Seven months after the Battle in which Voldemort was vanquished, Death Eaters, snatchers, and key supporters of the pureblood mania and wizarding superiority that formed the core philosophy of Voldemort's attempt at world domination were still at large, though the threat was clearly diminishing. For the most part, the wizarding and Muggle worlds were settling down, reassured by wizarding Britain's Ministry of Magic and Muggle Britain's Prime Minister that the worst was over, and that they could get on with life as it had been before the final year of Voldemort's power. And for the most part, that worked quite well: on the whole, people were much, much safer than they had been, prior to this past May third.
Unbeknownst to most of the wizarding world, the Ministry still searched frantically for some of the most dangerous of Voldemort's followers, and kept a close eye on suspects… and on Harry. Too many death threats, curses, and poisons mingled with the congratulations and statements of gratitude that still poured in for Harry and other key figures in the fight against Voldemort. All incoming post to those individuals was screened by a sizeable team of Ministry workers in the Curse Detection Department, including Bill Weasley, pulled in from duties abroad. It was primarily Harry who was at risk, and in the weeks leading up to the holiday, there had been a spike in activity, threats cleverly enough concealed in well-wishes and Christmas presents that had passed through several levels of detection before being caught by Bill, who was particularly dedicated to guaranteeing Harry's safety.
So virulent were the most recent curses and poisons, and so credible the threats, that the Ministry had deemed it too dangerous for Harry to leave Hogwarts for the holidays. And truthfully, he did not mind all that much. The thought of being at the Burrow, with Fred absent for the first Christmas in twenty years, and the grief that was bound to pervade the Weasley home, made him uneasy… which made him feel guilty… which increased his unease, in a cycle he was having trouble calling a halt to. Hermione would spend the first part of the holiday at her parents' home, but then the Grangers would travel to the Burrow, a special floo connection having been arranged by the Department of Magical Transportation, so that she and Ron could welcome the new year together. If Harry attended, the danger would have accompanied him.
Grimmauld Place, of course, was out of the question. Not only would Harry have been achingly lonely, banging around the empty mansion, kept company solely by Kreacher and the crushingly painful memory of Remus, Tonks, and Sirius, but the old Order headquarters was still not safe. Grimmauld fell far below Hogwarts, the Ministry itself, Gringotts, Godric's Hollow, Diagon Alley as a whole, Hogsmeade, and various locations around Muggle England on the priority list of places to be cleansed of dark influences, particularly as Harry was not in residence, having followed half his year group back to Hogwarts for an attempt at their previously disastrous – or non-existent, in the trio's case - final year.
And, of course, Privet Drive would never be home for him again… nor would he have been welcome there, had he dared show up on the doorstep.
So Harry remained at Hogwarts for Christmas once more. He had spent only two Christmases elsewhere, since becoming a student – one at Grimmauld Place with the Weasleys, the year Mr. Weasley had been bitten by Nagini, and last year – the visit to Godric's Hollow, his parents' grave, and Bathilda Bagshot – or what he and Hermione had thought was Bathilda. Usually, though, Ron managed to stay at Hogwarts with him, for one reason or another. Hermione, too. But they needed their families this year, and he could not – and did not – begrudge either of them that comfort.
He also had no need for presents. One evening, the week before the students left for Hogsmeade Station and the journey back to King's Cross, the former members of the DA met in the restored Room of Requirement for a quiet celebration and remembrance of their own.
"What do you want for Christmas, Harry?" Hermione asked during a lull between dinner and pudding, catered by the House Elves with Headmistress McGonagall's blessing.
Harry smiled and shook his head. "I don't need presents, Hermione." He stretched his arms wide to take in the whole room. "I have the best present I could ever have wanted. I have all of you. I don't think I'll need any other Christmas present, ever." He continued smiling as others responded.
"Hear, hear, Harry!"
"Me, too, mate." That last from Ron, who reached behind Hermione to grab Harry's shoulder, while his other hand sought George's.
"Hear, hear, Harry," George echoed quietly. He had allowed Ron to drag him from the store to attend.
