TEAM DRAGON ENTRY: ThreeSidedOrchid "Learning to Speak" Title: Learning to Speak Author: ThreeSidedOrchid (synn) Team: Dragon Genre(s): Romance Prompt(s): Ashes of Youth, St. Mungo's Rating/Warnings/Kinks: Pg-13, *Pre-slash*; The shameless bastardization of beloved Dr. Seuss story for my own purposes. Word count: Approx. 10,000 Summary: "Most men spend their lives trying to either brush off the ashes of their youth, or rekindle them. The truth is that the only way to move forward is to accept them. " A/N: Many, many thanks to the Mods, for not only organizing the games, but also for their patience and understanding. Also, this story would not exist in any intelligible form if it weren't for the beta work of Bironic (LJ), jadzialove, mimiheart and klynie1. I'm fairly sure I owe a portion of my soul to each of you for saving this story, Thank you. And My thanks too, to the other members of team dragon, particularly joanwilder, for all of your support and encouragement along the way. Disclaimer:The Harry Potter universe belongs to JKR, WB, and probably a few others whose names I don't know, not me. I make no money off this story, it is written for the sole purpose of attempting to entertain a few people.
I need to get out of here.
Sweeping the ashes back into the shadows of the fireplace is a futile task; the hearth is already stained black from the long, neglected years of Severus' youth. He sweeps anyway, watching the streaks left in the wake of dry bristles.
A tap-tap-tap -- impatiently repeated after the barest pause -- interrupts.
"Ah," Severus says, no longer surprised to see Twit. "You're back."
Crossing to the window takes only a few steps, but Severus is conscious of them in a way he has become only recently. The floorboards groan in protest of bearing his weight, and the low ceiling seems to press down from above.
The window sticks. Severus pushes against the frame while the owl bumps his beak into the open space, helping. A smidge more is coaxed from the reluctant wood, and Twit squeezes through. Nearly over-balancing, he scrabbles for purchase against the narrow sill, wings banging Severus' forearms. Settling at last, he drops the letting into Severus' hands with a proud hoot.
"Yes, very good. It isn't as if you couldn't have flown to a better spot."
Twit chitters in reply, turning his head over with an expression of profound incomprehension.
Severus examines the letter as he goes to sit at the table, running his hands over the smooth parchment as if the St. Mungo's stationey and lack of seal did not make it painfully obvious it is like its predecessors.
Even without the vague explanation in the second letter, he might have guessed their origin. St. Mungo's treatment program to 'assist those participants traumatized by the war' is well lauded by the Prophet. Severus can hardly think of it without sneering. A thinly veiled excuse to hold war heroes captive and reap the benefits of their popularity would be a more apt description.
A nip to his hand brings Severus out of his thoughts, and he glances down to see Twit worrying a corner of the parchment in his beak.
"Busybody. I don't see your name on it."
Nor his own, either, if one were to be specific. Twit hops back, claws muffled by the scattered pages of the Prophet, as Severus opens the letter.
"I stand corrected," Severus says, but Twit's attention has worn thin. He ignores Severus in favor of examining his reflection, warped in the sides of the fruit bowl.
I suppose I may as well address these to you as anyone. I like it better, I think, to have someone's name to place beside the 'dear', even if they're not really going anywhere. It's easier to come up with things to say, at any rate. Where do you take them? Maybe you just drop them into the ocean, but I imagine a pile of letters building up in some abandoned Floo -- or grave.
I really hope that's not it.
They're not going to let me go anytime soon, that much I know. The mediwitch keeps telling me that accepting I need to be here is one of the biggest steps towards being released. Well. Bollocks to that.
Here a blot of ink soaks the page, one thinner line trailing out only to stop abruptly, in a rather overdramatic end to the letter. Still, Severus finds himself curious where that line might have led.
Setting the letter aside, he gets up to make himself a cup of tea. Receiving unaddressed letters is one thing, but to be addressed as that feather-brained excuse for a messenger is not to be borne. Gathering ink, pen, and tea, Severus sits down again.
It may say 'Mercury' on his tag, but I've always found 'Twit' a more appropriate name for our mutual friend. As for the destination of unaddressed letters: an owl will deliver to the last person it visited. You should be grateful that I had business with St. Mungo's not so long ago, or you might find your words in the hands of one of the Healers.
I realize it is not my place to offer an opinion. However, as you see nothing improper about imposing your own thoughts upon me, unsolicited, it seems only right that I return the sentiment. Play along with them: if you wish to be free, then you must at least give the illusion of cooperation --
Curiosity re-piqued, Twit hops over, looking down at the page and twittering nonsense.
"Write your own letter," Severus admonishes, pushing the owl away not un-gently before curling in again over the page.
For future reference, a private Healer is far less likely to sell your soul to St. Mungo's for the sake of publicity.
Severus tilts his head up further while Coroncoeur's fingers work at his throat, examining the muscles. He focuses on his breathing and not the disconcerting touch, but tenses despite himself when the Healer's fingers press into the sensitive scar tissue.
"Some," Severus answers, grudgingly. A little bit of pain after the years he has endured is almost welcome. Enduring Coroncoeur's touch on the rest of his skin, that is more difficult.
"Have you been speaking as I advised?"
"I've hardly stopped."
Coroncoeur chuckles, a warm sound, and Severus keeps his gaze on the ceiling, spread in sterile white above them.
"That isn't what I meant and you know it. How many times must I tell you that speaking is the only way you'll regain the full strength of that lovely voice of yours?"
"I am not a social man, to go gossiping about," he answers, flexing his fingers against the rough fabric of his trousers.
"You can tilt your head down now, but lean back a little." When Severus obeys, Coroncoeur's hands move down, over his chest to examine lungs and heart. "You have an owl?"
Severus nods. There's gray liberally streaking Coroncoeur's hair, and he wonders vaguely how long it's been there. Surely it was there at his last visit a few months ago, and even the visit before that. But it seems a sudden thing, and he realizes that his mental image of Coroncoeur is still that of the Healer as he first met him all those years ago.
"Then talk to them."
The hands have reached his abdomen, and Severus holds his breath. Trying to imprint Coroncoeur's appearance now over that in his mind leaves him instead seeing the younger man he remembers behind the fine wrinkles. He must have been little older then than Severus is now.
