Severus Snape tromps through the white drifts, disregarding the ice that pours into his boots and the wetness that doggedly claws up the back of his robes. He is a black spot in a world of grey. Flurries of dusty snow hurry him along, dancing at his ankles. He is no stranger to the cold or the discomfort and he takes it in stride now, tugging his hood so it hugs the sides of his face. It better hides the mountain of scar tissue that deforms his lower neck and upper shoulder.
The warmth of the castle is bizarre in the landscape and it takes him a moment to trust it. The students have flocked back to their families for the Christmas holidays and it is obvious the cavernous halls miss the sounds of feet scurrying through them. Now it only has minute scuffs and distant coughs to echo back at him.
Severus keeps his hood up around his face as he makes his way to his rooms. This part of the castle knows solace almost as well as he does.
"Back, you scurvy dog!"
Severus blinks and looks up to find a squat little knight thrusting a shaking sword out at him. A fat pony whose knees and belly are competing to see who can get closest to the ground is peacefully asleep under the nearest tree.
The knight from the painting seems affronted by his inability to hold Severus' attention and he brandishes his sword wildly, puffing out his chest. "I am the guard of these rooms and no one enters without my consent!"
Severus realizes he will have to speak to this mouthy little impediment and that puts a scowl on his face the way nothing else can these days. "These rooms mine," he growls and his voice twists through his gouged throat like smoke and ash and things long dead. The sound of it churns his stomach and he glares with black eyes at the shocked knight. "Puffed up, useless—" he begins.
The knight jumps back and his leg kicks his fat pony in the head. It brays angrily at him. Severus can hear his armor knocking together as he shakes. "You sound like death," he accuses and his eyes are wide and scared under his visor. He pushes himself up to stand straight and there is only a slight tremor in his voice when he speaks again. "As knight of this castle, I refuse you entrance into these rooms."
Severus' teeth grind together. "Why you—"
"Severus?" Both Snape and the wretched little knight jump. The pony has quickly fallen asleep again. Severus turns to find Draco walking up to him, a look of muted concern on his face. His grey eyes flick from Snape's up to the painting. His head tilts to the side. "Are you arguing with a portrait?"
At the start of the new school year, Severus had resigned himself to having to speak to Draco. The boy was working as his assistant, gathering his ingredients, helping his students and giving his lectures so it had to be done. That didn't mean that Severus didn't keep things as brusque as possible.
His shoulders hunch up involuntarily as they always do when it is Draco he has to use his ravaged voice with. He bites out, "Well-deserved."
Draco's eyes squint at him, as though he is looking for something deeper than Severus' skin. He sighs and glances away and Severus wonders if he has found what he was looking for. "Codswallop," he decides on finally.
Severus' hands curl into fists at his sides. "Hell it is," he gets out, his dark voice shaking.
Draco blinks wide eyes at him, looking confused. "Codswallop is the password," he informs him slowly.
Patchy red fills Severus' cheeks and he ducks his head lower hoping Draco won't notice the stain of blood darkening his sallow skin. Thankfully, the lousy little knight pulls his attention away. "I'll have to change it now you've given it away," he reprimands Draco stoutly.
Draco rolls his eyes and turns on his heel. Severus catches him by the elbow and tries to whisper, "Thank you." It comes out harsh and violent but Draco politely pretends it doesn't, his Malfoy breeding showing through.
Draco smiles at him, looking relieved somehow, and says genuinely, "Any time."
Severus is leaving winding puddles in his wake as he returns from collecting frozen bowtruckles. He stops cold as he sees who is standing outside his rooms, carrying on an intense discussion with the obnoxious knight that refuses him entrance into his own rooms, and then challenges him to a duel each time he leaves.
"Draco," Severus says, trying to curb the darkness in his voice some so it won't startle the boy.
It seems to have worked as Draco turns around smoothly with a curt, "Severus."
Severus gestures to their surroundings with an elbow. "Why here?"
Draco's smile is sharp and dangerous. "I was just discussing a few things with Sir Cadogan here."
