Snape/Harry. R. ~3300 words. Post-novels. Art by the same name drawn by Ponderosa.
Hesitation is a deadly sin. Snape knows this better than most, and still. Still, he pauses.
The only light huddles around wicks swimming in bowls of greasy tallow and the open firepit dug deep in the room’s centre. The flames stretch long shadow fingers into the deepest corners, where men with harsh eyes exchange grudging whispers amongst themselves.
Snape ignores the prickle of sweat on his scalp from the oppressive heat and makes his way to the back.
“And here I thought you would never grace us with your company again, Severus.” The man he’s come here tonight to meet lets all his words fall into his dented tankard.
Snape holds his tongue. He isn’t here to socialise.
“Ah, but an old wizard has such foolish hopes.” The man lifts his craggy face. The dim light does no favours to the jagged scar that’s claimed half his nose and twisted his mouth into a parody of a grin. “What do you want, boy?”
Inwardly Snape scoffs at the term boy, but tells him, “Information.” He pulls a carefully folded parchment from beneath his robes, takes the protective piece of paper from the centre and lays it flat to the table. Though it’s more than a week old, the bloody design pressed to the sheet glistens in the candlelight. “Tell me what you know of this.”
The old man, who’s had a dozen names but none of them his own, presses one gnarled finger to the tacky parchment. He rubs his thumb and forefinger together thoughtfully.
Impatient, Snape snaps, “Well?”
“I think you know all you need to about this.” The man scrapes the pads of his fingers over the rough-hewn table as if to scrub them clean. “You’re here, after all, aren’t you?”
Snape’s lips curl away from his teeth in a sneer as delicate as his restraint. “Don’t spin your riddles for me, Jonas.” The old man’s flinch is no satisfaction at all. “I’m surprised you’re not wondering how this came to be in my possession.”
The old man, who through the years has sold too many pieces of himself for parlour tricks to rightfully lay claim to, let alone truly remember, the boy named Jonas, points to a black shroud hung like a warning above the door. As Snape watches, it flutters like a pinned butterfly, and he notices for the first time how it absorbs the pitiful light in its endless folds.
“A gift, from someone else with a point to prove.”
Disgusted, Snape reclaims the parchment. He leaves without another word, a blind eye turned to the gazes boring into his back.
When he passes through the door, icy cold fingers of hopelessness scratching at his mind, he barely resists the urge to tear the Dementor’s remains free and crush them underfoot.
The memory is coarse at the edges. Everything is overlaid with hazy blotches of sepia, a photograph clumsily developed by an impatient, jagged hand.
Caught red-handed, the boy didn’t even have the sense of decency to play at shame. He merely glanced up, greenish glow from the potion Snape had been brewing for the better part of a month glinting strangely off his glasses.
“Hello, Professor,” Potter said, mouth quirked insufferably.
“Would you like to explain to me why you’re poking about my private library, in my private quarters, before I have you expelled, or after?” Snape demanded.
“I’m not really just poking about,” Potter said as he straightened from the squat bookcase. “I came here looking for something.”
Fury at the boy’s impertinence battled with Snape’s harsh self-judgement; no one should’ve been able to slip in so quietly, let alone go undisturbed for however long.
“And what might that be?”
Potter cast a slow glance around. His face seemed older here, eyes worn and darkened, something like confusion showing through his usual bravado. “You said once you could put a stopper in death,” he said, finally.
Snape folded his arms across his chest. “I did.”
Tipping his face up, the boy looked older still, weighted. “Can you?”
Snape’s annoyance wavered then. “Get out of here, Potter. Or I will have you expelled faster than you can blink.”
James’s stubbornness flashed back at him through the green of Lily’s eyes. “Should’ve known you couldn’t.”
Wrenching the door open, Snape gestured. With obvious reluctance, Potter shut his impudent mouth and left.
At the threshold, he hesitated, and Snape told him, too much bitterness to make his words sound anything but unkind, “The dead will always remain dead, Potter. Despite how fierce you wish otherwise, the world won’t bow to your whims.”
Opening the gate to the Restricted Section at close to three in the morning reminds Snape of a time when rules were a blessed shield to hide behind. When it was that they turned to something to work around, bend, never outright break in the light of day, he can’t remember.
