|snarryhols (snarryhols) wrote in snarry_holidays,|
@ 2007-11-21 08:56:00
|Entry tags:||au: magic, fic, rated: pg-13|
Slow Convergence by Iteration, for thebrandytook
Title: Slow Convergence by Iteration
Word Count: ~9000
Summary: Harry struggles with Occlumency, and Snape. He can but try.
“Again!” barked Snape, flicking his wand impatiently. “Legilimens!” He cast it before Harry could raise his head.
Harry twisted aside as the pressure returned, swirling scattered thoughts, fragments of memory tangled with dreams. Snape was everywhere in his mind all at once, again, again, the black figure crying again within his eyes and without while Harry strained to stop it, the sweeping wave of Snape, stop the touch and feel of—
“Focus!” Snape hissed and Harry did, on the swish of dark sleeve as it passed through the air, on the gleam of dark wand pointed at him, and it was Snape, again—again!—streaming swiftly through him like an ocean through a sieve.
“I can’t,” Harry gasped, feeling Snape there—and there—it wasn’t strange anymore, knowing Snape was there, with the curl of his mind brushing or clutching at the varied pebbles of thought. They spun by uncounted and Harry could only heave, helpless as he watched them pass into Snape, to be examined or discarded in less than half a blink.
“Your thoughts are your own,” Snape growled at him, even as he delved to the bottom-most stones, the very grains of Harry’s mind. “Your mind is your own! Open your eyes—look at me!” the man shouted, exhorting. “Potter!”
Harry’s eyes blinked wide to Snape standing across the room, to the pale hooked nose, sharpened by the frown. Snape’s arm was outstretched and his wand was clenched tightly—his skin glinted, greasy, lending a filmy sheen to the frustration in his glare.
Harry thought he could the see the pit of every gray pore in the tumult of his brain, and he fixed himself on them. He could muster barely an instant—and there was Snape’s mouth, not pressed flat or bloodless but making the very word (Occlumens, idiot!), rounding over the O, soundless at the M—
And soundless in his head. There was nothing, nothing but quiet in his head. Quiet. Himself.
He watched Snape’s eyes enlarge, for a fraction of a second, and Harry took a breath of the stale dungeon air. Then Snape lowered his wand and stepped silently forward, sallow features creased in their usual lines.
“At last,” he said stiffly.
Harry looked up at the ugly man before him and the broken thoughts were rushing back in bits and pieces of yellowed teeth, green-and-purple stained fingers, always angry, repulsing, always there and turned to him.
“Again,” Harry exhaled, hiking a shoulder, cracking his neck. He quivered with exhaustion and regripped his clammy wand.
Snape’s face didn’t change—then his upper lip flexed, a startling twitch. He stepped back with a nod, eyes blank and black.
“As you wish.”
Harry gulped for breath, finding the pressure in his chest unbearable now. The top of his ribcage rose against his shirt as Snape raised his wand and Harry’s heart flew faster, bracing for the—
So clean was the cut through the middles of his mind that Harry was still bracing; two moments too late he squeezed his eyes shut. Waves of them, torrents, came whirlpooling down—the vines of Snape’s intent, spilling everywhere. Harry tried to pluck them out, sliding shut the imagined screens that slipped from side to side. But Snape’s purpose was too great in its aimless plundering—if he’d been seeking something particular Harry would’ve gathered a defense, no matter how wavering. Out of desperation he reached for the tendrils and started spinning them off one at a time to a madman’s flickering tune, swift and garbled and unhesitating and a thousand places at once.
Quickly he realized that there were infinitely more than a thousand places in his brain (yes, even his, he could hear Snape say—maybe Snape said it, just then from inside) and though he was clicking faster, faster, faster each time to duck from the ribbons of so much Snape, it wasn’t fast enough, it won’t be fast enough—
It’s all right, Harry thought, diminishing beneath the blunt-sharp heel of Snape’s magic. Snape was embedded, inextricably, and for a second Harry wondered if he could carry him there, carry Snape’s probing mind within the cavity of his skull. There’d be overwhelming disapproval, the constant ache of admonishment, the silky whisper in his head of imbecile and boy. He could hear the whisper now and it sounded just like a sneer—crooked teeth and a mocking mouth, barely hissing Occlumens…
Harry staggered at the abruptness of the slackening in his mind. He opened his eyes and tripped forward, nearly stumbling onto Snape’s hems. He stared briefly at his hands, bruised and spread upon the stones; then he glanced up wearing an unbelieving sort of smile. His armpits were damp with effort and his mind—his mind was emptied.
Snape jerked his head in a nod and raised his wand again.
Harry tried not to thrash in the chair where he’d fallen, but the pull in his head was all-consuming, as if a mighty fist had taken hold of the soft tissue, wringing it. He flailed an arm.
“Stop,” he gasped, over the cascade of memories, fresh and forgotten tumbling eagerly from his mind. Snape said nothing—just stayed there, watching them all, letting them swim through his fingers and swarm past his sight. Harry tried to staunch the flow but it was as if nothing could dam the flood save death, and even that seemed uncertain, so anxious were his thoughts to answer Snape’s call. They flowed to the man, that other in Harry’s brain, heedless of the desperate resistance in their maker.
“Stop!” Harry heaved, clawing at the air—but of course Snape didn’t, the merciless strain pressed on, smothering and darkening until all Harry knew were the thoughts tipping from his brain like hot tea from a cup, thoughts that were his own, for fuck’s sake Snape was right except they were skewing to the left, they were slipping places so fast Harry almost didn’t see—but these were different, they were changing, just a little and then they seemed the same. Harry spilled the tea—but did they laugh at him? Hermione would’ve helped him and yes, Harry saw her now, pushing napkins at him but Ron was still laughing and Harry remembered trying to drag the tea-soaked jumper over his head except it wouldn’t come off and he hadn’t owned that jumper, that wasn’t his own—
“You aren’t trying!” Snape thundered.