The knight, Cadogan apparently – Severus hadn't taken the time to learn his name, looks horribly put out. "Apparently you are the rightful master of these rooms," he grumbles. He shares a look with Draco as though searching for confirmation and, at Draco's nod, he throws out his chest and says robustly, "Though I still reserve the right to refuse entry to all other unauthorized guests."
"Yes, you do," Draco agrees and the little knight looks exceptionally pleased with himself.
Severus scowls and pulls Draco aside. What would previously have been a hiss is now a low rumble in his throat. "I do not need babysitter."
Draco takes a step back from him with a frown and looks disappointed. He says in a softness that Severus' voice can no longer reach, "I wasn't acting like one."
He walks away without looking back, leaving Severus feeling rather wrong-footed though he hasn't the foggiest as to why.
Severus is so deeply immersed in his Potions text that it takes him a moment to notice the pacing that is happening above his head. His dark eyes flick upward and he notices the horrid knight from outside his rooms has broken his way into the snowy landscape of one of Severus' paintings. How he has missed the creak of his armor as he shuffles back and forth is a mystery to him. But, then, Severus had always been able to shut out the world with a book.
"Get out," he growls at him carelessly.
The knight doesn't seem to notice he's spoken. His hand is resting on the hilt of his sword as though he's aching for a reason to unleash it. He stops pacing and pushes up his visor to stare at Severus properly. "The halls outside your rooms are so well guarded that no one even bothers passing by any longer." His voice sounds terribly petulant and Severus hides a grin behind the edge of his book.
He is about to respond when the round little pony pokes his head around the edge of the frame. He is snuffling into the snow at an ambling pace. He looks up, spots Cadogan, and gleefully moseys around in a circle like a dog making its bed and flops down with a great whump. It is, without doubt, the oddest equestrian behavior Severus has ever seen.
Cadogan stomps his way over to the pony, his metal foot cuffs kicking up powdery fine snow, and Severus almost thinks he means to kick the animal before he turns and slides down next to it, resting his back against the pony's impressive belly. The action makes his visor fall down over his eyes again and he struggles with it for a moment before he finally manages to wrench the cold metal back open.
The entire scene is painfully absurd. He and Cadogan are staring wordlessly at one another before Severus finally guesses from Cadogan's previous statement, "Bored?"
Cadogan struggles to his feet, slipping on the ice beneath the snow and grabbing onto the pony's neck so as not to face plant into the drift in front of him. "Impossible," he argues with great offense. "A knight is always on guard for the first sign of danger." He withdraws his sword as though to punctuate the thought.
Severus leans back in his seat and realizes he is feeling rather bored himself. He marks his page and sets his book aside, his chess set staring back at him now that there is no longer anything to distract him. It's been set since before the war began, simply waiting for an opponent.
Severus stares down at the immobile soldiers and says cleanly, "Pawn, e4."
Cadogan grins and leans over the edge of the frame to get a better look.
The students have returned from their break and the day is longer than Severus remembers it being. He's weary and that allows Draco to get closer to him than Severus has let him – let anyone – get in ages. His finger hooks into Severus' scarf and he pulls it down to reveal the mottled skin beneath. Draco frowns and says, "You always hide it now. You didn't used to."
Severus pulls away and yanks the scarf up again, his back tight and his voice stiff and almost unusable in his tense state. "Disfigurements—should—be—hidden." It is a monumental effort to get the words out as his throat feels like it means to close up.
Draco's frown becomes more pronounced and there is pity in his eyes that Severus can't stand the look of. "It's a war wound, Severus," he says with a great heft of feeling. "At the very least, you should be proud of it."
Severus stares at Draco's back as he gathers up his notes and the familiar image of Draco's bloody chest, of the boy's own war wounds, pushes its way into his head. Severus shoves the thought away angrily and presses his scarf tighter to his neck with a gangly hand.
Severus wakes in a cold sweat, panic and fear eating away at his insides from a nightmare he can no longer remember in the present dark. A single yellow light winks back at him through the blackness and, as Severus' eyes adjust, he recognizes the glint of fire off a shiny pelt and polished armor.
