in medias res by abrae Title: in medias res Author:abrae Pairing: Snape/Harry Rating: R Word Count: 10,699 Warnings: None Summary: Potter was in the corridor with Minerva that night – and Snape knew it. A/N: Canon quotes from DH, GoF, and OotP. No Deathly Hallows were harmed in the making of this story, because I got rid of them altogether. Many heartfelt thanks to suitesamba for her fine-toothed beta, and to gingertart50 for her generous Brit-pick. Harry Potter, Severus Snape, and the Wizarding world at large belong to JKR, et.al.; I just brought them out to live a little. Literally.
Snape hears softly shuffling footsteps and the sweep of robes against a cold stone floor. A year spent balancing precariously between the tyranny of the Dark Lord's whims and Dumbledore's unwelcome bequest has come down to this final, fraught moment. He knows that one wrong move - one misstep - and everything will be for naught.
"Who's there?" he hears Minerva call out into the darkness; and although he has decimated her bravado with a scythe-like cut of his eyes time and again in the months since he assumed the Headmaster's mantle, he feels icy terror wash over him at her words.
"It is I," Snape replies, crushing his trepidation with the weight of his voice.
He moves where she can see him, wand drawn, and he knows - in the angry sparkle of her eyes, in a straightened stance that has been absent all this time - that Potter is there with them.
"Where are the Carrows?" he asks quietly.
"Wherever you told them to be, I expect, Severus," Minerva replies coldly, giving nothing away.
Snape steps close, fixing Minerva's gaze with his own, willing her to understand. Then his eyes slide to the side, sweeping the air around her as he speaks.
"The Sword of Gryffindor," he hisses, his voice barely a whisper. "Did you claim it?" He knows the answer, of course.
A sharp, muffled intake of breath to Minerva's right and clouded confusion in her eyes. Her wand falters, and in the same moment Potter uncloaks with Lovegood at his side, his own wand poised at the ready. Snape takes him in - skittish eyes encircled in black, fresh cuts on a twitchy hand, wild hair that has known neither a comb in days nor scissors in months - and comprehends in an instant that this encounter is more volatile than he had thought.
"What do you know about the Sword of Gryffindor?" Potter snarls, too loud, and Snape bites back a wince at his reckless imprudence. Idiot, he wants to scream, but he knows that the situation cannot be allowed to escalate.
"It was I who placed it in the lake," Snape replies quietly, his voice even, his eyes trained on the boy.
Potter's lips part as if to argue; Minerva cautiously turns her head to look at him, then back at Snape. "It was necessary," he continues, "in order that it be taken under conditions of valour."
Snape can almost hear the grinding gears of Potter's mind as he struggles to make sense of the words. The moment belongs to the boy now, and Snape knows that he will live or die according to what Potter chooses to believe.
"Your Patronus." the boy whispers, and Snape hears his unasked question.
"A doe," he responds.
Potter nods slowly, his eyes never leaving Snape.
"Potter," Snape snaps impatiently, "there is no time. The Headmaster –" Minerva and Potter gasp as one at the casual ease of his assassin’s words "– has given me explicit directions to pass on information vital to the cause. I must insist that you accompany me to his office, where it may be imparted in private."
At this, Minerva exclaims, "Absolutely not!" She turns to face Potter, arguing in her rolling brogue, "This man murdered the Headmaster! He has overseen the destruction of Hogwarts! I cannot allow you to accompany him –" and she casts a venomous glance at Snape "– no matter what information he claims to have."
Potter’s uncertainty is written on his face, and Snape excoriates him pitilessly from the safety of his Occluded mind, awaiting a decision he thinks may never come. The impasse holds for a long moment until, finally, a softly lilting voice speaks at Potter's side.
"Harry," says Lovegood, her eyes imbued with surprising shrewdness. "I've never seen him lift his wand to a student - not in the whole time he's been headmaster. He was only ever angry when we did things that drew the Carrows' attention. When we painted the walls – ‘Dumbledore’s Army’. Did things that couldn’t be ignored. I think he tried to shield us. From them,” she says. “As much as he could."
Wild emerald eyes seek out the girl's own calming blue, and even Minerva's expression grows thoughtful at her words.
"Is this true, Professor?" the boy asks his Head of House. Minerva hesitates, looks to Snape, and then nods once.
Potter appears to weigh this new information against what he already (thinks he) knows, and then turns to Lovegood.
"Right," Potter says. "Luna, find Ron and Hermione. Tell them what you've told me about the...object. Tell them to start looking for it. I'm safe - tell them that I'm safe and I'll find them when I can. Professor," he continues, turning to Minerva, “will you take us to the Headmaster's rooms?”
She grips her wand tightly. "I will, Mr. Potter."
Potter nods briskly, then whirls around to bring the tip of his wand to Snape's chin in a swift, seamless movement. Snape jerks his head back, but otherwise he does not move.
"One false step, Headmaster," Potter sneers. Snape clenches his fists tightly by his sides to keep from slapping the imperiousness out of him. "One lie..."
His arrogance irritates Snape almost past the point of tolerance, and a small, petty part of him cannot help but think ahead to the moment when he will finally pass the burden of his knowledge on to the boy.
"I speak the truth, Potter," he says through gritted teeth. "Come - there is little time."
Snape turns on his heel, black robes billowing as effortlessly as ever, and the three retreat together into the darkness as Lovegood departs in the opposite direction.
The Headmaster's office is sepulchral, still and cold, as if it has not been occupied for some time. Snape wordlessly casts Incendio as they enter, lighting the sconces that encircle the room and illuminating it in a soft glow. As the light rises, so too does the figure in the portrait behind the Headmaster's desk, looking down on the unlikely trio with a strange mixture of satisfaction and apprehension.
"Harry, my dear boy. How good it is to see you," Dumbledore says, his voice a diminished echo of its former resonance. "And Minerva, my old friend," he continues, casting kind eyes on the perplexed woman.
"Severus." He turns towards Snape, and there is weary affection in his tone. "Thank you." Dumbledore closes his eyes for a moment, and Snape realizes (whether in shock or relief, he cannot say) that the Headmaster has assumed the burden of what is to come.
After a moment, Dumbledore’s eyes snap open. "I must know,” he says. “What is the situation? Where do things stand?"
Only now do Snape, Potter, and Minerva look to one another, unsure where to begin.
"We've –" Potter begins, then pauses before continuing cryptically, "we've destroyed one and located another, sir. We're looking now for the last, and then there will only be the snake left."
Impossibly, the colour seems to drain from Dumbledore's face as he asks, "Do you have the means to destroy them?"
"We think so," Potter answers, but Snape sees the uncertainty in his eyes and cannot help but think that the boy is failing where he himself might succeed, if only Dumbledore would trust him. A pang of jealousy stabs somewhere deep in his heart, and though he regrets it – knows it for the unworthy sentiment it is – he cannot hold it back. He allows it to blossom and fester for a moment, then crushes it before it can disseminate.
