Et in arcadia ego
“Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;
A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.
The shepherds' swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.”
War was over. Life started again for those who lived to see days following days, months following months, and then years, almost peacefully, in an ordinary way, again and again; a painful memory and a sweet silence were above those who rested in peace in their green graves.
It was the fourth time Harry Potter had found himself at the “Remembrance Day” Official Party. War heroes were required to be present – quite a pain in the arse, quite a pain to remember, to remember everything: losses, betrayals, loneliness, murders, death, death everywhere, breathed death, eaten death; and his youth just passed when he wasn’t looking. He didn’t like it, not even a bit.
But that evening, sitting alone and trying to pass unnoticed, he saw Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy standing together, in the shadow -just like they always had- both glasses in hand, spilling champagne and looking disdainful as ever. They were chatting: Snape whispered something in his companion’s ear; Malfoy nodded and smiled his most secret, beautiful smile.
And then Harry understood what had possessed Severus Snape to kill Dumbledore six years ago.
When the war ended, they were alone. Well, Severus had always been sort of alone, since Draco could remember, at least. So he asked him to come and live at the Manor, because – he said- it was far too huge for a young man without a social life or a bride or friends; and he missed his parents and everything there spoke about them and, well, Severus was familiar, was like family, and they could remember familiar things while growing old together. Truth be told, Draco didn’t feel like letting Severus out of his sight, not after two years spent constantly side by side. Severus’ presence was as necessary as air. The mere idea of saying goodbye made him feel sick, and he was cold inside. But this was left unspoken.
Winter was Draco’s favourite season. The time at the Manor passed smoothly, as he sat by the fireplace, reading, sipping burning distillates and watching Severus taking notes at the little Regency desk nearby. Draco had it moved almost in front of his favourite armchair, so he could contemplate Severus, studying severely and writing, or just thinking – eyes lost somewhere he dreamed to reach, but not knowing how. He just loved the nuance that snow gave the light, the reflection it had in his mentor’s dark ebony eyes. He loved the feeling of peace that winter brought him when Severus, imperceptibly, smiled absently.
Life together was a question of habits, of domestic rites. Draco liked his tea at half-past four- a bit later in springtime-, in his mother’s parlour, and it was a tacit accord to have it with Severus. Severus had long walks in the countryside, almost every day, and Draco loved to accompany him; but sometimes his eyes were darker and unreadable and so he went alone, because Draco understood and didn’t ask to go, but waited for him walking inside, consciously randomly wandering near the main door.
Severus liked playing chess; Draco liked playing them sitting on the carpet, like children -even if, as a child, he played on his father’s study floor, and now did not enter that room anymore. They played in long autumn evenings, when Draco was too captivated, by something Severus did not know, to win and his condescending opponent let him have a move or two.
Draco loved long, silent dinners, taken at an ancient, long table that his parents used for informal meetings and meals. It wasn’t as long or as ancient as the Long Ancient table in the main dinner-room, which was far too long and ancient to eat there and feel at ease; and Draco loved the nice warmth of the room, the smooth nuances of orange on the silk wallpaper, the rich and heavy carpets on the floor, the feeling of intimacy he had looking at Severus imperceptibly smiling at him though his wine glass (redder than blood) at the opposite, distant, end of the table. Severus liked Spartan meals and good wine, and he ate with the neatness and the accuracy he had in brewing potions or playing Gobbler Stones, like a form of art; then Draco usually stood and messed around a bit in a small refined cupboard in a corner, just to come back with some rare bottle and pour him the finest old liquor he could offer him. Then he took a chair and was seated by his side to chat a bit about nothing: memories, the estate profit, their owls’ breeding (and Severus knew too well how Draco’s hobbies resembled obsessions), potions they were researching together, unspeakable feelings that they could not explain, even the weather (Draco’s favourite topic in winter, because of his ludicrous fixation on snow), or the Prophet front page (even if Draco preferred the gossip one). That was Severus’ favourite hour, and some days he found himself looking toward to it, toward the strange sort of proximity that from living together in peace.
