He leans back on his desk, spreads his legs and calls out in a falsetto voice, "Oh yes, Martin, yes. Yes! Harder, please. Need you so much!" Martin throws back his head and laughs. "Wait till old Snape hears that one. It was even better than last week's, 'Oh Martin, I want you to fuck me. Gods, your cock feels so good!'"

That doesn't sound so farfetched. I've often fantasized about saying those same things to Severus. "Please," I ask him, not above begging for this one thing. "Please don't tell him."

Martin leaps off the desk and spits at my feet. "Why not? You came like a geyser! And you enjoyed every minute of it. Why shouldn't he know?"

I think about what Severus would say, how he would look at me, and my stomach rebels. Gratefully, I have nothing in my body to give up. Martin watches me dry heave, and with a look of disgust, unlocks the door and makes a shooing motion with his hand.

"Go, go. Go on. I do not want a goodnight kiss from you after that."

All I can think as I stumble from the classroom, pulling my clothes around me, is that I'll have to throw up every night when Martin is finished with me.

I stumble from the room and start back toward the dorm. As I walk, the evidence of the night's activities leaks from my body, and I start to tremble violently. Dirty, dirty, dirty, my mind screams at me. I duck my head and walk faster. Filthy dirty slut. My fast walk becomes a jog. I rush through the halls, flying past the normal people with their normal worries. Wait until Severus finds out what a slut you are. Lying cheating slut.

I run. I run past a startled Hermione as she exits the portrait and don't stop until I've reached the door that guards my Head Boy room. I crash through, not even stopping to shed my clothes before darting into the bathroom. I claw at the faucets, needing the water, needing to feel clean. Distantly, I can hear myself sobbing and what sounds like Hermione calling my name. I pull at my shirt and trousers ineffectually until finally I simply give up and step into the hot water fully clothed.

I grab the soap and start to scrub. I wash myself over my sodden clothes, moaning pitifully, as gradually, gradually, the feeling of filthiness fades, and my taint spills into the drain. When the bar of soap is finally gone, used into a tiny sliver of white that eventually slips through my fingers to fall on the floor of the shower, I sink down onto the wet tiles and pull my knees to my chest.

Now is my time to cry. I do so silently, little hiccupping sobs that take my breath away and make my head feel stuffy. I slide my fingers into my hair and dig my broken fingernails into my scalp. Unclean. Unclean. Unclean.

With a small groan, I fumble around for the remnants of the soap. When my hand meets nothing but wet tiles all around, the need kicks itself up a notch and I begin to whimper, all the while scrambling furiously for that small, white slice of heaven.

When my fingers do finally connect with something, I latch on with a triumphant cry. Then the something in my hand moves, and I recoil violently – all flight, no fight – slamming myself back against the unforgiving tile.

"No," I plead in a harsh whisper, "no more."

"Harry."

Cool fingers curl around mine. A similarly cool palm presses itself against my forehead. "Harry," the voice says again.

Oh no. No. Not Severus. I can't let Severus see me like this.

"Let go," I plead, keeping my face averted.

There's a rustle of fabric, barely heard above the rush of the water, and through the dripping strands of my hair I see Severus's waterlogged robes hit the floor with a splat. I sense movement above my head and the water raining down on me suddenly stops. Strong arms reach for me and draw me against a solid chest. I moan in distress and struggle weakly.

"I won't hurt you, Harry," Severus says. He seems upset by my response to him.

I shake my head frantically back and forth. "You'll hate me," I murmur.

A soft snort from above my head and the arms tighten more securely. "I'll do no such thing."

I give in to tears for the second time that night.

Eventually, he stands, struggling a bit to lift and carry me to the bed, and this in itself proves to me how disturbed he is by my behavior, that he would neglect or forget to use magic to lighten his burden. I am efficiently dried, and my modestly, what's left of it, preserved as much as possible by his gentle touch and averted eyes. He's so good that way, so strong.