Cadogan's suit makes a creaking sound as his head shifts up to stare back into Snape's haunted eyes while he warms his hands over his manmade fire pit, his pony curled up behind his back. "You called out for the boy in your sleep," he tells him from across the room. His face is in shadow. "Draco, you said."
Shock slithers down Severus' spine but he quickly shakes it away. His mouth twists into a scowl and he barks, "Out."
Cadogan doesn't pay him any mind. Instead he looks pointedly down at the chess set, wagging his finger at it. Their game from the previous night is still unfinished as Cadogan had backed himself into a corner he'd yet to figure a way out of. His armor squeaks as he raises a shoulder in a nonchalant gesture. "Perhaps you should ask him to a game."
Cadogan's suggestion won't leave him and it has Severus awkwardly hovering around Draco's shoulder as their last lesson of the day ends. It doesn't take Draco long to notice. "Severus?"
Severus wants to clear his throat but the sickening sound it makes stays him. Instead he says as coolly as his wrecked voice allows, "Chess?"
Draco's smile is as bright as the sun that's currently sparkling off the snow banks. So bright that it's almost blinding. "I'd like that," he says as he bends down to pick up a few supplementary Potions books. His robes slip down his chest and the pearled edge of a scar Severus knows intimately peeks out at him.
Draco stands again but the wound is still there and Severus is powerless to do anything but stare at it. "I think about the day, the scars," he says and he makes himself look up at Draco before the words are out. His voice is ragged from the length of his sentence and it fades in and out as he draws breath in the wrong places. Draco is staring blankly back at him as though he can't find the start of the thought that has brought him to this. Severus swallows and it hurts all the way down. "I think if I had been harder to find."
It seems like it is an effort for Draco not to react. He places the edges of his fingers on Severus' wrist and says calmly, "I'm here. I'm safe. Because of you."
Severus' hand reaches up for the collar of his robes involuntarily as Draco's dirt and tear-streaked face in the dusty room of the Shrieking Shack all those months ago comes back to him. He forces out the words, "I—because of you."
Severus can't place the look on Draco's face but, if he had to guess it, he would have said touched.
It's another night before Draco actually takes him up on his offer of chess and Severus quickly realizes that Draco is a more than worthy opponent. Cadogan makes bold and daring gambles on the board that sometimes pay off, but more often than not lead to quick checkmates and impressive tantrums. Draco, by contrast, is thoughtful in his moves and he seems to have almost infinite patience. Severus likes to watch the quiet concentration on his handsome face when Draco's turns come around.
That is what he is staring at unblinkingly when Draco catches him off guard with: "You don't like the sound of your voice, do you?" It doesn't seem like the question is meant for Severus, but more like a thought spoken aloud so one can better deconstruct it. Draco leans back in his seat and Severus realizes play won't continue until the conversation is had. "You shorten everything and you're gruffer than I remember."
Severus twists his face away. "Not talk about this," he bites out. He's embarrassed and feeling ambushed and he knows Cadogan is likely watching them without the slightest hint of shame.
Draco eases forward with his elbows on his knees and he says with frank sincerity, "I like the way your voice sounds."
Severus stares down at the board, eager for his gaze to be anywhere that isn't Draco. His black and oily hair drapes the sides of his face like a curtain nearly pulled closed and it helps him to hide. His lips curve to the side in a knowing smirk, though the expression doesn't mirror his emotions in the least. "Ugly," he manages to say.
Draco looks almost amused as he shakes his head. "No, it isn't." Severus glares up at him but Draco doesn't seem all that interested in his reaction, as though he isn't saying this for Severus' benefit at all. "It's different, low and dangerous and easily off-putting." Severus' shoulders tense but Draco isn't finished. "But if you listen to it, if you find the truth of it beneath the coarseness and the snarls, it's nothing short of beautiful."
Severus doesn't think they're talking about his voice anymore and he looks up to find Draco staring at him with a warmth in his wintery eyes that Severus has never seen there before. He moves his queen into foreign territory and a shiver steals down his spine.
