Predictably, given everything Harry learned in the final hours of the war, the death of Tom Riddle bereaved him of the one good thing that had come of being a madman’s Horcrux: his Parseltongue. It seemed such a small thing at first; it wasn’t as though he had spoken it on any regular basis, nor had it ever proven useful outside a pretty narrow, and decidedly fraught, set of circumstances. Nonetheless, it had been a part of him, as much as his scar, as much as his glasses and his great, green eyes, and in the months following the Dark Lord’s demise, Harry found himself mourning a small talent that, in the end, had never truly belonged to him.
It wasn’t that he missed the bad old days, not exactly. But sometimes after those early celebrations, once the others had gone home, when he was downing one last pint by himself before heading back to an empty bed and an even emptier life, then it was easy for Harry to reminisce about his lost language and see in it something bigger than words. It became a symbol of things to which he had once laid claim – family and friends, a sense of purpose – that now seemed all but lost as the world went on without him. Harry’s solitude was misunderstood as a wish, and he was ill-equipped to ask for the companionship he so desperately craved from people who had paired off into cosy couples. He simply drifted between them, a lone bit of flotsam bumping up against sturdy structures of which he was not a part.
Upon the cessation of hostilities, the school year ending in May, 1998 was summarily voided by the Ministry of Magic, and so it was that a fine Autumn morning found the teenaged heroes of Hogwarts settled in a carriage on the Express, bound for Hogsmeade. In contrast to the young pairs that surrounded him, Harry sat apart by the window, his face blank as he stared at the rusty scenery speeding past. He kept one ear on the conversations that rose and fell around him - enough to know that Hermione was already berating Ron for failing to revise adequately over the summer, enough to know that Neville had perhaps gotten more than he bargained for when he sought out the attentions of Luna Lovegood, enough to know that Ginny was once again with Dean Thomas.
It was true that none of them had walked away from the events of the previous year unscathed. But what Harry couldn’t comprehend was his friends’ dogged determination to heal their wounds and move on with their lives. Perhaps it was the fact that he lacked any direction of his own which segregated Harry from the boisterous throng; he only knew that he was lost in this new world of his own making, stuck in a stultifying stasis from which he seemed unable to move. His erstwhile comrades-in-arms joked and jostled about him, and Harry roused himself enough to avoid suspicion, all the while sensing in some small cavity of his soul that he no longer had the words to speak his difference. He was mute, in all the ways that mattered, and as he watched the landscape blur before his eyes into a wide, rolling river of colour, Harry wondered if it would always be this way.
The students arrived to find the Great Hall festooned in celebration of survival - of the school, of its denizens, of the Wizarding world itself. As Hogwart’s resident saviour, Harry was hustled by an enthusiastic Hagrid to the head table and shown a seat to the right of Minerva McGonagall. The proud glow of the Headmistress’s face and the shining adoration of so many of his classmates only heightened the surreality of the scene, and so he sat silently, eyes wide behind his glasses as he tried to take everything in. All was talk: from the Headmistress’s welcome speech, to friends greeting one another after long absences, to the assembled professors gossiping amongst themselves.
At some point during the proceedings, Harry’s gaze came to rest on the person seated next to him. The sneer that had been a fixture on Snape’s face was absent, replaced by a speechless befuddlement that Harry, with an empathetic pang, recognised instantly. He saw the tight line of Snape’s mouth, the way he radiated discomfort, the convulsive clench of a white-knuckled fist at the robes draped over his legs; and, without thinking, Harry reached a hand under the table to cover that of his professor. Snape turned an icy glare on Harry, whose own eyes were fixed resolutely on the congregated students and staff. Harry gave the cold hand under his a small, tentative squeeze, then let go as though belatedly realising the liberty he had taken. He couldn’t brave another glance at the man, terrified at what he might find in those black eyes, but as he looked down he noticed that Snape’s hand seemed to have relaxed, and Harry allowed himself a secret smile at the sight.
“Well, if it isn’t the Headmaster,” said Terry Boot in a loud whisper as Snape entered the N.E.W.T.-level Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, striding past the group of students gathered for the last class of this first full week of school. Snape hesitated at the words, the sweep of his robes stilling around his legs in a lifeless droop as snorts of derision came from a few of the other seventh-years. For a moment tension hung thick in the air, broken only when Harry turned to face his classmate and quietly said, “No.”
“But Harry -” Terry began, before Harry cut him off.
“No,” he repeated, more forcefully this time. “Just...don’t.”
Terry, his face painted in blotchy reds, waved an accusing finger at Harry. “You weren’t here. You don’t know -”
“You’re right. I wasn’t here,” Harry interjected. “I was off doing Dumbledore’s dirty work, and,” Harry said with a nod towards Snape and fresh ferocity in his voice, “so was he.”
Another moment passed in silence, then Snape turned slowly to face Harry, the full force of seven years’ hatred lurking in his fathomless gaze.