Without a word, he heals me, returning my skin to its natural healthy glow. His voice becomes more rough, more angry after each incantation, and I struggle with myself not to shy away. I have nothing to fear from him, after all.

"Harry," he says as the final healing spell is cast.

Severus," I reply blandly.

The quirk of his lips is so slight, it may have been my imagination.

"Who's doing this to you?" He reaffirms the seriousness of his question with a deep frown and just a hint of anger in his voice. Which means, of course, a veritable mountain of rage is brewing below the surface.

The man truly knows how to cut to the chase. "I…what do you mean?" What does he mean? It should have been obvious that I was the one scrubbing the skin off my body.

He leans forward over me, a gesture that long ago I would have considered menacing, but now I only view as protective. I feel guilty that he should want to protect me in this – a situation of my own making, and one I should suffer through alone.

"I meant," he said, black eyes boring into me, "who is abusing you?"

A surge of fear carries my heart into my throat. I am still forming my lie when he continues. "You've been raped. And it is not the first time – that much is obvious. You will name him, Harry, and you will do so now. Do not think my unending patience will extend to this."

He is breathing hard now, and his fury is leaking through his stoic façade. There's no hope now. He knows the truth, and my chances with him have been damaged beyond repair. And to resist would be futile, he will push and push until every dirty secret has been revealed.

"I'm filthy," I say, knowing how utterly insane such a comment, made now, must make me seem. But strangely, Severus makes the connection.

"You are not," he states matter of factly. When I don't respond, he sighs and closes his eyes. I wonder what demons he's struggling with, and if they are as fearsome as mine.

"Harry, I suppose I would understand if you would not want to talk to me." He pauses, as if unsure how to proceed and actually averts his eyes as he continues, a sure sign he is feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. "Perhaps, though, you would talk to Martin."

My heart stops, but he doesn't seem to notice. Dear, sweet gods, what does he know?

"I am aware of your relationship with him, Harry. I am happy for you," he says, but he still won't look at me and even he, the master of deception and subterfuge, cannot stop a bit of hurt from leaking into his voice. "But surely you would trust him. Tell him which of the students is doing this to you."

He finally looks back at me, and I think my horrified expression must shock him because he rushes to explain. "I have known for many months, Harry. Martin came to me and told me of your relationship. He said you were too…uncomfortable…talking to me about it." Again the sigh and his eyes wander, shifting around the room as he speaks.

"Harry." He's looking out the window now, studying the passing clouds with an inordinate amount of interest. "I didn't want…I don't want you to ever fear me. I would not have been angry with you for changing your mind about us. You are so young, and I think perhaps…I have come to believe these past months…that it is for the best. You deserve so much more than what I can give you. And Martin – he is…well, he is more suited to you." His eyes return to me, but apparently he doesn't see my distress. Or, perhaps he does, but does not understand the cause.

I cannot decide how to feel. He's known. He's known all along that I betrayed him, and still he's treated me, day after day, like a friend. A cherished friend. He's taken my reticence for fear, my secret keeping for embarrassment. Well, in a way they have been. Just not in the way he has imagined.

Something I haven't felt in many months worms its way into my heart. Anger. But it is still too tiny a spark to replace the horror, hate and despair.

"Harry?"

He's looking at me again, forcing my head up with his long fingers. "Will you tell Martin who is doing this?"

I can't speak. My throat is closed so tightly I'm surprised I can breathe. No, I scream in my head. I don't want him. I want you. It's not the question being asked of me, but it's the only answer I'm capable of giving. The only thing that is clear to me in this whole twisted, tangled mess. I open my mouth and try to speak, then beg him with my eyes when my voice fails.

His eyes narrow as his brow furrows in confusion. He searches for something in my eyes, and when he finds it he flinches, as though the realization were a physical blow. His eyes widen and his mouth drops open as he draws in a soft gasp. His fingers tighten painfully on my chin, but I don't flinch. I've endured much worse recently.

"No," he whispers. He wants me to deny it. I consider it, but I am starting to see that the time for lies has passed. He knows – and my relief is so incredible, so tangible, that something inside of me breaks.