Severus doesn't invite Draco to finish their game. He diligently avoids him in the halls. He is politely standoffish during lessons. Eventually Draco stops looking at him with a mix of sad curiosity. In fact, he stops looking at him at all. He stops asking to finish what they've started. He stops trying to catch him alone. He stops attempting to engage him in conversation. He acquiesces to Severus' unspoken embargo on their growing friendship and, though Draco seems more subdued of late, no one else notices the strain between them.
No one but Cadogan.
"You're in love," he says as Severus slaves over his next move.
His jaw clenches and he can feel the words beating against the backs of his eyes. "Enough," he snarls out.
But Cadogan doesn't seem to be listening. "There was a girl in the village bordering mine, Jacqueline was her name." He draws out the 'een' at the end of her name with a sigh. He leans back into his whuffing pony and smiles into his memories. "She wore a ring of daisies around her head like a halo. She'd go to the field behind my father's home and braid a new one each morning."
Severus rolls his eyes. "Fascinating."
Cadogan isn't dissuaded by his lack of interest however. He is lost to the reminiscence now. He holds his hands out in front of his face. The snow in the scenery is melting, just as the snow outside is, and it is comfortable enough that he doesn't need gloves. "Her skin was warm," he says, "like a well-ridden saddle."
Severus snorts and shoves his rook forward three spaces. "Poetic."
Cadogan struggles up onto his knees and leans forward to stare down at the top of Severus' head. "You want to know what the Draco boy's skin feels like," he says, and it almost sounds like an accusation. He slips in an icy puddle as he struggles to sit back and his pony squeals as he grabs onto its mane. Cadogan absentmindedly pats its cheek as he settles down onto his backside again and the pony seems mollified. "I bet it's cool like clotted cream," he tells Severus thoughtfully.
Snape's lips purse. "Analogies need work."
Cadogan stabs a righteous finger into the air. "Writing is for those limp of wrist and weak of spirit." He beats his chest plate. "War is the only poetry worth writing."
Cadogan yawns and Severus realizes the time. He retires for the evening, leaving their game unfinished, and he is sliding under his bedcovers when Cadogan's voice slips across the darkness in insinuating fashion. "You should tell him," it says. "I never told Jacqueline." He still says her name with that same reverence. Severus isn't sure he could say it without it. Cadogan's voice drops a decibel and he says with strident honesty, "It was the greatest regret of my life."
Severus chokes down his genuine response to that and instead offers a mordant, "For someone despises poetry, spout a lot of it."
Cadogan's only response is a hearty laugh.
Draco comes by his rooms for the first time since their chess match and he looks weary. Severus wants to shuffle him inside, offer him a warm cup of tea and a place to rest but that way lay madness. Draco shoves a stack of lesson plans at him and he barely waits for Severus' hand to close around them before he makes to leave.
"You there, boy!" Cadogan is running into his original portrait, calling after Draco, and Draco turns, looking at him with utter disinterest. Severus glares at him but Cadogan ignores it.
"Yes?" Draco says with a bored expression.
"He's miserable," Cadogan says, jerking his chin in Severus' direction. "He pretends he isn't but he's miserable."
"Incendio you," Severus threatens, unable to believe this little painting's daring.
Draco's eyes soften almost imperceptibly for a moment as he looks at Cadogan. They ease back into empty and tired so quickly that Severus almost wonders if he imagined it. "I don't believe that's any of my concern any longer," Draco says with distinct sadness before he walks away without so much as a glance at Severus.
It makes Severus realize that he can't remember the last time that Draco really looked at him and a wave of something a lot like grief overwhelms him. He leans back against the door to his rooms, rubbing a hand over his eyes.
"I'm sorry," comes from above him.
Severus looks up and growls out angrily, "How did get so idiotically brash?"
Cadogan drops down into sitting Indian style, his armor jutting out awkwardly, and Severus watches with muted amazement as his pony saunters into frame, chomping at the patches of grass that are in his path. Cadogan can't seem to choose his response and Severus watches him in his indecision for a long moment. Finally he perks up and says, "I like to think of myself as plucky."