“Thank you, Mr. Potter, for that ringing endorsement,” he intoned, his voice dripping with disdain. Snape turned sharply on his heel, his robes snapping around him. “Ten points from Gryffindor for your presumption,” he added as he continued on to the front of the classroom.
Harry could see Hermione and Ron sputter in indignation out of the corner of his eye, and he found himself smothering a smile as he turned back to his desk. He didn’t entirely understand his reaction to this oft-played performance; he only knew that there was something good about Snape’s brief flash of anger - a sign of life in a man who seemed as listless and lost as himself.
Once the lesson was over and Gryffindor was down another ten points, Harry made his way to Snape’s desk while his friends filed out of the classroom. He stood quietly waiting until the professor snapped, “Well, what is it, Potter?”
Harry again, and inexplicably, fought back a smile at the words.
“I only wanted...that is, I wanted to say -”
“What? You wanted to say what, Mr. Potter?” Snape looked up and caught Harry’s eyes in an impatient glance.
“Only that I’m sorry, sir. For my presumptuousness.” Harry paused, then took a deep breath and said, softly, “For all of it.”
Snape stared blankly at Harry for a long moment, then muttered with a wave of his hand, “It is of no consequence.” When Harry opened his mouth to continue, the professor cut him off sharply, saying, “Get out of here, Potter. Before you lose more points.”
Now Harry smiled, though he didn’t know why, provoking a frown from Snape as he turned to go.
“It’s like nothing has changed! We might as well be first-years again!”
Harry entered the Gryffindor common room to the sound of Hermione in high dudgeon over the events of the previous hour. Ron sat sulking on the sofa in front of the great fireplace, before which Hermione paced like a caged lion. When she spotted Harry across the room, she called out, “What happened, Harry?”
Harry crossed over and dropped his book bag on the floor. He plopped down next to his friend, then said with a shrug, “I apologised to him.”
Ron gaped at this confession as Hermione screeched, “What?! Harry - why? You were only trying to help! He had no right having a go at you like that - not after everything that’s happened.”
“She’s right, mate,” Ron agreed. “You saved his life. Where does he get off docking you points for putting Boot in his place?”
Harry gnawed thoughtfully on his bottom lip as he considered the question. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand his friends’ indignation; he was well aware that just a year or two earlier he would have been railing against the unfairness of it all right along with them. But now...the sharp words were the same, the scathing tone was the same, but instead of taking offence, Harry found nothing but a kind of comfort in their familiarity, as if they were a rock - however craggy and inhospitable - to which he could cling in this strange new world.
“He’s had a hard time of it, too,” Harry said quietly, after a moment. “After everything he’s done, who am I to complain if he wants to go on like before?”
Hermione opened her mouth as if to argue, but it was Ron who said grimly, “We all had a hard time of it - you more than anyone. But I don’t see you treating everyone like shite, Harry.”
“But Terry would have. Terry was treating Snape like shite, like none of the good had happened. Like he really was the traitor we all thought he was, when we know better now. He doesn’t deserve it, Ron, no matter how much of a prat he may be.” Harry paused in the middle of this unusually impassioned defence, then continued in a more tentative vein, “And...I think it’s his way, you know? Of moving on. Of trying to get back to something like normal.”
“That’s a normal I can do without, thanks,” muttered Ron, but Hermione looked thoughtful at Harry’s words, and the trio soon moved on to more agreeable conversation.
As the weeks passed and once-familiar patterns floated to the surface of everyday life, Harry found that it was easier than before to pretend to normalcy. He joked with his friends, flew when he could, and studied in his usual, distracted way. But late at night, when the castle was asleep, Harry would don his one remaining Hallow and wander the halls, and it was then that he felt most keenly his lost ability to coax some secret serpent into opening a hidden passageway or chamber. Having never heard it as anything other than English, Harry couldn’t even remember the sounds of Parseltongue to mimic them as Ron had during the final battle. It was lost to him, a thing he’d never really appreciated until it was gone.
It was on one such night that Harry stood high atop the castle, looking out over the moonlit grounds from his vantage point in a high, open-aired turret. The wind had taken on a wintry bite, but the warming charm he cast transformed it to a refreshing breeze that lulled him into pleasant somnolence. And as he stood there, swaying slightly in a sleepy stupor, he heard footsteps from behind and thought, belatedly, to reach for his wand.
“With such catlike reflexes at your disposal,” came Snape’s languorous baritone from the darkness, “it’s no surprise that you’re the Hero of Hogwarts.”
Harry turned to find Snape stepping out of the shadows, and he gave the professor a sheepish smile.
“Can’t sleep either, sir?” he asked, reading in Snape’s black-encircled eyes a purpose different from their old cat-and-mouse games. Snape glowered at the words, walking over to a far balustrade to look out over the darkened castle.
“I fail to see how that is any of your business,” he replied, prompting a soft laugh from Harry.