Nevertheless, Harry woke to a few brightly-wrapped packages at the foot of his bed that morning – small things, he was glad to see, and limited, by Ministry decision, with Harry's heartfelt agreement, to gifts from his known friends, and some of the faculty. Hagrid had made him a flute from the reeds growing at the western edge of the Black Lake. Hermione broke from tradition again, and gave him a collection of the highest quality healing potions, made specifically for Harry, according to the enclosed card. Ron's gift was a portable chess set, Harry's old one having been lost in the chaos of the past year. Mrs. Weasley sent her traditional gift, and he observed that her knitting had improved hugely. Neville and Luna supplied him with chocolates, their friendship making it reasonable for them to chip in together in present-giving this year. McGonagall gifted him a warm tartan blanket for his bed, and Flitwick a book of unique charms not taught at Hogwarts. Sprout, who was not at school for the holiday, left him a heart's ease plant for his bedside table. Trelawney mixed him a special tea, spiced with cinnamon and valerian, for warmth and comfort.
The last present was a long, thin, ebony box that held a silver charm on a length of dark, braided leather. The small card tucked inside was inscribed in a nearly-illegible scrawl: "For protection." Harry's fingers traced the design carved into the cover of the box. A phoenix. He examined the charm again. One side bore an engraved phoenix feather, the other, the Tree of Life. The charm pulsed with magic in his palm, suffused him with a sense of calm and safety. Without another thought, he slipped the cord over his neck, and settled the charm against his skin, under his shirt. He closed his eyes as he felt the mantle of protection settle over him, familiar and warm, feeling something like… hope.
Christmas breakfast was quiet and peaceful. Harry was the only student who had stayed for the holiday, and several faculty members had also gone home to family. McGonagall, Hagrid, Flitwick, and Trelawney were at the table when he arrived, so not even all the faculty who had stayed were up and about… or they were taking breakfast in their own quarters, more likely. He exchanged a quiet "Happy Christmas" with those at the table, and thanked each of them for their gifts. They, in turn, thanked him for his. Lacking inspiration, and feeling shy about gifting his professors anything, he'd settled on the various flavors of spirits each of them enjoyed, which he was old enough to purchase for the first time. McGonagall invited him up to her office for tea in the afternoon, though the twinkle in her eye suggested something else might be on offer. He accepted with a grin, and tucked into his breakfast.
He spent the early part of the day wandering the castle, restless, though he couldn't put his finger on the reason. Lacking direction, he decided to really look as he wandered, and tallied the places where new blended with old as the magic of the castle accepted and integrated the repairs that were still ongoing. He paced the corridors and staircases, poked into unlocked classrooms, and even dared to enter the staff room, trailing fingers along stone walls and bookcases and bits of furniture - desks, sofas, chairs, tables - marveling at the warmth of the magic he could feel humming under his hand. He could feel it through the soles of his trainers as well. It grounded him, and eased his loneliness and the nagging sense of incompleteness he'd been feeling since breakfast.
At two, he presented himself to McGonagall for tea, and found that her favorite libation was on offer instead. He accepted, and they spent the better part of an hour talking about nothing in particular, enjoying the fact that they could, that nothing was urgent or pending other than the remainder of the school year… the remainder of Harry's life, he thought. They talked about his friends and his plans for advanced study once he graduated. Dumbledore, Dilys Derwent and Phineas Black gave him unsolicited advice, until McGonagall said, "I'm sure Mr. Potter has had plenty of time to consider his options. I believe he has earned the right to make his own choices." At that, the portraits agreed. When he left, they wished him a Happy Christmas.
Afterward, he wandered the halls again, his footsteps echoing in the more cavernous places, and softly shushing in narrower corridors. He found himself, at one point, outside Snape's old quarters on the lower levels – Harry hated thinking of them as in "the dungeons" anymore – and paused there, wishing… something… He pressed a hand against the door, and leaned his forehead against it as well, but of course, it did not move, and no sound came from within. Feeling unaccountably sad, loneliness welling up within him again, he turned back the way he came and made his way to Gryffindor tower, where he attempted to distract himself with homework until supper, to little avail.
It was dark as midnight out the window, when Harry looked up, though it was barely seven in the evening, by the Tempus he cast. Time for Christmas supper, though. He supposed that if he did not go down to the Great Hall, someone – McGonagall, probably – would come fetch him. And truthfully, it was alright. He wasn't hiding out. He had just been… pensive, in a restless sort of way, today.