Spring, at the Manor, was all flowers and contrasting scents, green air and pink light and a diffuse brightness so sharp it hurt the eyes. Draco hated it: he hated its tepid humidity, its unceasing drizzle, its pollens and his own bloody allergies. He spent his endless days languidly prostrated on a récamier, complaining about his swollen reddish eyes (“aaaah, worse than Voldemort’s, do you see this, Severus?”) and his nose, torturing house elves (and Snape) by obnoxiously throwing a tantrum about everything ( “You are like a menstruating woman, Draco” “And you are a heartless ogre, thou brute”), drinking unhealthy amounts of coffee and reading dictionaries – he had a secret thing for strange and new words, he fancied an inexistent every-language dictionary and on his “death bed or, well, couch” he was profuse in his descriptions of this childish project of his, and absolutely required someone who stayed and listened to him. Severus brewed him potions because the brat refused to take muggle antihistamines and so he had the final proof that he was a very patient man.
“I’ll be canonized: I’ve lost count of the years I spent tolerating you and saving your lazy arse, and I have not choked you to death… yet.”
“Oh, please! I’m the martyr. Pass me that, I’m departing among terrible and unsustainable pains.”
But then, when his breath was less panting and his mood less bitchy, he liked to go watching the sunset with Severus, who helped him to reach a small bench on an almost unreachable terrace which had a magnificent view of the woods. They sat together, in a deep calm silence, and Severus didn’t mind that Draco had not let go of his arm.
Summer was the long yet bright and luminescent nights Draco spent in the portraits gallery observing moths gone mad colliding against the imperceptible glass of the tall French windows, persisting in their crazy run toward light. He was always curled up on the floor, in the dark, between Grandfather Abraxas and Aunt Augusta, one of his grandmother’s distant cousins, never married, now an old, witty and very distinguished lady living somewhere on the continent with some witch half her age. Those nights, his relatives whispered him unmentionable things and he thought about Severus, still awake, waiting for him in the library reading some muggle book, and how much he loved the man.
Sometimes he could not sleep, the unhealthy weather bringing him back too many memories of the war. These nights he wandered, lonely, through the halls, the galleries, the forgotten rooms, like a ghost, and finally he always found himself in front of Severus’ bedroom door. His touch was featherlike when he knocked, his heart pulsed far too strong waiting for the answer that always came. He entered and his pace was light like a dancer’s step or the advancing dreams’.
“I couldn’t sleep”, he said
“Neither could I.”
He sat on a wide armchair next to the bed, and looked at the black sky, searching a random star, because Severus never closed the curtains. Draco asked him to read and he read –poetry, epic, muggle literature that Draco secretly loved or long essays concerning things Draco knew nothing about- for hours, until Draco, calm and smiling, fell asleep on the armchair, Severus conjured him a blanket and, letting his glare travelling on the aristocratic traits of Draco’s face (his long and pointed, sharp nose, his thin yet red lips, relaxed in the sweetest smile, his long eyelashes, now trembling like butterfly wings), he blew on the candle on his bedside table (full of volumes he still had to read for Draco) and accomplishedly enjoyed his rest.
It was one of these nights; they were still reading but Draco’s breath was already deep and regular while he fought against his dropping eyelids, chin in hand and a peaceful expression on his face.
Then something hit the wards, and they both jumped up simultaneously, wands in hand, looking at each other with determination and tacit understanding and concerned care. It was the second summer they spent together, and Death Eater bands still infested the countryside, sometimes attacking a small village or an isolated mansion. They were targets and they knew it.
Darkness was thick when they emerged out of the night and bordering the trees they caught the intruders unaware by arriving from behind. Death Eaters indeed, and young, inexperienced, the fools. Five.
They proceeded like in wartime, when they were side by side carrying out smooth and mute killings that decimated the Dark Lord’s ranks, stabbing in the back, silently, cowardly and efficiently, like the Slytherins they were. Draco felt drunk with terror and adrenalin, and some unlabelled predatory instinct for the hunt- or just surviving, maybe. But his eyes were constantly on Severus, so he saw the last unharmed one casting a spell aimed at an unprepared Snape; and then Draco wasn’t thinking anymore, just running faster than his heart, and he was in front of Severus, barely touching him, and he wanted to smile, and tell him that it was all right, but everything went dark and he fell like a corpse.
“ Sectumsempra”, whispered Snape in cold rage.
When the Aurors arrived only one Death Eater was dead, lying in a pool of his own blood, on his face the livid, terrified grimace of drowned men.