“Too true, sir,” he said, with a rueful shake of his head.
Harry turned back to his own view, and the two stood together in a silence that, if not exactly companionable, was nonetheless oddly agreeable. Once or twice Harry thought he sensed Snape stealing a stealthy look at him, as if trying to make sense of some unexpected puzzle, but he carefully kept his own eyes on the play of light and dark below.
After a long moment, Harry heard Snape clear his throat, and he looked over at the older man to find him regarding Harry with guarded interest.
“I was wondering...” Snape began, and Harry cocked his head in curiosity. The professor turned, clasping his hands behind his back.
“That is...” he began again, then looked up at Harry with a strange light in his eyes. “Are the rumours I have heard about Gringotts true?”
Harry smiled, though at the question or his professor’s obvious discomfort, he couldn’t say.
“Gringotts, sir?” he asked innocently, and Snape gave him a barely concealed glare.
“I believe that is what I said. Did you actually break into Gringotts?” he asked testily.
Rocking a bit on his heels, his hands thrust into the pockets of his trousers, Harry looked down in embarrassment and nodded.
“I did, sir. We did, actually - Ron, Hermione, and me.”
Snape’s jaw fell slack for a moment; when he had recovered from his astonishment, he asked, “And the dragon? True, also?”
Harry nodded. “That was all Hermione. I reckon we’d still be there had it been just Ron and me.”
“No doubt. Idiot Gryffindors...” Snape muttered under his breath, and Harry’s smile became a grin.
“Yes, sir,” he replied cheerfully, laughing outright when Snape rolled his eyes. Each turned back to his own view then, the silence more comfortable than before. And into the darkness, Snape spoke again.
“Potter...” he said, and Harry knew from the tone of his voice that this was no time to meet the man’s eyes.
“Sir?” he answered, looking up at the stars instead.
“The Headmaster entrusted me with...that is to say, did you - did you -“
“Die,” said Harry dully, and Snape replied, “Yes.”
A pause, then, in a small voice, “I did.”
Snape murmured, “I knew, of course, but...” and Harry nodded.
After a time during which each was lost in his own thoughts, Snape turned to leave, calling back as he headed down the stairs, “Off to bed now, Mr. Potter, before you suffer the effects of sleep deprivation on your limited mental resources.”
A soft snort, then Harry whispered “Good-night, Professor,” as he listened to Snape’s footsteps fade into the night, feeling oddly bereft as he was enveloped once again in silence.
As autumn deepened, Harry took to watching his professor a little more closely, for a little longer than he ever had before. And he noticed, as the October days slid inexorably toward their November demise, that Snape’s mood seemed to grow correspondingly dark. To most of his students, this was something neither new nor unexpected: he appeared no more unpleasant than he ever had been, and most just went to pains to avoid his attentions. But to Harry, it was as though each day brought with it a little more venom - a slightly more wild-eyed rage just simmering under the surface.
Late Halloween night, following a particularly sumptuous feast, Harry once again stood high atop a lone enclosed turret looking out over the blackened Scottish hillside. This time, however, when Snape inevitably caught him breaking curfew, it was not with stealth, but with a thunder that warned of his wrath long before the man himself appeared. It took no small strength of will for Harry to remain with his back to the stairwell when he heard the sound of Snape’s boots pounding up the wooden steps.
“I should have known I would find you skulking about the castle,” Snape seethed as he burst into the room, his voluminous robes rustling about him.
Still facing the window, Harry muttered under his breath, “I could say the same thing.”
Snape’s eyes glittered dangerously in his livid face.
“What did you say?” he hissed, each word a scalpel slicing the air between them.
Harry took a deep breath. His heart raced as he considered the words he’d been rehearsing for a week. He swallowed; his throat was dry, and he wondered if it was an omen, but he pushed ahead anyway, too hungry for the confrontation he sought to stop himself.
“I remember...” he started to say, then paused, knowing that there would be no taking this back.
Snape drew himself up to look down his nose at the boy.
“You remember?” he sneered, as if to suggest that the act itself was beyond Harry’s capabilities.
Harry took another deep breath.
“I remember screaming. Pleading, and then a green light.”
A deafening silence, then, “What?”
“It’s all I remember,” Harry continued. “All I had of her for years. When I was alone in my cupboard, crying myself to sleep. It’s what I hear now when the Dementors are near. The screaming.”
He turned to find Snape frozen in place, face ashen, lips twisted in revulsion - at the words, or maybe at himself. Harry took one step and then another, closer and closer to Snape, who seemed transfixed by the memory the boy had provoked. And when he stood face-to-face with Snape, when he could look straight into those bleak black eyes with his own vivid green, then he said simply, “Severus Snape, I forgive you.”
Snape stared down at Harry. He opened his mouth to speak, but all he could do was rasp again, “What?”