Harry pitched against the chair. Suddenly it was Sirius looming, bearded, in his brain, Sirius proud and beautiful, and falling through the veil, he was reaching out for help, he was snapping at Harry’s hands, biting, a dog, not a dog a wolf—not a wolf a werewolf, biting at his throat, hungry, starving, biting at his throat—and Harry breathed out as black robes rippled. He remembered Ron’s oh and Hermione’s cold hands—and the white of Snape’s cuff as the werewolf approached. The werewolf lunged and someone screamed next to him; he turned to see the improbably bright jag of red, dressing Hermione’s neck in reckless paint. Her mouth was open as she stared at Harry in surprise, and Harry felt himself peeling as he watched his friend fall.
Occlumens, whispered the true flutter of Snape’s hems, dirty and spread black in front of them all. Occlumens, whispered Harry, behind the span of Snape’s arms. He came back to himself, only to himself, to quiet, to relief, and the black obscuring him whirled, condensing into the mottled shine of greasy hair.
“Too slow,” Snape barked. He looked down at Harry with his mouth in a scowl. Harry threw his head back and remained slumped in the chair. The neck of his shirt was ringed with wetness, and so were his eyes. He wiped them behind his glasses with unsteady fingers, re-living the memories that he’d never really lived.
“I know,” Harry said when he had dried his face. He shook out the ache in his wrist from gripping his wand. Snape’s eyebrows arched slightly before he stepped back.
“Up,” he ordered abruptly, readying his wand.
Harry pushed himself up at once, grimacing because he was dizzy and the next round would be worse. His mind was far dilated and this new game of memory-change—subtle and unsubtle—had shown him afresh what Snape had always insisted. You’ve no hope against the Dark Lord, Potter. None at all.
Harry straightened his twisted shoulders and nodded, preparing himself for Snape’s next assault.
“All right,” Snape said, letting his wand fall. Harry wiped the cold sweat from his eyes and rocked to his feet unevenly, as quickly as he could. He tilted up his chin, forced himself to focus, clear his mind and focus, clear his—
“What are you doing?” Snape demanded.
Harry blinked, startled. “I’m clearing my mind and focusing,” he said, surprised and struggling to focus at the same time. Snape would catch him off-guard, any second now Snape would pull the trig—
“Well stop it,” Snape snapped. “You’ve done enough for tonight. You’re clearly worn out; further practice would be fruitless.”
“No I’m not!” Harry protested, then winced as he realized he’d dropped his defense. When no Legilimens came, he raised his wand, feeling his wrist twinge where he’d fallen on it a short while before. “Look, I’m fine to go on. Go ahead and cast, I’m ready—”
“Then there would be little point,” Snape cut in. “The Dark Lord—”
“Won’t strike at my convenience, I know,” Harry interrupted. He gestured with his wand, exasperated but doing his best not to show it. Snape’s eyes narrowed as he opened his mouth to retort, but then Harry had a funny thought.
“See, I can do the mind-reading bit too,” he said, starting to laugh. He laughed and he laughed, his throat raw and dry, and the more he laughed the funnier it was, and he knew he sounded ridiculous but god, he was tired. Through the crack of an eye he saw Snape staring at him dismissively, plucking at the button on the front of his robes, shoving his wand into a sleeve and turning away.
“Hang on,” Harry gulped, reining in the last guffaw. “Hang on, Professor—seriously, I can keep going.” He coughed to clear his throat and waved his wand apologetically.
Snape looked back at him, snorting. “It’s late, and you’re clearly unfit for anything but bed.”
“But—” Harry began, ready to insist, except he saw the folds at Snape’s eyes, thick in the torchlight, and the gray sag of the man’s mouth as Snape pursed it grimly. He suddenly realized Snape must be fatigued, though he never fell down, he never broke a sweat—only pushed and pushed at Harry until Harry had to call it quits.
“No—you’re right,” Harry said slowly. The very hairs on his skin wilted in gratitude at the admission. “I’m pretty beat. I guess—I guess I was thinking I should work on my endurance. Because the Dark Lord won’t wait for me to catch my breath,” he said wryly, parroting the line Snape threw at him every day.
“Endurance won’t be necessary if you’ve no mind left to save,” Snape returned. Then he arched a grudging brow. “However, to my astonishment, you raise a sound point. And since you’re so eager, we’ll address it tomorrow morning. Early.” He looked at Harry more with skepticism than approval, and Harry found it strangely lifting, seeing Snape like this. Hm. Maybe Snape was rubbing off on him…a scary notion, to be sure, but they did have more in common than someone might—
“We have nothing in common, Potter!”
Snape got him good, that time. Harry hadn’t even felt him weaving inside.
“Really?” Harry mused, trying to sound unfazed. Of course it didn’t work—Snape was lingering near, the traces of his presence were distinct to Harry now. “What’s your favorite color?” he asked, flexing his sore back, unable to summon the strength to defend. “Mine’s black,” he added, with a sloppy-sided grin.
Snape scowled, and withdrew.
“That’s one thing,” Harry nodded. “One thing in common!” He started laughing again as Snape’s grimace deepened.
“Legilimens,” Snape replied, flicking out his wand.