"Headmaster," Snape interrupts, stepping forward, "the Dark Lord is aware of Potter's presence at Hogwarts. Time grows short for… whatever it is that he must do."
Harry starts at this. "How –" he says, before his words are stopped by a glance at Snape's forearm, and Snape suppresses a rush of fury that this boy might presume to judge him.
Dumbledore’s eyes miss nothing of this exchange, a pained look flitting across his face as he watches. His hands are clasped behind his back; he stares down at feet that stand somewhere outside his gilt frame and it looks like contemplation. Snape alone knows that more weighs on his mind than just this news.
"Minerva," Dumbledore finally says, his voice cutting through the quiet. "We must fortify the castle against attack. May I entrust you with the task?"
She nods briskly and turns to leave, stopping to rest a hand on Potter's shoulder and giving it a light squeeze before she goes. When she reaches Snape, she pauses, looks up into his eyes with cautious regard, and says, simply, "Severus." He returns her acknowledgement with a slight tilt of the head, and she departs.
Alone now, Dumbledore draws up to address the remaining two. "My boys," he intones, "the time has come for you to understand one another." He addresses Snape first, saying, "Severus, I must ask that you remain here for the time being. There are those who will seek to harm you - friend and foe alike - and I will not sacrifice more than I must today.”
Turning to Potter, he continues, “Harry, Severus has been, and remains, our staunchest ally - our most faithful friend, even when it seemed that he had betrayed even myself.”
“The astronomy tower…” Potter whispers in a kind of horror.
“I was dying,” Dumbledore explains. “The curse, Harry, to my hand. Severus saved me from a fate worse than death at the hands of the Death Eaters. He spared Draco Malfoy the terrible task set him by Voldemort.”
Potter’s eyes grow wide, his breath, shallow.
“Severus has endured rejection, Harry,” Dumbledore says, sorrow suffusing his voice. “Crushing solitude, and horrors of both body and mind, all in the name of the Light.”
A pause as the boy slowly turns to look at Snape.
“I implore you to remember that now," Dumbledore finishes.
Snape scowls, pointedly avoiding Potter's suddenly interrogating eyes; but he holds his head high for the first time in years, recalcitrant pleasure at this open acknowledgement battling his battered pride for ascendance. The boy looks from Snape to Dumbledore to Snape again in a slow, roiling nod that bespeaks a muddied sea-change in his perceptions. The hand clutching his wand loosens almost imperceptibly, and, deferentially averting his eyes, he cedes the moment to the enigma who now stands beside him.
Dumbledore clears his throat – a dry crackle – and says, “Harry, I must now ask you to finish the job you have already begun. When the last object has been destroyed, before you seek out the snake, return here, please. There is...one last thing I must impart at that time."
A faint frown crosses Potter's face, but he replies without hesitation, "Yes, Headmaster."
As he goes, he looks up at Snape, drawing black eyes to his own green.
"P-Professor," Potter begins, his voice soft, wavering in a way that his eyes do not. "Thank you. Sir. For the sword." As if embarrassed, he bolts for the staircase - pauses - gives a small shake of his head and murmurs, as much to himself as Snape, "For everything."
Snape listens, dumbfounded, as the soft, swift tread of trainer-clad feet fades away.
Dumbledore breathes a pastel sigh when Harry is gone.
"Severus," he says, an argument incipient in his voice. "When I said I need for you each to understand the other, I meant you as much as Harry. You know what he must be told - no, what I must tell him - and I know that you, even you, cannot wish it on him."
Snape looks to a far window, its stained-glass glory drained of colour and light against the black night sky.
"No," he acknowledges. "I can truly say I would not wish it on my worst enemy."
Dumbledore would laugh at Snape's deft deflection, rendered as nimbly as any shield charm, were the subject not so terribly serious. Instead, he counters with a thrust intended to cut closer to the heart of the matter.
"Is he? Your worst enemy? I know you have had your differences in the past –" and here Snape gives a wry snort "– in the past, Severus. But now? Can you truly say that he is an enemy in any meaningful sense? Because he will need, not a friend, not someone who will grieve with him and hold him back and make it all the harder to go – but…a fellow traveler. Someone who has walked many of the same roads as he, and for many of the same reasons. Because – look at me, Severus," Dumbledore insists, and Snape reluctantly raises his eyes. "Because, no matter what you may believe, Severus, Harry too has endured rejection, isolation, and untold horrors. Some of them you know, some you do not, but they are real and he has endured, much like you. For that alone he deserves your respect, if nothing else."
In this moment, Snape thinks that, of all the burdens he has been asked to bear over the years, it is Dumbledore's eternal insistence that he empathise with Potter which is the most odious.
"What would you have me say, Albus?" he retorts. "That I care for the boy? You know I do not." Dumbledore's countenance darkens at this, a swirl of inky pigment clouding the oily blue sky behind him. "Respect? Perhaps, if the actions born of a Gryffindor predisposition to recklessness could in any way be construed as bravery. It is as I have said: he possesses a mediocre talent and the full force of his father's flaws. Indeed, to my eye there is little evidence to suggest that he will do as you say he must, save his propensity to act without forethought."
"It pains me that you should be so glib about this, Severus," Dumbledore sighs resignedly.
"I am 'glib' about nothing, Albus. Of course I pity the boy. You require of him something that is unthinkable and very nearly unconscionable, and I am not so blinded by my preconceptions to think that he will refuse to do it. Perhaps when he – when it –" and the words seem suddenly to stick in Snape's throat. "Perhaps," he begins again, "when the war is over, then may I find some respect for the boy. Somewhere in the moment between his...sacrifice and his inevitable canonisation, there may be room for respect."
Dumbledore considers Snape's words for a long moment. Finally, he asks quietly, "Severus, why do you suppose Harry participated in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, knowing that he did not place his name in the cup?"
"Who can say? Fame? He certainly received an inordinate amount of press that year."
Dumbledore nods, preferring, for the moment, to let Snape draw his own conclusions. "Yes, yes he did. Indeed, I believe that is the year that he was introduced to the many charms of Miss Rita Skeeter, if I am not mistaken."
Snape instinctively sneers at the name, recalling in the same moment those stories about Potter which even he knew were bald-faced lies.
"Glory, then. He was the Tri-Wizard Champion, however falsely his win was achieved."
"Yes, he was," Dumbledore agrees and then asks, a beat later, "Severus, are you aware of what Harry did with his winnings?"
Snape knows that Dumbledore fancies himself a latter-day Socrates, in death as much as in life, and he hates how his own lack of information plays right into the Headmaster's willingness to let him hang himself on his own logic.