"Finite Incantatem," Coroncoeur says, and the yellow of the diagnostics spell on his hands fades. He turns away, going over to the worktable where Severus' file rests.
Severus does up the buttons of his shirt slowly. Strange, that such a simple device should require so complex a dance of fingers as it does.
"You're healing well, just not as quickly as I would like."
"I'm in no rush."
There's no response, making Severus look up only to wish he hadn't. Coroncoeur's gaze seems to examine him far more thoroughly than his touch and spells have done.
"You're still a young man, and a hero, don't forget that."
Severus laughs, a dry burst that rasps unpleasantly in his throat. "I'm no hero," he says, voice shaking from the strain of laughing. He shrugs on his outer cloak, pulling it close to banish the feeling that he is still sitting there, shirt off and throat exposed. "And I'll thank you to keep your attentions on my physical health."
I will pass on some good advice, though I've never been able to heed it myself. A
friend once told me that most men spend their lives trying to either brush off the
ashes of their youth, or rekindle them. The truth is that the only way to move forward
is to accept them. Or, as he said: a little dirt never hurt anyone.
Kneeling on the dusty earth, Severus turns over the soil.
The land behind the house at Spinner's End can hardly be called a garden. Most of it is dry, choked lifeless by the same smog that permeates the air. But on the side, in an alcove created by a bend in the house and away from the view of neighbors, Severus nurses a little patch. Even with magic it takes effort to make anything grow -- his mother had taught him that early on, when she'd convinced the soil to give up onion and carrot instead of the mint and dittany it now yields.
He leans back on his heels, looking up at the sky and gathering clouds. Maybe it's instinct that guides him, or a touch of the magic between owl and wizard growing bold, because he spies Twit instantly.
The owl chirps in greeting, then again in distress as he darts down to recapture the dropped letter.
Casting a cleaning spell over his tools and self, Severus stands to wait. Twit speeds up, releasing the letter into Severus' hands and barreling on into a victory lap above his head. He comes in to land, skittering to a halt in the yard, while Severus opens the letter.
I didn't think anyone was paying attention.
"Obviously," Severus mutters, wondering if he has consigned himself to correspondence with an idiot. He makes his way back into the house, leaving Twit happily hunting bugs.
I'm sorry if my letters have been an imposition. I'll stop if you like. But I'm grateful for your advice. You're right, at least, I think you are. My friend, she keeps telling me the same thing, and they let her out months ago.
It just, it isn't fair that I should have to play their game. I know I should know better -- if I learned anything from the war you'd think it'd be that life isn't fair. I did learn it. I just… don't like it.
Then again, if I'd accepted how unfair life can be, I might not have cared so much about the fight.
Some of my friends came to visit yesterday. It was nice, really. They're at school this year, finishing up.
Ah, Severus thinks, and chastises himself for the pang of disappointment; the tone and handwriting had all but guaranteed the writer was younger well before this admission.
It's strange to think that if I go back now they won't be there.
Have you ever wanted something so badly you can feel the weight of it in your hands? All I want is to get out of here, and I don't even know where I'd go. I don’t mean to bore you by repeating myself -- but there isn't a lot to do here except think about life. I feel like I'm going in circles.
The letter ends there, but for a dash and an 'E' in an almost illegible spit of ink at the bottom.
A student, Severus considers as he refolds the parchment, and in all likelihood, a student of his. He folds it again, and again, sharpening each new crease with his fingertips as he walks over to the fire.
The flames embrace it slowly, curling first over the edges and corners, working their way down to the dense heart.
It begins to rain as he makes dinner, the heavens foregoing an overture in favor of pouring down suddenly in a grand display that obliterates the view from the kitchen window behind a curtain of gray.
Adding onion to the pan, Severus gives it a quick stir before taking up a tomato. He cuts through the flesh, the efficient strokes a soothing, familiar act. Caught in the undertow of this most recent letter, Severus' thoughts go only so far before being dragged back to them. He remembers the first, a single-sentence declaration scrawled across the page in a fast, angry line: I need to get out of here. The second too, he recalls, though in less perfect bits and flashes: They tell me it's therapeutic -- unnecessary -- who would I write -- don't have to answer. He hadn't, of course, but that hadn't stopped the third letter from arriving, bearing the detailed drawing of a snitch charmed to flutter across the page and bounce off the edges.
Severus wonders if the mysterious 'E' will understand his lack of response this week as a dismissal, or if next week he will see Twit winging towards --
Setting the knife down with a clack, he goes to open the kitchen door. The back is a mess of earth beaten to mud by the downpour. Water splashes into the doorway, seeking some new, dry land to venture onto. Severus tracks it, stepping back slightly and looking down to find Twit just before the door, a mound of sopping feathers.
"Foolish bird," he admonishes, scooping Twit up. "You should have tapped at the window, where I might have seen you, if not heard you."
Twit hoots complacently, soggily.
Seizing tea towels from the kitchen, Severus sets up a nest on the hearth.
"There," he says, working to rebuild the dying fire. "Drop that pathetic mien. I assure you, you're quite waterproof."
Not deigning to answer, Twit snuggles deeper into the cloth.
They both stay by the fire that night. Book resting unread in his lap, Severus drifts in and out of sleep. Rational thoughts of chores to be done, in dreaming, meander to memories and the ridiculous, each time lured away by the fragments of letters that will not leave him. He startles awake no less than three times, his hand itching with the feel of a pen that isn't there.
Severus gives in over breakfast, laying out fresh parchment while Twit helps himself to snatches of toast.
Stop wallowing. If being there gives you anything, it is time -- time which you might put to some reasonable use…
The only conclusion I can draw about change -- and believe me,
I have thought on it -- is that despite what I do, my life seems to play out
in variations on the same theme, only the details changing.
Spring and late summer are Severus' least favorite times to visit Diagon Alley. In springtime, there are blessedly fewer children screaming about, but every witch, wizard and Squib in the British Isles decides to enjoy the fine air by spending the day in the Alley, pushing through crowds, trooping in and out of shops with an ever-increasing number of bags to weigh them down.
Dust stirred up by the shuffling of so many feet grays the hem of his cloak, and Severus twitches it in irritation. Looking up, he swerves to avoid a couple of witches stopped suddenly before a window display. Their voices rise up from the babble of noise around him as he passes, a snatch of conversation without context that floats briefly on the surface of his mind, and then is swept away by others overheard.