His eyes were bulging with the weight, the arrows at his neck, each point tipped with Snape’s piercing ambition to know. Harry was sweating and gasping in breaths he couldn’t hear as his thoughts were rearranged, thrown apart and reknitted in the beat of his heart, and it beat rapid-tempo to the rhythm of Snape’s mind. They were puzzle pieces, Harry’s thoughts in Snape’s hands, and Snape’s magic was fitting them, fusing them together without a second of pause; no moment of relief marred the vicious new world Snape made in his head. There was Hogwarts and Hogsmeade and Dudley at the sweets shop, and Aunt Petunia crying as Crabbe punched Dudley’s mouth, and Ron astride a giant spider with his face taut in fear. Hermione was shrieking as Uncle Vernon roared at her and Harry turned away. A mistake, he thought then because Snape’s eyes were gleaming in a dark hall, in triumph not red but bright blackly at him and Harry felt the shift of the lock around the key—
And Harry remembered his father at the door, the yellow-white of his fingers as they clutched at the frame. His father seemed to nod and step aside from the entrance, and he looked back—at Harry—with terror glistening on his lip. A shaking hand up and he was pointing to the room, somewhere past Harry, whispering there, over there, the nursery’s upstairs. The white-scaled face advanced and Harry could only stand, petrified and captive to the gentle swing of robes, soundless as they crossed the beige carpet floor. He was almost past when a sleeve brushed Harry’s shoulder and Harry took a breath—it drew the great flat face to him, and Voldemort’s ghastly smile. His eyes weren’t red and slitted but at this instant, it wasn’t strange—they were dark and wide as he leaned down, close and warm. Harry couldn’t move as the thin lips parted; he smelled and tasted nothing when the kiss hovered at his mouth because his soul was rushing from him with that familiar painful twist, excruciating, eternal, like the blood in his heart as he tried to shake himself free, like the blood on his hand as he scratched out his lines.
Lies, his quill scratched and it pulsed on his hand. Lies, it read plainly in thin smears on his skin. And Harry was jumping up to shout for help while his friends stood behind him and Umbridge pounded on her desk. Help! Harry cried at the pink bow on her head. Help! he cried at the plate-kittens on the wall. Umbridge’s hair bobbed as she whipped her head to the door, crowing “Professor Snape!”
Harry looked too but his feet were bound to the floor—he shouted at Snape to help but no one seemed to hear. Snape raised a lazy brow as he spoke to Umbridge in low tones. “Another bottle, Headmistress? Of course, right away.” He didn’t glance at Harry as he drifted back toward the door, though Harry screamed at him—coward—until the red leaked from the back of his hand in a stripe along his wrist. Then black hem passed the threshold and Harry, voiceless, wept wait.
Wait, Professor, wait. And Snape stopped, turned his head. He smirked at Harry’s tears, and his stained teeth glinted as he mouthed the secret Harry forgot he kept.
Harry’s eyes darted to follow the shape of Snape’s mouth—the shape of the jaw, the throat, moving beneath starched collar wings. He was frightened, very frightened, both less and more than before, but the word, the world, it lay on Snape’s tongue and Harry stretched up to reach it and then, within him, Occlumens unfurled.
Harry hit the floor—or found himself there already. The stone was warm where he lay and cold when he spread his arms out for balance. He pushed himself from his belly and nearly cried out with the pain. But he didn’t, and instead, he opened his eyes.
He blinked, feeling the chill wetness on his face. Everything was blurry—his glasses hadn’t come away with him. They were broken, a lens cracked…and his left cheek stung.
“Ow,” Harry said, cringing as he did from the sound of his voice and the small stab of fire in his face. “That’ll leave a mark,” he said shakily. He groped behind him for the chair—he had to get up before Snape tried again—and cupped the twinging cheek with a palm.
The sound of deliberate boots was unexpectedly loud, and Harry had only just found the glass in his skin when long fingers plucked the shard away. They weren’t gentle and Harry cringed and swayed, half-falling into the air where his chair was supposed to be. Snape caught his arm tightly and yanked him upright.
“It’s beyond repair,” Snape said briskly. Harry steadied himself then turned around to look. Jagged chunks of upholstered wood were scattered on the ground behind him; he was still looking at them, his mind hollowed and reversed, when they swirled together in a wide arc and vanished. He turned back to Snape, who was walking away, taking up his position beneath the opposite stone arch.
I can’t go again, Harry thought, unable to gather himself from distress. He couldn’t see well without his glasses, and his eyes were clouding with the images from a few moments ago. He pinched his lips and raised his wand to get ready—but Snape was murmuring something that didn’t sound like Legilimens.
Something tingled in his face—Harry put up a hand and found no blood there. And then his glasses—they were floating in front of him, whole, a bit dusty. Harry took them with his free hand and slid them on, smiling slightly as the dungeon and Snape regained their resolution.
Snape’s wand was down but Harry knew better than to assume. He grinned anyway because otherwise he’d crumple to knees and never regain his feet.
“Thanks,” he said, tilting the glasses on his nose. Snape responded by creasing the lines near his eyes; a rectangle of hair slipped from his shoulder and he pulled it impatiently behind an ear.
Harry let out a hoarse laugh at the gesture and said, “It’s getting long.”
“What?” Snape asked sharply.
“Your hair,” Harry shrugged, speaking more softly to ease the roughness in his throat. Through his dusty lenses he measured the length of Snape’s hair against the high buttons on his robe.
“So is yours,” Snape said tightly.
Harry passed an unsteady hand over his head. A thought occurred to him from the depths of disorientation. “That’s two things then,” his raspy voice said, as the tall peaks of his hair touched his fingertips. “We’ve got two things in common.” He smiled and it froze there for a second as Snape cast the spell and Harry lost himself again.
