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"Why should you care about me?"

Harry's question hung in the air, filled with anguish, bitterness, and a terrible longing.

His hair hung limply in his eyes, and those eyes pierced Severus to the core.

He gazed into them and saw, for the first time, not his rival James, nor even his beloved Lily, but himself . . .angry and hurting and terrified . . .himself at sixteen, lost and searching desperately for someone to help him, but not knowing how to ask. He looked into the young wizard's eyes and saw an injured soul reflected, through a glass darkly.

Snape took a deep breath. This was not what he had expected when he had gone to search for the boy. He had expected to find a rather depressed youngster as a result of the potion, not one who was drowning in despair and need, not one who reminded him so sharply of himself, hovering on the cusp of self-destruction. Nevertheless, this was what he had found and what he had to deal with.

Severus looked and saw a great canker of hurt upon the boy's soul, as well as anger and need. He made a swift decision, instinctively, and prayed it was the right one. The anger needed to be lanced first, before the hurt could be soothed, like a boil.

So he said, "That's not such an easy question to answer. Why don't you tell me first why you don't think I care about you?"

Harry stared at him, disbelief and anger etching his features, throwing them into sharp relief. "Because you don't! I tried . . .I tried to tell you that I wasn't my father before, but you still insisted I was like him. I never even knew him! And from what I did learn about him, he was a git at my age, and I am not like that! I would never hex people for the fun of it, never act like I was better than everyone, because I know I'm not. I've always known that."

The boy's breath hitched sharply, as if he were trying not to sob.

"How do you know that?"

"Because that's what I've been told my whole bloody life, Snape! By my cousin Dudley, by my Aunt Petunia, and by my uncle. You're a freak, Potter, now get away from Dudley before you contaminate him, they told me. You're a waste of space, Potter! You should have died with your parents. You're a worthless magic mistake! That's what I heard, all the time, ever since I can remember. I was nothing but a burden, put here to do chores and catch the kick in the ribs from Dudley. I was never the spoiled brat you thought me, never given everything I wanted like my father! Do you want to know where I lived for the first ten years of my life, Snape?"

"Where?"

"The cupboard . . .the cupboard under the stairs."

Snape was stunned. But he knew the boy was telling the truth. They had put Lily's son in a cupboard. He clenched his fists together. Those miserable awful Muggles! How dare they? "They put you in a cupboard?"

"That's right. They only let me out to do chores and stuff. Then it was back with the brooms and the mops, Potter! And if you're cheeky, no supper for two days! And no new clothes, Dudley's old ones are good enough for freaks like you! Didn't I have a wonderful life, Severus? It was the best, right?" Harry's voice was sharp with sarcasm. "I don't know why the hell I'm telling you this anyway. Like you give a damn! You're just like the rest of them! You see what you want, not the truth!" He glared angrily at the professor. "I don't know why my mother was ever friends with you!"

Severus felt his temper flare at that pointed comment, but it died as soon as he looked at the boy again. "I . . .deserved that. I haven't been a good friend to you since you . . .transformed back, have I?"

"No. You've been a royal git."

He turned away abruptly, his fists clenched, fighting to keep his emotions locked inside.

Severus knew that defense mechanism, however. He moved then, and closed the gap between them. "You're right. I allowed my temper to rule me. I saw your father, not you. For too many years, I have seen his specter, instead of the child you were. I . . .wish to make amends. I was wrong."

Harry shook with the force of his emotions. "Damn straight you were! Do you know . . .how much I looked forward to your class as a firstie, Professor? I thought it was the one class I could do well in, since I did well in primary chemistry and cooking in school. Everything else was like Greek to me, but potions . . .was the one thing I could succeed in. And then you came in and you . . .never even gave me a chance. I wanted to impress you and you made it impossible. I wanted to respect you, Goddamn it, and instead you made me despise you!"

"I know. I was abominable to you. Part of it was because of my own blindness, but part of it was also a façade, an attempt to maintain my cover as a spy. Even so, it does not excuse my actions. I should have explained this to you, but I have never been the kind to explain much to anyone."

"No kidding." Harry's breath came in harsh pants, his vision began to blur.

