Disclaimer: The characters belong to J.K. Rowling.
Genre: light angst, artistic!fic.
Summary: Saying goodbye.
Author's note: I'm not sure how I feel about this fic. I don't think it turned out the way I imagined, especially the ending. I hope it's liked anyway.
N.B - This fic is 1 of 2. For sequel read 'Burning Cardboard Bridges'.
"Dance like nobody's watching; love like you've never been hurt.
Sing like nobody's listening; live like it's heaven on earth."
Gryffindor's three most famous members had returned for Seventh year four months late, but just in time to ring in the New Year. The general consensus was that there was nothing more that Hogwarts could possibly teach them, but in order to go out into the world they needed their NEWTS. This was only partially true. Severus, who had returned just around the time that the three students did, was perhaps the one to understand their reasons the most.
It was their final goodbye. Their last chance to stand within the hallowed halls of their sanctuary. It was the place that they chose to shed the clinging remnants of the innocence of their childhood.
Watching them, as Severus did, was like witnessing a fast-forwarded clip of seven years in Hogwarts, as if they needed to relive every second, every laugh, every hug, every dream that they had. They seemed to memorize each moment beyond eyes that were too old for their seventeen-year-old faces, wanting to remember everything and everywhere.
Severus remembered when he had first asked about it, curious but not confused because he really did understand and he had been in the war and saw what they saw.
"Is the sky bigger, or the lake darker?" he asked quietly.
The three, always three because they never left each other's side, looked at him with varying degrees of amusement, but it was Hermione who managed to speak first.
"Not bigger, really." She laughed softly, seeming to consider for a second. "Just deeper. As if it really can encompass the world. But, it doesn't want to. It's happy being where it is."
"It's pure," Harry added, tightening his fingers around Hermione's fingers and she laughed again, lightly, resting her head on Ron's shoulder as his arms wrapped around her waist. "Nothing can hide there if it doesn't want to conceal it. Nothing can pierce it if it doesn't want to be troubled. It can't be recreated, even if it can be mimicked. It just...is."
"And the lake isn't dark, Professor." Ron grinned, but his eyes remained locked upon the glassy surface of water. "You're a bloody pessimist, you know. We won the war, didn't we?"
"Beginner's luck," Severus responded dryly, standing beside them, staring out at the lake and the horizon. "Next time there is a war, you might not be so cocky by the end."
The three friends laughed. Then, Harry with his bright green eyes that saw through souls, turned away to meet Severus' gaze.
"Next time, we'll make bets to see which side wins," he said with mock seriousness. "Two galleons say the light wins again."
"Three says the dark draws first blood," Severus countered immediately.
"Four says in that case, the three of us will be the ones targeted as the examples," Ron chipped in with a laugh that wasn't morose at all. "And another four says that you'll show up with a bigger hero complex than Harry here and end up being killed too, just to prove a point."
Severus met his eyes, shrugged almost nonchalantly, then murmured. "Deal, Mr. Weasley. Let's see how far luck will take us next time."
They all shook on it, with hands and arms interlocking, criss-crossing and sliding along each other's before the fading sun stole their attention as it slowly set. A moment of quiet fell over them until Hermione chuckled and everyone turned to look at her.
"Was just wondering how we'd pay up if Ron wins," she explained. "And how far will you go to win the bet, Professor?"
"Well Hermione," Harry scoffed with a wicked grin and a pretty good imitation of Severus' voice. "We'll cross that tower of doom when we get there."
So they had come far enough to feel comfortable in their own skin and experienced enough not to fear death. It was admirable to Severus and perhaps a little morbid to those who heard them. But they didn't dwell on the negative and they refused to taint their memories of Hogwarts with their memories of the war. When they spoke it was in near whispers or a tone that held infuriating patience and calm. In their own way they had transcended everyone else, so together they rarely spoke at all, understanding each other on a more subliminal level. And, accepting that Severus knew their secret language.
Something in the way that they glided when they walked or danced when they ran, made them seem almost ethereal sometimes.
In the remainder of the school year, they managed to outshine everyone else, yet not really being there conforming to the pressures of their studies or angsting over their unknown future. Instead, they spent their free time outside playing in the snow of Winter, sitting silently in the showers of Spring and falling asleep in the heat of Summer.
