The first thing he sees upon waking is the ceiling – patched with metal, scorched with magic.
He is alive.
He is alive.
As he moves, the pain shows up, a late arrival to a wedding. He touches his neck, his jaw, and finds them crusted with dried blood. He turns his head and vomits as pain clenches in his stomach like a sticky fist. For a long while he lies there, willing his heart to stop beating. If the War is over, either way, he is a dead man. Better it happen here, alone. Better here than in front of a squad of Aurors. Better here than under the gasping, starving mouth of a Dementor.
His heart keeps beating.
The Great Hall has become the beating heart of Hogwarts, friends and families clutching at each other in sorrow and joy. Ron and Hermione have their fingers tightly laced, and Harry watches them - the impenetrable mesh of early love. Ginny's gone off with her mum somewhere, and Harry feels about one hundred years older. The ashes of countless Unforgivables grind between his teeth, and there is blood on his face.
On his hands.
Some of it is his. Most of it isn't.
Harry thinks of Snape, then, a twisting knife of sorrow and anger both. Dark hair and darker eyes bleeding out on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. Snape, who mostly likely lies there still.
"I've got to go," he tells his friends, words pulled helplessly from his mouth, and they do not try to stop him.
After awhile – it might be hours, it might be days – he rolls onto his stomach. Though the pain blinds him momentarily, he pushes himself to his hands and knees. The floor is made of wooden planks, mismatched grain; he stares at them while slivers work their way into his palms.
His hands are very white.
His hands are very white.
Harry takes the stairs three steps at a time, panic sparking like alcoholic bubbles through his veins. Snape is dead, Harry knows he's dead, but for some reason he needs to get to the Shack. It feels ungrateful - no, unbearable - to leave Snape's body there for even a minute longer.
Snape is in the corners of his eyes, the dark vessels in his eyelids. As Harry runs, he glances down at his hands, hands which once tried to hold together the pieces of a ragged throat. He follows the dark brown river of his life line, love line, the places blood ran and went dry, and in his brief moment of distraction -
- Harry Potter falls.
An uneven step, a piece of stone - he trips and falls and a NO breaks like sweat from the earth, trembles through fault-lines of old magic and blighted love (on the other side of the mirror, a dark-haired, long-limbed boy continues onward, footing sure and steady. On the other side of the mirror, Harry Potter does not fall.).
As he gets to his knees, the pain rolls over him like a red wave, and he vomits bile again upon the floor. His stomach is empty. His head. His heart.
He makes it to his feet, and falls. The hard floor jars his hip bone, and he lies there, catching his breath. He raises himself up, and tries again. As the room stops spinning, and his vision stops flashing before his eyes, he realizes that he is not alone.
There are wands.
In the dim light, it is impossible to tell if servants of the Order or servants of the Dark Lord stand before him, and Snape tells himself it does not matter. Either one will strike him down, spit on him and call him traitor. On a larger scale, however, the outcome of the war matters a great deal, and he tries to put voice to this belief, scrape out syllables with a tongue gone dry and bloodless.
“Who – ” is all he manages before coughing overtakes him, so violent he expects to feel fresh blood rolling down his neck.
“You’ll shut your mouth, traitor,” a voice in the darkness replies. No answers there, then.
“Just do it,” someone else mutters, “His life is the least that he can pay.”
“Who won?” Snape manages, throat raw and on fire.
There is general laughter from the two wizards - three? - in front of him.
“The wrong side for you, mate.”
Harry Potter falls and his hands jar hard against the rough ground. He falls and his blood mingles with Snape's across the creases of his fingers, the bones of his wrist.
"Fuck," Harry swears, pushing himself up, getting his feet under him.
He doesn't know he's lost three seconds. And those three seconds are enough to save a man or murder him (the mirror cracks, splits evenly down the middle as Harry runs, runs and doesn't look back.).
The Whomping Willow lets him pass without so much as a rustle of its leaves, and then Harry is in the shack and there are wands, wands have beaten him there. He had expected silence, silence and black rooms, but something is off. Something's gone wrong.
"Just bloody do it. Fucking scum."
"You know what, I just might."
“Just bloody do it. Fucking scum.”
“You know what, I just might.”
Snape raises his head, briefly and blissfully pain free, surging with adrenaline. He will not die with his eyes on the ground.
“Just bloody do it,” he sneers, as lights flash behind his eyes and there is the sound of a struggle, and the pain comes back, wicked sharp and in fine form as ("Stupefy!") as ("Expeliarmus!") as -
As Harry Potter throws himself in front of Snape.