He needs no permission slip now, but ready on his lips are a dozen reasons that would never have dulled Dumbledore’s piercing, knowing gaze.
He bypasses the rows upon rows of chained, rattling books. Seductive pleas fall on deaf ears; the growls of things unknowable go unheeded. The book he searches for is tiny, scarcely larger than the open spread of his hand.
The cover is blank, as is the spine. It looks to be made of leather, but the skin is warm, sweaty. A second ugly heartbeat grows.
Hello, Professor, the book says.
Snape ignores it just as he ignores all sentient things of power. He listens, quite carefully as he’d be a fool not to, but conversation invites more than just words to dance into his head.
I seem to be quite popular these days.
Inside, there are no words. Faint marks that could be the scratches of a quill or a man’s desperate clawing nails. Nothing legible.
You’re not going to be stingy about this, are you?
Snape fishes a thin glass vial from his robes, the liquid it contains a violently sick yellow. He braces himself for the stench as he uncorks it.
Now, now, now, there’s no need for that. You’ll trap more flies with honey than with bile, Severus.
Hesitation is a deadly sin. Snape knows this better than most, and still. Still, he pauses.
Aha, you see, I know what you seek. And I will give it to you. For a price.
“I see no reason to strike a deal when I posses the means to take what I require,” Snape says to the twisted thing in his grasp.
The thing about free will is that it is willing, it whispers back. The thick pages turn sluggishly. The stench of rotted meat fills Snape’s nostrils, crawls down his throat and nests there, foul and choking. The bindings stretch like old stringy sinew. Give me but a few drops of your willing blood and I will give to you all the things he asked of me.
“One drop,” Snape counters. “One drop and you will tell me exactly what I wish to know, no more, no less.”
The book shudders delightedly.
The memories come to him in dreams, so patchy and faded that he wonders at first if they’re not just dreams after all. They stay strong through the daylight hours, resolve into clearer, harsher pictures over the days that pass as he lets them replay again and again, worrying at them like an itchy scab.
Potter, his eyes blazing defiance, snarled in his face for the hundredth time that none of it was fair.
Snape said, “No more it isn’t. A fact of life you’d best grow accustomed to.”
“Doesn’t all this prove we don’t have to?” he shouted back. “What good is magic if you can’t-”
“Can’t what, Mr. Potter? What spellwork would you use?”
Clamping his lips tight, Potter settled for an insolent glare.
“Simply because you can do something in no way means that you should. Ability does not equal right.”
“That’d be a lot more meaningful if you practiced what you preached, Professor.”
Snape’s head jerked up. The boy never had the respect for authority he should’ve, but there was more than simple disobedience in his voice. There was challenge in it, a goading smugness that rankled.
Beneath all that, in the curve of his mouth and the slant of his eyes, something else.
Catching Potter by the front of his sloppy robes, hauling him upright, Snape growled, “What point are you trying to prove this time, boy?”
“Nothing, Professor,” Potter said, his gaze cutting away. He laid a slim-fingered hand over Snape’s own, silently asking to be released. “Not a thing.”
Snape let him go so quickly he stumbled to his knees.
The centaurs rush him and fan out in a circle, chests heaving, hooves stomping. His fingers ache for the comfort of his wand.
High above, the trees whisper in the wind, the soft groan of their branches almost musical, darkly haunting. The centaurs pound the tight-packed dirt in a rough, driving counterpoint that speeds the pounding of Snape’s pulse.
“Severus Snape,” one says, with surprise in his tone, and Snape turns to face the centaur, searching for the hostility these creatures have borne him since before the mark was burned into his flesh.
They do say a centaur’s speed borders on precognition, after all.
“I’m not here to deal with you,” Snape says, quiet and clear.
The wind rises, a ripple flowing through the centaurs in its wake. The leaves rustle and their pounding rhythm falters. They snort and rear, confusion stealing through their ranks.
“I see,” says the one centaur who deigns speak with the human in their midst. He tests the chill air with a sniff. Shifting from hoof to hoof, he snorts and flicks his tail. “You stink of wrong magic.”
“None of my own doing.”
“And of someone else’s soul.”