In their last week of school they did everything that they could think of and had always wanted to do. Which meant that the first thing that they did that Monday morning was to regress to their eleven year old selves. So Hermione showed up for breakfast with pigtails extending past her ears a lot more tamed than her younger self had ever gotten the brown tresses. Ron's robe was about five inches too short, but he was grinning, even as his red socks were exposed to the horror of everyone, ever so often. Harry's glasses were broken in two and therefore sporting the unflatteringly trendy look of spellotape, minus the spells that usually made the plastic of the tape blend in with the metal of the glasses' frames.
They spent those days outside, holding hands and playing ring games from Muggle childhoods or broom racing from Wizarding ones. When they weren't making totally arses of themselves, they'd find sport in the oddest things, like planting poppies in Hagrid's backyard or clearing away the weeds from in front of Dumbledore's grave with their bare hands and on their knees. Both times they refused to stop until the poppies swayed just right in the light breeze and the headstone shone like there were crystals in the white stone. Once, they spent hours on a game where they were trying to touch the sky and another time they stood with their arms out, their heads thrown back and perfectly still, for hours while the night rolled on.
"I think it helps to be honest," Ron pointed out one day when Severus found them sitting in the Astronomy Tower, staring at the stars in the sky. "Lies really hurt. Deception is like a curse. I think the key is to always stay true to yourself. It's not the most original concept but it's one of the best. Maybe Percy would have still been alive if he had remembered that, and Ginny would have been dead if she hadn't. Everything happens for a reason. It's really important to learn from mistakes."
"What are your mistakes?" Severus wondered aloud, not really asking the question so much as voicing a thought.
"Envy," Ron answered without thought.
Hermione ducked her head. "Pride."
Harry reached for their hands, as if he needed some sort of support to say his fault. "Vanity. Greed. Malice. Take your pick."
Severus looked them over, shaking his head, crossing his arms, and scowling because he could see them the way they were and he knew them for who they were now.
"You are not any of that, any of you," he chastised. "Not enough for it to be deemed a downfall. Everyone lacks, but the three of you are nearly blameless when it comes to such things. If anyone should lay claim, it would be me because I am all of that and more."
"You are," Harry pointed out with a smile. "But you're also very contrary. You live when you should die. You fight when you should surrender. You kill when you should protect. You lie when you should just bow and submit. You embrace the mistakes in yourself and you use them. It took us all this time to really see you as you are. But we see you now and we're grateful."
"For being a murderer and a spy?" Severus countered.
"For being yourself," Harry responded. "For demanding that you be accepted as you are."
Of the three of them Harry intrigued Severus the most and because of that he watched him more carefully than he did the others. Maybe it was because, of the three of them, Harry had the most to shed and his cocoon was thicker so his wings of freedom were harder to come by. If the three of them were ethereal, then Potter was angelic. Not in the physical sense, although Severus would find that at times the boy's mussed up black hair, soft pink lips and deep green eyes made his insides ache in a soon familiar way. It was the sorrowful way that he celebrated life. When Ron and Hermione laughed freely and worked diligently in appreciating the joys of life, Harry took a moment to mourn the death that completed the circle of existence.
His fingers glided over each petal in a flower reverently as if to remind the flower that each petal was necessary. When they laughed, he laughed with them but his eyes always held a remnant of sadness. Even in his laughter there were tears. It wasn't always in mourning though. Sometimes he would be the first to stand in the middle of a thunderstorm or go skinny-dipping in the lake. The other two would follow, not questioning his madness, but laughing at his antics anyway. Hidden somewhere sometimes and sometimes in plain sight, Severus would stand observing them and realize suddenly that he couldn't tear his eyes away from the alabaster skin or the mop of black hair.
Those were the only moments when he would turn away from them or close his eyes. Then he would try to tamper down the tingles that he knew he was too old to be feeling as he wondered when and how he had managed to fall in love with this man-child.
It wasn't a question of whether or not he even did, even when there were parts of him pointing out that he had always only been interested in women and that Harry had never shown alternative tendencies either. That he could close his eyes and see Harry's smile or feel the very second that the boy walked into his dungeons and lessons, was enough for Severus to just accept it. Granted, the realization wasn't such a hard one to note. He had no desires to share his feelings and would have been content keeping them locked firmly away only for moments when he was alone physically and mentally enough to need to indulge. But, sometimes Harry looked at him in ways that said that he was thinking almost the exact same thoughts.