He got up off his bed and went to the window, bracing one knee on the deep sill, leaning forward until his breath fogged the glass, and looked out at the grounds. Snow had fallen nearly all day, gently and softly, tapering off in the last hour, leaving the air clear. It was bitterly cold out, he knew, as it nearly always was this time of year, so the flakes had stayed crystalline, and now the entire world, it seemed, sparkled in the light of the waxing moon, not yet full, and the stars. He felt a sudden desire to be out in it… to feel the magic of Christmas, the magic of the wards and ley lines that girded the castle and its surroundings. He might be stuck at the castle, but McGonagall would not deny him this, he did not think.
Decided, he swapped trainers for boots, pulled on the jumper from Mrs. Weasley, grabbed his travel cloak and gloves from the wardrobe next to his bed, and wound his Gryffindor scarf around his neck. Then he left for the Great Hall, stepping more purposely than he had all day.
More of the faculty were at supper than had attended breakfast. Harry wished Sinistra a Happy Christmas, and smiled at Binns. He bowed to Firenze, who bowed back, then hesitated, wondering where to sit. Flitwick patted the chair beside him, and, obedient to the invitation, Harry took it. But his eyes sought out the dark figure at the far end of the table.
Snape's tall, thin figure sat at McGonagall's side, where he had placed himself – or been placed by McGonagall, for all Harry knew - ever since he had recovered enough to return to his duties – some of them, anyway. Snape's gaze switched from his plate to McGonagall, or across the table to Hagrid, as the three of them spoke. Harry could not hear what they talked about, over the sound of silver and china and Flitwick, Binns, Trelawney, and Sinistra's voices. Snape's voice would have been too quiet for Harry to hear, anyway, from the opposite end of the table. The fact that he had a voice at all was something of a miracle, from what Harry heard. And no wonder, given the wounds he had suffered in the attack by Nagini. His very survival was miraculous, in Harry's mind.
But he had survived, to face weeks of grueling recovery, McGonagall and Kingsley Shacklebolt his only visitors, guarded fiercely by Shacklebolt's hand-picked aurors, a contingent of Hogwarts House Elves, and a rotating, repentant roster of faculty, who were themselves forbidden entrance to his private room in the infirmary. He'd emerged in time for the opening feast and sorting ceremony on September first, silent and still at the head table – but not in the Headmaster's position. Instead, McGonagall was at that post, though she made it clear that it was entirely Snape's choice that had dictated the change. Her welcoming speech had, of course, mentioned the war, the final battle, the many losses the school and the wizarding war had suffered. She invited students who had fought in the battle themselves to talk with her or any of the faculty if they had need, and promised support and dreamless sleep to any who suffered nightmares or flashbacks. A special class had been arranged to help students who had been in the battle, to help them cope with returning to the scene of injury or death, with meetings co-led by specialists from St. Mungo's, and every member of the faculty sitting in, from time to time.
Snape was still dealing with his own healing, Harry knew – physical and… Well, it was hard to think of Snape as emotional, but… drawing from his own experience, and the memories Snape had shared with him that final day, Harry knew that recovering from being a spy, from being distrusted and hated, from having had to… do the things he had to do… in order to protect… everyone… what he must have suffered… Snape had to be struggling with some hard-core recovery of his own. He couldn't expect Snape to show up to the group meetings.
But he wanted him to.
He wanted something from the man… some acknowledgement that their long battle was over – with Voldemort… with each other. He had hoped there would be potions lessons… or defense, if Snape wanted those classes… where they would be thrown together regularly, so that, at some point, if he ever figured out how, he could… say thank you… apologize… tell Snape he'd changed, tell him he was grateful, that he owed him, that he… something.
But Snape did not return to teaching, either. His voice wouldn't allow it. Or maybe he did not want to confront the confused or blaming or admiring faces of the students, face their uncomprehending censure or adoration. Instead, he limited his activities to potion making and consulting with McGonagall or the Ministry – and research, from what Hermione said – leaving things between him and Harry unfinished, to Harry's mind.
Snape gave no indication of needing things "finished", though, so maybe it was only Harry's need. Harry tried to figure out whether it was just guilt, but, while that was certainly there, there was something more… something less immature, maybe, than guilt. He thought it might be respect.