The parchment tucked close to Snape’s breast burns. “Again, not of my own doing.”
The sharp crack of wood startles things that aren’t birds from the trees. All around him, the centaurs go deathly still, silent. As one, they melt back into the forest, wary, frightened animals.
The silence that follows is of the grave.
The ground beneath Snape’s feet roils. Dirt rises and falls in sick undulating waves that threaten to bring him to his knees. The trees groan, cascades of rotted leaves tumbling down, bringing the bones of other long-dead things thumping to the ground to be swallowed by the hungry forest floor. Roots break free, surge upwards, bearing grotesque twisted remains dancing into the dark. The roots curl and twine, wrap brittle yellow bones and gristle in a parody of blackened flesh.
We know who you were, the dead things say in voices made from the rub of bark on bone. We can smell him on you.
“Then you know why I’m here,” Snape replies, his throat caked in the dryness of old dirt.
We do, they say, we do, we do, and it echoes through them, fades into the sound of leaves whispers in the breeze.
“Tell me what I wish to know!”
Everything has a price, they snap like saplings broken by winter’s ice. Will you bleed your life into the ground upon which you tread, as he did?
Snape stares into the empty eyesockets of a unicorn’s skull. “No.”
What will you give? they demand, the unicorn’s jaw cracking wide in anger. The things surrounding him begin to quiver, shake. Their voices grow louder, harsher, scratch at the inside of Snape’s skull. The Boy Who Lived, what did he give? We don’t know, we can’t remember, what will you give!
The satchel laced to Snape’s belt weighs far more than it should. He pulls two scraps of black robes from it, one tattered grey and dead, the other dripping thickly with blood. Instantly, the forest quiets, scenting the power clutched in Snape’s hands.
“Your word, first,” Snape tells it.
Yes, they chatter, our word, yes, you have it. Give us them both!
“For all the good it will do you,” Snape says, and throws the repulsive things to his feet.
Bony fingers, rotted, meaty stumps, all clamber for them, and a pleased creaking moan swells the air. The press of the forest about him melts from oppressive to welcoming, warm as a young lover’s embrace.
We will tell you, it whispers, wind softly stirring the hair lank about Snape’s neck. Everything.
The Malfoy’s drawing room still struggles to be great beneath the weight of a changing era. The linens are antique, their age creeping up in a ravel there, a threadbare scuff here. The wood still gleams dark, rich in the firelight, the high ceilings cast in deep shadow to hide the faded papering. The china is delicate in Snape’s hand, the tea flavourful, the quiet of the grand house beyond the hall suspicious.
“I must say,” says Lucius, “I am surprised to see you.”
“No,” Snape counters. “You’re not.”
The corner of Lucius’s mouth quirks on a sharp huff. “Still as rude as ever.”
His lip curls in a slow, dismissive sneer. “What d’you want?”
“It’s nice to see you, too, Draco.”
“And you are still as pretentious, Malfoy. You know very well why I’m here, drinking your… fine tea.”
Lucius settles back in his chair, a picture of casual grace but for the nervous pass of his scarred fingers over the snake-head cane at his side. “Nothing in this world is free, Severus. It’s reassuring to see the price of your dalliances have finally caught up with you.”
“What’s it worth to you? Do I get to watch while you finally make such a mess of things even ol’ Dumbledore would’ve just called it quits?” Another slow, insinuating smile. “Oh, guess he already did, didn’t he.”
“Shut up, Malfoy, and I’ll let you keep your stupid tongue in your head.
“Where is your fine young son these days?” Snape asks, helping himself to more tea. He taps a bare dusting of sugar gently into the cup, takes his time stirring in just the right amount of cream. “He had such promise. If only he’d grown a spine.”
Lucius’s eyes narrow, brow crinkling before being forcibly smoothed over by a fake twist of his mouth. “My, my. Are you truly that fickle? One used up husk after another with you, isn’t it?”
“It won’t do you any good,” he says, fiddling with the drawstrings on the pouch shoved across the rickety table, a nervous habit picked up from his father. “I don’t care how much magic you’ve got stuffed up your arse this time round.”
“How about you let me worry about that, and you worry about what I’ve paid you to do.”