"Why did you cut your hair?" Harry had wanted to know, once in those rare occasions when he was without his friends. "Not that I'm complaining, really. I like it at chin length and I suppose that you'd rather die than do anything to make it less straight."
"I wanted a change," Severus answered with a slight shrug. "Not too much, but enough to at least make it less greasy after standing over a cauldron for hours."
"When has Mr. Sneery-pants Snape ever cared about making his hair look less greasy?" There was definitely a teasing tone hidden in Harry's voice although he was trying hard not to look amused.
"I don't." Severus turned away, hiding a shrug, fighting a smile and silently cursing himself for liking the way that Harry's green eyes sparkled like fireflies on blades of grass. "I wanted a change."
Harry moved to stand before him, very closely. In fact he even went so far as to invade Severus' space by leaning in even more until their chests and shoulders touched while he buried his face against the strands of ebony hair.
"Smells nice," he murmured.
Severus had to agree. The boy smelled heavenly.
"Contrary to popular belief I've always washed my hair fairly regularly." Severus immediately went on the defense, knowing only this one way to fight his senses. "I don't do it, nor have ever done it, in hopes of it being sniffed in examination."
Harry took a shameful step back, hanging his head as his cheeks burned a dark shade of red. "Sorry, Professor. Sometimes I forget -"
"That you're different?" Severus gently tilted Harry's head back up so that their eyes were on the same level. Harry nodded silently. "Sometimes I forget that I am not."
Harry's fingers caught Severus', holding it against his cheek and closing his eyes almost entirely, as he seemed to revel in the coarse fingertips against his softer skin. They stood like that for a long time, neither of them wanting to ruin the moment with more useless, insufficient, words. Harry opened his eyes after the moment had passed, locking his gaze upon Severus', seeming to want to touch his professor's core whichever way that he could for those few seconds. He tilted his head slightly, bit his lower lip then shuttered his eyes shyly again, as if in shame.
And, Severus' entire body began to ache.
There were moments of silence too, where words were not enough or just to speak would seem impolite. Those were usually the moments that annoyed their other friends and someone would inevitably end up scrambling to fill the dead air in the room. Usually the three would politely smile and nod but not say anything to add to the interruptions. Sometimes they even seemed to understand more than the person speaking, why the silence was so loud.
If asked they would give their opinions softly or merely decline to speak at all, and instead, allow someone else to voice random thoughts aloud. It became a solace to speak to any of the three in private and all one had to do was to make a request and the other two would silently, gracefully rise and walk away. Not too far away though. They liked to keep each other within shouting distance. Even if one appeared to be alone, Severus knew that the others were usually close by, not hovering but watching and waiting.
"It's okay to be angry Neville," Severus heard Harry softly tell his friend one day. They had squeezed themselves in a space between a suit of armor and a corner and Severus had honestly just chanced upon the encounter.
"But they died. I should have some respect."
Harry reached out with the tip of his bare toes to nudge Neville's leg, just to get the other boy to look up from where he was intent on carving invisible shapes into the ground.
"They were your parents. They should have taken care of you and instead, all your life it feels like you took care of them by visiting them all the time and making sure they were alright. In a way, they left you alone to fend for yourself." As usual Harry's voice was soothingly patient. "Isn't that how you feel? Doesn't that warrant anger, Neville?"
Neville shrugged. "Guess so. But it wasn't their fault. They didn't ask to be cursed."
"No, they didn't so you're right." Harry nodded. "Maybe it's not only anger that you feel then."
"I miss them." Neville turned away, wiping tears that he didn't even try hiding and knowing that if anyone would understand about not knowing their parents, it was Harry. "Only I didn't have anything to miss, really."
"Then it's okay to feel guilty that you're alive and they died," Harry continued. "It doesn't seem fair right now, but there are sacrifices that they made for the freedom that they believed in. That freedom and the fact that you can choose, did choose, what side to fight for is their last gift to you."
"Do you ever feel empty and out of focus? Do you ever wish that you had died?"
This time it was Harry who looked away, past the seemingly empty corridor, beyond the stone walls. "I have those moments too when nothing feels real anymore, because how can we say we won the war when great wizards died and so many were hurt? There are days when I know that I'm dead and it's just for everyone else to notice. And sometimes even breathing hurts."
Neville wiped at the silent tears that flowing from his eyes unhindered now. Harry turned to him again, piercing him and the air around them with a look of determination.