"No!" Harry roars as the curse flashes green and gold across the shack, and Snape locks eyes with him for one heartbeat of time - pupils blown wide and dark with surprise - before being thrown back across the room.
"No!" Harry says again, and wandless magic spikes through his veins, rattling the floorboards, breaking the windows, ripping the foundation from the black earth.
One of the wizards runs, but two are falling, landing hard against the filthy walls. Harry doesn't pay them any thought. He moves to Snape's side, a bundle of black cloth and grey skin. Without thinking, he grabs him, digs shaking fingers into the bones of his narrow shoulders, his wrists where a weak pulse stutters and slows -
"No," Harry murmurs, "No -"
“Don’t touch him! Don’t you - bloody –”
Harry’s hand is hard against his waist, other hand outstretched and ready with his wand, and he smells like blood and smoke and lilac flowers. Snape’s head falls weakly to the boy’s shoulder, and god, his hair.
“It’s all right, you’re all right,” Harry whispers, while the other wizards scatter like ashes to the wind, but there is a hand on Snape’s waist, holding him upright, and Harry Potter, warm as honey against his skin. “You’re okay.”
“Who –” Snape manages, losing the small threads of consciousness he has left.
“We did,” Harry laughs, turning his head and gusting hot breath over Snape’s unlovely face, “It was us. We won.”
"It was us," Harry whispers to the man in his arms. "We won."
Snape tries to shape words with lips gone bloodless, and Harry thinks that if he just holds on tight enough, he can keep the life within this skinny body, hold it like water in his cupped hands. He feels the shifting world beneath them, the heartbeat of the soil, the forest, the floorboards all reverberating against his body, and he wills that heartbeat into Snape's narrow chest. He can save him, he knows he can.
In this, and in so much else, Harry Potter is wrong.
* * *
This is how it happens.
There is a War. It ends, for most people it ends, but for some people it doesn’t. Some people die, and some people walk away, but some people never walk away, or if they do the War follows them. Some people close their blinds at night, but the War keeps peeling them back and smashing the glass and climbing through. Some people lock their doors, but the War picks locks with bony fingers and is in, is inside.
When all is said and done, Harry and Ron and Hermione – not to mention the dozens of other students whose studies were disrupted by falling Headmasters and Cruciatus curses – come back to Hogwarts. They have to take their NEWTS after all, and even though Harry could probably write his own ticket (already the Ministry is clammering to make him a poster boy), he’s too exhausted to even begin to think about his future. He is eighteen years old, and it strikes him that he’s been living on borrowed time for his entire life. He wakes up at the Burrow one night, nightclothes sopping wet with nightmares and clinging to his skin, and realizes he has no idea what he’s going to do with the rest of his life because for the past five years he didn’t know for certain that he’d have a rest of his life. He’s alive and Voldemort is dead and all is well – or at least all should be well, but it’s hard for Harry to breath lately, ash and burning buildings in his lungs. There are angry ghosts everywhere, and he knows he isn’t the only person who’s haunted, but sometimes he can barely pull back his bed curtains, convinced Remus Lupin will be standing, bleeding, on the other side.
Sometimes the most basic spells elude him, wand sputtering like a dying streetlight. Sometimes he has dreams, magic raging through his bones like an angry sea.
In September, he wakes to find half the mirrors in Hogwarts cracked finely down the middle, lightning-bolt shaped shards scattered across the floor.
In December, he blows a hole through the wall of the Arithmancy classroom when someone behind him accidentally drops a textbook.
In March, he leaves Hogwarts forever.
It comes as a surprise, even to him. In this, and so much else really, it's all down to Snape (back up, start earlier).
In February, then: Harry receives a letter informing him that Severus Snape - after nearly one year in Azakaban - is at last standing trial for crimes committed during the war, and Harry is invited to testify. Hermione and Ginny both offer to come with him, but it's something he feels he has to do by himself, and he cannot say why. He is offered a portkey but decides to take the train into London, the everyday average Muggle train, and on the journey he feels something inside his chest ease and give slightly. It is - it is wholly new to be anonymous, to see only the occasional nod of recognition or misplaced gratitude, and Harry feels like he could ride the train forever, loaded up on Muggle sweets and exhausted and blessedly ordinary.
King's Cross is strange and familiar all at once, and Harry buys a massive coffee from a vendor and regrets it almost immediately; his hands shake as he takes the tube to Whitehall, and he gets all sorts of glances from his fellow riders (but not the glances he is used to, so that's something).
"Harry Potter," the woman at reception repeats back to him, unconvinced.