The bell above the door chimes as he closes it, and Severus breathes in the cooler air with relief.
"No, it's the orange ones we want, they're the freshest."
Wrong, he thinks, passing by the older couple hovering uncertainly before the gambolgrits. Catching sight of him, the woman sneers and sidles closer to her husband.
"Morris," Severus greets. "I haven't been a professor in some time."
"Ah, but you've taught us all a lesson, you have," Morris answers, lips spread in a grin. He goes on before Severus can respond. "But you're early. I've not yet received today's delivery. Your dragon heart's due in on it, fresh as you can get."
"Half hour, an hour at the most. "
He takes an early tea to while away the hour with minimal discomfort. Filching an abandoned copy of the paper from a nearby table, he reads what little there is of interest for the day. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Prophet had real articles, not fluff and sensationalism.
An article on the St. Mungo's program -- "Neville Longbottom Released!" -- brings the memory of E's words, his most recent letter waiting on the kitchen table at home.
There's always some reporter or another here, hoping for interviews, wanting to know how the war has changed us.
Thing is, I don't think it's changed me. I mean, yes, of course, there are things I see differently now -- things I thought that new information changed -- but I'm not any different. I can't remember ever thinking differently -- well, being different than I am now. Does that make sense? Do you think people really change? Or are we just turned in place by circumstances, like… compasses, always pointing north even when it looks like they're pointing east --
Change, Severus thinks, turning pages of ads for Sleekeasy's, Max's Miracle Mixes, Latty Long's Estates Real and Not. Setting the paper aside for the next patron, Severus swallows back the rest of his tea. He pays the tab with a few Knuts tossed beside the flickering votive and gets up to go on with the rest of his day.
The truth is that I knew I would buy the house the moment we stepped inside and I could stand straight without feeling I should be stooped over.
"Now, the kitchen is just perfect for you. I knew it the moment I saw this house, I did. There's positively a hundred cabinets -- Just this way -- The witch who lived here before was quite the cook."
Severus lingers a moment longer in the living room, taking in the sight of it without Miss Long's violet robes to distract him. A bay window at the front of the room throws sunlight over walls and floor, indiscriminant. The stone fireplace is well-kept, emptied and cleaned in anticipation of the new owners.
Following the sound of her heels clomping against the wood, Severus finds Miss Long in the kitchen. It is, indeed, far larger than the cottage's exterior would suggest. He opens cabinet after cabinet, letting her ramble on about the updates and restoration charms, pretending her words will make a difference.
I lost the only real father I ever knew in the war.
Severus watches Minerva fix the tea. Around them, Albus' gadgets play a discordant concert with their whir-buzz-chime; even the fire joins in, punctuating the notes with its pop and crackle. Albs, his likeness, slumbers on in his picture frame, as oblivious to all the noise in painted form as he was in life.
"No, thank you."
Albus had told him once that many of the devices did nothing -- merely spun out their own rhythm -- but he kept them running because it calmed visitors. The idea of a greater scheme, he'd said, is a comfort to many. He'd laughed to know Severus was an exception.
"Well," Minerva says, setting his cup before him and sitting back in her chair. She looks as if she'll go on, but presses her lips together instead.
Sometimes I catch even the people who know me best looking at me differently now.
"I won't apologize, Severus, for thinking of you exactly as you wished us to think."
"I haven't asked you to." It's enough to see her discomfort and surprise now, as she blinks at him.
"Yes, good then. I suppose you're wondering why I invited you here -- "
"Hogwarts needs a potions instructor."
"Why, is it failing?"
He smirks at the frustration in her tone. "My apologies, please continue."
"I'm offering you the job and Head of Slytherin."
During that final year, when he'd allowed himself the luxury, his imaginings of this moment had contained a sense of triumph, of relish. He finds the reality curiously lackluster. Not enough so, however, that he is unwilling to return. It's worth it if for no other reason than to show he can walk the halls again without shame.
"I don't know," he prevaricates. "I can earn half again as much -- easily -- making potions from the comfort of my home."
Lips quirking in the smallest of smiles, Minerva sits back in her chair. "Rebuilding did cost us a shiny Knut -- but I believe I could offer you a ten percent increase from your teacher's salary."
"Fifteen, and double the yearly bonus for head-of-house duties."
With a huff of disgust, Severus sets his teacup aside and stands.
"Oh come now," she says when he has his hand on the doorknob. "That is more than generous, and you will still have the summers to sell potions on consignment."
He'd hoped she'd forget that detail. Turning partway back, he nods his head in concession. "I'll await the contract."
"It'll be along shortly. Oh, and there is just one more thing --"
Fortunate that he had turned towards the door again, or she might have seen his wince at the familiar words, though she doesn't deliver them quite as innocently as Albus had.
"Harry intends to return for his final year."
Potter. Of course. Severus' hand tightens around the doorknob, bruising flesh against metal. If fate does exist, it is surely a thing of whimsy or malice, to smash he and Potter together again. Letting go of the door abruptly he turns, leaning against it and crossing his arms.
"I see. Am I to presume that you expect me to allow him into my class?"
"Oh no, Severus, of course not."
Her words are far from reassuring, and Severus arches a brow in expectation of her finale.
"I expect you to give him private tutelage."
"He wants to complete his education. I would think even you could not fault him for that."
"Then he may do so in classes, just as his peers. I refuse to mollycoddle that boy simply because he had the decency to die at an opportune time."
"He is egotistical, insufferable, disre--"
Severus closes his mouth when Minerva stands, every inch the headmistress.
"I recall another egotistical, insufferable, disrespectful young man. Harry is not being given private lessons out of hero worship, but because of it. He could not set foot in this school right now without being mobbed, and attending classes with the other students would disrupt not only his own learning but that of others as well. He's older and has seen more than any of the other students -- they can hardly be considered his peers. Not to mention, there is no certainty St. Mungo's will release him in time to begin the year with everyone else. You will provide separate lessons for Harry, Severus, or I will find another potions professor."
"Then I suppose your wish is my command, Headmistress."
It's a rare sight indeed, to see uncertainty flicker across Minerva's features.
"If I could have given you back-- "
"Don't be absurd, Minerva, I never wanted the position."
I have plans for a real Garden next year. It's yard is empty now, but the soil is fertile.
It's a glorious thing to hold earth, at last, willing to yield.