"I'm sorry." It's all I can say. His eyes darken with fury and the air stirs with a restless electrical energy.

"How long?" he asks, practically choking on the words, his voice is so thick with rage.

"Severus," I whisper.

"How. Long."

"I wanted it to be you," I continue as though I hadn't heard him. "I wanted you to be my first in everything." I can hear how pitiful my voice sounds, how weak, and the realization of just how severely I've let myself be used catches up to me in a rush, born along on the wings of my liberating relief.

I can still feel the compulsion throbbing in my head. But it's muted, and I think maybe I have a chance of defeating it, of moving beyond this sick need to cleanse myself.

Severus is a coiled mass of enraged energy. To anyone else he would seem calm, perhaps a bit troubled, but I see him much more easily than most. My need to comfort him is never far off, he asks for it so rarely, so I reach out tentatively with a trembling hand and place it on his arm. "It's all right," I say, and his eyes blacken even further.

"It is far from all right," he answers. His voice is so calm, perfectly even, and another sure sign that he is close, very close, to losing his temper. Most people display their rising anger with loud speech and wild gestures. Not my Severus. He travels in the opposite direction. His speech becomes more measured, his voice softer, and his movements stilted. When did he become so familiar to me?

He reaches into his pocket and retrieves a small potions vial. The murky blue liquid is very familiar, an old friend I call on often. Wordlessly, he hands it to me, and I take it in my hand, but make no move to swallow it.

"Take it," he says without preamble.

"What will you be doing while I am asleep?"

His lip curls slightly and suddenly I worry. I place the Dreamless Sleep on the table by the bed. He watches suspiciously, but doesn't comment. "What are you going to do?" I ask.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Is it worth me saying? Will you respect my wishes?"

"No. Most probably not."

I bite my lip and fall back on the pillow, letting my hand slip from his robe. What is there to say, then? I have no more control over this than I do over anything. He stands abruptly and snatches the vial from the table, holding it out towards me. A silent showdown ensues, lasting several minutes, but finally I acquiesce and accept the potion.

"Will you stay with me?" I ask after I swallow the viscous liquid.

"Until you fall asleep," he answers. He makes two aborted gestures with his hand before succeeding the third time and brushing hair from my forehead. Unthinking, he runs the tip of his finger over my scar, tracing its zigzag pattern.

As my eyes droop, he lets his mask slip and I see things both heart-rending and terrifying. And as surely as I know that our relationship is finished, I know that he plans to kill Martin.

We're not finished, he reassures me when I confront him days later. But his voice is patient and condescending and so maddeningly placating that I want to lash out and call him a liar.

I stand in his office, feeling the as near to normal as I have in months. I have questions and I need answers – and some are not about us.

"Where is Martin?" I ask. His quill, the one he drowns in red ink to decorate out essays, stills its scratching. After a moment, he lifts his eyes to mine, and I think I see a spark of vindictiveness in them, but it's gone too quickly for me to be sure.

"He will bother you no more," he says as he drops his eyes and resumes splattering red ink over the topmost parchment. I shake my head as I watch. Even his writing is caustic – the essay looks to be bleeding to death.

"That does not answer my question."

"No. It does not."

I could demand answers. I think if I pushed hard enough, he would tell me. He may not understand my reasons for wanting to know, but he doesn't have to. For his protection, however, I will not ask for closure. I will simply trust him.

After all, I'm not the only one looking for Martin. An entire division of Aurors is scouring the world as we speak. Apparently, he was a popular fellow, and well liked. Dependable, too, at least according to our Headmaster, which is why everyone suspects foul play. I watch Severus stab and cut at the parchments with his quill, red ink splashing over the page, and I smile sadly.

It's obvious to me they will never find him.

"Is there hope for us," I ask, dreading the answer since he has already told me in no uncertain terms, both with his silence and body language these past few days, that there is not.

His quill stops again. I'm only standing on the other side of the desk, but when he looks up at me, I see the truth. He has placed an ocean of distance between us.