In for a knut..., thought Harry, reaching out to gently grasp Snape’s forearm.
“I forgive you,” he repeated and was jerked forward slightly when Snape’s legs gave out and he stumbled to his knees. For a moment, Harry stood over him as if in judgment; but it reminded him too much of a memory - not his own - when forgiveness was a far less forthcoming thing, and so Harry too dropped to his knees, his hands resting on his lap as he stared at the black of Snape’s bowed head.
“I forgive you, sir,” Harry said again, softly.
“Stop saying that.” Snape snarled like a wounded animal, curling in on himself. Harry held his tongue then, watching the way his professor’s hands fisted in his robes as if scrambling for some purchase on this unknown terrain.
Eventually, Snape shattered the silence with one broken word.
A single eye glared up at Harry from behind a curtain of limp black hair, but Harry met it with equanimity. He didn’t smile, but rather tried to imbue his words with the force of his conviction.
“Because I’m the only one who can.”
Snape dropped his gaze, staring at the floor between them as he appeared to digest the words. Harry dipped his head slightly, trying to catch the man’s eye again; when he couldn’t, he added quietly, “Because it’s time, sir.”
They sat together in silence until, after a time, Snape stood to leave. Harry followed suit, rising up on legs that tingled with pins and needles, and he stamped his feet several times to get the blood flowing again. This performance provoked an irate eyebrow from Snape, and Harry gave him a wry grimace in return, even as he smiled inwardly at the guarded acceptance the expression seemed to suggest.
For a moment, it appeared that Snape might utter something - an apology, perhaps, or a rejection. A cutting comment meant to reestablish the status quo. But in the end he simply paused, then turned and walked away, and the only sound that Harry heard was the murmured “Thank you” that flitted through his imagination as he watched his professor leave.
As in years past, there were few students who stayed at Hogwarts over the holidays. Ron had asked Harry to spend them at the Burrow, but Harry, having grown accustomed to the peace of his late-night wanderings, was looking forward to having the castle almost entirely to himself and declined with a promise to spend Boxing Day with the Weasleys.
With such diminished numbers, it seemed only natural for the castle’s inhabitants to share one table as they had for the Christmas Feast of Harry’s second year; but, as he went to take his seat alongside his professors and the handful of students who had joined them, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. It wasn’t until he spied the brightly coloured Christmas crackers set at each place that he realised, with a start, what it was, and when he looked up Harry found Snape staring at the table with a shocked expression that echoed his own. The professor remained standing as his colleagues and students took their seats, trembling hands gripping the back of his chair, and Harry didn’t know whether to stand in solidarity, or sit and pretend that nothing was amiss.
He was relieved of the decision, however, when he met Snape’s gaze across the table in a rare moment of perfect understanding, severed only when Snape whirled around and stalked out of the Great Hall before any words could reach him.
Watching him go, Professor Sprout tut-tutted under her breath, shaking her head as she muttered, “Never one for Christmas dinner, was Severus. I can’t imagine what drew him out of his dungeons tonight, of all nights.”
“He certainly couldn’t be bothered with the holidays last year, that’s for sure,” grumbled Professor Flitwick to a chorus of murmured agreement. “I’m surprised we had a Christmas dinner at all, given everything that was going on. Who knew that Death Eaters took a holiday now and again?”
Harry was on the verge of interrupting when he noticed the Headmistress’s lips tighten to a thin line.
“I asked Severus to join us this evening,” McGongall said, her words clipped and clear. “He has been too much on his own of late, and I am concerned for him.”
Taking an indelicate swig of brandy, Professor Slughorn exclaimed, “Pish! He was always a sullen, unfriendly boy. Unremarkable family, of course, and then to disgrace - “
“Horace!” The Headmistress slammed a bony hand on the table, and the rattle of silverware made the few students seated there jump. “I will not have anyone maligning a member of my staff, but especially not in front of the students!” Harry fought back the urge to gape, swallowing his own defence of the professor as McGonagall’s words echoed through the cavernous hall.
“And while I cannot profess to understand the inner workings of anyone’s mind, from what I understand - what we all have come to understand,” she continued, meeting the eyes of all those gathered at the table before stopping at Harry, who gave her a slight nod in return, “there is far more to Severus Snape than meets the eye.”
Harry looked down at the cracker sitting atop his plate, then raised his eyes to meet those of the Headmistress. He swallowed back a rush of emotion and whispered, “Dumbledore.”
McGonagall’s eyes widened slightly, and a hush fell over the table as the oldest of Hogwarts’ denizens seemed to recall the way the Headmaster had been able to lure even the most reluctant of colleagues into his Christmas revelries. They looked to the empty chair, missing not Snape but Dumbledore at his best - his socks, his hats, his unrepentant agreeability at all but the darkest times. And if some of the faces at the table echoed the guilt Harry felt at the thought of Snape’s most ardent defender, he thought it fitting penance for the way they had all believed the worst of him, past the point of evidence and reason.