In any case, there had been no opportunity to say anything – at all. Snape did not hide in his laboratory or quarters. He was productively busy, a steady stream of high-quality potions making their way to the infirmary, and packages being posted or flooed to St. Mungo's or elsewhere, addressed in his spidery calligraphy. But his and Harry's paths seemed almost magically divergent, and Harry wondered if it was intentional on Snape's part, if he was deliberately shutting Harry out. He would catch sight of Snape just as he turned a corner in the corridor, or glimpse the trailing edge of his robes disappearing into a classroom, or think he noticed slim, elegant fingers curled around the doorway to Flitwick's office, or hear the low baritone of what was left of Snape's voice requesting admission to McGonagall's office from the gargoyles on guard at the bottom of the spiral stair. But somehow, they never came face-to-face, and Harry was too… wary? Shy? Intimidated? Respectful?... to approach Snape directly, or to seek him out. Nor did Snape approach him.
It left Harry aching with an emptiness he did not quite understand, a need that might never be filled. He thought of writing Snape a letter, even set quill to parchment on more than one occasion, but he was never quite sure what he wanted to say, could never find the words to convey his remorse, his respect and appreciation… And he wondered if it would have been merely self-indulgent, anyway… unwanted, unwelcome. He took to journaling, instead, seeking to understand himself, and Snape, and the way their lives had become entwined and then disconnected, trying to figure out why that hurt.
The more he wrote, and the more he listened as others spoke about their experiences during the final year of the war, and during and since the final battle, the more he realized he was done – with fighting, with battling… that he was more interested in healing, in helping. So though, once the formal healing class was over, the meetings became voluntary, he continued to attend, and found himself listening to members of the former DA or other students who had participated in the battle on walks around the Black Lake, sitting in deep, windowed nooks, or pacing the halls, helping them to purge themselves of it, to integrate what they had seen and done into the story of their lives, to recover trust in themselves and others and the world. And in doing so, he began to heal himself.
His view of Snape changed… matured, maybe. He came to accept that Snape would heal in his own way; that his confidants were likely McGonagall, Dumbledore in his portrait, Shacklebolt, and Flitwick - his colleagues and peers and friends, to the extent he had any; that Snape may feel he had nothing to say to Harry… that his duty was done… that Harry might just be a painful reminder of all he had suffered, and all he had lost… And gradually, Harry accepted that he might never be able to fill his own need, unless he was willing for Snape to suffer. And he could never, would never, be willing. Snape deserved so much more from him.
So he revered the man from a distance, sublimating his gratitude and guilt into his support for his classmates, devoting himself to Snape in the only way he could – by letting him be. Perversely, this meant that Snape was present for Harry in a strange way. His desire to grant Snape the space and distance he so clearly needed or wanted required a constant hyper-awareness of the man, the invoking of some almost magical field that kept them apart by a certain distance, created a perimeter around Snape that Harry must never cross. He didn't – couldn't – ignore the man. Oddly, that absent presence was comforting to Harry, as if their relationship, the entwinement of their lives, continued, even if the awareness and conscious choice were one-sided… even if he had sunk into the undifferentiated mass of students in Snape's mind. He didn't really believe that was true, though, even if he never caught any hint that Snape as much as remembered he existed.
So he sat at supper, aware of Snape, respect and gratitude and admiration emanating from him in waves, wondering if they made their way up the table to where Snape sat in quiet conversation with McGonagall and Hagrid. He quelled his awareness, though, pulled those feelings back to his core, determined to grant Snape even that space, the only gift he could give him, and turned his attention to pudding and to the faculty members around him.
When he had eaten his fill, he turned to Flitwick. "Sir," he said, "I'm going out to the grounds for a while. Would you let Headmistress McGonagall know? I don't want her to worry."
Flitwick opened his mouth to say something.
"I won't leave the wards, and I'll let her know when I'm back inside. I'm sure I won't be long – it's cold out. I just… I need…"
Flitwick nodded and patted his arm. "Not to worry, Potter. I'm sure she'll appreciate your thoughtfulness in letting her know you'll be wandering about. I recall many an adventure when you were not so kind!" His eyes twinkled, and Harry gave a rueful grin.
"Sorry," he said, but he laughed as he said it.
Flitwick smiled at him. "Go on, then. I'll cover your tracks."
Harry snorted softly, and rose from the table. "Goodnight, everyone," he said quietly, and nodding at McGonagall, his eyes sliding across Snape, whose eyes were on his plate, he stepped over the bench, gathered his cloak, and strode from the Great Hall.