Severus received them impeccably, excusing the lord of the manor for his absence, but his own expression had changed speaking of Draco, and they went away without a question.
Draco woke in a bed that was not his own. Severus’, he thought, looking at the pile of books beside him, and smiled to himself. He had a splitting headache, his back was sore and he felt like a couple of overgrown mountain trolls had danced mambo on his prone body, but he was quite happy. I must have hit my head, he giggled. Snape entered like a storm.
“How could you, you stupid, suicidal, Griffindorish brat!”, snapped he, roughly putting down a cup of tea on the last free corner of the table. The hot liquid wavered dangerously. Draco was staring at him, not understanding
“You could have died!”, hissed he, paler than ever, “ You could have died and for what?! A reckless act of boyish stupidity!” He had grabbed Draco’s shoulders and was lightly shaking him, almost in a nervous tremor.
“I cannot bear the idea of you hurt or worse d-dead! Never!”, breathed the boy, but it was as sharp as a cry.
The very moment of silence was too heavy, and Draco wasn’t able to breathe, achingly and stubbornly staring at the man curved on him.
“And in your utter foolishness, do you believe that I can happily live with your corpse in your family crypt and without your excruciating and silly and yet so absolute presence in every single instant in my life?”, whispered Severus, brutally, and then kissed him harshly, with the sort of desperation that search abandon and cannot reach it. Draco was so soft in his arms, his lips sweet and painful… He ended the kiss with a sort of horror for himself and stormed out, furious and unable to look at Draco.
“Severus…”, murmured Draco. The cup of tea was already cold in his hands.
They argued much over the years; every time Severus got angry at the boy and at himself for letting the brat get under his skin, he always buried himself in the lab, down in the dungeons - shut, locked, bolted the door and stayed away from sunlight, desperate house elves and his exasperating, obnoxious, childish host and did not emerge for days. He did the same after the Death Eaters’ attack too. Therefore Draco, ignoring how to cope with a hysterical and inexplicably irate man, his own feelings and the generally distressful situation, chose to get angry in turn and shut himself in his room, refusing food, reading ancient and quite useless dark magic books and profusely breaking fragile and expensive furniture. He basked in the secret hope of being the centre of Severus’ attention and his concern. When three days had passed and nobody had deigned to come and rescue him from his self-assigned reclusion, his irritation had decreased and he started to realize that maybe his little performance had passed unnoticed and that horrible, heartless, socially inadequate old man was still entombed in the laboratory. He felt a bit pissed again.
He had a pot of strong black tea (Severus’ favourite, which he blended personally, carefully dosing each variety) prepared by house elves, and descended to the dungeons bringing along two cups. He entered like nothing had happened; on his face the sweetest smile he could manage, trying to appear casual, and started disposing the set on the worktable, removing an undistinguished and dusty mass of notes to have some space.
“You are working far too much, sir. Here, have some tea”, he said, conjuring a jug and adding a few drops of milk in both cups. He passed one to Severus in a smooth motion, and was forced to meet his eyes. The man was still half reclined on the desk, his hair greasier than ever, his skin yellowish, his head half-hidden between his arms, his whole person visibly too tired. Draco felt a wave of worry and regret rush over his back or: Severus had spent three days sitting there, and doing nothing but hating himself, or mourning some secret inner dead. He had never seen him so unarmed and naked, just there, with black deep and sad eyes not daring to search his.
He felt the urge to cry because he was lost.
Severus took hold of himself, rose, smoothed his unchanged robe, looked at him and was in control again.
“You are right, I’ve exaggerated…”, he took the cup Draco was offering him, barely touching his pale fingers. They both repressed a tremor.
“Here is your sugar, you piggish, sclerotic brat.” He conjured a pot and poured him two spoons while Draco added more milk. The boy smiled, relieved. Sipping his tea, Severus felt how warm their daily dance of shared rites was, and thanked Merlin for not having lost it –or him.
“ By the way, I have a present for you.”