The first Saturday of Winter Term found Harry scrubbing a particularly viscous goo from the inside of a large pewter cauldron. That this occurred only a few weeks after he had first noticed Snape sinking into a quiet gloom was, he would have answered anyone who asked, pure coincidence.
As he scrubbed, Harry stole covert glances at Snape, who was busy marking student parchments at his desk. In years past, the professor had sat tall in his seat, looking down with disdain at the drivel before his eyes as he penned his carefully composed critiques. Today he was slouched over the desk, the fingers of one hand splayed across his forehead, the odd notation interrupting what seemed to be a general disinterest in his task. Occasionally, Harry observed, he would stop writing altogether, lost in some thought, perhaps, or maybe just allowing his mind to drift. Where once there would have been some exhortation to “finish, already, and get out of my sight,” there was...nothing. Just a chilling emptiness that put Harry in mind of dementors.
Setting aside his scrub brush, Harry grabbed a worn tea-towel and quickly dried the cauldron. Once he had replaced it on the shelf, he walked to the front of the classroom and stood waiting at Snape’s desk. It took the professor several minutes before he noticed Harry, and when he did it was simply to say, absently, “That’s all for today, Potter.”
But Harry stood his ground until Snape looked up from the parchment with bloodshot, red-rimmed eyes. A soft blush blossomed over Harry’s pale cheeks at Snape’s narrowed scrutiny, and he reached into his robe to pull out a small box, the very size of a Honeyduke’s Chocolate Frog. He handed it to Snape, who took it in his hand and scowled.
“Chocolate, Potter?” he asked, placing it on his desk. “Whatever for?”
Harry shook his head. “It’s not chocolate, sir,” he said softly. “Open it. Please.”
Instead, Snape pushed the box across his desk and back towards Harry. “I haven’t got time for such foolishness, Potter. Take this and get out of here.”
But Harry pushed the box back across desk and said, firmly, “No, sir. This is for you. Please...” and he paused here, before entreating, “please accept it. As a gift.”
Snape frowned at the words, but he picked up the box and turned it over and around in his spindly fingers.
“I cannot - it would be untoward to accept a gift from a student, Potter.”
“A - a thank you, then,” Harry replied, and Snape raised an eyebrow before looking down at the box in his hand. He heaved a sigh, then asked in a long-suffering tone, “But why, Potter?”
Harry gave the question a moment’s thought, then answered artlessly, “Because I think you need it. Sir.”
Eventually, curiosity won out over propriety and, sitting back in his chair, Snape pulled at the ribbon enclosing the package. As it came off, the paper beneath unfolded to reveal not cardboard, but a box of unstained balsa wood. Intrigued despite himself, he removed the lid to find a small, slender vial of clear glass attached to a fine chain of silver. Snape gently lifted the vial to better see its contents, and he gasped as his fingers brushed its smooth surface, looking up at Harry in amazement.
Harry blushed, if possible, even redder than before.
“Phoenix tears,” he explained, his eyes wide and his voice hesitant. “They’re supposed to - I mean,” he swallowed, “can you hear it?”
Snape lifted the talisman out of the box, careful to keep the vial nestled in the palm of his hand.
“I do,” he said in a tone of wonder. “Phoenix song....” Without hesitation, he placed the chain around his neck and slipped the vial under his robes, allowing it to rest against his skin, then covered the slight bump it made with a hand to his berobed chest. “How did you...” he began before closing his eyes and succumbing to the comfort it gave.
Harry cleared his throat, then said quietly, “Fawkes, sir.”
Snape slowly opened his eyes to stare at the boy. “Fawkes?” he stammered hoarsely in disbelief. “But how?”
“The Room of Requirement,” Harry said with a small smile. “I wanted...you’ve saved me, sir, again and again. Even when you hated me, you saved me. I just wanted to, to -” But now it seemed wrong; too presumptuous, somehow, to suggest that he wanted to save Snape, and so Harry said, “When I needed him, he came and gave me those. That’s twice now, come to think of it. I found a charm, but...does it work? Do you feel - does it -”
And Snape, eyes closed once again, answered simply, “Yes.”
“It should - for as long as you need it. I think,” Harry said in fits and starts.
“Very eloquent, Mr. Potter,” Snape murmured.
“I try, sir,” said Harry with a grin.
Snape cracked one eye open and gave Harry just the ghost of a smile, and if it didn’t seem quite the shadow of his old surly self, neither did it suggest the despair of the recent past.
“Indeed,” he said. When the silence between them threatened to become uncomfortable, Snape finally snapped to attention and admonished, “Now run along before I find more work for you to do.”
Harry whirled on his heel, feeling lighter than he had in weeks. And as he scurried out the door, he took one last liberty and laughingly called out behind him, “Happy birthday, sir.”