He stood at the top of the steps that led to the lawn in front of the castle, pulling on gloves and shrugging into his winter cloak, letting his eyes adapt to the darkness, relieved only by the half-moon and the stars. His breath nearly crystallized when he exhaled, and the cold stabbed his lungs when he inhaled. There was magic in the night. A good magic. His lips turned up in a slow smile, and his shoulders let go of tension he hadn't realized they'd been carrying. He pulled his scarf to cover the lower half of his face, and reached back to pull the hood of his robe up over his head. He cast a warming spell on his robes and the toes of his boots, for good measure, and looked up at the stars to name the constellations and orient himself before he set out.
A shift in the air told him someone had followed him. Almost, he reached for his wand, but the familiarity of the person's magic stayed his hand. Before he could turn, the person stood beside him, difficult to distinguish in the darkness, were it not for the height of the man… Besides, Harry could never mistake this man for anyone else. Never.
Wordlessly, Snape moved past him, down the steps to the drifts that were building up across the bottom stair, making no sound in the deep snow, not even the rub of wool on wool, despite the movement of his robes. His winter cloak was as black as his daily robes had ever been – darker maybe, in the inky black of the night. He stopped at the bottom and, much as Harry had, turned his face to the sky, as if he, too, sought Polaris and Orion.
Harry's breath caught in his chest at the sight. Snape's face was ethereal in the starlight, darker and more mysterious than Harry had ever seen him. He somehow looked younger, healthier, despite his thinness and the scars that shone in silver moonlight where the clasp of his cloak pulled at the neck of his robes, and Harry remembered that the man was still only thirty-eight, even though he must have lived three hundred years' worth of pain and sorrow, since he had joined the Death Eaters as a teenager.
Harry started guiltily when Snape turned his face toward him. The man looked at him intently, and narrowed his eyes slightly. Holding eye contact with Harry, he flipped up the hood to his cloak, then turned, making his way slowly through the snow. Harry shook his head, confused. Ten steps or so on, Snape turned and looked at him again, standing still, giving no sign what he expected, showing no impatience.
Could he want Harry to…?
Harry took a tentative step forward. Snape did not move. He took another… then another. When he reached the bottom stair, Snape gave the smallest of nods, and turned away. His heart pounding in his chest, Harry followed.
Snape forged his way through the knee-deep snow through physical strength alone. Harry followed, his way eased by the taller man's, and wondered, for a moment, why Snape did not melt himself a path. But that would have violated the beauty of the night, he decided, made it something to alter or construct or bend to their will. This intimate communion with the elements seemed more proper, more respectful. The occasional sound of the wind blowing across the trees at the edge of the grounds, the soft sushing of Snape's cloak brushing the top of the drifts, and the drag of Harry's breath as he labored to follow, were the only sounds in the snow-muffled world.
They moved on, Harry struggling behind, Snape pushing forward determinedly, his long black hair flowing around the edges of his hood, blurring the outline. Harry pulled his own hood closer about his face, burning, now, with cold. He hastened to catch up to Snape, some longing for warmth pulling him forward.
Abruptly, the deep snow ended. So close to Snape was Harry now that he had failed to notice where they were going, the height of the man and the billow of his cape as he moved against the wind having hidden their destination from view. Still dark, though, he sensed, more than saw, the trees around him, and knew Snape had led him to the Forbidden Forest. He shivered, despite the drop in the wind.
As if he had sensed Harry's foreboding, Snape turned and gave him a piercing, challenging look. Harry gasped a breath and held it, finding Snape's eyes only by their reflection of the moonlit snow behind him. Still, Snape did not speak, and Harry had the feeling that, were he to do so, some spell would be undone, and he would find himself back at the castle. But this was a night for magic, if ever there was one, so he let out his breath, invoking calm. He trusted this man. He did. He gazed back resolutely, and stilled his shivering by force of will alone. I trust you, he thought at the man, hoping that energy would reach the wizard in front of him. Snape must have seen what he was looking for, because he nodded enough to be seen in the dimness, and turned again into the forest.