"I am not," he replies, refusing to incriminate himself any more than necessary.
"He gave it – all of it, mind you – to Fred and George Weasley, in order that they might start their business." Dumbledore says, and Snape cannot restrain the black, barking laugh that wells up inside him.
"But of course! What would be more obscenely Gryffindor than to use the winnings of the Tri-Wizard Tournament to launch a novelty shop?"
"You miss my point entirely, Severus," Dumbledore utters reproachfully. "Harry saw his winnings as nothing less than blood money, and he wanted to be rid of them. Had you been standing nearby, lamenting the high cost of potions ingredients, I daresay he would have given them all to you instead. Harry believes himself responsible, personally responsible, for the death of the Diggory boy. He believes himself personally responsible for the return of the Dark Lord. He believes himself personally responsible for the death of Sirius Black –"
"Had he applied himself –"
"Yes, his failed Occlumency lessons. He said so himself. Had he worked harder, applied himself more, then perhaps Sirius might have lived – those were his words to me, spoken on the one occasion – the one occasion, Severus – when he ever voiced anything other than absolute willingness to live up to a tyrannical birthright not of his own making."
Dumbledore falls silent, and in the quiet Snape struggles to quell the nagging, if vague, sense that he has misunderstood Potter in some fundamental way. He thinks it almost a relief when Dumbledore breaks the silence – until he hears his words.
"Sirius Black came to see me not long after your lessons with Harry were called off. He told me that Harry had come to him with questions, about his father, about Sirius himself, about their behaviour as fifteen year-olds."
Snape's blood runs cold; if this information is intended to make him feel more favourably disposed towards Potter, it isn't working.
"He told me that Harry was angry – at them, Severus. At the fifteen year-olds they had been, at their casual cruelty towards you. He couldn't understand the ease with which they had tormented you, nor why Lily married James knowing that he was capable of such things."
Momentarily shocked out of his indignation, Snape blurts out, "She didn't – I don't think she knew. Much."
"Indeed. Regardless, my point is that Harry empathised not with them, but with you. After everything, after years of antagonism and mutual misunderstanding, Harry's first instinct was to stand up to those who had hurt you."
He pauses, and then adds, "And in so doing, he risked alienating the only real family he ever knew."
The sounds of battle reverberate against the walls of the Headmaster's office. It seems like hours since Potter left, and Snape thinks he may go mad if he remains within these confines for much longer. A dull, persistent ache in his left arm tells him that either he is suffering from a singularly inefficient cardiac arrest, or the Dark Lord is incensed and has been for some time; at this point, he cannot say which he prefers.
Dumbledore has long since fallen silent and now slumbers restlessly in his portrait. The conversational void he has left is filled with a memory that seeps, unbidden, into Snape's consciousness. In it, Black sits in the kitchen at number twelve Grimmauld Place, as trapped by obligation as Snape is now. He remembers what he said to Black that day, what might have incited the man to reckless self-destruction. Yet, what Snape hears in his mind is neither his own spiteful words (you can do nothing useful for the Order) nor Black's bitter retorts, but his father's voice screaming, "Yer useless lump! Gerroff yer lazy arse, boy!"
Usefulness, he realises, has been the sum total of his existence.
An acute flare of pain. He is being called to serve, to be useful once more, and in this moment Snape makes a choice: to resist and, in so doing, to live – for however many more hours he may have left in this world.
The sound of stone grinding against stone rouses Snape from his thoughts and awakens Dumbledore. Potter, more blood and bruises on his face than before, climbs slowly up the spiral staircase. His wand hangs listlessly in his hand, and Snape wonders if he will even have the physical strength to finish what he has begun.
"Harry, my boy, my boy," Dumbledore says softly. "Are they destroyed?"
Potter wearily closes his eyes, breathes deeply and speaks on the exhale. "All but the snake, sir."
"How did you accomplish it, if I may ask?"
The boy offers a weak, wry grin, the ghost of his former cockiness. "Basilisk fang, sir."
Dumbledore smiles faintly, as if to himself. "Ah, yes. An inspired choice."
Potter shrugs. "It was Ron's idea," he says, pausing a moment before turning to Snape. "Malfoy –" he begins, his voice subdued. "And Goyle – they're alive, or, they were the last time I saw them."
Snape offers him a curt nod. "Thank y –" he starts, before Potter cuts him off.
"C-Crabbe," he sputters. "He cast Fiendfyre. We couldn't save him -- ” Potter's voice breaks on the last word and he looks away.
"I'm sure..." Snape says after a moment, though he does not know what comfort to give. "I'm sure you did what you could, Potter."
Potter doesn’t respond, instead dragging a filth-encrusted sleeve across his face, smearing sweat and blood. Snape stares, absently wondering what the boy has endured to be covered so.
After a few minutes, Potter collects himself and, exhaustion punctuating his words, asks "Headmaster, why did you ask me to come back here?"
Instead of answering, Dumbledore looks to Snape. "Severus, the time has come. If you would, please, bring the vial now. Harry," his ghostly voice wavers on the name, "there is something I must insist that you see."
A chill shoots up Snape’s spine at the words, and it feels like the cold hand of fate; but he obeys the request, studiously avoiding Potter's gaze as he crosses the room to a nondescript mahogany cabinet. He reaches into a drawer that mirrors a dozen other drawers surrounding it and pulls out a clear vial containing the silvery mist of memories. Recognising it, Potter approaches the Headmaster's Pensieve and waits as Snape pours the contents into its swirling depths. Dumbledore is mute as Potter moves to enter; but Snape reaches out, for reasons he chooses not to interrogate, and holds him back with a firm grip on his shoulder. Potter snaps his head up, an edgy question in his eyes.
"Potter –" Snape begins, unsure what it is he wants to say. A moment's hesitation, a tentative pat on the boy’s shoulder, then, simply, "I will be here."
At these words, and especially at the anomalous gesture, Potter succumbs to wide-eyed unease. He gives Snape a tight-lipped acknowledgement and Snape releases his hold on the boy, letting him fall into the Pensieve.