Snape caught him before he crumpled to the ground. "Blast it, Potter! You're hyperventilating." He gently eased the boy to a sitting position. Then he leaned the boy forward. "Head between your knees, Potter. That's it. Now, relax and take a breath. Come on, breathe." The professor knelt beside the youngster, one hand resting upon Harry's back, patting it awkwardly. "Breathe. In and out."

Harry managed to draw in a breath and some of the smothering darkness within him faded. He focused on Snape's voice, that familiar silky voice.

He gradually began to breathe normally.

"Good. Another one."

Harry obeyed, breathing in and out. The spots before his eyes receded. He drew in another breath . . .then he began to hiccup. Hard. The hiccups wracked his diaphragm and hurt.

Snape rubbed his back soothingly. "All right, don't tense up. You'll make it worse."

Hiccup!

"Can't . . .stop . . ."

Hiccup!

"Potter . . .Harry . . .listen to me. Take a deep breath and hold it for fifteen seconds. Ready?"

Harry hiccupped, then he tried to do as Severus instructed. He drew in a deep breath and held it, silently counting in his head while Severus counted aloud.

" . . .fourteen . . .fifteen. Breathe."

He let the breath out. Then he drew in another . . .and hiccupped again. "Damn it!"

"Stop. Take another breath and hold it."

Again, Harry obeyed.

That time when he let out his breath, the hiccups were gone.

He heaved a sigh of relief. Cautiously he sat up.

He eyed Severus warily. Now what?

The Potions Master held out the vial in his hand. "You need to drink this. It will help with the depression you're feeling."

Harry balked. His stomach was in knots. "No. I'll just sick up."

"Try."

"No."

"Try anyway." Severus ordered firmly. "You need this." He pulled the boy's head back until it was resting on his shoulder. "Now, head back, mouth open, and swallow." He held the vial to Harry's lips and managed to get the teen to take a swallow of the counteragent.

Harry sputtered. "Ugh! I think I'm gonna be sick."

"No, you will not. Breathe in and out."

Harry did, finding the potion seemed to soothe him.

"Again." Severus made him take another swallow and then another, until the vial was empty.

Harry grimaced, but had to admit whatever the potion was, it did make him feel better. Now he no longer felt as if he were drowning in despair and anguish, though his head throbbed and there was a raw ache deep within him. But the ache eased somewhat when he realized that Severus's hand was still on his shoulder. No, his head was on Severus's shoulder, he amended.

Flushing, he started to sit up, only to have Severus push his head back down.

"Be still. If you sit up too quickly, you'll make yourself dizzy, fledgling," said the potions professor softly. He had not meant to say that name aloud, but somehow it had slipped out of his mouth.

Fledgling. He called me fledgling, Harry thought, and found the old name made some of the darkness leave. Tentatively, his eyes met the older wizard's and he asked, "Did you mean it? What you said before? That you were sorry for how you treated me in class?"

"I did. I allowed an old grudge to dictate my actions and for that I apologize. I should not have held you responsible for things that happened before you were born. I hope someday you can forgive me. I understand now why you changed back . . .and for that I thank you."

Harry gave him a small smile. "Well, I couldn't just let the toad have you, now could I? I mean you saved me too."

"For the umpteenth time," said Snape, a soft growl in his tone.

"What can I say? I'm a trouble magnet." Harry said, spreading his hands out.

"You most certainly are," he agreed, then his eye was caught by a shining silver cuff upon the boy's slender wrist. "Potter . . .Harry . . .what is that?"

"What? Oh, this? It's a . . .Cuff of Binding."

Severus was staring at the silver manacle with a look of loathing and fury. "I know what it is. Who has put such filth upon you, Harry? Who has dared to bind a trueborn Animagus with an item of dark magic?"

"Umbridge. She . . .she did it the first night I had detention with her. She said that I wasn't to be trusted, that she had to put this on me and all it would do was bind my ability to shift forms. She said she wanted no unregistered Animagus running loose in her school."

"Did she now?" Snape's voice was harsh and sharp. "She lied, the wicked bitch! A Cuff of Binding inhibits your ability to shift shapes, that is true, but it also weakens your natural magic. The cuff is an object of dark magic, it imprisons your magic and by doing so also creates an aura of despair. They used them in Azkaban long ago, to bind the powers of criminal Animagi. I was not aware they were still in existence. I thought they had all been melted down. They are illegal, especially . . .especially if used upon a child. " He caught Harry's wrist and turned it over, pushing the cuff up and examining the raw blistered flesh beneath it.