Snape moved as if he knew where he was going, though he followed no path that Harry could see. Harry tailed him closely, fearing to be left behind, caught in a moonbeam or some fairy magic of the night, if he were but a half-step too far away, out of the circle of Snape's warmth and the scent of cardamom and magic that clung to him. Harry held onto it with all his senses, unaware that he had closed his eyes and was following the man using other sight, until he felt the world change around him, stumbled into snow once again, and opened his eyes to find himself - and Snape, thankfully - in a clearing ringed by ancient oaks and holly.
The snow was criss-crossed, here and there, with the tracks of animals small enough to make the barest imprint, discernible only by shallow shadows in the moonlight. The silence was nearly complete. Only by stretching his senses could Harry hear the rustle of branches or the soft calls of owls and other beasts. His fingers, warm and restless, tingled. His toes drew up… something… from the ground beneath him. His neck prickled, but not uncomfortably, and he fought the urge to throw off his cloak and his robe and stand naked in the snow.
Where are Firenze and Bane and Magorian tonight? he wondered, but shook that off and focused on Snape.
Snape stood in the middle of the clearing, his shoulders rising and falling once, then raised his hands to lower his hood. He seemed to collect himself, after a moment, and Harry wondered if Snape felt the magic thrumming in the ground, in the air, in the snow and the starlight, too. Of course he does! he admonished himself. Snape inhaled again, then turned decisively toward a holly bush to his right, green and red peeking out from its mantle of snow. He glanced at Harry, and beckoned with the tiniest of movement of his wand hand.
Obedient, Harry followed once more. Wandlessly, wordlessly, Snape conjured two bolines, and laid them on his palm, watching Harry intently. Harry reached out a hand hesitantly. I know this, he thought. I know this. He picked the one closest to his heart, the left one, using his left hand, leaving the other for Snape. He thought he saw a glint of approval in the professor's eyes. Snape knelt, and Harry copied him.
Snape mouthed some words, unheard even in the stillness, but carried on magic nonetheless, and Harry found himself mouthing them with him.
Beneath the tree of light and life, a blessing at this Yule.
Snape twisted and wove his holly and berries as he harvested them, until he had, Harry saw, a circlet or crown. Fumbling, Harry mimicked him, growing in confidence at Snape's nod. When he had done as well as he could, he looked up. Just for a moment, he thought he saw a smile in Snape's eyes. Snape flicked his wrist, and Harry felt the boline sheath at his waist. What are we doing? he thought. Snape snorted softly in humor, and he wondered if he had spoken the thought aloud.
Holding onto the holly crown he had woven, Snape stood in one fluid movement. Harry tried to mimic this, too, but would have fallen into the snow, had Snape not steadied him with a hand under his elbow. Snape let his hand fall away, and held his circlet on the palms of his hands. His eyes were definitely warmer now, Harry thought, and hastily arranged his own circlet to match Snape's.
You have shared my path, my life, and my death. By our shared history, we are kin. By life, by light, by magic, and by right, you are my brother, my father, my son.
Harry wondered if he imagined the words, or if Snape was using some reverse Legilimency… or if it was the night, and the moon, and the holly. He started when Snape leaned forward, his hands raised, and placed the circlet on his head, and he shook his head, confused to find tears stinging his eyes. Fighting them back, lest they freeze on his face, he found himself choking out a reply, breathing them out as softly as he could, lest he break the spell that seemed to lay upon them.
You have shared my path, my life, and my death. By our shared history, we are kin. By life, by light, by magic and by right, you are my brother… my… father… my… my son.
Warmth flowed over him, centered on the phoenix and Tree of Life charm that lay against his skin, and his heart filled - with respect, with gratitude, with a profound wish that Snape would have a long, healthy life filled with peace and joy. Leaning forward and reaching up with shaking hands, he placed the circlet he had woven on Snape's dark head. Pulling back, he thought that Snape looked like some Yuletide spirit, that the black of his clothing reflected the depth of his spirituality, rather than the darkness of his soul; that the holly and berries that gleamed in the moonlight proved that Snape was tied to the light and to life.
So mote it be, he thought.
Approval… and something else - gratitude, maybe… shone in Snape's eyes, but he turned away, then, and strode to the largest oak, at the far end of the clearing. Mistletoe curled up and around the trunk, the oak hosting the vine, the mistletoe clinging to it for life. Snape swiftly cut bits of the plant, close to where it clung to the oak, dark leaves and white berries, until he had enough for a small bundle. He wrapped the stems around with vine, weaving it around and through the shoots until they were bound fast. He stepped back from the oak and bowed to it, then straightened and looked at Harry. Harry stepped forward, confident of what to do, and soon produced his own small bundle.