Harry shrugs and nods at her, and it isn't until he finds the toilets and sees himself in the mirror that he understands her confusion. Merlin, he doesn't even recognize himself. He hasn't been consciously avoiding mirrors at Hogwarts, catching spare glimpses of himself here and there, but under the overbearing Ministry lighting, there's no escaping it. He has lost weight - Christ, he didn't even realize how much - and his eyes are lined and hollow. It's embarrassing to be suddenly confronted with your own unfamiliar body; Harry feels like this is something he should have been made aware of much, much earlier.
"All right there, son?" a middle-aged wizard with spidery eyebrows asks him, washing his hands in the basin next.
'Son,' thinks Harry, not 'Mister Potter,' and feels both discomfort and crushing relief.
"Fine, thanks," Harry says quickly, and the man nods once before leaving.
"Fine, thanks," Harry says again to the empty toilets, watching his mouth move in the mirror. It's like the words are coming from somewhere far away, somewhere he's never been.
Somewhere with white sand, he thinks a bit hysterically. White sand and an endless blue sea.
He goes through a series of increasingly invasive security procedures before being admitted to the Wizengamot, and Kingsley Shacklebolt smiles wryly at him from his place in the front row. Harry's first sight of Severus Snape in so many months feels as physical as pain (someone prying their hands apart on the floor of the Shack as the healers arrive from Mungoes: "He'll be fine now, Mr. Potter, you just need to - let go, Harry, you have to let go -")
Snape looks about as terrible as Harry does, bony and lantern-jawed, and their eyes meet once, just once, as Harry is called to testify. Harry feels his knees grow inexplicably weak. He thinks about Occlumency, wonders if Snape can still read minds as easily as he could inspire irrational, bottomless anger. He focuses hard on the words YOU SHOULD NOT BE HERE, but Snape shows no sign of understanding, keeping his gaze focused on his long, pale fingers.
Harry tells them everything.
When he's finished, he can't remember half of what he said, only that Snape looked up briefly at him for a moment, and Harry felt the room tilt slightly, the world going off its axis.
After a few hours, there is a short recess involving tea and biscuits, and Harry is surprised to see Snape up and walking about in the small hall that serves as a common area. The man is deep in hushed conversation with an elegant, blonde woman who must be his barrister, but the woman soon leaves, and then it's just Snape - Snape, all alone with a paper cup of tea in his shaking hands, Snape, pretending to stare at his feet while all about him wizards and witches pretend that he is wallpaper, Snape whom Harry hasn't seen since the Aurors tore their hands apart, days and weeks and months ago -
"Mr. Potter." There is a tall, cheerful young man at Harry's side. "Bertrand Quick, Secretary to the Minister. I was wondering if I might speak to you briefly about our Auror training program. This might seem rather sudden, but we have an offer for you that I'd be honoured if you'd hear -"
"Could you give me a minute?" Harry asks absently, drawn to Snape like a ship through rough waters.
He is lucky that Snape is looking down, or else he's certain the man would run. As it is, Snape finally glances up only when Harry's shadow falls over his polished boots.
He does not look happy.
"Mr. Potter," he says softly, "Have you come to collect your reward?"
Snape's voice is like an electric shock; the hairs on Harry's forearms stand on end.
"My reward -"
"I believe a reward is customary when the great hero comes to the aid of the helpless maiden. How very kind of you to bestow your favours upon me."
Only Snape would use the word 'kind' as if it was obscenity, and Harry cannot suppress a small wince of pain. He doesn't really know what he was expecting - certainly not for Snape to embrace him with open arms (that would be more than a little awkward) but he can admit that he had hoped -
He had hoped that maybe things would be a little easier.
"The reunion not going as planned?" Snape cuts in, as if he's reading Harry's mind - which he might well be, oh god.
"I didn't plan anything," Harry lies, "I just wanted to say - to see how you were, I -"
"How I was?" A few nervous glances are darting their way, though Snape is endeavouring to keep his voice as low as possible. "Try spending ten months in Azkaban, and have that question put to you. I would be interested in your answer."
"You shouldn't have been there," Harry says quickly, a bit louder than he intends. "And if they try to send you back, I'll -"
"You'll what?" Snape's eyes have gone even darker, if that's possible, and his white mouth trembles just slightly. "Take on the Ministry? Fight off the Dementors single-handed? How very noble of you, Mr. Potter."
Again, Snape wields compliments like the most savage of insults. Harry knows that nothing is going to come of this conversation, but he still feels rooted to the ground at Snape's feet, feels like he couldn't take a step back if he was forced at wand point.
"Five minutes, ladies and gentleman," a page announces, and a vague shuffle toward the door begins.