"All right," I choke out, and spin to leave. I'm determined to make it out of the room with some dignity intact, but he foils my plan.

"Harry," he calls, and waits for me to turn back, which eventually I do. "I'll be waiting," he says.

Waiting for what? I want to scream. Just tell me what it is and I'd gladly give it up now! I don't answer him, though, or ask for clarification. It hurts too much and I flee through the door and never look back.

For three years I don't look back. At first I do not because my pain and mortification prevent me from doing so. I move rather quickly past those, however. Next, I battle the lingering psychological drama that plays out in my head. It is more difficult than facing the Dark Lord, but by the second year, I wash my hands only a dozen times a day. By the beginning of the third, I have reduced that number to three. Three, I decide after much contemplation, is an acceptable number.

Days are filled with training and nights with studying. Graduating from Hogwarts did not save me from these it seems. I train and I heal. Three years and one month after Severus carries me out of the shower, I catch the eye of a handsome wizard across the room of a crowded pub – and I don't look away.

The cottage is perfect. Windows dot every side of its exterior, and I suspect the inside is well-lit with the bright afternoon sun. The front garden, where one would expect a brilliant display of flowers and other eye-catching foliage is instead a mass of plants one would only normally see in the greenhouses of Hogwarts. Plants that are key ingredients in potions making. I smile as I imagine him on his knees, pulling weeds and tending to his treasured foxglove.

I must have triggered the wards, because a moment later he is standing on the front porch staring at me.

"Harry," he says as though we said goodbye just that morning.

"Severus," I say, just as calmly. He waits, tense, as if he expects a gush of emotional declarations, but all I offer is a smile. Eventually, he smiles back. There is so much I would like to do, and much my body is demanding I do, but time has taught me control, among other things, so I simply stuff my hands in my pockets watch him as he is watching me.

Whether or not Severus could be described as a patient man is a hotly debated subject. Casual acquaintances, those he has little emotional interaction with, consider him brusque and quick-tempered. Those of us who know him better would describe him as patient, if not tolerant. He is a master at the waiting game.

After a few minutes, I give a small laugh and concede my defeat. I remove my hands from my pockets, and push through the rickety gate, stepping carefully over the plants that have grown over the flagstones. With measured steps, I approach the low covered porch.

Once I'm there, I expect a flash of nervousness or anxiety, but it never comes. Instead the last of the invisible weight slides from my shoulders and I feel lighter than I have in years.

"Did you wait?" I ask.

His eyes are boring holes in me, and I know he's looking for the chink in my armor, searching for hesitation and uncertainty – any sign that I am not ready for this. I'm about to repeat my question when he answers in a gruff voice, one that is vastly different than his usual deep smooth tones.

"Yes," is all he says, but it is enough. Enough for me to step forward and take from him what he was so unwilling to give me all those years ago. I didn't understand then, and I don't think he expected me to, but as always, he did what he believed to be right. He let me go. The time and space was what I needed then, but not what I crave now.

I slide my body next to his, smiling at his harsh indrawn breath. Tentatively, I place my hands on his hips and squeeze them gently before slipping my arms around him to caress his back. When I pull him forward against me, he comes without complaint, circling me with his own arms.

"Harry," he says, pulling away after a moment, "Enough. You'll get filthy. I've been in the garden all morning."

I glance down and for the first time notice the smears of dirt and mud on his trousers and shirt. Some has already transferred to my own clothing.

He is watching me carefully, and I'm not a fool. I know what he is waiting for. I reach behind me and grasp one of the hands that he has placed on the small of my back. I draw it between us, noting the caked dirt under his clipped nails and the smudges of clay-like soil in the creases of his palm.

I smile as I look back at him, and I draw his hand to my cheek. "Can I stay and help?"

He lets out a breath I didn't even know he was holding. He pulls me close again and strokes his fingers over my face. "I thought you would never ask." As he draws me inside our home for the first time, I realize he wasn't talking about the gardening.

It doesn't matter. Neither was I.

Fin



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