“How long do you reckon I’ll last?”
Harry sat on his heels, fingers loose on his wand, ignoring the darts of pain lighting the backs of his calves. Snape looked on from where he stood several feet away, and didn’t answer.
“Longer than before?” Harry asked, quickly putting a hand to the floor as he started to topple.
Snape pursed his lips. “Yes.”
“Great,” Harry mumbled. He looked longingly at the stone-slab floor, wanting nothing better than to stretch out across the coolness with his limbs spread wide, to close his eyes and see nothing, no flashes of green or circles of red, whether real or fabricated from the clumsy pieces of his mind. “Then I’ve got a whole five minutes before Voldemort blows me to teeny, tiny, infinitesimal little bits. Fantastic.”
“Five is a great deal better than two,” Snape said astringently.
“It’s not enough,” Harry replied, skimming a hand over the stone—oh, he could lie down right here and let Snape’s next attempt kill him. Then he wouldn’t have to bother about Voldemort, anyway.
“Why not?” Snape snapped back. “Avada Kedavra is not a particularly complicated spell, and if you haven’t yet accumulated sufficient hatred to get it off in one go, then I’m afraid your virtue will mean the end of us all.”
Harry pulled himself together and rolled gingerly to his knees. “It’s not that,” he said, feeling each bruise and scrape sing out. “It’s just my Monologue o’ Triumph. There won’t be time for it.” He raised dull eyes, draped in purple crescents, to the taller man’s. “I suppose I could pare it down,” he shrugged. His shoulder flared; he was too exhausted to flinch.
Snape’s eyebrows dipped briefly—his mouth quirked left. “I suppose so,” he said.
“It was going to be good,” Harry said, adjusting his weight from one sore foot to the other. “I hadn’t planned it all out but there were going to be, you know, metaphors. Significant ones. And sweeping themes of good and evil, cleverly nuanced, yet resounding in their simplicity. It’s such a pity to scrap all that, don’t you think?”
Harry readied his wand, gazing solemnly at Snape until the man’s quirked mouth quivered and he let slip a low gallows laugh. The soft sound gave Harry the strength he needed for a rueful smile.
“I think I’m going to die,” Harry said, cracking a bit with his mouth still curled up.
“Potter, I’m certain of it,” Snape answered immediately. He paused, then went on. “Though I do have some reservations as to the circumstances of that event, and the likelihood of it occurring in the near term.”
Harry’s smile curved from rueful to wry. “And if you were a betting man?”
“I said ‘some reservations,’ boy,” Snape said tartly, “I wasn’t offering favorable odds. If I were a betting man, be assured I’d put my last knut on the Dark Lord.”
It was Harry’s turn to laugh, and it strained his tired ribcage, but in a bearable way. “You and me both, Professor.” He let his eyes rest on Snape—it helped him clear his mind. “That’s three, is it?” he asked as his weary cluttered brain fell quiet.
Snape’s wan forehead furrowed only slightly. “Are we back to your list of our supposed commonalities? What’s the purpose of this obsession? Or will I regret asking?”
Harry shrugged his left shoulder, keeping his right poised, prepared to deflect. “It’s not an obsession. It’s just—it makes it easier, a bit.” He gestured with his free hand. “Being closer to you. More like you, I mean—you’ve got the whole thing down, better than anyone.”
Snape pressed his lips together. “I should hope so,” he finally said. “Otherwise neither of us would have the luxury of this conversation.”
“Yeah.” Harry paused, still ready for attack. “Professor, I’ve been wondering—when my memories change, do you create what I see? Will the Dark Lord be feeding me false memories?”
“Haven’t you been reading the—no, of course you haven’t,” Snape muttered. “If you’d read the materials I provided at the beginning of these lessons—”
“Which I would’ve done if I haven’t been spending every waking hour in here!”
“—then you would know that Legilimency cannot be used to insert fabricated memories; it can only rearrange what lies in the mind of the target,” Snape finished.
Harry frowned. “But often I’ll see things that aren’t—they never happened. I thought maybe you were putting those into my head, because I’m not sure where—”
“The mind is more than a repository for memories of your mundane existence,” Snape interrupted. “Your dreams, subconscious thoughts, imaginary friends and the like—they’re all fodder for a skilled Legilimens. Make no mistake—everything you see when you’re under the spell comes directly from your own mind—which is why complete ownership of your thoughts is critical to Occlumency. As I believe I have said. Please do me the courtesy of at least skimming the texts before our next lesson.”
“You can just tell me the important bits—”
But Snape’s wand was up and Harry’s words were lost as he struggled to escape the whirl of Legilimency.
“Professor,” Harry said from where he crouched on the ground, “how do you do it?” He still had a hand pressed to his side—its spasms hadn’t yet stopped, though he’d dropped to the floor many moments ago. Sometimes Snape cut him off mid-question with another attack, but sometimes he didn’t, so Harry asked whatever he wanted when he could manage to speak.
“How do you keep Voldemort out?” Harry said, blinking out the tears. “How do you keep him from changing things around?”
Snape eyed him from beneath the stone arch, then stepped closer. A sweep of robes and he had settled on the floor, in front of Harry.
“Do the first with alacrity and you needn’t worry about the second,” he said. Harry looked back at Snape sitting there in the pool of his robes, and after what he’d seen in his head day after day, it wasn’t so odd to have Snape come up close, hunker down, and say something obvious as if revealing some hidden gem.
“Cheers,” Harry grumbled. “Tell me something I don’t know.” He eased his fingers from his ribs—the pain was subsiding a bit.
“If I did that, we’d be here all night.”