"Bloody hell, how long has it been like that? And why, dammit, why didn't you tell anyone? Do you enjoy playing the martyr so much?"

"No! But . . .I thought it was okay for her to do that. I thought McGonagall approved since Umbridge spoke to her about my Animagus lessons. And I did tell Umbridge the cuff stung, but she said that it was supposed to be uncomfortable and I would simply have to, uh, bear it."

Severus swore furiously. "That bloody hellspawned bitch! I will have her head for this! I will prosecute her to the full extent of the law and I will see her in Azkaban or six feet under, whichever comes first!"

His eyes were blazing black fire and Harry felt a warm glow spread through him. At least someone cared. Until that dark gaze was turned on him, and he flinched. "As for you, mister, I ought to beat some sense into you for allowing this to go for so long without asking for help from someone! It didn't have to be me, but you could have at least gone to your Head of House when that started happening." He stabbed a finger at the rash. "Minerva knows the law as well as I do, she would have no more permitted this on one of her lions than I would have my Slytherins! Or anyone else, for that matter."

"But, Professor, I told you . . .I didn't know it was illegal . . ."

"You should have known better than to accept anything that hag says at face value. Next time, use your head, won't you?" Snape scolded gruffly, though there was more concern than anger in the dark eyes.

"I'm sorry, sir."

"Humph! And it's Severus."

"What?"

"My name. You may use it . . .if you would like. In private," he amended. "Now then, I will try my best to get this . . .abomination off of you. In the meantime, let me see about fixing your wrist."

Severus then summoned his emergency potions kit, the one he kept in a drawer of his desk in his classroom in case some unforeseen accident occurred with one of his students and they needed immediate first aid. He removed several vials and a soft cloth from the kit.

He took Harry's wrist and laid it on his knee, saying quietly, "Some of this will hurt, so grit your teeth. I will be as quick as possible." He pointed his wand at the boy's wrist and intoned a short spell.

Harry gasped as several of the blisters upon his skin burst, oozing a yellow liquid.

"Infection," Severus murmured. "Of the body and your magic." He shook his head and then picked up a vial of purple potion and opened it, shaking some out onto the cloth. "Hold still. This will sting like blazes, but it needs to be done."

Harry clenched his jaw as Snape swabbed the antiseptic potion over his wrist. It burned like hell, but the boy made no sound. His eyes glistened with tears however.

"Almost done." The Potions Master was thorough, making certain all of the infected area was cleansed before applying a salve that numbed and healed open wounds.

Harry exhaled softly in relief.

Then Severus deftly wrapped his wrist in a soft bandage and intoned a Sticking Charm. "There! How does that feel? Better?"

Harry nodded. "Thanks . . .Severus." He gently removed his arm from Snape's knee, wincing as the cuff slipped back over his bandaged wrist. But at least it no longer burned, since the bandage prevented it from touching his skin. "I guess that was why . . .I've been feeling so awful lately."

"What do you mean?"

"I haven't been able to sleep much. And everything I eat tastes like sawdust. I haven't been hungry since . . .I used to be Freedom. I'm exhausted but I can't sleep and I know I need to. My magic, it feels run down . . ."

"All effects of dark magic," Severus said grimly. "The longer this remains upon you, the worse it will get."

"Am I . . .damaged forever then?"

"No. You can be healed, once this is removed," the older man reassured him. "I shall corner the bitch in her office tonight and confront her with this. She will not get away with this, I promise."

"Not with you on her arse, that's for sure." Harry remarked cheekily. Then he sighed gustily. "I'm . . .sorry I didn't tell you sooner, about getting my memories back, I mean. But you see . . .I didn't want to . . .err . . .take your familiar from you. I know how much you liked Freedom. Guess I screwed that up, huh?"

"No. I am . . .honored that you would have cared that much for me . . .considering the way I have behaved towards you. It was more than I deserved. You remind me very much of your mother. She, too, forgave me a great mistake."

"You brought the prophecy to the Dark Lord," Harry said, his tone faintly accusing. "How could you do that?"