Magic was fine for packing, but Severus prefers to do much of the unpacking by hand rather than slam books onto shelves and clothes into closets willy-nilly. Wiping each book with a charmed cloth clears away the grime from Spinner's End, uncovering gilded titles Severus had forgotten he owned.
He finds, too, fragments of his parents' lives; his mother's figurines, which must have grown dusty and unnoticed, his father's comb, presumably unearthed from a drawer. Severus runs his finger across the hard tines before snapping it in half. The figurines he wipes clean and examines in the light. Some of them have lost what beauty they might have possessed, their forms webbed with cracks from one too many repair spells. These he remembers -- as flashes of light in the air, the tinkle of glass hitting brick, his father's sobbing, drunken apologies -- and sets them
carefully beside the discarded comb. A few remain unscathed, or appear so, and Severus places them on the mantelpiece, a tiny glass menagerie.
Furniture arrives sporadically, shrunken down and carried by owls from their respective stores. For days the house is a disaster of paper, boxes and feathers.
Severus is receiving a writing desk from an imperious horned owl on the second day when Twit arrives. Flying in the open window, he heads straight for Severus, noticing the other owl just in time to stop himself from landing, wings spread and back-beating to hover in surprised confusion. Dropping the letter to the table, Twit lands with a thump and hops over to inspect the interloper. Placing himself between Severus and the owl, Twit pokes his beak into the other bird's chest.
"Stop that," Severus commands. Twit turns, feathers puffing out in a huff and chittering angrily. Severus glances at the horned owl, who returns his gaze, impressive brow feathers arched up, waiting for Severus to put the upstart in his place.
"Yes, Twit, you're perfectly right. You are of course more owl than I could ever want. I don't know what I was thinking. Now, if you would kindly move out of the way so that I can pay him, we will send," a glance at the owl's tag, "Temeraire on his way."
Twit stares at him and spins his head to stare at the other owl before moving hesitantly to the side. He watches as Severus presents the second half of his payment and Temeraire leaves before finally giving a satisfied hoot and directing Severus' attention to the letter.
I have determined, Severus writes later that night from the comfort of the desk, a fire crackling in the hearth, that you were correct: a new home is indeed more than just different walls. I suppose I must thank you for the advice, much as it was a hassle, exhausting and costly. I think you would be wise to sell this family home of yours. Take what good you can from it and leave the rest.
There is nothing I would like more.
Setting the groceries down on the kitchen counter, Severus takes the letter from Twit. He doesn't read it right away. Instead, he puts the groceries away -- what few there are with only a few days left before he must pack up and return to Hogwarts for the year. He cleans the floors and hearth, tends to a few of his plants in need of clipping, and makes dinner before settling down to read.
They're letting me out! I'm so happy, I can barely write, my hand is shaking. I think it's because of you -- if you hadn't given me the advice you have, or kept me sane by listening, I'd probably be stuck here another year. Thank you.
I'd like to say it in person. Sometime. If you'd be interested. If not, that's all right too. Just, let me know, yeah?
Severus stares. Meeting E has never occurred to him. A chance encounter, the thought that they might pass each other in the street, the knowledge that they likely have met at Hogwarts, yes, of course he'd considered these possibilities, but never the suggestion that they might choose to meet, at a specific place, a set time. How strange, that he could have missed what is now so clearly an inevitable conclusion of their correspondence.
Part of me is afraid, of getting out, of going back there. Here, at least, it's quiet.
One of the school elves has already set out breakfast when Severus stumbles half-asleep into the kitchenette. His home may have the more comfortable bed, but Hogwarts has its own comforts, Severus thinks, pouring himself a cup of the perfectly brewed tea. Using the teacup saucer, he fills a more modest plate for Twit from the eggs and bacon heaped on his own, setting it aside for whenever the owl arrives.
Picking up the folded Prophet from beside his plate, he rolls his eyes to see Potter's title spread across the headline in inch-high letters: "Boy-Who-Lived to be Free." He begins to turn to the obituaries when a familiar flash of movement in the accompanying picture catches his eye and he turns back.
It's Twit. Twit hopping up on Potter's knee, head tilting. Severus stares. Potter is in near silhouette, seated on the windowsill, captured just as he sees the camera and turns away to look out the window. It's posed, it must be, with such melodramatic melancholy to it. The page begins to blur; Severus' hands are shaking it where they clench the edges. Ignoring the spilling juice, the slosh of tea, he shoves the breakfast dishes back in a clatter and slams the paper down. Twit's a St. Mungo's owl; he could have been brought in for the photo, Severus thinks, and almost has himself convinced when he notices another, smaller movement in the image: Potter's hand, fingers tightening against a set of pages in his lap.
Severus scans the article for any reprieve while tea and juice soak through the pages, blurring the ink.
After nearly two years -- closest friends released a year ago -- and there, the damning words, last patient to be released from the St. Mungo's Veterans Recovery Program.
Standing sends his chair stuttering back. Severus pushes the paper forward, into the dishes, until half of them tumble over the edges, smashing against the flagstones. He looks at the mess, like some disenchanted still-life, plates overturned, paper soaked through, image unmoving.
Turning on his heel, Severus goes to the lab and, seizing the largest knife and nearest ingredient, begins chopping.
He is still there several hours later later, nightshirt stained with ingredients, when Twit flies into the room bearing a letter.
Twit hoots questioningly, hopping closer.
Severus stops chopping and looks up. "I said go away."
Oblivious, Twit pushes the letter forward helpfully with his beak.
Lunging forward, Severus strikes the knife into the letter, sending Twit back in a panic. He sneers, pulling the knife from the table with a jerk and holding it up, letter attached.
"Incendio," Severus whispers, igniting the letter before the horrified owl.
"There," he continues almost casually, scraping the burning parchment off into a cauldron. "Now you may say you delivered the letter. Get out."
Severus opens the letter by mistake. The school owl that lands before him at breakfast could have been from anyone. Of course, Twit would have stayed at St. Mungo's. There is the smallest pang of regret at having parted with the little bird on such poor terms. Last time, Twit had been too afraid to approach, abandoning the letter and barely waiting for Severus' "go" before leaving.
He sends the owl away without a response. Not wanting to raise questions by igniting the letter at the breakfast table, he leaves it folded beneath the lip of his plate. It's a mistake. The parchment catches the morning sunlight, drawing his eye, resurrecting the words again and again. I don't know what I've done, but I'm sorry. Please, tell me, yell at me if you like, but please, I can't do this without you.