Severus' laughter is the worst thing his ruined voice produces, he thinks. It's destruction and death made sound. Still, he can't help its emergence at thinking of the little knight as 'plucky.' He can't deny that it's a somewhat accurate description of him either.
Cadogan clears his throat to get his attention and says seriously, "Stop chasing him away."
Severus shakes his head. "Better this way."
"For whom?" Cadogan asks and Severus doesn't answer. Cadogan frowns down at him and says, "You'll never know if he loves you if you don't let him try."
"Never know if he can't either," Severus snaps and that is the end of the conversation.
Severus is easing into bed when Cadogan says it, likely the most personal, the most closely guarded something he has. "I died a coward." Severus turns to walk across the cold floor and settles into the seat across from Cadogan's stolen painting without a break in his actions, as though that was also what he'd meant to do.
Even Cadogan's fat pony has lifted its head and is staring at him with unfaltering concentration. Severus hadn't known the animal was capable of that kind of focus – or of opening its eyes that wide. Cadogan is leaning back against the only tree close enough to see its individual branches and sharpening a stick down to a point with a knife he keeps in a holster down by his ankle. He's staring at it unblinkingly.
Severus doesn't prod or stare at him. Instead he looks out the window where the snow is lightly falling just as it is in the painting. It's so fine that Severus thinks there will be no sign of it come morning.
"I was hiding in a farmhouse," Cadogan says and his voice lilts and twists with the falling snow, "with a mother and her child when the resistance found me." There's something solemn about the white on black outside his window, about dimming the world down to its basest colors. "I was run through before I could even raise my sword. I took them with me, the little girl and her mother. That's why I am brash and stirring for a fight because, when it mattered, I wasn't."
Severus doesn't know if Cadogan is looking at him or the point of his stake. He doesn't think it matters. A sweeping cold runs through the room and Severus squares his shoulders against it. He clenches his jaw and says, "Why tell me?"
From his periphery, Severus can see Cadogan shrug. "You asked."
And Severus realizes he did. Somehow, he doesn't think that's all of the answer. They sit in silence for a long while and only when Severus starts to stand does Cadogan give him the rest of it.
"Because you're playing the coward now. I know," he says with a grim smile, "a coward always recognizes his own."
It takes Severus what feels like ages to find Draco. He is standing outside by the lake, his arms crossed over his chest as though he can physically hold in his body heat. Severus is right and last night's snow hasn't stuck, but it's hardly warm enough for the cloak Draco has chosen either.
The water is beginning to thaw and the ice is floating aimlessly on the glassy surface. Severus turns to Draco, taking in the dark circles under his eyes. Draco doesn't look back. "If I asked you to go to Hogsmeade with me, what would you say?" Severus makes himself say it as it is meant to be said and his voice shorts out like an interrupted Muggle broadcast and he's nearly panting at the length of it.
Draco is the only person who doesn't seem to be holding back a flinch at the sound of it. He is the only person who doesn't notice or care about the breaks in his words or the roughness of his tone. He is the only person who can love it for exactly what it is. And that is completely intoxicating.
If Draco were to take that away, Severus isn't sure he can recover from the loss. But he is no longer willing to let the fear of losing something stop him from having it.
He is no coward.
Draco's lip twitches and Severus' breath catches somewhere around his diaphragm. Draco's face doesn't slip its stoniness as he says, "Will you make me go to Madam Puddifoot's?"
Severus' laugh breaks free of him and Draco's cold mask crumbles as his mouth curves into a glorious smile. He doesn't seem disgusted by the sound of Severus' amusement and it only seems to increase his own. Severus looks away with a sharp grin and says unflinchingly, "Yes."
Draco barks out a laugh and touches the side of Severus' cheek, his pinky finger dipping down just low enough to touch the ridge of his spidery scar. He stares into Severus' eyes with a gaze warm enough to melt the ice inside of him. "Then yes," he says brilliantly. "Yes."