Harry’s mouth turned up. “I don’t mind.”
“If you’re looking for an excuse to stop practicing—”
“I’m not!” Harry winced—that had hurt his side. “I only—” He shifted his legs to sit more upright. “I can’t seem to do it fast enough. You always get through.”
“Yes,” Snape drawled. “Your puny brain is no match for me.”
Harry’s eyebrows went up, caught between surprise and laughter and indignation. “I am getting better at it.”
Snape shrugged. “Marginally. I’ll advise the Dark Lord to award marks for effort, shall I?”
A brief silence ensued in which Harry found himself laughing in that soundless tired way he’d developed since he’d started practicing with Snape. Idly he wondered when Snape would hit him with another Legilimens.
“Hey, what if Voldemort didn’t even bother to use Legilimency on me?” Harry asked suddenly. “Wouldn’t it be funny if he just, like, ordered some giant to step on me or something, and then I was squashed and that was the end and finally this would all be over?”
“What,” Snape replied, with careful enunciation, “would be funny about that, Mr. Potter?”
“Uh oh,” Harry said, mouth twitching. “Mr. Potter. Am I in trouble?”
Snape’s face had darkened unexpectedly and he was working his jaw in sharp jerky motions.
“You are the most infuriating child I’ve ever had the misfortune to teach,” Snape hissed lowly as he rose to his feet. “You’re undisciplined, presumptuous, disrespectful, you’ve absolutely no appreciation for the danger surrounding you and those endeavoring—in vain—to help you. You—you bring new meaning to the phrase ‘lost cause.’ I’m at my wits’ end as to what more I can do.”
If he’d been one breath removed from his unthinkable weariness, Harry might’ve paled; he might’ve ducked his head in alarm. Instead he looked up at Snape’s towering shadow and grinned. “You can help me up.” He stuck out a hand.
Snape glared at him and Harry took this as his cue to struggle to his feet. “I’m sorry, Professor,” he began contritely, but something in his face must’ve given him away, or maybe Snape had managed to peer into his mind unnoticed again. Either way it wasn’t good, because Snape’s eyes lit with positively murderous fury.
The next instant Harry was falling, blindly into his mind, except it wasn’t there, because it was being gutted.
It took him a year to retrieve it—except it wasn’t a year, it was only a day—no it wasn’t a day, it was hours, perhaps, moments. A moment. One in which buttons came away in his hands, his copper-slicked hands, in which he understood the tortured breath in his ear was his own, in which forgiveness poured into his mouth from above.
Occlumens, cracked his lips, and Harry opened his eyes.
Snape was pressed to the wall, and Harry was pressing him, fists furrowed in the heavy robes. Snape stared at him, motionless, his face blanched as if stricken. His eyes blazed, incensed.
“You’ve wasted enough of my time,” Snape said, the words acrid and soft and inches away. “I was a fool to be persuaded into giving you—these lessons—a second’s thought.”
He swept Harry back with a swing of his arm and Harry let go of Snape’s robes before tumbling to the ground. Snape stalked briskly from the dungeon, hems snapping, spine stiff. Harry watched Snape leave, his mind spinning emptily, grief welling in his throat though he couldn’t say why because he had no idea what had happened except that Snape had cast Legilimens, an exceptional one, and somehow, unbelievably, Harry had thrown it off.
Harry kneeled on the stone floor and looked at hands, one still clenched, aching. He turned it over and opened it. The blood inside was dark, glinting over nail-crescent cuts and two black buttons.
“All right mate, see you Saturday?” Ron fished around inside the large box of Bertie Bott’s Beans, then looked up as he bit one in half.
“Stop eating all the chocolate ones, you know Harry likes those,” Hermione chided as she snatched the box from Ron’s hand.
Harry laughed. “It’s okay—I’ve got loads more in there.” He nodded at the bedside drawers.
“Yeah, he’s got loads more in there,” Ron repeated to Hermione indignantly, grabbing for the box.
Hermione swiveled, keeping it out of reach. “In that case,” she said, slanting the box sideways to study the beans, “I like the chocolate ones too.”
Harry laughed as Ron glowered, then he stood up half-apologetically. “The medi-witch will be here any minute,” he told them.
“Right. See you soon,” Hermione said, kissing Harry’s cheek. “Get better.”
“Which one is it? The hot one?” Ron asked, setting down the box. Hermione frowned at him; Harry grinned.
“I think it’s Medi-witch Brodie, if that’s who you mean,” he replied.
“We’re not staying, Ronald,” Hermione put in, cutting off the whistle Ron had pursed his lips to make.
“Here, you’d better take these,” Harry chuckled, handing Ron the Bertie Bott’s Beans. “You can pick out the chocolate ones and give them to Hermione, as atonement.”
Ron took them with a sidelong glance at Hermione, who had crossed her arms but was obviously trying not to smile. “Er, thanks,” he said to Harry. “And tell Medi-witch Brodie I think she’s doing an excellent job—”
Hermione yanked him away before he could finish. “Bye!” she called brightly as she pushed Ron out the door. Harry waved them off fondly before going to his neatly-made bed to wait for Medi-witch Brodie.
It wasn’t a bad job—waking up each morning in St. Mungo’s long-term care unit. He’d been here for a few weeks and it was already fairly tedious, but was certainly a great deal better than his old routine of wondering when Lord Voldemort would come and get him. Somehow he’d ended up getting Voldemort first. It had been terrible, unspeakable—most of it remained hazy.
The medi-witch bustled in a few minutes later and prodded Harry in the usual places, asked the usual questions, ran the usual scans with her whippy walnut wand. She was a rapid talker, and she told Harry about a new potion he would be starting in the afternoon, rattling off the possible side-effects that Harry might experience. Harry nodded politely and took note of her precautions.