Swirling mists and Snape is confessing the prophecy. Voldemort, he told Voldemort, and Harry shakes with anger, rage, this is when it all began, his life was written in stone the moment Snape heard Trelawney and he hates him he hates him, and he sees Snape trembling in fear shaking in sorrow when his betrayal is for naught. Lily is dead, his friend, his only friend is dead dead and Dumbledore's heart breaks a little for his boy, the baby, the boy will not be safe and Snape vows to protect, keep him safe but he hates he hates the boy he's lazy arrogant, James just like James and Dumbledore condemns his boy. ‘If you are ready, if you are prepared,' and how can he be but he goes again and again he goes to the Dark Lord and returns a shattered shell again and again, my boy, Dumbledore's beloved broken boy whom he has betrayed then and now and the curse, the ring Snape cannot stop, it cannot save him he must kill him 'You must kill me' and no, no, Harry sweet Harry is a horcrux he must die he must die he must die, and Voldemort must be the one and Dumbledore alone weeps for the boy his boys, oh my boys, alone and awaiting death --
Potter clumsily jerks his head out of the Pensieve, not exiting so much as stumbling backwards. Snape steps instinctively behind him and catches the boy when he begins to fall, lowering Harry (now, at the end, he is Harry after all) gently to the floor, bending long legs to kneel behind him, wrapping spindly arms around his quaking body to absorb the shock. He feels Harry's heart beat wildly under a splayed hand (not for much longer), feels the anguish coming off him in waves, feels...recalcitrant sympathy for Harry. I understand, he wants to say – but he does not; he cannot.
"I, I know..." Snape speaks low against his ear, gripping Harry tighter in his arms. "I know."
Snape repeats these (useless) words like an incantation until, at last, heaving gasps slowly give way to soft, panting breaths. As he calms, Harry slumps back against his professor, and Snape loosens his embrace to accommodate him.
Deafening silence, then Harry’s voice sounds in the void.
"Do you think it hurts?"
Before Snape can decide whether a lie might be kinder than the truth (before he can wonder at the novelty of wanting to be kind to Potter), Dumbledore's subdued voice drifts downward from the portrait.
"It is like...slipping into a dream, Harry," he says, the blue pigment of his eyes diluted under ersatz tears.
If Harry hears the words, he gives no sign of it as he lingers a little longer against his professor, head lolling heavily against Snape's coarse robes, arms limp and leaden, breath pulling in long, deep sighs. Snape holds him in a silence neither caressing nor cold, but constrained by his unwillingness to trade truth for platitudes. He can conceive of no words that might ease Harry's burden, that might compensate him for his sacrifice, and so Snape keeps his own counsel and offers only his companionship as the boy struggles to slay this latest dragon that has appeared, unbidden, in his midst.
After a time, Snape senses an inexorable, steely resolve wash through the body lying against him. Harry pulls away and sits straight, slowly climbs to his feet and offers a devastatingly warm hand to Snape, raising him up to stand beside him. Snape meets Harry's eyes, and in them he finds that the boy he has known (hated) is gone; in his place stands a stillborn man with a faraway look and shoulders bowed by one burden too many.
"The snake," Harry says. "We still haven't killed the snake." His voice holds no inflection and no life, as if he has already begun to wean himself from the world.
In this moment, it occurs to Snape that he might yet have one last use left.
"Let me go with you. One man alone..."
Harry’s eyes widen slightly at Snape's unthinking appellation, but he nods in agreement. "If you could get close enough – the snake won't be interested in me. I'm –" and here, he gives a cynical snort "– I'm Voldemort's to kill. It'd go after you, but you might have a chance."
"My thoughts exactly."
Dumbledore silently watches this exchange from his place on the wall, and when the two seem decided, he adds softly, "If you are willing, Severus; if you are – ready – then I believe you will find the sword hidden once again behind my portrait."
Both Snape and Harry start at the Headmaster's pronouncement, but only Snape has the presence of mind to say, "I thought – conditions of valour?"
"I should think that the intention to announce your true allegiance in such a way is valour enough," Dumbledore replies, before turning a sad smile to Harry. "Wouldn't you agree?"
This time, it is Snape whose eyes grow wide at the spark of approbation in Harry's appraising look.
"I do, sir," Harry says, nodding as though surprised to find himself doing so. "I do."
Harry has but to turn inwards on his pain to find Voldemort ensconced with Nagini in the Shrieking Shack. As neither can afford to be seen within the castle, Snape and Harry take leave of Dumbledore (now as then there are no goodbyes) and slip behind a garish tapestry leading to a narrow spiral staircase off the Headmaster's anteroom. They make their way down carefully, and as the dim light of the Headmaster's office recedes together with the sounds of war, Snape considers that it might not be such a terrible thing to be entombed here in the peaceful dark.
But Harry presses on, a dead man walking, and Snape cannot but follow.
Eventually, the thunder of battle once again reverberates against stone walls, signaling that they are close to the grounds. Harry's feet slowly come to a stop, and he turns to face Snape, the Lumos of his wand casting cold light between them.
"Take my cloak," he says. "Let him see me first. If he sees us both, I think he might try to get you out of the way. This way, if I can distract him long enough..."
"I should be able to approach the snake," finishes Snape.
Snape considers this plan before giving a small tilt of the head; there is nothing for it but to push on.
“You’ll have to kill him, too,” says Harry.
Snape nods. “Yes.”
For a long moment they stand looking at one another, erstwhile enemies in uncharted territory.
"I wish it could have been different," Harry says finally.
Snape meets Harry's eyes, an inconvenient lump rising to his throat.
"As do I, Mr. Potter," he quietly replies.
Another moment, then Harry gives a brisk shake of his head. "Right," he says, pulling the cloak from his robe and handing it to Snape. A thought (James must be rolling in his grave) flits through Snape's mind as he takes it. The hand that gives it over trembles perceptibly.
"Godspeed, Mr. Potter," Snape murmurs as he wraps the cloak around himself.
Harry flashes him the reckless grin of a Marauder, but his eyes (green so green and beautiful) gleam unnaturally bright. "Ta, sir," he responds shakily. "Same to you.”
Harry turns and moves swiftly into the pre-dawn darkness, down the grassy slope towards the Whomping Willow with Snape close behind. The tree, stunned, perhaps, by all the ambient activity, makes no move to repel him.
As he nears the tunnel entrance, Harry once again slows to a stop and braces himself with a hand on the thick root that frames it. His head is bowed, fringe hanging over his glasses; his chest heaves, and Snape suspects that, if he listens hard enough, he may be able to hear the pounding of Harry's heart. He wonders absently if they have come this far only for Potter to falter at the end; but, after a moment, Harry squares his shoulders and enters.
Snape makes up the distance between them, and when he arrives, he enters stealthily into the room where the Dark Lord is speaking. Harry stands motionless in the centre as Voldemort sweeps around him, the hem of his robes kicking up wisps of dust in his wake.
"Harry Potter," he hears Voldemort say, his voice, as ever, a deceptively gentle hiss. "I had begun to think you would not come."
"Hullo, Tom," Harry replies artlessly. From his vantage point by the door, Snape can see the flare of blood-red eyes that Harry's casual tone provokes.
"Insolent boy," Voldemort spits at Harry. He raises his wand and, with an incensed jab, speaks, "Crucio." Harry doubles over with a cry, his face twisted in pain, and Snape uses the distraction to slip further into the room. His eyes scan the scene as Harry's screams fill the air, observing with dismay that Nagini has been enclosed within a protective field and now floats some feet above the floor.