Blackley Hall was laid open like the arms of an old aunt, on the thin line where the wood meets moor, where the hill softens before starting its descent to plain. It had been an imposing building, a long time ago, a maison de plaisance; now the central body stood almost lonely among trees that didn’t dare to grow in front of the façade, but whose branches brushed the windows, extended upon the roof, obscured the right side, where the wing had been demolished and windows (clashing with those on the main front) had been opened in the wall. The left wing had been left to the intrigues of time and now it was no more than a ruin: the roof had collapsed, bringing along the second floor; the glass-less windows on the main court opened like blind eyes on a single space colonized by the forest and full of sky; the walls were irregular and lowering, stained with green grass growing in the deep gaps, framing them, and ivy and musk. In the afternoon sun, its rare, bare stones were touched by a golden light.
Draco recognised the place in the moment his hand left Severus’ arm, after apparating together, standing too near for Snape’s comfort. He had never been there, but he had seen uncle Regulus’ wash drawings and his sketches (the present of a talented schoolboy for his young and beautiful cousin Narcissa, which she had kept carefully for years), and so he knew that there was a small village hidden in the valley, invisible to their eyes. The Blacks used to spend the summer here before his great-grandfather lost it to a commoner by playing cards - along with his wife’s virtue they said, but Draco didn’t know for sure, and nor did he desire to.
“You…” He was speechless.
“You know, your owls’ fixation is proving quite remunerative, so I thought that, you being the idiot you are with your finances and the largest part of your inexistent practical life, I could pour a part of our earnings into a present for you. Here you are back the whole estate: it’s yours to do whatever you like; even staking it at cards. I believed that you might appreciate it.” He was slightly embarrassed, Draco knew from his voice, and he was speaking too fast.
“I’ll stake it only along with your virtue.” He smiled.
They started to spend the long summer afternoons going to Blacksley. They walked through the forest or went for a beer (“I feel like a native, Severus!” “They are not barbarians, Draco, just peasants” “So?”) at the muggle pub in the village. Draco liked messing about in the house – which Severus had stopped from falling, but still needed to be arranged to be habitable. He spent hours casting cleaning spells, conjuring dismissed furniture from the manor and replacing the damp wallpapers with brightly coloured damask silks. Severus, being a survivor and a wise man, waited in the left wing, sitting on a rock that had been a sill, reading muggle bucolic poems and absently listening to the woodcocks’ cries and to Draco singing nursery rhymes from inside –while not fighting among hellish crashes.
By the time September ended, the cottage was quite cosy, and they had a fire burning in the great, rustic fireplace every time Draco grew tired of the manor and decided to pass a day or two in the countryside.
He hated London, but he hated hunting even more; therefore, the forest being infested by funnily clothed muggles with their gross thundering canes, he attended to Severus’ potion ingredients shopping in Diagon Alley and did not complain. Then he placated his clinically bored condition by going to muggle auctions and spending tons of odd little papers (which, Severus told him, were money) on unmoving pictures for Blacksley Hall. He liked that game and made a mental note to owl old aunt Berenix, who lived in Venice and had an insane passion for muggle paintings: this was much more amusing than stealing them by magic. When he obtained (offering an amount of little coloured papers that made muggle contenders turn pale) a beautiful, cloudy landscape painted by a certain Gainsborough fellow, he felt quite accomplished. He put it in Severus’ bedroom, in the middle of the huge empty wall in front of the four-poster bed. Before, he had disposed Regulus’ drawings (now framed in light chestnut) in the small parlour downstairs, beside the new paintings (mostly country landscapes with sweet hills in autumn colours, or mountains and a sea or two) they had chosen together.
In the evening they sat side by side on the sofa, sometimes sharing a blanket and the physical intimacy of touching shoulders; house elves made hot chocolate for them both, but Severus sneered, not rising his eyes from the notes he was often taking (mostly about local plants’ proprieties) and Draco was happy to gulp down his cup too. His smile stayed stained, and Severus called him a child, but had to restrain a laugh when he tried to wipe it off with the back of the hand still holding a half full cup, which Snape took from him, preventing the remaining contents from being spread on his robe, and handed him a handkerchief. It was one of those evenings, so late it was almost night, and Draco still had the handkerchief in his hands and was intently looking at it, his eyes low and an expression of pure concentration on his face, when he spoke of his parents for the first time since their funeral. They had attended together; he remembered the reassuring touch of the man’s hand on his own when he could not force himself to look. He started from childhood memories, and Severus was quite astonished to realize that he was present in a large part of them: tea parties, birthdays, luminescent Christmas or New Year’s Eve nights at the manor, all the happy moments he was able to collect… The boy was crying and he found himself holding him, rocking him in his arms into calm, letting him rest his head on his own shoulder. Then, for the first time in far too many years, Severus told someone about Eileen.