Snape does not move, however, and Harry physically cannot. They stare at each other in silence, and he wonders nervously what the end game is here. Snape's teeth are bared so fiercely, Harry feels like any moment he might get bitten.
"Don't come back inside," Snape says finally, each word a blade. "I don't need the Golden Boy bearing any further witness to my ignominy."
"I don't know what that word means," Harry says without thinking, and something flickers in Snape's gaze, hot as candle flame.
"It means piss off back to Hogwarts."
They are nearly the only people left in the room, and Snape finally breaks the hold of their proximity, turning away slowly and moving toward the doors. Harry feels like a spell has been lifted - he can breathe and move and think in straight lines again.
"I just - I just wanted to help," he says quietly to Snape's retreating form, and when Snape turns back, there is something broken in the slant of his shoulders, the angle of his jaw. It is something Harry hadn't noticed before, but now it seems so obvious that it is all he can see.
"You are about forty years too late."
Snape leaves, a whirl of black fabric, and Harry stands for a moment in the empty room, watching the heavy oaken doors close against him.
He feels like he is slowly deflating; soon the shell of his body will pool weakly on the floor, no air left to keep him upright. Snape was in Azkaban for ten bloody months, and where the hell was Harry? The past year seems like a blur; he can barely remember what he did yesterday. There was a bunch of time in Mungoes, wasn't there, all those tests to assess any emotional trauma he might be experiencing (not to mention how he was able to come back from the dead.) There was a bit of concern that he was immortal, or something similarly incredible, and then he had been with those counselors, and working on the Hogwarts restoration project, and then school has started and everything was hard and unpleasant, nothing felt the same at all. The school wasn't his home anymore, it was a battle ground and somewhere out there Snape shone like a distant star. Harry had written letters and he had spoken to Kingsley (okay, one of Kinglsey's assistants), but then he was breaking mirrors and blowing up rooms and the important bits all went grey, and he - he -
He let Snape down. After everything, after all he did, Harry let him down.
He leaves the Ministry to find it raining hard outside, water spiking off the pavement and a sea of black umbrellas. He knows he should go back to school, his friends are no doubt anxious to hear about the trial, but he feels guilt and anger twitching under his skin. He can't settle down, so he walks, ducking from eave to eave but mostly getting soaked. Snape still hangs like a chain around his throat, and Harry calls himself all kinds of coward for leaving the trial, for letting Snape bully him away when what he should have stayed. He should have stayed in that courtroom like a statue, refused to leave until justice was finally done.
Harry doesn't realize how far he's walked until he sees the statue of Charles and realizes he's in Charing Cross. And there, at the corner of Bedford and the Strand is a tiny bookshop that just screams wizard space; Harry can see threads of magic stretching from it at all angles, and in the middle of Muggle London, no less. He doesn't know much about London, aside from the Tower and the Eye and all that tourist stuff, but he's pretty sure that the London University of Witchcraft and Wizardry (Timeo Hominem Unius Libri) is around here somewhere. He couldn't say where exactly. Surely not in the caving down shop in front of him.
Barely avoiding getting run down by a passing cab, Harry crosses the street and goes inside.
There's a fellow posted at the inner set of double doors, a portly young man with thick glasses, and he smiles as Harry approaches.
Again, Harry feels the thrill of being unknown, even it's for the simple reason that his body is having an independently nervous breakdown. The magic from inside the building calls to him like a siren song, so he shows this fellow his wand, and the doors open immediately.
"Welcome to the WLL, sir," the man says as Harry passes, and Harry doesn't understand his meaning until he steps through the doors (charmed with a quick drying spell) and a vast library stretches out on either side of him.
("The Wizarding Library of London," Hermione tells him, from a conversation long ago, "I've only been once, on holiday, but it's brilliant, really brilliant. We should all take a trip some time, on a weekend, or -" This is where Ron cuts her off with a loud groan, unclear how shelves of textbooks and weekend holidays are compatible on any level.)
"WLL," Harry says quietly, as a stack of books streams past him in the air, and antique wooden shelves rotate and shuffle themselves for meandering patrons. The ceiling is high and rather cavernous, and a lavishly carpeted spiral staircase leads up to a second floor (though many guests are choosing to travel by broom rather than be forced into physical exercise.)
Harry wanders through the maze of high shelves, passes teenagers and adults and children, and finds himself strangely transfixed by the overwhelming quiet. He traces his hands over fine, worn spines and feels his heartbeat gradually slowing, his breathing even out. And the thing is, he never considered himself much of an academic. He can certainly appreciate a good book (in fact, one might have saved his life every now and then) but he doesn’t salivate at the sight of leather binding or yellowed pages. That's more Hermione’s area. For him, books are something that one uses for a purpose and then largely forgets about: tools, not treasures. His own bookshelf consists of some books on Quidditch, a collection of Dickens, and a few magazines, and yet - and yet this library, this silence -
"You look a bit lost, sir." A soft voice interrupts his thoughts. "Can I be of assistance?"