Harry's body jerks with a spasm as the Dark Lord releases him. He falls to the floor, his palms and knees slamming against the wooden slats with a crack that Snape feels across the room, and still he looks up at Voldemort with audacious eyes.
"Not insolent at all," Harry says, his words punctuated by soft grunts as he climbs slowly to his feet. Once standing, he gestures at the space between himself and the Dark Lord and, summoning the impudence that has driven Snape to distraction for years, says, "’Equals’, remember? Or – wait,” he amends with affected solicitude, “I'm sorry, did you not hear that much of the prophecy?"
Voldemort draws in a seething breath, voicing the shock that Snape feels at Harry's words. "Divestitus!" he shrieks with a flamboyant swish of his wand, and Harry's clothes and glasses are ripped away, leaving him naked and exposed.
Voldemort circles him again, taking in the boy's trembling body.
"Insolent boy," he repeats, lifting Harry's flaccid prick with the tip of his wand, then dropping it back against his groin. Harry flushes an angry red, but he remains frozen in place, his green eyes fixed on the Dark Lord.
Voldemort murmurs, as if to himself, "No wand." As he examines the boy, he muses, "If I did not know better, I would think you had come here to die."
Another circuit. He begins to trace the lace of faded scars on Harry's lower back with a reptilian finger, and Harry flinches at the touch.
"It seems you have led a more...eventful...life than I would have expected. Let me guess...your Muggle relations?" Voldemort leans in close to Harry's ear, his voice but a whisper, and the boy recoils from the proximity. "Dumbledore's lost boys, are we not?" he asks, his voice the softness of quicksand. "Abandoned...betrayed...used. His castaways...his dregs." Voldemort steps around to face Harry, looking him up and down.
"His tools," he says simply, then turns away.
Snape feels the first tendrils of panic creep over and around his Occluded mind as he sees the Dark Lord's words insinuate themselves into Harry's thoughts. He remembers when, a lifetime ago, such words gnawed at his own soul; and, after all that has happened, after remorse and redemption, penitence and forgiveness, he alone knows that the acid of those words still burns away at his humanity sometimes. There is no potion, no salve that will wash them from his mind, and now Harry has heard them too. The boy's eyes are closed, his chest heaves as it did before, and Snape inwardly curses himself for allowing his fate, the fates of them all, to be placed in the hands of this boy, this child, who cannot be expected to resist the insidious lure of the Dark Lord's venom.
Yet, paradoxically and against all reason, it is the knowledge that Harry is made of different stuff that stays Snape’s hand when he would wrench control of the situation from him.
After a time, Harry’s eyes open, stark and despairing. They are dragged, seemingly against his will, to the sinuous form hovering above the floor. His look is unreadable, but it might be mistaken for fear.
Voldemort follows Harry’s gaze. "Ah, yes. Nagini," he hisses, his voice caressing the name. "Beautiful, is she not?" He stalks to the hovering orb and addresses the snake in Parseltongue. "Come, my dear. Show the boy what a beauty you truly are." Stepping back, he casts "Finite.” The orb crackles apart from front to back like a gossamer shell, and Nagini drops slowly to the floor.
Snape’s attention has been trained on Harry throughout this exchange, and now he is rewarded with a flash of savage elation that lights the boy’s eyes at this development. A frisson of admiration courses through him at the sight, and he vaguely recognizes it as Dumbledore’s long hoped-for respect, born in the space between desperation and deliverance. For the first time in months, if not years, he allows himself to hope that they may yet emerge from this hell victorious.
Nagini slithers across the floor to Harry's feet and moves sinuously against the skin of his bare calves. Harry, face ashen, casts Voldemort an imploring look. "Please..." he begs tremulously, tears welling in his eyes, "Make it stop."
Voldemort smiles, a grotesque gash that splits his face in two, and hisses to Nagini, "Pray continue, my dear. I think he likes it."
Nagini obediently wraps around Harry in a twisted Ouroboros, and the boy begins to keen in a high-pitched whimper. He appears the very essence of exquisite torture – eyes screwed shut, white teeth biting into pale lip, gangly arms wrapped tightly around his bare, trembling torso – and Voldemort stands transfixed by the picture he makes. He reaches out with a skeletal finger to swipe away a crimson droplet swelling at the corner of Harry's mouth, bringing the bloodied digit to his own lips for a taste. His eyes roll back in ecstasy.
Snape, too, is mesmerised – not by Harry’s discomfiture, but by the boy’s delicious deceit. His attention snags for a moment on the performance, relishing (respecting) it as possibly equal – in intensity, if not endurance – to his own duplicity. Harry’s is not, he realizes, a Slytherin deception; it relies neither on subterfuge nor obfuscation. Rather, it is pure Gryffindor in its frank theatricality, something that the Dark Lord would never suspect, and that, it occurs to Snape, is its genius.
A sibilant sigh from Voldemort, and Snape is roused from his reverie by the sudden awareness that the Dark Lord is now as distracted as they may reasonably expect. Clearing his mind, he stands straight and slowly brings his hand to the hilt of the sword hidden inside his charmed robes.
Nagini's tail is wrapped around the boy's legs, her head curled on the far turn, when Harry suddenly opens eyes burning with exhausted fury and snarls in Parseltongue, "I said make it stop." The snake, confused by the command coming from the boy, stills, and Snape throws off Harry's cloak, sword drawn. Before Voldemort can fully comprehend what is happening, Snape has lifted the sword high above his head and brought it down on Nagini, severing her head from her body in one fell swoop. In the same moment, as if choreographed, Harry holds out his hand and cries, "Accio wand!" The wand flies to him from its hiding place within the folds of his Invisibility Cloak and he turns it on Voldemort, who answers the attack with a bitter howl and a blast of magic. Now, as before, their wands lock together in Priori Incantatum and the air fills with the ghostly screams of the Dark Lord’s freshest victims.
Snape drops the sword to take his own wand in hand, and his eyes meet Harry's myopic gaze across the room. The anguish in Harry’s red-rimmed eyes is real now, but he gives Snape a stiff nod of acquiescence. Before Snape can blink back the sting in his eyes, before he can return Harry’s gesture or acknowledge him in any way, the boy closes his eyes, lowers his wand, and allows Voldemort's curse to hit him square in the chest. His body is momentarily enveloped in electrifying emerald light; then all is shadow as he drops to the floor. Voldemort’s visage blazes victorious for a fleeting moment, and then Snape lifts his wand to bellow "Avada Kedavra!" The curse crashes into the Dark Lord and the triumph in his eyes melts to bewilderment before he, too, collapses dead at Snape’s feet.
A minute passes, or maybe an hour; Snape cannot tell.