He knew a bit more of what to expect, this time, remembering a fourth year herbology lesson, but still he waited for Snape to lead, because the ritual could take any of a number of forms. While he waited, he thought of what he wanted to say - what he would say, if Snape gave him the chance.
After a moment, Snape held out his bundle. It would hang above Harry's bed for the rest of the school year, and he would take it with him when he left. He would get another the following year - and every year after that, as long as he and Snape were both alive. As his fingers closed around the gift, Harry felt the invocation take hold, heard it in his head and felt it settle into his heart, and Snape said the words Harry himself had pledged to say, or close enough that it did not matter.
Harry held his own bundle out to Snape, and was relieved when Snape reached a hand to grasp it, just above Harry's hand, and Harry repeated the words, pledging it wholeheartedly, intending it with all his soul, pouring all his magic into it, making it an unbreakable vow, even if one-sided.
This night, I lay all anger and misunderstanding to rest. I lay down my wand, cast no curse, wish you no ill. I hold myself in debt to you, and swear by my magic that I will protect you with my life. May the light always lead you home.
Snape stood looking at him, then, and Harry forced himself to meet Snape's eyes and hold the man's gaze. He felt a barest brush of the master Legilimens' mind against his, and let his shields drop, holding himself open, but Snape did not intrude. Instead, he held himself just there, just at the edge of Harry's awareness, and with a gasp, Harry realized that Snape, too, had left himself open. Carefully, carefully, he brushed against the stronger mind - just a touch - and held. The flicker of a smile crossed the older man's face, and then his mind withdrew from the contact, and he broke eye contact, bowing his head. After a moment, Harry bowed, too - a bit more deeply, ceding authority and position to the Potions Master, putting all the respect and admiration he had ever felt for Snape into that simple gesture. Then he looked up, caught a glint of amusement and… acceptance… in Snape's eyes, and allowed himself a smile and a shrug.
Snape nodded, shifted his bundle of mistletoe to his left hand, and drew up his hood, careful not to dislodge the holly he wore atop his head. With a last glance at Harry, he turned to the glade and bowed, in homage to the trees that had witnessed their ritual, in homage to the One Tree. Then he stepped forward to retrace their path and lead the way back to the castle. Harry carefully made his own homage, smiling at the oak and holly trees and giving a silent thanks, as if they had invited him… as if the ritual had been of their making… and turned to trudge after Snape, his heart lighter than it had been since the Battle.
Snape did not pause until they were inside, and then, he only turned to glance at Harry, eyes taking in the holly and mistletoe with which he was now adorned, mouth quirking upward in a swift almost-smile. He shook his head as if bemused - at himself, or at them, or at Harry, then turned away, toward the stairs that bifurcated to lead to the dungeons and to Gryffindor Tower. Harry followed, tentative and unsure once again, his heart sinking a bit.
Snape came to a stop at the top of the stairs to the dungeon, turned, and waited. Harry walked hesitantly toward him, coming to a stop an arm's length away. Snape contemplated him a moment, and Harry wondered if he was supposed to say or do something, wondered if Snape was waiting for him to seal the ritual in some manner that Harry couldn't anticipate.
Finally, he spoke, his eyes on Snape's serene face, his unexpectedly warm, accepting eyes, as he listened. Harry's mouth was dry, but he managed it. "Happy Christmas, Professor," he whispered into the darkness.
"Happy Christmas, Mr. Potter," Snape said, his voice low and rasping in the silence of the night. "May your year ahead be blessed."
"Yours too, Professor," Harry returned, and felt a spell finalize itself, falling over both of them, seeing it register in Snape's eyes, expected, anticipated, and… wanted, he realized.
Snape nodded once, pierced Harry with his gaze once more, then turned toward his dungeon. Harry watched him flow down the stairs a moment before he turned to mount the stairs to the tower, clutching forgiveness and acceptance and belonging to himself, in the form of mistletoe and holly.
"Happy Christmas, Professor," he whispered again, feeling the warmth of Hogwarts herself flow around him, enfolding him in safety and healing and peace.