Potter arrives late to breakfast. He takes a seat at the very end of the Gryffindor table, three places away from anyone else. Whispering starts as soon as he enters, some of the students sneaking glances at him, others staring unabashedly. Severus cannot decide if it is better or worse than the deafening applause and mobbing of the night before.
He looks different in the new light. Easier to see across the hall when it is not dimmed by evening, lit with candles that cast shadows everywhere. Then, he'd looked precisely the image of his father, raising the bile in Severus' throat and forcing him to leave before Potter could reach the high table. Now, he looks like neither a man nor a boy, but some coltish in-between.
Potter looks up, and Severus snaps his gaze to another table before pushing the letter further under his plate and resolutely turning his attentions to his meal.
He tracks Potter's progress by sound; the creak of the classroom door, soft footsteps coming closer.
"Professor," Potter says, when Severus does not look up.
"Mr. Potter," he begins, trying to ignore the way his hand jerks, sending a jagged line across the page. "As I am certain what little knowledge you might have gleaned from my class was lost during your… adventure and subsequent incarceration, we will begin again with the basics. I trust your reading comprehension has not deteriorated so far that you cannot understand the chapter list on the board?"
"I've been reviewing, sir."
"Then it should go quickly."
He looks up when there is no response or movement from Potter. Despite his expression being set in a rigid mask of indifference, a red flush is creeping up Potter's throat, curving up to his cheeks.
"Perhaps I was incorrect in my assumption. Begin with chapter eight. That's the one that looks like a snowman without its head."
The red darkens, and he can see Potter's jaw work, grinding back his immediate response. Severus sits up straight. "Well?"
Turning, Potter goes over to one of the tables, dropping his bag with rather more force than is necessary. Severus watches his back, the way the thin shoulders jerk as he opens the bag, their rise and fall as Potter draws a calming breath.
"I wanted to thank you," Potter says, spinning back to face him so fast he catches Severus off-guard and still watching. "You're still an utter arse, you know that? But what you did -- you saved me, you saved all of us, and I wanted to say thank you."
Severus swallows, the motion pushing his throat against his collar, teasing the scars beneath. "Keep your thanks," he says when it finally seems he'll be able to speak without coughing. "None of what I did was for you."
"I know, but they're not here to say it."
Merlin help him, but Potter says it gently.
"Chapter eight, Potter." The words come out in a rasp. He breathes in a sigh of relief when Potter sits down, opening his book at last.
The faculty garden at Hogwarts is pleasant enough. Its small pond and flowerbeds are divided by cobblestone paths. Though it's not much to walk, it is a good place for those who prefer to take in the sun without students lollygagging about.
Albus had often met him here, for tea in the open air, a few weeks into term when the year would begin to wear on Severus. They'd never discussed classes or the war here, which had frequently left him listening to Albus rambling on about some outlandish robes he'd ordered, or a new, favored candy. Why a man of Albus' years and wisdom had felt the need to fill a perfectly respectable silence with the drivel of a child, Severus still does not comprehend.
The garden's empty today, except for him, and Severus sits on the bench before the pond. The koi inside swim lazily, sometimes rising to the surface to mouth the same word to him over and over, as if hoping somehow to be understood.
Potter interrupts. He comes through the castle door, tapping the end of his broom against the cobbles with every step, heedless of the silence. Startled, the koi dart down, deeper into the water.
"Mr. Potter." Severus stands as Potter looks over, clearly surprised to see someone else. "You cannot fly that here."
"Look, Sn-- sir, Headmistress McGonagall said I have permission to be here, and I'll stay out of your way. I just need to fly someplace quiet."
Indeed. Severus has no doubt the boy needs something to erase the lines of exhaustion that have only grown since he's returned. For a moment, he regrets having to take away this opportunity. "While I appreciate your concern for my comfort, the fact remains that you cannot fly here."
Potter stares at him, and Severus can see the mutiny rising.
"Only a portion of the vast expanse you see before you is real. The castle walls surround us, charmed to create the illusion that the garden continues. Unless you intend to crash that broom of yours into stone, you cannot fly here."
"Oh." Potter looks down, then out towards the artificial view, his brow creasing. "It's nice here."
Instead of responding, Severus sits again and pretends to go back to watching the fish. In his peripheral vision, he can see Potter wandering the path, uncertain and gazing towards the sky. At the far end of the garden Potter turns, but instead of continuing back, he mounts his broom. Severus feels a flash of anger that his words mean so little, but before he can stand and speak, Potter takes off. He doesn't speed away, but rises slowly, straight up to hover in the air. Carefully, he lies back, resting his head on the broom's tail and crossing his feet beneath the handle. Then he reaches back, pushing off the invisible castle wall and sending the broom forward to drift across the room.
Severus watches while Potter continues to float around the garden. The koi look on, mouths opening and closing in amazement.
If you will allow me, I'd like still to call you a friend --
"Widdershins," Severus says, grabbing Potter's hand and reversing the direction of his stirring before he ruins the potion. He lets go once it's corrected, going back to his own potion on the other side of the table. "Tell me why."
"Um. It's an oil base…"
Biting his lip, brow creased, Potter's face is more reminiscent of Lily's than his father's. He does better, Severus concedes in the sanctity of his own mind, without a class full of students around him. Or perhaps it is the added years that have made the difference.
"The mermaid scales won't combine otherwise?"
"Yes. Remember that, or you will end up with nothing more than an inert concoction with the distinct eau de poisson."
"Fragrance of fish."
"Oh." Potter looks confused a moment longer, and then his lips quirk with the hint of a smile that is quickly buried when he sees Severus watching. Potter's shoulder's tighten with a delicate tension that Severus had not realized was gone until he sees it return.
Severus thinks of the letters in his desk drawer, of all the secrets they hold, and for a moment he sees E standing before him -- not Potter, and not Lily's son, but the young man bruised by war and St. Mungo's, who so often put down Severus' own thoughts under the guise of his own. He decides then that a little parchment and ink is a small sacrifice to make in exchange for erasing the shadows beneath those eyes.
I've fallen in love with a flower. How ridiculous is that?