In the months leading up to N.E.W.T.s, it seemed to Harry that he had finally found the normalcy he’d been looking for since the end of the war. He took a page from Ron and kept his head down, scrupulously following the revision schedule Hermione had devised and finding that exam preparation lent his days a sense of purpose they had been lacking. Each week seemed to fly by faster than the last, but though Harry faced this final hurdle with mounting trepidation, there was also something vaguely comforting - for its familiarity - about directing all his efforts and attention towards one, all-consuming goal. It was a period of nearly-forgotten camaraderie to which Harry clung as a drowning man to a life-preserver. For the duration, he willfully put aside his nagging, nascent awareness that this time was little more than a temporary reprieve and threw himself into the single-minded pursuit of passing marks.
On the day of his first N.E.W.T., Harry experienced one overwhelming burst of pure panic as he picked up his quill and read the exam questions. For that one moment, it was as though he had forgotten everything he had learnt, from the lowliest Wingardium Leviosa to the complex charms he, Hermione, and Ron had employed throughout their Horcrux hunt. His mind drew a blank - he had a flash of despair that every disparaging thing Snape had ever said about his intelligence was true - and then, as he set quill to parchment and began to write, the cumulative knowledge of seven years’ education came flooding back to him. The exams turned out to be exhilarating and not unlike flying, requiring intricate manoeuvers, creativity, and a bit of seat-of-his-trousers luck, and when the week was over and they were finally done, Harry felt a bit like he’d enjoyed one last victory - this time, over himself as much as anything.
Once again, there were drunken celebrations that, being rather more carefree than those of a year earlier, were also less inhibited. Where the couples of the previous year had discreetly drifted away at the end of an evening, this time they flouted nearly every rule in the Hogwarts handbook, creating headaches for the Headmistress and her staff, who relieved their stress through nervous jokes - and a handful of side bets - about the coming postwar baby-boom.
It had been a month or so since Ginny had broken up with Dean, and she came to Harry now with purposeful eyes. But while, a year earlier, he might have welcomed the way she insinuated herself alongside him at meals, her cosy, calculated caresses in the Gryffindor common room, or the glitter of her eyes when they caught his across a table, now he was...disenthralled. She was as she seemed, and it wasn’t enough. Harry wanted to coax dark desires into the light, to seduce a recalcitrant heart with sibilant tongue; he wanted to charm a serpent from its lair and, only now, after a year of mourning the loss of one language, did he realise he had been learning another all along. He was nowhere near fluent, but he had an ear for its nuances and subtle signs, for the jarring dissonance of its strange music, and it lured him like a siren.
An unseasonably cool late June evening found Snape standing in the shadows of the Astronomy Tower looking down at the courtyard below, his left wrist clasped tightly in his right hand behind his back.
Harry entered the observatory quietly. He stood near the far wall for a few minutes, small and insignificant against its towering beams, then said softly, “I was here when it happened. Right here.”
“Get out, Potter.” Snape’s voice was strained, and his hand tightened visibly around a bony wrist.
Harry paled, his heart pounding painfully in his chest.
“No,” he whispered insistently with a shake of his head.
Snape whirled to face him. His eyes seethed with anger, his body barely restrained from lashing out at the boy.
“Get out. Get out!” he screamed. He took several steps forward, his hair flying around his face in long tendrils that made him look like a deranged Medusa.
A part of Harry wanted to yell, “You can’t make me!” He balanced precariously on the precipice of manhood, and it would have been easy then to fall backwards into the past. But he recalled the look on Snape’s face in the moment before he killed Dumbledore, and the memory pushed him forward.
“I heard everything. I saw everything!” he shouted at his professor, who sliced through the air with his wand, wordlessly casting as he rushed forward. Harry, suddenly unable to speak, shrunk back instinctively, and he found himself flattened against the wall with no place to run as Snape advanced to loom over him.
“Enough. Unless you did the deed yourself, I care neither what you saw nor what you heard. It was between the Headmaster and myself - no one else.” Snape sneered at the silent boy. “Not even you, Mr. Potter.”
Grasping his wand, Harry wordlessly cancelled Snape’s charm, then immediately threw up a Protego and cast Impedimenta at his professor. Snape fell backwards with the unexpected force of Harry’s jinx and reflexively cast in his direction. When Harry’s shield held, Snape looked up at him with eyes widened in both surprise and fury. Harry resisted the urge to kneel down beside the man to see if he was hurt, instead taking the opportunity to scramble behind a far pillar before Snape found his footing again.
“I saw. Your anger, your hate -”
“Show yourself, Potter!” Snape had stood and was now stalking around the room, wand drawn and ready to strike.
Harry clung quietly to the shadows, wordlessly casting Incarcerous at Snape; but this time the other man sensed the gathering magic and deflected it effortlessly. He again cast towards Harry, who dodged away just in time for Snape’s spell to fizzle out behind him as he called out, “I thought it was for him -” Harry threw himself to the floor when Snape whipped around and cast into the darkness, then rolled away, stood, and ran behind the telescope that dominated the room.