Harry turns to see a severe looking middle-aged woman hovering in the air behind him. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun, and she's wearing an old-fashioned high-collared dress. Oh, and she's definitely a ghost.
"Just, um, looking -"
"Oh! You must be here about the job," she interrupts, matter-of-factly. "Do you have references?"
"The job? Um -"
"Never mind, you can submit them later. Have you time for an interview right now? Only the next few days are going to be rather hectic. Spring cleaning and that, but I've got fifteen minutes if you're free."
Harry thinks about Snape and his mum and the Great Hall strewn with bodies and blood on his hands, his face -
"All right," he says, and the world -
* * *
- shifts around him, darkness pushed aside by grey, then by lighter grey until everything dissolves in layers of milky white, the colour of blindness.
The man has no name, is without form or substance. He wants nothing, and remembers even less. He only knows he is a man because he can feel the edges of his body, his borders, his beating heart.
He is alive.
There is a word hovering just at the periphery of his consciousness, but it is just a handful of sounds at this point, and he cannot connect them together.
He waits, riding the blankness like a wave. The sounds become a name: Severus.
Points converge and there is a room around him. A room filled with polished oak desks and vials and cast-iron cauldrons. A potions class.
- That is his name, isn't it? His name is Severus, and he is -
Oh Jesus, he is dead.
Slowly it bleeds back into his memory like a poorly bandaged wound. The Shack. The Snake, and a mouthful of clotted blood, and white hands on his neck - but no, that wasn't it, was it? There was more to it, there was an afterwards, an Epilogue. There was rough wood beneath his palms. Slivers. There were wands in his face and someone else was there too, someone long-limbed and filthy and fine -
Severus cannot recall more than that, his mind veers away like a Snitch - and what does that word mean? He has no idea, has probably never heard it in his life, and yet it floats honey-coloured and shapeless behind his eyelids.
He gives up memory as a bad job, and focuses on his surroundings as his hands and feet come buzzing back into existence, heavy weights hanging on his hips and shoulders. He reaches for his neck, swallowing against the vague fear that his fingers will come away wet. He feels nothing, nothing at all, no head, no neck, oh God, God -
He studies his hands - lined and yellowed as ever, but clean of any blood - and tells himself he must have a head if he has eyes to see. It occurs to him that his body feels slightly airborne, floating in a grey cloud of nothing, but when he turns his gaze down he finds he is sitting in an upright, hard-backed chair, somewhat haphazardly placed amidst the potions-related clutter. He cannot feel, then. He can see, but cannot feel.
Severus thinks he should test his other senses, measure the extent of his abilities and limits. He should speak, but he can't decide on a word that is appropriate for the situation. It becomes an overwhelming decision (has he been asleep? In a coma? How long, how bloody long?), it becomes the most important choice he has ever made, and words fail him, he's never spoken in his life, he can't remember how, he is afraid, he is -
"Help," Severus says, and he feels the hum of sound deep in his chest. But he hears nothing.
He cannot speak or he cannot hear. Or both.
He would never have put a chair such as this in the middle of the classroom. He examines the hems of his robes, trimmed with emerald-coloured brocade; these are robes he does not own, robes he would never wear.
He is a portrait, then.
As if his understanding wills it to be true, an empty school corridor swims across his vision, somewhere just beyond the edge of the classroom he inhabits. Hogwarts, Severus thinks without any further prompting, because he knows each stone and plank in that school, memorized its hidden corners during a year spent cruel and hated and utterly alone.
"It was us," rings in his ears like a bomb that's just gone off, or a gun. Who said that? Severus knew, once. Didn't he? He did.
He thinks he should at least attempt to explore the room he's trapped in for - for (he tries not to think 'eternity' but the word manifests itself anyway, turning his blood cold. He can feel that, at least, just as he can feel the sharp skip his heartbeat makes in his narrow chest.).
There are things that do not bear thinking about. How is it that every portrait isn't screaming with hysterical despair? Severus rises, or he thinks he does. He cannot feel the ground, but it seems a good deal farther away than it was previously. Tile, he thinks absently, slate grey.
He takes a buoyant step with his numbed limbs, and the resulting panic sends him sideways, crashing into a desk and sliding to the floor. There should be noise, and there should be pain, but Severus hears and feels nothing. He lifts his hands to his face again, and when he pulls them away they are wet.