He goes out to the garden before dinner, winter cloak on to block the early November chill. Most of the garden has withered, but the setting sun paints enough pinks and purples across the landscape to render it lovely. Potter is there, as he often is mow, but Severus is surprised that he must, for once, look down instead of up for the man.
Broom resting against one of the benches, Potter is crouched beside a flowerbed, examining a tall stalk of blossoms. In the dying light, the little flames at the heart of each flower seem to burn brighter.
Severus steps closer, assaulted by memories and the sudden desire for something he cannot name.
"Snapdragons were Lily's favorite," he says, more grateful than he'd admit when Potter does not turn around.
The answer is a long time coming. "Is that what they are?"
"Wizard snapdragons. The Muggle variety is different, of course." Severus kneels beside Potter. "You can touch them; they won't burn." He reaches up, cupping one of the blossoms in his fingers to demonstrate.
Potter mimics his motion.
"Watch." Severus presses the blossom between his fingers, crushing it in a burst of flame and falling ash.
"That's -- "
"Watch." Severus keeps his gaze on Potter, watching awe steal over his features as the pile of ashes ignites, reforming into the bud of a new plant.
I love magic, sometimes so much it hurts.
"Tell me about her?"
Severus realizes he has seated himself too close, but to back away now would seem like a rejection he is unwilling to make. "I wouldn't know where to begin."
"What was she like? What did she like?"
You, Severus thinks, she was very much like you. Swallowing back the unspoken words, he looks away from Potter.
"She liked snapdragons, and Quidditch, sugar quills better than chocolate, Exploding Snap better than chess-- "
Like most years, few of the students stay over the holidays. Some of the seventh years remain to celebrate together. Potter stays too, haunting the snow-covered garden. Severus intends to return to his home for the duration, but changes his mind at the last minute, deciding so short a break is more trouble in packing than it's worth.
He spends most of Christmas comfortably ensconced by the fire with a book. If his eyes are drawn more than once to the elegant glass pen, resting in its open box beside him, it is hardly significant. And if he reads the accompanying note, serving as a steadfast bookmark, a few times, it signifies nothing more than appreciation for a fine gift.
He ventures out so far as the Great Hall for dinner. Minerva has altered the decorations this year, abandoning the walls lined with trees in favor of a single, grand tree that stretches from the floor up, up, until the top is lost somewhere in the ceiling's illusion of falling snow.
Dinner is served by the light of the tree, everyone seated around a single table as Albus preferred. Even so, they make enough noise for two tables, between the chime of silverware and glasses and their voices rising ever louder to be heard over cutlery.
Someone gives Potter wine -- Hagrid, undoubtedly -- and though he drinks it in moderation, Severus is vaguely amused to see his cheeks flushed red and eyes bright with intoxication. Seated between Hagrid and Flitwick, Potter is constantly laughing.
The table is large enough that he cannot hear what is said from Potter's side, aside from Hagrid-- but he hardly needs to hear Potter's reaction when Twit lands before him, a bow about his neck and a scrap of parchment in his beak. Potter's smile is blinding.
"Well hello, little fella! Where'd you come from?"
Twit hops over to Hagrid, and Severus can see his head twisting this way and that as he twitters in response.
"Is that right?" Hagrid's voice booms. "Look here, everybody! Lookit the fine owl someone gave our Harry! Go on, show yourself off to them."
Never one for modesty, Twit does just that, hopping from place to place and fluffing up with the compliments bestowed on him. Severus' blood runs colder with every plate closer, until Twit stops in front of him.
Twit blinks at him, spins his head around to look at Potter and then back, before starting to chitter wildly, hopping closer. He flies up -- there are exclamations of distress from some of the other professors -- before landing on Severus' shoulder. He'd hardly been so excited in the St. Mungo's owlery when Severus had gone to pick him up. Then, he'd inched further into his cubbry, shiffing at Severus' attempts to apologize for some time before his natural inclination for forgiveness won over.
"I think he likes you, Professor," Hagrid says, and Severus glances at him sharply, thinking he hears more than he does behind the words.
Severus risks a look at Potter, and finds himself grateful to whomever supplied him with wine; Potter takes one look at Twit on his shoulder and begins to laugh himself under the table.
"Yes," Severus says, while Twit tugs at a strand of his hair. "I know, now off with you."
I don't know if I loved her, or the idea of her.
"--believe you, Harry Potter!"
"I'm sorry! Look, I didn't mean to --"
"Well you have!"
Severus backs away from the door as he hears footsteps approaching. It's yanked open, and Ginny Weasley storms past, nearly knocking into him in her haste. He steps into the garden silently. Potter is on the other side, flinging snapdragon buds into the invisible wall. The pods, closed now in preparation for spring's coming extravaganza, burst against the stone in a flash of flame.
"Trouble in paradise?"
"Shut it, Snape."
There are any number of responses he could give. He could even take points. But Severus stays silent, going over to one of the benches and opening his book. Potter's back is stiff with anger or upset, and Severus watches as he sacrifices bud after bud, until the stalk is empty and the tension eased some. Tossing the stalk down, Potter goes to the pond bench to stare morosely at the fish. He sticks his fingers in the water, letting the koi kiss the tips like a child seeking comfort for a scraped knee.
Severus tires of his sulk quickly. Closing his book and setting it aside he gets up. He goes over to the pond, gathering a few of the smallest snapdragon buds on his way. Potter ignores him when he sits down, staring resolutely into the waters.
Carefully, so as not to damage the delicate casing, Severus sets one of the buds floating in the water near Potter's fingers. A koi snaps it up immediately. As its mouth closes, the bud pops open, releasing a tiny spout of flame.
Glancing over, he can see a small, pained smile on Potter's lips, and so sets another of the buds into the water for the fish. This time, it earns him a small huff of breath that might be a laugh, in another life.
He's on the verge of speaking a dozen times, but cannot find the words that will not give himself away.
"You don't," Potter says after a while, "happen to have a spare bit of parchment and quill, do you, sir?"
Part of Severus breaks then, as he stares at Potter in the sunlight. "No," he answers, so quietly, for fear of choking on the words, "but I know the spells to Transfigure them."
I didn't think anyone had as many scars as me.
"How many times must I say it? Finely minced is not the same as chopped!"
"I know, I know--"
"If you knew, then your potion would not be puce!" Severus throws his stirring spoon down in irritation. "You haven't time to re-brew today. Clean up, and Wednesday I expect you to be able to tell me three ways to distinguish mincing from chopping."