Once the medi-witch was safely away, Harry hopped from his bed and went to the closet. He pushed through piles of unopened gifts, stuffed bears and spare hospital robes to the box in the back corner. He flipped up the lid and dug out his Invisibility Cloak, then pushed the lid back on, shoved the bears on top, shut the closet door and drew the cloak around him. After checking to make sure the corridor was clear, Harry left his room to pad silently toward Snape’s.
He’d heard about them bringing Snape in—he’d been on a different floor, for those in dire condition, but Harry had been too dislocated to follow Snape’s story until recently. They hadn’t really spoken since the last Occlumency lesson. Snape hadn’t come to the dungeon again and there’d been other preparations, seeing to the school, Order meetings, hushed conferences with what remained of Dumbledore’s Army. Sometimes their paths would cross and Snape would look at him with a certain stone-faced revulsion that unwound a peculiar thread of sorrow in Harry—it made Harry unwilling to ask the man why he’d stopped, and Harry had tried not to wonder as he carried on.
Harry found the proper door and pushed it open a crack carefully, peeking in with an eye. He’d been placed under a restorative coma when they’d moved him in, and the last time Harry was here, they hadn’t woken him yet. He lay crisply wrapped in the stark hospital sheets, completely still, with wisps of dark hair curled at his neck.
Harry slipped into the room quietly and tiptoed to the bed. Snape was breathing deeply and evenly; his face was washed dully gray in the low lighting, which heightened the shadows cast by each crease and fine line. His expression in sleep seemed inclined toward a grimace, and he looked exactly the same as before.
Harry looked down at him for a minute, holding the edges of cloak tightly about him. There wasn’t a war, or Voldemort, or any lessons to learn for the sake of wizardkind, and what harm would there be, these magical comas never broke…
“Professor,” Harry murmured, hardly aware he’d opened his mouth, “It’s me again. You’re looking good—well, better…well, about the same, actually. Sorry, I was only trying to be polite. But hopefully you’re feeling a bit better—I suppose that’s the point of keeping you asleep—”
“Yes, that was the point, but I’m perfectly awake now, thanks to you,” Snape said without moving a muscle otherwise.
Harry jumped back a foot and the cloak slipped from his grasp.
“What do you mean, ‘again’?” Snape asked. He stirred, raised himself up slightly, and turned to face Harry, scowling. “Have you been barging in here on a regular basis?”
Harry hadn’t stopped gaping in complete shock and not a little horror. “Did I—did I wake you up?” he whispered. Magically-induced comas were tricky at best, he’d heard from the healers; only used in the most serious of circumstances, they could easily go awry if the patient was improperly handled—
“I just said that, you—” Snape began, then he shut his eyes briefly. “You nitwit, you didn’t wake me from the spell, the healers did that days ago—there’s no way you could’ve managed it on accident—” He broke off abruptly. “Then again, since you probably brought about the Dark Lord’s demise through the sheer outrageousness of your fumblings, you may have destroyed allegedly impervious protective magic by the same method.”
Harry clutched his cloak and didn’t know what to say. Snape was—talking to him, as if he’d never been gone, as if he’d never been asleep.
“So?” Snape barked, his voice a touch hoarse. He sat up higher and gave Harry that hard glare. “The Dark Lord surely pursued your mind—did you successfully Occlude him?”
It really was as if he’d never been gone, Harry thought, marvel and apprehension cresting in his chest. He couldn’t believe that was the first thing to come out of Snape’s mouth—and yet, he could.
“Um,” Harry stammered. “I…I thought I did pretty well,” he finished, with a tentative smile.
“Did you?” Snape said. He gazed critically at Harry. “I’ve never seen you perform Occlumency to equal the Dark Lord’s Legilimency, and I’ve long harbored doubts that you ever would. Your early attempts were barely noticeable and your later efforts middling, and that’s being generous—the Dark Lord should’ve plucked your sanity away like a scab. Why didn’t he?”
Harry, flushing from anger and protest and relief that Snape was clearly in fine form, couldn’t answer.
“No need for the show of modesty, boy,” Snape sneered. “Unless you employed the rather unorthodox measures—”
“I thought of you,” Harry supplied lowly, looking at the floor.
Snape fell silent.
Harry took a deep breath, his heart pounding, his face twisting, because he’d realized this some time ago, and it had saved his life when Voldemort was tunneling through the layers of his brain with a deadly finger on his pulse and an almost-flawless view of his soul—until Harry pushed him out with the broad sweep of Snape’s sleeve and the dip of Snape’s throat.
“I thought of you,” Harry began again, “because I—”
“I’m glad it worked,” Snape said harshly. “Well done.” He lowered himself back onto the pillow, shifting down the mattress and readjusting the sheets.
Harry stood dumbly in the wake of this, the first recognition he’d ever had from Snape. It coalesced bitterly under his lashes as he watched Snape turn on his side and close his eyes.
There was no overcoming the misery that night, though he kept reminding himself he was lucky to be alive. He reminded himself as he gathered up his cloak; reminded himself as he passed through the dimmed hall; reminded himself as he eased open Snape’s door with a painstaking hand. Snape was in bed, his face angled to the door—but his eyes were shut and he appeared to be asleep. Just a glance, Harry thought, to maybe ease the discomfort—to remind himself that yes, he was lucky to be alive and yes he certainly had Snape to thank for much of that, and see, look, Snape was a cruel and ugly bastard.
Harry took his one glance—a long one that both soothed and inflamed—then withdrew his head from the darkened doorway.