They were not lovers. Not yet, at least.
Draco suffered from it, but it was like neither of them knew how to behave or what to do with the feelings they had and guessed in the other. It was easier to let the fear of losing what they already had together melt into a vague inquietude, a precarious equilibrium of things too precious to just move on to an unknown land.
Winter came welcome as every year and Draco was so melancholic that once he talked about starting writing erotic novels for middle-aged witches under a female pen name. Severus choked on his tea and started laughing; he seemed relieved for a whole week.
With the first snow, Draco started going outside alone; he did not ask Severus to accompany him and went bringing the blackest among his owls on his shoulder. Dark, affectionate and concerned eyes watched over him from the sunset terrace, harder than stone in the cold wind. He stood by the edge of woods and let the owl fly without any message on its leg. It returned directly to Severus’ outstretched arm. Draco turned, looked at him and raised a pale hand, greeting him like pawns meant for immolation should greet their king.
Christmas came for the third time since the war had ended. The Malfoys, like the largest part of ancient pureblood magical families, were Catholic (“So did this Henry VIII guy cause a schism because his wife had no looks and he wanted to lawfully get laid with a fairer lady?” “Well, yes, something like that, Draco” “But it’s a highly improper and indiscrete thing to do. How tactless!” “I have to concede you that it’s a legitimate way to look at it” “Muggles!”); they had attended Mass at a little church, not too far from the manor, for generations. Tobias Snape had been one of those muggles Draco found so historically rude, but Severus had been glad to leave behind his father and his religion the day he left for Hogwarts, so he accompanied Draco with pleasure, especially on Christmas Eve Night: he liked the steady solemnity of ancient and bare stone and the mystery of rite. Even that time they went by brooms, flying through the forest until they reached the bare patch where the building rose among floating magical lights. Aged wizard and witches greeted Draco like he was a nephew, and last year stopped telling him how grown up he was and started asking how things were going, about the estate and his business, like they had done with Lucius; they always had a polite and discrete nod for Severus. They took the same seats every year. Then, Draco loved coming back walking, fresh snow tickling his ankles, the night majestic and chilling; his cheeks were flushed and he was happy. They were half-way home when he took Severus’ hand in his cold fingers, and did not say a thing. He left it before entering the main door, with a deep sigh, he did not know if of desire or pain, or simply both. He hurried inside, leaving Severus there unable to grab him or just call him back.
Andromeda came for tea one afternoon a couple of days before the new year. Draco had never met her because when he was a little child his mother and her whole family weren’t on speaking terms with her anymore. But she was the closest thing he had to a relative –she said- and she thought it was her duty to visit him. Severus could see Draco’s rage from the tension in his neck, the hard stillness of his jaw, the firm line of his bloodless lips. He hated her for not having taken part in his mother’s funeral, for not having sent a note to her nephew in his mourning, for not having been able to call a truce in front of her sister’s death. Yet he could still see Narcissa’s movements in the way she grabbed her cup, or in her shoulders posture; and his heart bled again. Severus took his trembling hand under the small tea table, sitting beside him nearer than necessary. She left as soon as social decency allowed.
That evening Severus didn’t take his work to the little regency desk, nor Draco waited for him in his usual armchair, but they shared the couch in between looking at the fire, sipping strong red wine that tasted of clouded sun and foreign countries. Severus’ book was closed in his lap, and Draco absently moved the pieces on the chessboard, like playing a solitary game he had to lose anyway. He had reddish eyes and seemed far too tired, and sad.
“I might brew you a potion, if you like.” Severus was looking at him when he turned, so intently that Draco was unable to look away while feeling his own soul bared and exposed to him. It was an impalpable touch, the most tender caress.
Then the pain in his chest melted and he smiled. He took the tome from Severus’ lap, brushing his fingers imperceptibly on his thigh. They had already read it during the summer.
“I think you should read me this Marlowe bloke, Professor, and behave according to what he says.”