Potter glares at him, then sets about cleaning up. Taking up his spoon again, Severus returns to his own potion.
"Ow! Bloody, buggering--"
Severus is at Harry's side in an instant, taking in the sight of the still-steaming cauldron overturned in the sink while Potter hisses in pain.
"Let me see it." He grabs Potter's hand. Reluctantly, Potter pulls back his sleeve to uncover the burn on his forearm.
"Idiot boy," Severus says, pulling a vial of burn salve from his pocket. "Do you think cooling charms are just for when a cold shower isn't conveniently nearby?" Uncorking the bottle with his teeth, he pours the salve over the burn, ignoring Harry's gasp. Holding Potter's arm in the curve of his hands, Severus massages the salve in with his thumbs, working over the burn again and again until the skin is flushed pink from his attentions and not the cauldron.
"I think it's okay now, Professor."
He lets go slowly, sliding his hands down Potter's arm. His fingers cross the raised lines of a scar, and Severus pauses. Curious, he turns Potter's hand over, getting only a glimpse of the scrawling scar before Potter yanks his hand away.
Severus looks up, startled. Potter's expression is angry, but it seems to vanish when Severus' eyes meet his.
"No offense, sir. I don't like anyone looking at my scars." Potter draws down the sleeve of his shirt, and Severus notices for the first time that he wears his sleeves long, pulled down over the back of his hands.
"My apologies, Mr. Potter, but they're only skin."
"You keep yours hidden."
"I cover myself for decency's sake, not to hide my scars."
"Then you wouldn't mind…" Potter gestures vaguely to his throat.
There's a challenge in Potter's tone. Caught between cowardice and exposing himself, Severus chooses the latter. Reaching up, he slips the topmost buttons of his collar free, pulling the cloth aside and angling his head to reveal the mass of scar tissue.
"Oh." Potter says, and steps closer. He reaches up. "May I?"
Severus nods, the smallest movement of his head. He breathes in deeply, closing his eyes as Potter's fingers touch down.
He can smell Potter's shampoo, sweet and clean, can feel the man's breath against his chin as Harry's fingers travel lightly over his skin.
"Does it hurt?"
He doesn’t know how much longer he stands there, eyes closed to the light, before Potter speaks again, voice shaky.
"I should go."
Severus opens his eyes, finding Potter no longer looking at his scars, despite his fingers still resting there, but at his face.
"I should go," Potter says again, letting go and taking a step back.
Without thinking, Severus grabs Harry's hand again. Whether it is to pull him back, or simply stop him from leaving, he could not say. They stare at each other for a heartbeat before Severus looks down, pushing back Potter's sleeve to examine his scar again as if that were his intention.
I must not tell lies.
He traces the words with his eyes, wondering what it must be like to have them etched into your skin and feeling Potter's pulse fluttering madly beneath.
"Umbridge," Potter says into the silence.
"I remember," Severus answers, looking up, "but I never saw."
Potter nods, and Severus lets him pull his hand away this time.
There's this story, one of my professors told me today, I think you'll like it.
Twit greets him with a hoot and a hop as Severus steps into the garden. As always, a part of his heart twists until it registers that the owl is not carrying a letter. How long chance will allow him to go on before Harry, Twit, a letter, and he are tossed together at the same disastrous meeting Severus does not know, but he is grateful every time the moment is averted.
"He really does like you," Potter says from one of the benches, setting his parchment aside, ink bottle on top to keep it from blowing away.
"It's my sparkling personality."
"Must be." Harry laughs.
Severus drinks in the sight of him, fortification for the long, dry summer approaching. He takes a seat on one of the other benches, ruffling Twit's feathers as the owl hops up beside him.
"I'm telling George about the snapdragons. Think he could use them to make a fire-breathing candy?"
"If anyone can."
"I think it's brilliant."
"And dangerous. The Weasley ideal."
"They're not dangerous, you showed me that yourself."
"Weasley will find a way."
"I've been thinking though, and I don't get it-- "
Potter goes on as if he hasn't spoken. "I'd think they'd name them after the phoenix, since they grow from their own ashes."
"Dragon eggs are kept in a nest of earth, stone and ash -- in a way, they too are born from ashes. Besides, according to myth, the phoenix is part dragon."
"You're having me on."
"The legend of the phoenix comes from the east. It tells the story of a crane who did not wish to be burdened by her egg. She found a dragon -- a barren spinster in want of a child -- and convinced her to care for it while she went gallivanting around. The dragon did, and when the crane returned, having seen the world and ready to settle down, the egg hatched before them to reveal the phoenix. The crane had changed, mutated, to resemble the dragon that had been more of a mother to it than its birth mother."
"It's all nonsense of course."
"It's still neat. But, I mean, if it's just this… mutation, why revere it?"
"For its rarity and power. The myth is a lesson in responsibility, a reminder of the good to be gained from it. Besides, one does not hold the sins of the parent against the child."
Severus realizes what he has said too late. Potter is already arching a brow at him. For the first time in years, since Albus, really, Severus feels a blush staining his cheeks. "Potter…" he begins, looking away and swallowing his pride.
"Hey," Potter interrupts. Severus looks back, and sees forgiveness in the eyes he learned how to read before Potter was born. "Are you any good at drawing? Because I wanted to include a sketch, only I'm pants at them--"
"Hello, sorry," Potter says, when Severus opens the door to his quarters. "I was wondering if I could borrow that book on cauldron types, for my essay? I thought the library would have it, only they don't."
"You do realize, of course, that your essay is due tomorrow?"
"Yes, I know." Admirably, he manages to keep a blush from staining his cheeks, though Severus half wishes he hadn't.
"Very well, come in."
Leaving Harry by the open door, Severus goes back into his lab. It's a matter of seconds, taking the book from the shelf and walking the few steps back into the living room. A matter of seconds; more than enough time, in Severus' experience, for a life to change. He should have known.
"What is this?" Potter asks, standing beside the desk when Severus enters, his voice very quiet. "Where did you get this?" He holds out his hand, the glass pen trembling in his palm.
Every instinct tells him to lie. Any number of wizards could have purchased a pen exactly like it, easy enough to name any store out of a dozen that might sell it. Severus opens his mouth, but the words won't come, and Potter reads the truth of the matter in his silence.