“You would dare to presume -” Snape snarled, removing his cumbersome teaching robe and hurling it across the room.
“I would – I do!” shouted Harry, who then found himself turned upside down and rising into the air. “Liberacorpus,” he whispered and dropped to the floor with a thud.
Snape snorted in derision. “Perhaps I should have given you all my old textbooks when you first arrived, Potter. You would certainly have learned from them better than you ever did me.”
Harry gritted his teeth and silently cast Obscuro at Snape, who growled and clawed at his face to remove the blindfold now covering his eyes. Harry scurried across the floor, crouching down at the top of the stairs leading to the tower.
“You didn’t hate him!” he panted. “You hated yourself.”
“You blamed yourself,” Harry said, and when no argument was forthcoming, he cautiously climbed out of the shadows to face the other man. Snape looked feral, eyes glittering like black sapphires, lips blood-red against his pale skin, but he made no move to halt Harry’s progress.
“You’re wrong,” Snape murmured into the sudden quiet. “In that moment, I hated him.”
Harry nodded. “But you blamed yourself,” he repeated, taking a step towards Snape. “If only you had gotten to him sooner when his hand was cursed. If only you hadn’t made the Unbreakable Vow with Malfoy’s mum.”
Another step, and another, and Snape stood transfixed in horror at Harry’s brutal words.
“If only you hadn’t told Vol-”
“Stop,” Snape groaned. “I beg you.”
Harry froze, watching as Snape’s wand clattered to the floor and rolled away. “How do you know all of this, Potter?” he whispered harshly, though he would not look at the boy.
“Because,” Harry breathed, “I blame myself, too.”
“For Dumbledore,” Snape said, and Harry shrugged.
“Sometimes,” he replied. “I fed him poison. He told me to keep making him drink, no matter what he said or how he begged. So I did. I poisoned him. And I hated him for making me do it.”
Harry took a shaky breath. “And then we came back. He was weak - weaker than he’d been, and all because -”
“Stop,” Snape said softly.
After a long moment, Harry continued, “Mostly...I blame myself for you.”
The professor gaped, and Harry elucidated with a litany of his sins. “If I had learned to cast wordlessly. If I had t-tried harder in Occlumency.” He looked up and met Snape’s eyes with his own tear-filled gaze. “If only I had believed when Dumbledore said -” Harry’s words were choked by a sob. He turned his head away and his legs might have followed, but Snape put a tentative hand on his shoulder, restraining him.
“You were a boy, Potter,” said Snape. “And I was a spy. It was my job to convince you - you, of all people - of my treachery.”
Harry didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so he did both. “It worked.”
“Apparently,” Snape replied dryly, and now Harry did laugh. A moment later, Snape joined in; and at some point, while they were laughing together, Harry reached out to take his professor’s hand in his own. Snape’s laughter ceased at the contact, though he didn’t remove his hand.
“No, Harry,” he said softly.
“Yes,” Harry whispered fiercely, too scared to meet the man’s eyes. He gripped cold fingers in his own warm palm, and stepped close to Snape. Harry poured all his incoherent desire into one aching look, and he was rewarded with the older man’s soft gasp when their eyes met.
“It can’t be me,” Snape rasped, though his body told a different story. He leaned in, eyes raking over the boy’s moist mouth, and Harry swallowed.
“I think...” he said breathlessly, “I think it can only be you.”
Snape tilted his head to the side and swiftly brought his lips to Harry’s. They turned into each other as Snape nipped and licked at Harry’s sweet mouth, savouring him like a rare delicacy. Harry brought his other hand to the nape of Snape’s neck, pulling him closer, arching into his body when Snape dropped Harry’s hand to wrap his arms around the boy’s lithe frame. His tongue teased along the seam of Harry’s lips, coaxing them apart with a tingling promise of pleasures only ever imagined. This, thought Harry absently, this was how it should feel - warm breath and velvet tongue - nerves aflame with sensation. He basked in Snape’s warmth, his smell, the feel of his hands as they ran up his back, cradling Harry’s head as he deepened his kiss.
When Snape bent to nuzzle Harry’s neck, knocking the boy’s glasses askew as his tongue trailed downwards, Harry whimpered softly - gasped for breath and clung to Snape – and the sounds seemed to rouse the older man as from a dream. He reluctantly pulled away, rested his head against Harry’s shoulder and panted softly as he collected himself. Then his arms loosened and he stepped back, drawing a despairing moan from Harry.
“Why?” Harry said brokenly.
Snape shook his head, the lank locks of his hair slapping against wan cheeks.
“No,” he said. “No.”
Harry stood as if Stupefied, his eyes fixed on a point somewhere on the floor. There were no words to speak his heartbreak, and so he remained silent, even when Snape stooped to retrieve his wand, then turned and descended the staircase, each leaden footstep echoing throughout the tower as he went.