He can weep, then.
He stares up at the ceiling, the prospect of getting to his feet too daunting for the present. Cedar beams, how extraordinary.
How bloody fucking marvelous.
If he's being perfectly honest, he thought he'd be happier with death. In those last few months (few years, really) he'd longed for it, though not in the fierce romantic way he'd done as a teenager. He hadn't made plans or anything like that, quite confident the war would take care of it, but he'd wondered sometimes - alone, in the dead of night - how much longer he had to continue. He saw the steps he'd have to take leading out across the moors and curving into the dark forest and he'd felt such an exhausting degree of despair it made speech impossible. He was not depressed and he was not sad; he was simply tired. He was ready to finish things. Then.
Now, however -
Severus should have expressly forbid the painting of any portraits. Death but not death, life but not life. Still life, Severus thinks, on the fine edge of madness. He studies his hands, his arms, the blackness of his sleeves. He cannot see brush strokes, can see nothing but skin and fabric, but it is not his body. He closes his eyes briefly, desperate for the relief of nothingness, but when he does he sees green light flashing, feels the floor beneath his back as his heart slowly winds down.
Severus opens his eyes in panic, and the ceiling is still high and unreachable, and his body is still lost completely to him.
"Those bastards fucking murdered me," he says, or attempts to, shock and outrage fighting against each other for dominance. He remembers now: picking himself off the ground, the blood that would not flow, the pulse that would not stop. And then there were other people there, and wands, and they killed him, didn't they? After surviving the bloody snake bite, to be murdered by some inconsequential little - and who were they, come to think of it? He can't remember any names or faces, but he can clearly see someone leaning over him, the bright green of the Killing Curse - but that can't be right, because he was standing when they cursed him, not lying down. What is that colour and what does it mean?
("It was us," a soft voice says in his ear. "We won," and Severus' broken body keens with overwhelming relief.)
The Dark Lord is dead. He must be, because Severus can remember - just for a second, sharpened with pain and adrenaline - happiness. And Hogwarts has been rebuilt, if the corridor in front of him means anything. The Order was successful. Potter must have -
Harry (hands press against a ragged throat, "No, no -" and the smell of lilacs and iron along roof of Severus' gasping mouth.)
The boy tried to save him. He did, and Severus died anyway.
He is suddenly very tired. Exhaustion prickles on his skin like pins and feathers; he feels as if he has been awake for years. Perhaps there is some sort of sleeping enchantment in his new prison. It might explain why so many of the Headmasters' portraits spend their days in a perpetual state of snoring unconsciousness.
He lifts his head to ensure that his body is sufficiently hidden behind a desk. Excepting nights in the infirmary, Severus has never slept in front of another person, and the thought of being observed casually by passing students makes his lungs seize up.
His numbed limbs need no blanket or pillow - one state is just as good as another - and Severus closes his eyes, the sense of falling almost tangible as sleep drags him under.
He does not dream, but the last thing he sees is Harry Potter's outstretched hand, white against the darkness of the Shack, reaching without hope toward Severus' body (which falls, falls, as distant and dying as a star).
For a moment, he experiences that brief, panicked loss of memory and time that comes with waking in a strange place. It doesn't take long for the panic to become dull despair as the sad story comes back to him (tongue dry against the roof of his mouth, floor hard against the cradle of his skull).
He can feel.
Well, that's something, the scientist in him supplies. It is progress.
Progress in an immotile world, Severus thinks, but he rises just the same. The movement requires more energy than he would normally have expected, but there's no doubt a different set of physics here. Merlin, someone should write a manual on this sort of thing. Perhaps someone already has and Severus didn't show the appropriate amount of interest when he had a pulse.
It's easier to move with sensation in one's limbs, so Severus paces the edges of his prison. It's melodramatic, but drama is all he's been left with, and he may as well use it. The lab is eight desks wide and eight desks long and there is a closed door on either end. He tries them both but his fingers lack the strength to tighten, and the knobs will not turn. After a series of unsuccessful attempts, he pounds one of the doors in frustration, and still cannot hear the resulting bang. Panic swims like bile at the back of his throat and he cannot catch his breath, he's going mad, he cannot breathe, he -
Severus sits down, leans against the door. He holds his breath, and wills his pulse to slow, his hands to stop trembling. He tries every trick he ever used as a bloody spy to quiet his nerves, appear smooth and calm as a placid sea.
"Severus Snape," he mouths with dry lips, and the future stretches before him, an endless series of days like this, emptiness and nothingness and panic forever and ever until someone puts him out of his misery and burns Hogwarts to the ground oh Jesus, Jesus Christ -
"Severus Snape," he says again, but he only hears his mother's voice, Northern accent stronger when she was angry, almost as strong as his grandmother's.