"It's not our job to revel in despair. How dare we make their deaths be in vain?" The line of his jaw was set in a firm line of anger. "We survived this war. We were strong enough, brave enough, and desperate enough. We cannot let Voldemort take away our last hope, our victory. It's easy to die, Neville. The right potion induced the wrong way or one spell and a green light is all it takes. Live, for the generations of people who can enjoy our victory and not feel the guilt and the anger."
Neville nodded. He sobbed, cried, bawled, and nodded because he had lived and some part of him was grateful that he had survived.
When he left, Harry sat in the silence for a long time and it was one of those moments when words would shatter the fragile atmosphere and probably take the souls of the dead with it. He didn't cry. Severus expected to see tears because anyone else would have cried also, but the candle reflected soft light upon and around the two of them, like it would for any object living or inanimate, and Harry was as still as a stone carving.
"Professor?" Harry called out softly, after minutes that felt like days had gone by.
Severus drop the Illusion charm that he had been using to stay unnoticed and as quietly as always, he walked to stand before the Gryffindor. Harry rose in a quick, fluid movement, hesitating for a second before he wrapped his arms around Severus' waist, tilted his head upon the firm shoulder and pressed his body as hard as he could into Severus' embrace. Needing strength, to borrow.
"Do you mind?" he asked in a whisper.
Severus' arms tightened around him, wrapping him in heat and promising safety. "No."
Harry smiled. Severus could feel it against the side of his neck. The ghostly whispers of Harry's warm breath caressed the tip of his ear and taunted him with their proximity to his own lips. He turned his head, and slid his nose across Harry's temple and into the wild strands of hair, inhaling the scent of rosemary and spring showers.
It took only a few seconds for Ron and Hermione to show up beside them and gently extract their best friend into their own brand of a group hug. Severus left them alone, figuring that he could take his eyes off them for this little while. Ron and Hermione smiled their understanding and gratitude, but Harry kept his head buried against their combined shoulders, not turning to look back as Severus walked away.
Two days before they left Hogwarts, they danced on the roof of the highest tower.
It wasn't a choreographed show of skills and talent. It was an exhibition of grace. Of art pieces in motion. They moved slowly like birds floating on pockets of hot air. They kept their eyes closed, letting the music flow through their limbs. Magic crackled at their fingertips causing multi-colored sparks to illuminate them against the backdrop of a starless night. They swayed and pranced and laughed, together and apart. They laughed so hard that the tears from their eyes seemed more exhilarating than melancholy.
"Come here," Harry beckoned with a smile. His eyes glistened with spent tears and tears that he didn't need to cry. "Hold me. I don't want to fall."
Severus held him around his waist, helping him to balance on the thin brick wall that enclosed the flat roof of the tower. Harry held out his arms, looked down at the ground that seemed miles away and laughed. Then he threw his head back and shouted as loudly as he could. At first his words sounded like incoherent strings of howls but soon they began to form proper syntax. Then Severus began to recognize the spells.
Dark magic flowed with white. Curses mixed with charms. It didn't take long for an aurora to form in the sky over the castle.
"Words are not evil, they are just letters strung together. Intentions determine their strength," Harry whispered, carefully climbing down so that he could properly snuggle in Severus' arms.
Severus gave in to the urge and stroked his fingers through Harry's hair. The beautiful man in his arms moaned a sound that seemed like a purr.
"Power is given, you know. No one can make you feel small unless you give them the strength to hold you down," Ron said somewhere on the other side of the roof where he was holding Hermione and dancing slowly to the music of the wind. "Do you know how long it took me to realize that? I nearly died a couple times before it occurred to me that I was just being entertainment for them."
"I think we should all just forget about trying to outsmart and being the best," Hermione declared. "Someone will always win. The point is to do the right thing or just make a choice. We can't all serve two masters so it's better to stay true to ourselves. It's so much easier then."
Severus scowled. "Am I supposed to be learning something?"
"Yes," Harry whispered back, too softly for his friends to hear. "Stop hiding from yourself."
That turned out to be the last time that he spoke to the three of them, perhaps because they had said everything that they needed to say to their professor and everyone else at Hogwarts, by then. So on the day of their graduation, Severus left them alone.