“Might as well just give me the key to that safe of yours.” Draco stands, drains the last of his drink in a move that is meant to cover the shaking of his hand. “See you outside the Ministry, then.”
Snape sets his cup down very precisely. “Not as fickle as the passage of time.” The memory weaving itself into his psyche tells him a different cup had not been treated with near as much care. “I think perhaps I should have a word with your son.”
His footsteps are silent on the smooth stone floor. Each brush of his robes, every breath he takes, dissolves into the air as if it never was. The unnatural chill creeping into his bones serves only to remind him that he has no choice.
The bloodstain at his feet is the colour of old rust. There are clear scratches across the polished surface where someone had tried to scrub it away. The blood has sunk into the stone itself, rooted there by will and intent.
Everything else is gone. He uses his wand to redraw the chalky lines, following the array stamped clearly in his borrowed memories. The candles he sets at the focus points are squat, yellowed with time.
Shrugging his robe off his shoulders to let the cool air kiss sweet relief to the marks scored into his back, Snape kneels.
The voice, when it comes, is painfully real.
“What’re you doing, Professor?”
Snape keeps his eyes on the guttering of a candle, lips moving in the words whispered to him by a dead dragon’s skull.
“Professor?” A slight hint of worry, disbelief. “You shouldn’t-”
Daring for a moment to break his chant, Snape says, “Hush.”
The voice says, with a soft touch of amusement, “When has that ever worked?” When Snape simply continues, sweat stinging the slices that open on his forearms to match the wounds on his back, it says, “I don’t want you to do this.”
The smell of Snape’s blood is tinged with something foreign, old. “Unfortunately, you lack a choice.”
“I do?” it asks, and with the chant echoing back on itself without the help of Snape’s voice, Snape lifts his gaze from the rich fresh red spreading steadily along stark white lines.
The veil swirls with a lack of colour so much deeper than mere black. The memory of a young man stands outside it, gradually taking shape as Snape’s blood flows.
“For now,” Snape says. The tips of his fingers are numb as he reaches for his wand.
“I-” the shadow stops, confused. Without prompting, it moves towards the veil, touching transparent fingertips to the vast nothing. It gasps, as if hurt, and snatches its hand away. “I don’t want to do this. Why?”
Snape holds his dripping wrist above the sigils to his left. After the first drop strikes home, his blood flows faster, drawn down for the greedy stones to drink. The old bloodstain grows brighter, welling fresh to the surface.
Reality crackles, sharpens to a keen knife edge. The shade is yanked into the emptiness, green eyes wide and shock-bright as it’s trapped inside. The heavy weight bowing Snape’s back abruptly lifts, thoughts and memories whisked away to where they rightfully belong.
Finally, it’s Harry snarling obscenities at him, beating a fist against the veil that separates the dead from the living.
“If I’ve told you once,” Snape breathes, his lungs fighting each the draw of breath, “I’ve told you a thousand times, Potter.” The world slants and Snape falls forward, catches himself on the palms of his hands in the pool of Harry’s blood the stone rejects in favour of his own. “You’re too used to breaking the rules to get what you want. You should’ve-”
The pressure bearing Snape to the ground vanishes as the veil snaps. Through the sweat-soaked fall of his hair, he sees the nothing release its hold on Harry’s soul, feels his own flesh diminish in exchange for a body for it to inhabit.
“You should’ve kept your memories to yourself,” Snape tries again, hearing the words echo inside his own head and hoping they make it past his cracked lips. “If you didn’t want this to happen.”
Harry steps into their mixed blood, old and new, and pulls Snape’s wand from dead fingers. He drops carefully to his knees, shoulders Snape’s weight as he reaches around, and lays his hand, fingers spread wide, directly in the raw mess of Snape’s back.
Where there was no pain before it bursts to vicious life, Snape’s body convulsing with it, his grudging screams muffled in the warmth of Harry’s shoulder. The weight of the life he’d gladly given up rushes back, crushing his soul without mercy, pinning it in his body. With it comes Harry’s memories, thoughts, feelings, all crowding in his head, suffocating him with their strength.
“One shared half-life is better than none at all,” Harry says, the shallow beat of his heart echoing steadily in Snape’s chest.