When he moves again, it is to take off his outer robe and lay it over Harry’s lifeless form. He kneels on bent knee beside the boy, mind blank and heart frozen as his eyes linger over white cheek and tousled hair, bloodied lip and impossibly long lashes. He fixates on a pale, slender hand, skin scarred and nails broken, still clutching a now-powerless wand. He thinks on spring-green eyes, resigned and wide with dread, and the rage that has been simmering in his heart for years rises to claim Snape for its own.
He stands, turns, snarls a guttural “Divestitus” with a wrathful whip of his wand, and elegant robes shred to reveal the desiccated shell of Voldemort’s body. Snape steps close – closer – until his boots are mere inches away; he lifts his wand and spits out “Sectumsempra” once, twice, over and over, the curse slashing through the Dark Lord’s skin like a fine razor. Dark, dead blood wells in the cuts, spatters in thick, coagulating droplets – but it isn’t enough; it’s nowhere near enough. He nudges the body with a black boot, kicks it, experimentally crushes a smooth, skeletal hand and savours the satisfying crunch of bones beneath his heel. Then he casts Mobilicorpus with a feral growl and sends the corpse flying into a far wall. Snape trains his wand on the tangled mass of broken limbs that thuds to the floor, hisses “Incendio,” and the Dark Lord’s body bursts into flame.
And in the end, it is Voldemort’s acolyte, his enemy, who stands watch as the Dark Lord is reduced to a smouldering pile of charred bones.
When it is done, Snape slumps to his knees, arms braced against the floor, head bent and hair hanging over his face in limp, black tendrils. His heart breaks with the crowning dawn; his breath comes in heaving gasps. He wants to wail – to scream – but there is no air left in his lungs, no sound that can ever encompass this consuming fury at the waste of it all. Of shadowy years lost and bright lives forfeited, of a (beautiful) boy groomed nearly from birth for death…
…and in the inadequate silence, Snape hears a moan.
His breath hitches; he listens and is rewarded with the sound of lightly scraping fingernails on wood, the rustle of soft fabric against softer skin, a sharp intake of air. Snape whips his head around to catch some slight movement out of the corner of his eye. He scrambles on hands and knees to Harry’s side, and the boy opens his eyes to find a formless black spectre bearing down on him.
Snape stills – stares – and Harry blinks.
“Er,” he croaks, his throat parched. “Not Heaven, then?”
Snape’s eyes widen in shock as he falls back on his arse, limbs splayed. The tension he has dammed behind walls of Occlumency for nearly two decades bursts out as uncontrolled, almost hysterical, laughter, and he sputters, “No. Definitely not Heaven.”
Harry rolls, exhausted, from side to back and lies staring at the ramshackle ceiling for a time. He brings a hand to his ribcage, looking down in surprise when it meets black crepe, and lets it ride up and down on the waves of his breath for a long moment. Then he smiles enigmatically at Snape and, testing his body with a few flexes, slowly lifts up on his elbows. The cowl of Snape’s robe drops to his belly and Harry blushes, swiftly adjusting it to slide his arms into billowing sleeves as he sits up.
“Voldemort,” he says to Snape, who winces at the name.
“Dead,” Snape replies, his laughter vanished.
Harry is silent for a moment, then murmurs, “I can’t believe it worked.”
“Nor I, Mr. Potter. Nor I,” Snape replies softly.
“And he’s really gone?” Harry asks, turning to Snape with hopeful eyes.
Snape answers Harry with a nod towards the blackened corner of the room. “He is dead and gone, Mr. Potter. This time for good.”
Harry’s eyes follow Snape’s, widening at the sight before he exhales a long, tired sigh, and together they sit in companionable quiet for a while. The sounds of battle have receded, and Snape wonders idly if the Death Eaters have fled. The pain in his arm, he realizes, has been quelled by the death of the Dark Lord; it stands to reason that his experience is not unique. The sensation – or lack of one – is not that of rebirth, but of an unfettering, of a freedom to make of himself what he will, if he is strong enough to try.
And as they sit silently, a thought flits across Harry’s face. He looks over at Snape with eyes that seem to be learning him anew.
“I can’t go out like this,” he says, looking down at his scantily-clad body.
“No, indeed,” Snape agrees, allowing himself the luxury of a furtive glance at a sliver of smooth, bare chest. A new sort of respect flutters somewhere in the back of his mind, but he swats it away in chagrin.
“What about you, sir?” Harry asks.
“I cannot imagine that I would be welcomed anywhere in the Wizarding world right now, Mr. Potter,” Snape answers bitterly.
Harry nibbles thoughtfully on his lower lip for a moment, before observing, “Ron and Hermione know my Patronus, and they heard me tell about yours – about the doe, anyway – when it came. If we sent them together with a message, they’d know it’s safe and we might at least get some help.”
Snape considers this plan. “Yes, it’s a start,” he accedes.
Harry casts about for his glasses; they are buried beneath the rags that were once his clothes, and Snape stands to retrieve them. He hands them to Harry, and then extends his hand in invitation. Harry takes it, standing up alongside Snape as he clutches together the loose folds of the robe, and he gives the man an appealingly diffident smile. “Shall we, then?” he asks, bringing his wand to the ready. Snape raises his own in response, and together they incant, “Expecto Patronum!”
Snape has never seen Harry’s Patronus, and he cannot help but colour slightly at the way his doe seeks out the stag, nuzzling gently against it as the ghostly pair mills about, awaiting directions. If he could bring himself to look at Harry, Snape would find his own vague disquiet reflected in the boy’s bashful gaze; as it is, he can only wait in silence, eyes averted, as Harry gives the order. The stag bobs its head at Harry’s words, then bounds away with the doe following close behind.
There is nothing left to do but wait; this time, however, they forgo the floor for a pair of rickety chairs. Long minutes pass and neither knows what to say. The quiet between them begins to grow uncomfortable, and then Harry speaks.
“I saw them, you know.”
“Them?” Snape asks, though he thinks he knows the answer.
“M-my father,” then, “My mother,” Harry says, looking Snape in the eye. Snape looks away, out the far window at the lightening sky, anywhere to evade the boy’s penetrating look.
“She said – you were friends, weren’t you?” Harry asks, and Snape cannot help but answer.
“We were. She was –” he swallows and doesn’t want to go on, but he owes this much to the boy in front of him; to the man who has died this night. “She was my best friend – my only friend.”
“You loved her,” Harry says, his voice thick with emotion.
“I did,” Snape replies frankly. “She – there has never been another, before or since, who meant to me what she did.”
Then the confession bubbles up inside him, pushing through his defenses and forcing its way into the open.
“I, I betrayed her – I betrayed them both, all of you, and I have spent my life trying to atone. But it isn’t enough.” He shakes his head, hair hiding his pallid face. “It will never be enough,” he whispers hoarsely; but Harry places a warm hand over the cold one resting on his lap.