Harry froze at the murmur of his name from within.
“The door is hovering open and I can see your fingers. Stop standing about like an idiot wearing an Invisibility Cloak and come in.”
Harry tensed but stepped inside, clicking the door closed behind before pulling off the cloak.
“Still enjoying your night-time strolls, I see,” Snape said, his voice fainter than usual. He hadn’t moved from where he lay but his eyes shone alertly in the half-light. “I confess I’m curious as to what mischief you have in mind—you’re sadly lacking in accomplices, and St. Mungo’s is rather a—hm, sterile place.”
Harry bit his lip and crooked his mouth at the pun. “I wasn’t—no mischief,” he said. “I just—” He shook his head and turned away. “Sorry. Couldn’t sleep,” he muttered, defeated. “Sorry to bother you, Professor.” He moved to the door and reached for the knob.
“What did the Dark Lord show you?” Snape asked, sounding far away. “When he cast Legilimens. What did you see?”
Harry looked over his shoulder; Snape’s gaze was fixed on him. He raised a hand to his glasses and straightened them as he flicked his eyes to the spotless floor.
He’d seen Voldemort part Snape’s throat with a casual swipe of his wand—he’d seen his arms catch Snape as the man swayed nearly to his knees. Snape’s eyes had widened and his mouth had opened a fraction—Harry had held Snape to him, had been holding him too tightly when Snape’s body eased as if he were exhaling—and then he was, with his forehead against Harry’s and his last breath on Harry’s tongue. It had tasted of metal.
“You died,” Harry said.
Snape didn’t speak for a moment. Then he turned to lie on his back with his face tilted to the ceiling. “Your Occlumency wasn’t swift enough to spare you then. I’m not surprised.”
Resentment trickled through Harry even as he suppressed the ache of that memory—of course his Occlumency wouldn’t be good enough, nothing he did, nothing he was, nothing he had would ever be good enough for Professor fucking Snape.
“He showed me the same, once,” Snape said to the ceiling. “My death. I daresay yours was a more spectacular show. Mine involved suffocation due to an overlarge piece of fruit.”
Harry blinked. “What?”
“It seems some part of me loathes the absurd,” Snape replied dryly.
Harry stifled an odd laugh. “Professor, you jest.”
Snape’s face shifted as his mouth took on a brief smile.
“It’s not that absurd, though, to get something stuck in your throat,” Harry said, feeling his way forward. “People do that all the time. Who knows—it may even be in the top ten causes of death. There must be masses of unfortunates who gagged on bits of fruit.”
“Yes, and they haven’t a single tooth among them,” Snape snorted.
Harry laughed slightly, and Snape snapped at him to sit down.
“Why’d you stop teaching me?”
Harry sat by Snape’s bed—it was 3:04 in the morning. It was like Occlumency lessons again—only the Occlumency was a courtesy Harry offered to Snape. To himself, to keep him from dwelling on wishful thoughts.
“I’ve been meaning to ask—but, you know, what with Voldemort and the near-death injuries and one thing and another…” Harry joked.
Snape’s expression sharpened—he didn’t fidget awkwardly as Harry was doing. “The Legilimens I cast was stronger than you’d encountered before,” he answered evenly after a moment, “and your reaction showed me I had failed to provide you with anything worthwhile against the Dark Lord.”
Harry shook his head. “I suppose I must’ve gone a bit crazy. I really can’t recall.” He reached to fiddle with the edge of one of the sheets, wrinkling the hem before smoothing it back out. “Trust me, though—you didn’t fail.”
“As you’re well enough to sit there and rumple my bedclothes,” Snape snapped, yanking the hem from Harry’s fingers, “it’s abundantly clear that I did quite the opposite, thank you.”
Harry grinned, ignoring the flicker in his chest as Snape’s impatient hand brushed his.
“I admit, this cloak of yours is truly remarkable,” Snape said, retrieving the cloak from the ground where it had fallen when Harry had bent to tie his shoe. “It’s brought me nothing but aggravation,” he murmured, examining it.
Harry tried his best to smile as he settled into a chair. “Good news then. You won’t be seeing much more of it—they’re letting me go home in a couple of weeks.” The medi-witch had told him during the afternoon check-up. He hadn’t owled Ron and Hermione yet, but he knew they’d be thrilled.
Snape’s hands paused briefly in the drape of the cloak, then he continued folding it into a neat silken square. “Are they? Congratulations.”
Harry searched Snape’s face for any sign of—anything, but the man laid the folded cloak on the table without looking up or changing expression. Harry bit his lip.
“You must be anxious to greet the adoring masses, rest on your accrued laurels,” Snape said dismissively.
“Oh, yeah,” Harry smiled weakly. “Positively chafing.” He reached for the cloak and began twisting it, upsetting the even creases. His forehead crinkled as he forced himself to believe this was a good thing, getting out at last, being completely cured of those pesky wartime curses, and so intent was he on persuading himself that he didn’t notice Snape’s increasingly dour frown until the man’s fingers gripped his wrist, hard.
“For heaven’s sake, must you constantly jitter and twitch like some deranged three-year old? Be still, for once in your life!”
Harry had started when Snape’s hand had come down, but now the cloak fell silent on the tabletop as his pulse skittered, bursting, where Snape’s fingertips squeezed. He stared wide-eyed at Snape’s stern face and for one heartbeat nothing in him moved but that pulse. Then he was rising, tilting, shaking, terrified as Snape’s dark pupils took the field of his view and he saw each lash, each line etched against the sallow skin as his mouth touched Snape’s in an open-eyed kiss.