("Severus Snape, stop being silly this instant." Eileen frowns over her spectacles at him, and he helplessly stops crying. Not because he is afraid of her, but because she never cries, does she, even when things are hard as fists and blunt as steel. He's never seen her shed so much as a tear, and he loves her, he loves her without question or limit.)
"Fuck's sake," Severus murmurs, and gets to his feet.
To keep his mind anchored to the present, he examines the cauldrons on each desk. Expensive, certainly, and never used; the artist must have been looking at a photo from a magazine. Severus snorts. He might have expected that his painter would know next to nothing about potions. Unless there was no painter. After all, the portrait of Dumbledore appeared hours after the old wizard died. There couldn't have been an artist, then; the man was painted by Hogwarts itself (after you killed him, you traitor, you monster, you murderouscowardlyspy - )
"Stop," Severus says, and his body starts when a low sound ricochets off the polished floor and high walls.
He can hear.
He scratches his nails over the rough surface of the cauldron, and is gratified to hear the resulting growl of sound. He laughs, almost hysterically grateful, and he can hear himself laugh, and it is a gift. He tries to push a cauldron off of the desk, desperate for the loud clang that would result, but his arms are too weak. He contents himself with tossing a chair.
I could destroy this room, he thinks. Break the chairs and shred the textbooks and shatter every conceivable piece of glass. What would the staff and students think when they passed my portrait then?
The idea is tempting, but Severus feels that same pull of exhaustion come upon him suddenly, like a lamp being turned off. He manages to fold himself back into the armchair before his eyes are dragged inarguably closed. The world spins around him, and he exhales a small sigh as he loses consciousness again (but he can hear the sigh, can't he, and he is grateful for that much at least.)
Draco Malfoy is standing in front of him.
Severus startles so violently he almost falls out of his chair (no, no, Draco lived, he must have -) before he realizes that Draco is not, in fact, inside the portrait itself, but standing in the corridor of Hogwarts where the portrait is hung. The boy seems almost as shocked to see Severus as Severus is to see him, and he raises a hand to his chest.
"P-Professor?" Draco says, and his voice shakes.
Severus tries to remember the last time he saw him. Shortly before he fled the school, certainly. The boy did not look like this - gaunt and grey, eyes red as if he'd been crying - and when did Draco cry? Proud, arrogant Draco Malfoy, touched by nothing, defeated by no one -
"Draco," Severus says, and his voice is lower and rougher than he can remember.
"You're - you're awake." Draco's eyes are intent upon Severus' face, and Severus wants to cringe under the scrutiny.
Draco says nothing, breathing rapid and uneven, and Severus is forced to continue.
"Good Lord, what has happened?"
A manic sort of smile breaks over Draco's face.
"What? You - you haven't been awake. Not for months. Haven't spoken to anybody, and I've come - I've come here to see you, but you wouldn't -"
"How long?" Severus feels fear rise in his throat, choking him.
"Oh, um, since - almost a year now. It's March. I can't believe you're finally -"
- Bloody fucking March.
"What happened?" Severus says immediately, trying to keep the urgency from his voice but largely unsuccessful. "The war - Draco, you must - you must tell me -"
"Potter killed the Dark - killed Voldemort. Just in the Great Hall, in front of everyone. Mother and Father survived. Kingsley Shacklebolt's Minister now. Crabbe - my friend Vincent, died. "
Severus swallows (when the time comes, the boy must die) and sees green and red behind his eyelids. "Who else?"
"The werewolf and his wife, or whatever she was. One of the Weasleys, but I can't remember which. Rookwood. Greyback. Yaxley. Aunt - Aunt Bella."
Severus hadn't even considered Bellatrix mortal, certain her inky soul would scuttle away from death like a cockroach. Apparently not.
"Who else?" he says again.
"We lost a lot of people," Draco says quietly, and Severus does not know which side he is speaking of. Or if he's even speaking of sides. "You."
Severus is nowhere near as deceased as he would prefer. "Of that, at least, I am aware."
"You don't know what it's like to be a Slytherin now, it's - we're pariahs. It's ridiculously unfair. I can't even go to school it's so bad - even Durmstrang wouldn't have me. I just come here to hand in exams and the rest I do at home." Draco snorts, bitterly. "I'm just lucky Saint Potter's gone or I probably wouldn't have been able to get a moment alone with you."