“It is. It is enough, sir. She told me – she told me to tell you –”
Snape’s head snaps up; black eyes find green, and his hand reflexively convulses around Harry’s.
“She forgave you, sir. She,” Harry chokes back a small sob, “she wanted you to forgive yourself. To be happy. To live.”
Snape mouths the words soundlessly.
“Sir, please,” Harry says, his words coming in a rush. “I didn’t know – I never thought – you’ve sacrificed so much, for me – no, not me, for this – don’t –” his voice cracks, and Snape is astonished to find that tears now line the boy’s face. Harry rises, only to kneel in front of Snape, still clutching his hand. “– please, don’t keep punishing yourself. It’s over. It’s over – he’s dead and you’re free.”
Snape looks down on Harry with something like surprise. He has hated this boy, hated his fame, his arrogance, his unthinking recklessness. He has hated every indulgence, every excuse, every sneer of derision and ignorant contempt; yet, here he is now, a supplicant at Snape’s knee, and Snape cannot stop himself from bringing his other hand to rest on raven hair like a benediction.
“Why should you care?” he asks in bewilderment.
Harry looks up at Snape with untamed eyes, his every emotion alive in their verdant shine, and answers, “I – more than anyone, sir, I’ve – I should have known, should have trusted Dumbledore. If only I had listened, and – I’m so sorry, sir. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“No,” Snape interrupts with a shake of his head, quelling the boy’s insistent refrain. “You were a child,” he says, his voice shaky with unwelcome emotion, “a foolish child, told only what the Headmaster saw fit to tell, ignorant of so many things. If you did not trust, it was because you had little reason to do so, and I, it is I who –”
Snape falters here, oblivious to the tears that have begun to streak his own face until Harry reaches up to brush them away with trembling fingertips.
“No, sir,” he murmurs, shaking his head, “no…no.”
Harry lifts up on his knees to rest his forehead against Snape’s bowed brow, his hands resting on Snape’s quaking shoulders. Harry’s tears come in wrenching sobs, and Snape brings his own hand to rest on the nape of the boy’s neck, his own cries silently wracking his body.
And as they sit like this, each comforting the other to quietude, Snape slowly grows aware of Harry’s hot breath fluttering softly over his cheek; of moist, red lips glimpsed from under heavy-lidded eyes; of a slender torso no longer hidden from view, and suddenly it’s too much (oh god) it’s too much and he twists away with an involuntary gasp.
The hands that grasp Snape’s shoulders pull Harry forward with the momentum, and for a brief, tantalising moment lips brush lightly against skin – whether deliberately or by accident, Snape neither knows nor cares. He can feel, as well as hear, the soft, breathless pant that escapes Harry’s mouth and he wants (so much) he wants…this one sweet thing he wants…more and Harry’s eyes are inviting his mouth hungry and they want –
The sound of distant footsteps in the tunnel leading to the Shack, and Harry jerks back and Snape springs unsteadily to his feet, drawing his wand on instinct, his heart pounding in his ears. Shouts of “Harry!” then Weasley and Granger appear on the threshold of the room, stopping short to survey the scene that greets them. They take in beheaded snake and the charred pile of blackened bones with relative equanimity; but their eyes narrow in unison at the sight of Harry’s nearly nude form, at flushed cheeks and reddened eyes. They enter cautiously, casting wary glances at Snape as Harry, once again clutching Snape’s robe together to cover himself, lightly lays his hand over the older man’s arm and says, sotto voice, “Sir, please, put down your wand.” Snape stares blankly at the boy, lost somewhere in the wilds of the previous moment; then he looks down at the wand in his hand and lowers it, slowly turning away from the burning eyes of Potter’s friends.
“Harry?” Granger asks as she moves to hand him the small bundle of clothes he has requested. “What happened here? Where are your clothes? Why are you wearing the Headmaster’s robe?”
Snape steals a surreptitious glance at the boy, curious to hear how he will respond to this barrage of questions, and he is astonished to see Harry’s sweet guilelessness disappear behind a cocky, calculated smile. He has always thought this to be Harry, this brash boy before him; but now he’s seen (tasted almost tasted) another and he doesn’t know what to think anymore.
“Voldemort took the clothes,” Harry explains, Weasley letting loose a small squeak “and…” he shrugs, looking down at himself, “I don’t know when the robe happened. When I was dead, I suppose.” As he speaks, Harry faces the wall and pulls on his trousers under cover of Snape’s robe (Granger has neglected to bring pants) then removes the robe and turns back, pulling a too-large t-shirt over his head as he finishes.
“Dead?” Granger and Weasley exclaim as one, looking from Harry to Snape in disbelief. Snape takes his robe from Harry’s outstretched hand, wrapping it, and the remains of his tattered indifference, tightly around himself as he steps forward to elucidate.
“Mr. Potter was privy to information that…it is best if he shares with you himself. Suffice it to say, a sacrifice was required, and Potter –” here, Snape looks at Harry, allowing the merest modicum of his nascent esteem to infuse the words “– rose to the occasion admirably.”
Harry’s studied bravado falters a bit as he glows under Snape’s approbation, a shy smile playing on his face.
“Not just me, though,” Harry tells the bewildered pair, compensating for the slip by transforming his smile to a broad grin. “It was Sn – Professor Snape who killed the snake – and Voldemort. I was just a distraction. He did the real work.”
“I would hardly call the sacrifice of your life a ‘distraction’, Mr. Potter,” Snape starts, but Harry cuts him off insistently, forgetting his pretense.
“No. I’m sorry, sir,” he says in response to Snape’s startled glance, “but I will not take the credit due you.” Harry turns back to his friends, continuing, “Professor Snape has been working on Dumbledore’s orders since before his death – it was Dumbledore who made Sn – the professor – kill him. It was Dumbledore who fixed things so Snape would be headmaster this past year, and there’s no way Voldemort would be dead now if it hadn’t been for him.”
He turns towards Snape and says again, almost apologetically, “I’m sorry, sir. There just can’t be any misunderstanding. They need to know how it was.”
Granger, her face a study in consternation, looks from Harry to Snape, and back to Harry again before asking, “But how do you know all this, Harry? How can you believe his word, after everything that’s happened?” Weasley, standing beside her, nods in silent accord.
“The doe – the Sword of Gryffindor – it was Snape,” Harry explains, then continues, “and the Headmaster – well, his portrait, anyway. It’s hanging in his office – told me about Sn – the professor, damn it – told me I, I,” and he wavers here, finishing in a low voice, “I was a Horcrux.”
Snape has never heard the word before, although it’s clear from the looks of horror on the faces of Potter’s friends that they have, and it isn’t good. But Harry says, simply, “That’s why I had to die. I was the last Horcrux – the one he didn’t know about. When he killed me, he destroyed it and Snape was able to kill him.”