"You bastard. What sort of game was this? What were you hoping to gain? Something to use against me, or just something your frozen little heart could laugh over?"
"Harry," Severus says, stepping forward.
"Don't! Don't call me that! Don't you dare, you fucking bastard! The things I --"
Harry's screaming, and Severus finds himself curiously calm, as if watching the scene from a distance. He lets Harry rave unchallenged, because while the accusations are not entirely true, Severus cannot help but feel he deserves every word of them. He'd known this was coming, from the moment he'd picked up a quill and knowingly written to Harry. What a fool he'd been to even hope that something so clearly against nature could continue.
"Well? Answer me."
Severus comes back to himself. He focuses on Harry, half golden and half shadow in the firelight. "Why? You seem to have made up your mind."
Potter's face turns an ugly, apoplectic red. Slamming the pen down on the desk he turns.
The sound of the door banging shut echoes in the room.
Stepping over to the desk, Severus picks up the pen. He turns it in the firelight, remembering everything he put down with it, how easily he scripted out secrets to a willing page. It's then that the anger comes, flaming higher with every breath, fueled by Potter's distrust and his own foolishness.
With a growl, Severus throws the pen. It catches the light, a flash of gold, as it heads towards the fireplace, and Severus is running after it even before it smashes against the stone in a tinkle of glass.
Landing on his knees before the fire, he gathers up the pieces, careful to capture each one. A whispered reparo and the pen is whole, resting unscathed in his palm.
He had been prepared to deal with Potter's anger in the remaining days of classes. He had not been prepared to see it etched out in every line of his examination. How many times Potter broke his quill he could not begin to guess.
Severus' own anger is a cold, hard pain. Several times he picks up a pen to write, only to remember and stop himself. He has just done so again, the final night of exams, when there is a knock at his door. Ignoring it, Severus throws the pen into a drawer and attempts to read beside the fire.
The knock comes again, before he has even opened the book. It's followed by a muffled, "Professor?"
"Look, I'd rather not do this from out here…"
"Your comfort is not my concern," Severus yells, then chastises himself for responding at all.
"Professor, Severus, please, I've been an arse, I'm sorry."
The knocking increases two-fold when he does not answer again, interspersed with Potter's yelled apologies. Severus looks towards the desk, pen and letters hidden inside. A good thing he had not been able to bring himself to burn them all, they serve well to remind him now of all the places trust has led him.
It must be hours, it feels like hours, before Potter falls silent at last. Severus stands, intending to douse the fire and go to bed, when a swish of unfamiliar sound makes him look over. A piece of parchment rests before the door.
I'm sorry -- you caught me by surprise.
Severus sends the letter back beneath the door, in ashes.
Another letter comes a few minutes later. You were angry too, when you realized. You must have been. That's when you stopped writing, isn't it? You figured it out. It sparks enough of his anger that Severus grabs a quill and replies.
Potter's answer comes quickly, the words scribbled across the page almost illegibly. Yeah, you're right, and that's what made me realize how stupid I'd been. But you also had months to get to know me, to know it was me. I didn't know. I don't want to argue over who has a right to be angry, though. I mean, I know you're justified in being angry, and whether I am doesn't really matter, does it? Because I'm sorry. I was wrong.
"Severus," Harry says, when Severus has slid his next answer beneath the door, "please. Let me say this to you face-to-face, so it's not just words on a page?"
Opening the door, Severus steps back, standing behind his desk while Potter scrambles up off the floor. He comes in, closing the door quietly and turning to face Severus.
"It's an open door, not an invitation to tea. Say your piece and get out."
"No, well, yes, but I mean I want to thank you."
"You've said your thanks before. Was that all?"
"Not for the war. For this." Harry gestures between them.
Severus stiffens, prepared to remind him that there is no this, but Potter's next words stop him.
"For the last few months, you've been everything to me. Do you know that? Do you have any idea? I got out of St. Mungo's because of you, I came back to school because of you, I stayed because of you. You've been my closest friend, and I don't want to lose that. I know it's selfish, and maybe I don't deserve it, but I'm begging your forgiveness because I need you in my life. Please?"
Severus looks down to avoid Harry's eyes while he tries to think. He runs his fingers along the edge of the desk, above the drawer where the letters sit, months' worth of Harry's life, of their lives, bundled together.
"Really?" Harry looks like he'd hug Severus if the desk weren't in the way.
"I'm not in the habit of saying things I don't mean."
Harry's laugh is more a bubbling over of relief than because he finds Severus' words funny. "I know," he says, sobering after a minute. The awkwardness of the moment settles over them, and Harry shifts uncomfortably. "Well. I guess I should let you get some sleep then… "
"It would be the courteous thing, yes."
"Right. Um, I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Presuming the sun rises."
Harry smiles. "Oh, it will, if I have to drag it up by the seat of its shiny pants. Goodnight, Severus!" He waves, and in a flash is out the door.
"Goodnight, Harry." Severus says to the empty room, mind still focused on bright eyes and full lips, wondering if he has given himself over to the path of greater pain or lesser.
Severus ignores the sound of someone intruding on his isolation. He keeps reading as the footsteps get closer, until someone casts a shadow over his book. Looking up, he takes in the length of Harry, decked out in formal red and gold robes.
"All grown up, I see. At last."
"You missed quite the show. There were boring speeches, and hundreds of people," Harry says, taking a seat on the bench beside him.
"I trust the applause was appropriately deafening."
"Oh yes, I can't even hear you right now, I'm just reading your lips."
"A skill that will serve you well as you go gallivanting off into the world."
"Or other places," he says, and rushes on: "You didn't come to the ceremony, so I think you owe me some celebration."
"The love of the whole wizarding world isn't enough, you're bidding for more attention?" Severus sniffs.
"Only from you," Harry answers, looking over at him with an unreadable expression. Then he's leaning forward, lips pressing against Severus' in a kiss.
Severus gasps in surprise, and Harry seizes the opportunity as if it would be denied him, tongue sneaking out to tangle with Severus'. His first thought is that they could ruin everything, how fortune so often shifts the world around in the blink of an eye.
"Alright?" Harry asks, parting their mouths just enough for the word to pass between them.
"Yes," Severus answers, because the kiss, the feel of Harry beneath his hands as he reaches up, is so right that Severus knows he will not let go.
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