Hogwarts is empty – emptier than empty, since it doesn’t exist now and can’t be filled – empty with the ghostly owls chasing ghostly mice in the Owlery, and the shadows in the library where the books once were, and the transparent silhouettes of house elves baking bread in the kitchen. If Harry went up to Gryffindor Tower, he’d find the ghostly figures of students from past years playing Exploding Snap and scribbling the wrong answers in their essays, he’d see his younger self curled in the armchair by the fire, he’d see Ron and Hermione as they bickered and held hands. If he went to the Defense against the Dark Arts classroom, he’d see the shadow of Remus still there with his patient smile and his tattered robes, his tanks of Grindylows fighting for space with the preening shadow of Lockhart and the ghostly thumping sound of Moody’s wooden leg.
Harry doesn’t ask if the castle is reading the memories from his mind or if it has stored the memories in its stones, doesn’t ask if the ghosts are real, doesn’t go to Gryffindor Tower or the classrooms or the kitchens. Madam Pomfrey comes in the mornings and spreads vile-smelling salves over his leg, helps him to stretch it and teaches his muscles how to function again, and afterwards she floats him down to the dungeons with no detours. Harry isn’t sure if he’s relieved or disappointed – there are ghosts here in the Hogwarts-that-doesn’t-exist that he longs to see again, ghosts that he dreads meeting, memories that he doesn’t care to remember.
This echo of Hogwarts, this building that once was and someday will be again, is removed from time and Madam Pomfrey and Snape must be seeing their own ghosts, their own memories. Harry thinks that it’s best not to ask, best not to see the vertical crease that forms between Madam Pomfrey’s eyebrows when she frowns, best not to deal with Snape’s silence, a silence worse than any of the man’s cutting words.
Harry never knew that anything was worse than Snape’s vituperative tirades, but here – in the quiet days that stretch one into the other like an unpleasant flavor of taffy, in the company of only Snape and Madam Pomfrey – here, things are different. In this Hogwarts that doesn’t exist, it’s an elaborate game with unspoken rules. Harry pretends that he never saw Snape cast that Killing Curse on the tower and Snape pretends that he doesn’t spend the days brewing Dreamless Sleep and the evenings holding Harry to ward off the nightmares that come despite the potion. Harry pretends that there’s a chance that he will walk again, that his mangled leg will be whole again, and Snape pretends that he doesn’t see the expression on Harry’s face after the therapy sessions. Neither of them addresses the other’s ghosts.
Madam Pomfrey floats Harry down to the dungeons, and Snape has a tray of snakeskin ready to be chopped into thin strips, the almost iridescent color of the scales somehow brighter in the dungeon light. The dungeon light mutes everything else – Snape’s dark eyes, his potions-stained fingers, his yellowed teeth, the glow of the flames under Snape’s cauldrons.
Snape is at his desk, a stack of parchments surrounding him. “Hello, Poppy,” he says. There is an ink smudge on his nose, black against his pale skin. “I need a copy of Wiggleworth’s compendium of Black Forest herbs and the book that he wrote on sleeping potions.”
“You’ll get them,” Madam Pomfrey says. “Do you need anything else?”
“Just the usual.” She leaves with promises to find the books as soon as possible, with reminders to be careful when altering the Dreamless Sleep potion because some of the potions that Harry is taking are cross-reactive, and when she leaves, it’s as though a part of the outside world had blown in and out of their quiet lives, their ghostly existence. They’re frozen here, Harry knows, in some sort of stasis or ghost-life as though they’ve been erased, the rest of the world forgetting them and forgetting Hogwarts.
Harry is cutting the snakeskin, focusing on holding the knife steady, ignoring the occasional twitches and trembles in his muscles. There’s a noise behind him, a sort of crackling sound, and Harry’s shoulders tense, ruining a piece of snakeskin when his hand spasms. The noise reminds him of one of the spells that hit Hermione in the last battle, an electric-blue crackle that arched through the air and caught her robes and hair on fire. He’s jumpy and it isn’t until he ruins three more pieces of snakeskin that Snape remembers to turn on the wireless.