He’s forgotten Snape’s title once again during his explanation, but, for the first time in seven years, Snape finds nothing disrespectful in the boy’s use of his surname. His mind races; he thinks back over conversations past, between himself and the Headmaster, between Harry and Dumbledore, and he begins to understand just what has transpired tonight.
Weasley finally speaks up. “But mate,” he says, “you’re alive – I mean, how? If you were dead –”
Harry shrugs again. “I’ve no idea,” he says, and Snape intercedes with a hypothesis of his own.
“I believe, if I understand correctly what you have said, Mr. Potter, and this – Horcrux – was, perhaps, some part of the Dark Lord?”
Harry nods. “His soul,” he says, and the last piece of the puzzle locks into place.
“Indeed,” Snape responds, the cool dispassion in his voice belying his revulsion. “Then, Mr. Weasley, I believe it safe to say that what the Dark Lord truly killed was only the part of himself protected within Mr. Potter. As for Potter himself,” and Snape dredges up a shadow of his old sneer in a weak attempt to distance himself from inconvenient feelings but moments past, “well, we are all aware of his inexplicable and extraordinary good luck.”
Once upon a time, when Harry was younger and more at the mercy of fate, manipulation, and the myriad injustices of adolescence, he might have reacted to Snape’s words – and, especially, his expression – with an all-too-predictable indignation. On this morning he simply smiles, gracing his professor with a look that might be mistaken for affection, if such a thing were imaginable. The look is not lost on his friends, whose eyes travel from boy to man as though labouring under a similar misconception; and Snape realizes, with a small catch of his heart, that the time has come.
He draws up and announces, in the professorial baritone he has cultivated for years, “And now, I believe you have a report to make to the Headmaster, Mr. Potter, and to the Order as well. And I,” a pause, and in it a decision, “must be leaving.”
Weasley and Granger glance quickly at one another at this news, but Harry looks to Snape, and his eyes are desolate. A thousand questions seem to fly through them, but he asks only, “Why?”
Snape gives a bitter snort. “If turning a blind eye to the activities of the Carrows for the past year is not sufficient proof of my crimes, Potter, I assure you that assassinating the Headmaster is.”
“But – his portrait – his memories,” Harry sputters, oblivious to the inquisitive eyes of his friends.
Weasley steps forward and places a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Why do you care what happens to him, Harry?” he asks under his breath, shooting a wary glance at Snape. “We’re letting him go – what more does he deserve?”
Harry shrugs his hand away, facing his friend in indignation. “He’s innocent, Ron. If he should be punished for killing Dumbledore, on Dumbledore’s orders, then I should be punished for trying to murder him last year. We should be punished for breaking into Gringotts, or –” and a memory seems to surface “–God, for casting Unforgivables. He’s no more guilty than the rest of us – why should he have to pay a price the rest of us don’t?”
Granger seems to give Harry’s words due consideration, but Weasley, unconvinced, opens his mouth as if to argue.
“He’s quite right, Mr. Potter,” Snape interrupts, holding up a hand to quiet the fiery redhead. “What would you do? We can hardly parade the whole of the Wizarding world in front of the Headmaster’s portrait for a full accounting of events, and there are far more people than not – students and professors alike, Mr. Potter – who will be more than happy to testify against me.”
Harry shakes his head, black hair falling into his eyes.
“No. Luna. What about people like Luna? She knew –”
Snape nods. “So it would seem. But for every Luna Lovegood, Mr. Potter, there will be a Neville Longbottom, a…Ginevra Weasley, their educations and their very lives interrupted by acts of terror and corruption abetted by none other than myself.”
Weasley’s eyes flash in satisfaction, and the wind seems to fall from Harry’s sails. He brings a hand to his forehead, hiding his eyes as he rubs absently over a scar that will never flare in pain again. He stands quietly for a long moment, and then lowers the hand to look at Granger.
“Hermione,” he says. “Thanks for bringing the clothes.”
“Harry –” she interjects, her eyebrows knit in concern.
“It’s alright. Go back to the castle, Hermione. I’ll be there –” and here he looks to Weasley as well. “I’ll be there. Find the others – tell them that it’s over. Just, just give me a few minutes here, okay?”
“Harry,” Weasley says with a conciliatory tilt of his head and an outstretched hand.
“Go, Ron,” Harry quietly responds. Granger reaches out for Weasley, grabs his sleeve, and, eventually, he allows her to lead him away.
When they are gone, Harry walks to a far window and crosses his arms, staring absently into the diffused light.
“There’s no point in asking where you’re going, is there?” he says as Snape walks up to stand alongside him.
“No,” Snape answers. “I have an idea – I’ve had one for years, actually.” He pauses, then adds, almost as an afterthought, “Not that I ever expected to live to see it fulfilled.”
Harry snorts. “Indeed,” he says in arch imitation, before falling back into silence.
After a time, Harry tells Snape, “I’m not going to let it go, you know. I’ll see to it they know what happened.”
Snape shakes his head. “Don’t waste your time, Potter.”
“Harry,” he whispers, eyes straight ahead. Snape looks down at him and nods.
“I will,” he continues, then amends, “I mean, I won’t, it won’t be a waste. And I will make sure they know what you did.”
Snape shrugs indifferently, though he thinks his heart may break at the words. “Do as you will.”
Neither speaks for a time, both unwilling to be the first to go.
Finally, Harry comes around to face Snape, his back to the window, his body bathed in sunlight. He reaches out a hesitant hand and slowly runs the backs of his fingers along the crepe of Snape’s robe. As they slide downward, the hand turns, and now it is battle-scarred fingertips that stroke along the familiar fabric, as if gathering the courage for something stronger, something more. Snape, his breath shallow and thin, stands still and allows this liberty, powerless to stop it. Another hand, and this time they slowly gather the fabric together in a tightening grip, pulling Harry towards Snape almost as if against his will. Harry’s eyes study the stiff collar before him for a time, then travel up a long neck, over thin lips and bony nose, coming to rest on blank, black eyes. A tentative tug; another – more insistent this time – and Snape is falling into a kiss both sweet and searing, and this thing, this kiss with Harry he knows is the most useless (breathtaking) thing he has ever done, and it is beautiful…exhilarating…and he would do it forever if he could –
And Harry gives a soft cry when Snape pulls away. A thin strand of saliva that connects lip to lip is the only evidence of what has just passed between them; then it, too, is gone, and there is only the memory of it left.
“You’re going,” Harry says, and his voice is tight with unshed tears.
Snape draws his fingers over his wet mouth and nods, feeling feral and utterly undone.
“I am,” he answers hoarsely.
Harry nods once…staggers back and turns away. A step – another, and another, and he is leaving – he is gone, and Snape stares for a long moment at the place where he has stood.