"I was young, and desperate to prove myself to Albus. I thought he knew best, that the prophecy was the best way to throw His Darkness off the trail. I had been pardoned by the Ministry, but they watched me still, and I knew they were waiting for me to slip, and then it would be Azkaban for me without hope of a parole. Albus swore that as a spy, I would be invaluable, and I wanted that, I needed that. I needed to atone for being an idiot and following the teachings of a madman. Delivering the prophecy was my first official assignment. But had I known where it would lead in the end . . .I would have refused. I would have never risked Lily or you or even James. . ."

Harry looked into Severus's eyes, and saw that the other was telling the truth. The mask was gone and he saw only great regret and sorrow for what had gone before. He sucked in a breath. Then he said, "I understand. And I . . .forgive you. It wasn't your fault. It was bloody Dumbledore's. And the Dark Lord's. But not yours."

"Do you truly mean that?"

"Yes."

"How . . .is that possible?"

"Because . . .that's what friends do. They forgive each other."

Severus smiled. Not a half smile, but a true smile. For with those words, the gaping wound in his soul had begun to heal.

"Thank you, Harry. You are wiser than you know. Sometimes. Other times, you can be a foolish fifteen-year-old. What possessed you to take a Stimulant Draft? Didn't you know it's dangerous to rely on such things?"

"Uh . . .well, Hermione did warn me, but I had to do something, Sev! I have so much work to do and how the hell am I going to get it all done before my OWLS?"

Severus reached out and cuffed him, very lightly, on the ear. "By asking for help, you incorrigible brat."

"Hey!" The boy shot him a glare. Then he said, "Well? Will you help me, Professor Snape?"

"Yes. I will take a look at your work and give you tips on how to speed read and outline so you needn't read the whole assignment and show you how to write concisely. You do not have to re-invent the wheel, Potter."

"Is that allowed?"

"It bloody well is. You are a student, I'm your teacher, if you ask me for help, I am bound to give it." Snape smirked. "You see, there is more than one way to skin a dragon."

Harry smirked too. "Bet she never thought of that, the damn toad."

"Obviously not." Severus said dryly. "I think she wanted to break you with her cuff and her impossible workload."

Harry snorted, his eyes flashing. "I'm not broken that easily." He gazed up at his teacher hopefully. "I can't wait until I have this damn thing off. I really want to fly again."

The wistful longing in the boy's tone made the Potions Master sigh. "I know. We will find a way to make that happen. No Animagus should be bound."

Harry nodded. "Hawks were meant to fly free. You know, the way I was when I was Freedom . . .that was still me. It wasn't an act."

"I know that now." He put an arm about the slender shoulders. "You will always be Harry Potter. And you will always be my Freedom."

The boy stared up at him, disbelief and hope mingled in his gaze. "You really mean that?"

"I do."

Suddenly, the professor found himself with an armful of a green-eyed Animagus, who hugged him fiercely, shaking with silent sobs. Awkwardly, he patted the boy on the back. "Hush. It's all right."

The words, spoken in that soft silky tone, shattered a wall within the boy then, and he did something he had not done since he was a small child. He put his head down on Severus's shoulder and cried. The tears did not come easily, they flowed from some bitter well deep within him, but as he wept all of his fear and loneliness and pain away, he felt the ache inside of him, that had been born when he first realized he would never be accepted by his family, begin to mend, for at last someone cared just for him.

Severus held the sobbing child close, one hand patting his back, the other carding his infinitely messy hair. He wasn't sure if he was doing this comforting thing right, for he had never comforted anyone before, but assumed he must be, for Harry was still clinging to him. He knew, analytically, that the boy needed this release, had been needing it for quite some time, but he had not expected Harry to turn to him for comfort, since he had been the cause of so much of the boy's pain. Yet here they were, temperamental snarky professor and moody wounded adolescent, both managing to find comfort in the most unlikely place of all.

For the first time, Severus Snape began to think that it was possible to mend a broken heart, and his soul, so long imprisoned by darkness and despair, grew wings and flew free at last, thanks to one stubborn boy, who refused to let friendship die.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Well, things finally came to a head, didn't they?

But while some things have been resolved others still need to be addressed, and don't think Harry and Sev's friendship will be all roses and song, there will still be bumps and bruises and quarrels. But the bond will never be broken.

Next: Severus goes head to head with Dolores over the bracelet and Harry with Ron over Snape!

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