The name 'Potter' skips like a stone across the smooth waters of Severus' fragile composure ("It was us, we won," and the smell of spring and fear and touch my neck again, my face -)
The latter part of that memory is completely new, wholly unexpected, and Severus almost falls from his chair for a second time.
"Gone. Gone where," he hisses, and it is not a question. He cannot say why he feels so fierce about the information - like every second it evades him costs a heartbeat or a breath - but he does. God help him, he does.
"He dropped out, didn't he?" Draco says like it's common knowledge. Severus could care less; Potter is alive and that is all that matters in the world and in the universe. "I don't know too much about it, but apparently he was at the Wizengamot - defending your memory, by the way - and offered instant admission to the Auror training program. Hasn't even taken his NEWTS - Father says it's completely unheard of, and there ought to be an inquiry. Bloody Ministry sycophants. Anyway, from what I heard he'd been cracking up at Hogwarts, losing his bloody mind. Probably took the first out he could get. I'm sure the staff couldn't wait to be rid of him."
The mention of Potter, at least, has pulled Draco from the brink of despair and deposited him firmly in resentful (and familiar) territory. Severus is a bit relieved. He is well aware he isn't the best person to counsel distraught teenagers, regardless of what he feels for the teenager in question - and if he is being brutally honest, he does love Draco in a grudging sort of way. He smoked cigars with Lucius the day Draco was born, and the moment he held the blond babe in his arms he thought that this child, surely this child was more remarkable and astonishing than all others.
"Anyway, almost every time I've been here in the past months, Potter's been camped out outside your bloody portrait, waiting for you to wake up. Like you were Sleeping Beauty or something." Draco scoffs at the absurdity of his comparison. "I've even overheard him talking to you. It's embarrassing, is what it is."
Potter, speaking to him? Severus tries to recall any recollection of sound, any break from his wide stretch of solitude. He cannot. He feels strangely uneasy about it - Potter watching him sleep, Potter telling him things that Severus had not agreed to listen to - it feels a bit like a violation.
"He always had a lot to say about you, even at the final battle. Waxed romantic about you and his mum in front of the Dark Lord and everyone. Like any of us would believe that -"
"Is Professor McGonagall Headmistress, then?" he asks, changing the subject immediately. Draco holds for a beat, fixing him with an assessing gaze, before continuing.
"Yes. And it's not like she's biased toward Gryffindors or anything. Of course, Dumbledore wasn't any better -" Draco stops speaking immediately, and Severus allows himself to slowly recover from the impact of hearing Albus' name spoken aloud.
("Severus - please," and how many times will Severus see him falling behind his eyelids, and remember how he learned to shape his wand around an Unforgiveable, so long ago and much too young, "You have to mean it, Snivellus, you have to really mean it - ")
Severus cannot reply to this. Draco does not apologize, of course he doesn't, but he does go still for a moment, the only remorse a Malfoy is likely to show. He looks unbearably young, and Severus feels a great well of gratitude that it was he who cast the Killing Curse, that Draco is not yet guilty of murder.
"Where exactly in the school am I?" he asks, shaking off the dust of sentimentality.
"Dungeons. One of the back corridors, not too many students, " Draco tells him. "I had McGonagall move you the last time I was here. You used to be right outside the potions class, and I thought you would have hated it. When you woke up."
And this child, surely this child is more remarkable and astonishing than all others.
"Any expression of gratitude would doubtless be inadequate."
Draco sniffs, a thin smile twitching on his lips. "I have to go. Mother's waiting in Hogsmeade, and you can imagine how happy she is about it."
Severus nods, feeling his artificial walls move slightly closer. He'd been half in love with loneliness for the better part of his life. Now, however, the thought of it makes him feel vaguely claustrophobic. He wants to claw and scratch and tear the walls apart.
"I'll come back when I can, though. And I won't tell anyone you're awake. Except Mother. She'll want to see you soon, I expect."
"Thank you, Draco."
"Well." Draco shrugs. "Slytherins have to watch out for our own. Goodbye, Professor."
Severus watches Draco grow smaller as he walks away down the corridor, eventually vanishing around a corner. Snatches of the conversation echo like aftershocks through Severus' portrait ("cracking up at Hogwarts, losing his bloody mind") and Severus wonders when - if ever - he will be able to let go his hold on Lily's son. Because - because his work is done. Severus is a dead man, for Merlin's sake - and yet he wonders where Potter is now, feels drawn to him like a ship through rough waters.
Potter lived, Severus tells himself, and that is all that matters. That was what he promised to do, and his promise was kept. For once in his cringing life, Severus was true to his word.
Potter lived, and the Dark Lord fell, and as far as Severus is concerned, the story -
* * *
- begins - really begins - one year later.