Pain shot through his wrist and Harry gasped reflexively—and Snape’s mouth was there, closing his, then gone, and Snape’s hand was gone, and the scrape of a chair rang dissonant through the room as Snape pushed away and stumbled from the table.
Harry nearly fell and caught himself against the tabletop. “Professor,” he said quickly, desperate to fix this because he still had two weeks, his last time with Snape before they went their separate ways, before he’d have no more reason to see Snape every night though he’d tried to find a reason, make something up but nothing had come—
“You,” Snape exhaled, and his face was colorless, “are not to be believed.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“You are shameless, an attention-seeker the likes of which I’ve never seen before,” Snape hissed vehemently, hair falling into his face. “You are grasping and ungrateful and your self-conceit so flagrantly beyond proportion that you may actually exceed your father, a feat I hadn’t thought possible. It was the crudest form of stupidity to indulge myself in your company simply because I found you to be vaguely amusing in this barren hell-hole of a hospital, when I knew full well what you imagined yourself to be—”
“Stop!” Harry shouted through the fierce and pulpy pounding of the fragments of his heart. Snape’s words—his face—they blurred in Harry’s mind and it was all he could do to cry out, “Shut up, just shut up—”
Then Snape was around him digging a palm to his face, forcing him to gag on the words he would say.
“Quiet, you’ll bring the entire staff down!” Snape hissed in his face. “Do you really want an army of healers storming through the door?”
Harry breathed into Snape’s hand and looked at Snape’s narrowed eyes. They were angry, and weary. Harry’s fingers crept up, of their own accord, and laid aside the strands of hair shadowing Snape’s nose, latticing the lines that curved at his temple. He tucked them carefully behind an ear, guiding each skein with a gentle fingertip, steady with the certainty that had shielded him from Voldemort.
When Harry finished, he let his hand drop and moved back slightly, away from the dampened palm that had clasped his chin so rigidly, and looked back at Snape’s face. It was—unchanged.
Harry’s chest constricted; his mind was wide open for Snape to read, if he wanted. Snape’s presence didn’t come. Harry lifted a shoulder in a slow half-shrug. He took another step back, another, until the sharp black outline passed into indistinct gray, until he turned and groped unseeingly for the door and bruised his fist on the knob before stumbling out.
Harry was dreaming, and he knew he was dreaming, because his sleep had been delicate for the past several nights. He dreamt he’d told Ron and Hermione what had happened, and Hermione clucked in sympathy as Ron fished out chocolate Bertie Bott’s Beans, and they told him not to worry, he’d be out of St. Mungo’s soon, but Harry didn’t want the beans and he didn’t want to leave—he wanted Snape of all things but Snape hated him, still, even now, Snape thought he was arrogant, shameless—Snape had come to tell him all over again.
“Potter,” Snape said—and it wasn’t in the dream. “I would call your carelessness with something so valuable as this cloak unforgivable, if I hadn’t been able to use it myself.”
Harry scrambled to sit up, his hair and eyes wild. There was a faint rustle—then Snape stood at the bedside in his night robes. He tossed the Invisibility Cloak onto the bed.
“I’m sorry,” Harry blurted out, kicking at the sheets as he started getting up. “I’m sorry about that, the other night—it was completely out of order, it was so stupid, I should not have—I just—I only meant to tell you I’d be leaving soon and to thank you for saving my life about eighteen million times and that—and that I’d miss you…” Harry ran out of breath and forced his legs to swing out, despite the sheets tangling them. “I’m sorry,” he said to his sheet-clad toes. His whole body raced; his voice was low in agitation. “I know you don’t—I was—”
“Presumptuous, as usual,” Snape cut in. Harry’s heart turned liquid. He blinked at his feet, unable to see clearly without his glasses in the dimness. “More appallingly so than ever.”
Then the mattress dipped without a sound and Snape’s voice changed places. Harry’s throat caught—he couldn’t move.
“I detest presumptions. They’re based on skewed perceptions of fact, and are therefore wholly inaccurate while maintaining the appearance of truth,” Snape said briskly. “However.” He paused, shifted where he sat, stiffly poised next to Harry at the edge of the bed. “That is a general rule.”
At this point, Harry had to breathe—his torso heaved mightily, his chin lifted for air.
“Have you considered studying Legilimency?” Snape asked abruptly. It startled Harry into glancing over. “I realize it’s probably a moot question, given that you needn’t do more than laze about for the rest of your life,” Snape said.
“I—I hadn’t—but I do. Want to,” Harry said hurriedly.
“Good. I can refer you to a few of the leading Legilimens who—”
“With you,” Harry said. “I’d want to learn it from you.” Snape’s mouth thinned and Harry rushed to add, “I mean—I mean, only if you’d be willing.”
“Why should I agree?” Snape challenged.
“What else have you got to do?” Harry blurted out.
“I mean—you like teaching—”
“You like teaching Legilimency—”
“You like teaching me.”
Snape arched a brow and Harry’s gaze shot to the bed—he’d gotten caught up in Snape’s rapid-fire questioning it had slipped out.
“I’ve just spoiled my chances, haven’t I?” Harry said softly, not raising his head. His heart sank when Snape didn’t answer.
“If you were a Legilimens, there would’ve been no need to ask,” Snape finally returned dryly. “It’ll be a task of epic magnitude.” Then Snape’s hand was smoothing Harry’s hair, passing lightly over his head to his neck before drifting from his shoulder. “And judging by the disheartening thickness of your skull, I’m not certain it can be done.”
Harry turned his eyes up, barely breathing, to Snape’s.
Snape pursed his mouth. “I suppose we can try.”