There’s nothing much on the wireless, just advertisements for Gladrags and Bertie Botts and the Weasley’s Wheezes, but it’s a connection to a world that’s bright and fast-paced and full of things that are solid and colorful and not half-ghost, quiet and unreal. Harry’s hand spasms again when he hears Fred’s voice on the wireless and the knife slices open his palm, a splash of red falling on the snakeskin.
“That’s the entire batch wasted,” Snape says, turning off the wireless and coming to stand behind Harry. His fingers are cold and while he bandages the wound, Harry’s shoulders shake. The spasms start to run down his vertebrae, and Snape wraps his arms around Harry. Snape’s robe is soft, the frayed hems of his sleeves tickling Harry’s neck, and the tremors slow and then at last they stop.
Snape says nothing when he steps away from Harry and returns to his research at the desk – this is another one of the things that lie unspoken between them, Harry pretending that his nerves are undamaged, Snape pretending that he hasn’t given any comfort to his most hated student.
Harry switches from the snakeskin to the mortar and pestle that lie next to the dried feverfew. Some days he can’t manage the motor coordination necessary to handle a knife, but Snape never comments on the unfinished work, never berates him for the mangled ingredients.
On days like today, when listening to the wireless is too painful for Harry, Snape fills the emptiness with a soft hum, tuneless but not unpleasant. Harry looks up from his work to watch the man’s lips, the touch of the dark quill against Snape’s lips when he pauses in his humming.
Harry bends to the mortar and pestle again. Harry pretends he doesn’t need the silence to be filled with noise, Snape pretends that he isn’t humming for Harry’s benefit.
The crackling sound echoes through the dungeons again and this time, Harry identifies it. He’d heard it as a child, the noise of wrappers rustling as Dudley tore into a new packet of crisps or a candy bar, the noise of Aunt Petunia unpacking the groceries in the kitchen. A twitch runs down Harry’s spine and he shudders.
“Is that plastic?” he asks.
Snape looks up from his book. “Plastic? That Muggle abomination? Don’t be ridiculous.”
Harry returns to crushing the dried feverfew, but at length the muscles in his shoulders tighten and the pestle grows heavy. He sets it aside, hears the crackle again through the noise of Snape’s humming.
“That’s the sound of plastic, I know it is,” Harry says and then he wonders if he’s broken one of the bricks in their wall of pretense, but Snape doesn’t stop humming and as long as there is no silence between them, Harry knows that he can’t be angry.
“It’s none of your business if it is plastic or not, Potter,” Snape says at last. He marks his place in the book and comes over to move Harry to the couch. Unlike Madam Pomfrey, who floats Harry through the air when she needs to move him, Snape bends down and picks Harry up in his arms, and if the ride is a little bumpier, Harry doesn’t mind. The feeling of Snape’s arms wrapped around him always stops the trembling in his muscles.
Snape wraps a blanket around Harry’s legs and makes tea. Snape’s tea is always too strong and bitter and he adds milk and sugar to Harry’s cup. Harry doesn’t thank him and Snape doesn’t mention the time that Harry tried to fix his own tea and upset the entire tray onto his lap, scalding himself with the hot liquid.
One of the castle’s memories flits into the room, ghostly and insubstantial, but it’s a young Ginny Weasley in school robes, her hair tied back from her face, her freckles translucent in the dungeon light, and Harry looks away from her. He can’t bear to deal with any of the memories today.
Snape watches him for a moment and then sets his tea cup down and returns to his desk. Blowing on the hot tea, Harry tries to ignore the silence that has fallen onto the room, tries not to react to it, but his shoulders are trembling by the time Snape has returned.
Snape flicks his wand at the tea that slopped onto the blanket, cleaning away the mess, and he puts a hand on Harry’s shoulder, calming the tremors. The teacup is taken out of Harry’s hands and Snape gives him a small plastic packet. The plastic crackles when Harry opens it to find a coil of black licorice, and he breaks off a piece and lets the almost-bitter taste of it seep into his tongue. Snape has already turned away and gone to turn on the wireless when Harry looks up at him, and now there’s another brick in the invisible wall of pretense that they’re building together.