After a time, Harry walked over to where Snape’s robe lay crumpled on the floor and picked it up. The feel of the fabric roused a memory newly made, and Harry mocked himself inwardly at the unlikelihood of it all. But he brought it to his nose just the same, breathing deeply before burying his face in its dark folds.
By the time of the Leaving Feast, Harry had yet to trust his traitorous eyes, which would seek out Snape no matter how carefully Harry averted his gaze. So, on his last night at Hogwarts, he tucked his glasses into a small cranny of his packed trunk and proceeded to the Great Hall in a blur, all the better to avoid any inconvenient eyes that might find him. He saw well enough to enjoy this final feast with his friends, but not so well that his enjoyment extended beyond the Gryffindor tables; and if it was unsatisfactory, it was also safe, which was all that mattered to Harry as he prepared to leave the place that had been his home for so many years.
Before there was time for his friends to lure him into one last night of revelry, Harry made his good-nights and slipped away, heading back towards his tower. And as he walked down a brightly moonlit corridor, lost in memories of the boy he had been, he spotted a vague movement in the shadows and turned to look, squinting into the darkness and seeing only black. Harry started on his way again, only to walk into something warm and solid; he looked up and found onyx eyes staring down at him.
“Ha- Mr.-” Snape stuttered, before asking in bewilderment, “What happened to your glasses?
Harry’s mind drew a blank at the sight of his now-former professor, and he answered, “I’m not wearing them.”
“Yes, I see that,” replied Snape, who looked as though he might roll his eyes, were he more certain of his reception.
“What do you want, sir?” Harry asked resignedly, knowing that this was as much as he could be trusted to say.
“I -” Snape began, a light flush rising to his pale face. “I...behaved badly.”
“It’s nothing. Forget about it.” Harry took a step away but did not leave, hoping against hope that Snape might have something more to say. Soon he heard one heel, then another, clap rhythmically against the stone floor as Snape began to pace behind him.
“I wanted to - that is -” Snape started, then spat, “Bugger.” Harry bit back a smile at the uncharacteristic expletive.
The footsteps stilled and Snape spoke again, saying simply, “I apologise.”
Harry nodded, but he did not turn around. “Apology accepted, sir,” he replied, taking another tentative step forward. Snape swooped up behind him to rest a hand on Harry’s shoulder, holding him back, leaning close.
“It occurs to me,” Snape murmured, his voice low, his breath blowing warm against the back of Harry’s neck, “that, for all of our mutual...experiences, we actually know little of one another.”
Harry protested gently, “But sir, I do know you - at least a bit. I know your loyalty and your cruelty. I know that you barely trust, but when you do it’s for life. I know,” he panted softly, finding it hard to catch his breath, “how you taste.”
He turned and faced Snape. “I know that you never drink pumpkin juice, but always take tea - one slice of lemon and a spoon of sugar. You’re quiet at meals, and usually bury yourself in a book - something old. You never use Scourgify on your hands, but always wash them with water and soap. The soap never washes away the stains.” Harry swallowed. “I know a hundred little things.”
He took Snape’s hand in his own and looked down at it, relishing its newly familiar contours, thrilling when it was not pulled away. “I want to know more,” he whispered, his eyes darting up to Snape’s face.
Snape stared with a rare, hungry vulnerability. “No one -” he said softly, shaking his head, “no one has ever -”
Harry’s eyes filled at the confession.
“I do,” he insisted, his voice tight. “So much.”
Cupping Harry’s soft cheek with a calloused hand, Snape wiped a stray tear with his thumb and pulled the boy close. Harry wrapped his arms around Snape’s reedy body, buried his face in his chest and breathed him in.
“I don’t know how...” Snape began, his voice rumbling against Harry’s ear, his fingers digging into the folds of Harry’s cloak. This time, it was Harry who gently extricated himself from the embrace, stepping back with a shy smile. He thought for a moment, then held out his hand and said with a bright blush, “Harry Potter. Pleased to meet you.”
Snape cocked an eyebrow. “You’re an idiot, Potter,” he said, but a smile threatened in spite of the words. He suppressed it with a glower and took the proffered hand in his own, giving it a firm shake before dropping it.
“Severus Snape. A pleasure, I’m sure.”
“I couldn’t help but wonder, Severus,” Harry said with a sly grin, “if you might be free for dinner some night? I know a nice place, not far from here...”
Snape paused, then said, “I could be amenable, Mr. -” stopping short at Harry’s warning glare. “Harry.”
Harry stepped close, rising on tiptoe to brush a soft kiss against Snape’s cool cheek. “Brilliant,” he sighed, then dropped back and took Snape’s hand in his own. “Let’s talk, then,” Harry said, and he led a dumbfounded, but eminently willing, Snape down the corridor, away from the madding crowd behind them.