Everything that they did on that day left no doubt in anyone's mind that no three wizards like them would ever haunt Hogwarts' halls again. It was a loss and a victory for the school, churning out yet another batch of great wizards into the Wizarding society. They deserved the scrolls that marked their achievement in graduating, but were even more deserving of the rings with Hogwarts' crest and their names that marked them as full-fledged wizards.
They stood on stage as a part of a graduating class that was especially honored.
Severus watched the smiles on Harry's face become echoes of laughter that he would never hear again. For the first time in his life he found himself wishing that he had a Time-turner. Wishing, that he could build a glass case around the young man to keep him safe. It was a vain wish. He knew that he had no right to feel the way that he did about Harry and was even less at liberty to act upon his desires. Yet he still felt weak, drained and hollow, at the thought that he would never see that smile on Potter's face again and he would never again hold Harry in his arms to save and protect his brave Gryffindor.
"Aren't you going to say anything?"
Severus had sought refuge in the Astronomy Tower, away from the suffocating celebration. Harry had of course found him.
"What is it that you wish to hear, Potter?" Severus glared angrily as Harry quietly sat beside him on the stone bench that was intended for stargazing. "I have done my duty to Dumbledore and made sure that you graduated from Hogwarts alive and safe. There is nothing left."
"Ask me to stay with you."
Severus turned away at the softly spoken words, and he shook his head. "I cannot do that."
Harry reached for a potion-stained hand and held it between his two palms. The heat was almost unbearable to Severus and there were feelings inside of him that twisted into a mass of agony.
"Then tell me that it's okay with you if I leave now." Harry guided Severus' fingers to his face, lightly pulling them across his lips, pressing butterfly kisses to each knuckle.
Severus shook his head again, murmuring the response that tore a hole inside of him to admit. "It is not."
His name, whispered so softly but with such desperation and confusion, took away everything that Severus had ever worked hard to accomplish. His mask of indifference shattered. His quick wit and scathing words failed him. He was left feeling almost bare with just one identity. Just Severus. After two wars and so many murders, he couldn't surrender to being just that.
"I don't want to leave without saying goodbye."
"Then say goodbye!" Severus snapped.
Harry's eyes became clouded with sadness. "Not like this." He hung his head, letting Severus' hand slip from his fingers. "I don't want my last memory of you to be like the first six years."
Severus laughed a self-deprecating laugh that sounded like it was being pulled from the darkest places of his soul.
"Merlin's tomb, boy!" he bellowed. "What do you want from me?"
"Nothing." Harry gazed at him with hurt filled eyes. "Goodbye, Professor Snape."
Severus rose with him and with one quick movement, pulled the former student into his arms. He pressed his lips against Harry's lips, kissing him until they were both breathless. When they needed to inhale again, Severus moved on to slowly kissing the lightly tinged cheeks, then nose, then eyelids, then chin. Then lips again. Softly. Gently. He didn't stop until Harry was almost sobbing in his arms.
"Don't let me fall."
"You won't fall," Severus murmured. "You have your own wings now."
Harry wrapped his arms even tighter around Severus' waist, inhaling and tasting everything of Severus that he could. "I'm afraid to let go. I'm afraid that I'm not ready to leave this place. I'm afraid of not knowing if you'll ever be there to save me again."
Severus pulled away to look deep into the emerald eyes that reminded him of rain and stars and the most powerful spell of all. The words he dared never to utter aloud, burned on his lips as he caressed Harry's cheeks with his thumbs. But Harry stopped him with fingers to Severus' lips.
"Don't. Please," he begged desperately. "If you say it then I'll never find the strength to leave."
Severus nodded. Harry removed his fingers and rested his head on Severus' shoulder again.
"I love you," Severus whispered anyway, and the sob that tore through Harry, hurt them both. "And since I'm not known for my affections, I will probably love you for as long as I know how. Now leave, before I forget how to let you go."
The sound of festivities was still thick in the air as Severus watched Harry running down the pathway to meet his friends near the gargoyles at the gate. The three friends held hand, took one last look at the castle that had been their haven and waved goodbye to their memories and their childhood. Then together they stepped beyond the wards and disappeared from sight.
Wrapping his cloak tightly about himself, Severus fought the abyss that sprung up inside of him.
"I have done my duty to Hogwarts and repaid my debt to you Albus," he said as loudly as he could. "Release me! I don't owe you or this castle my life or my soul anymore."
The air around him shimmered. There was a gust of bone-chilling wind and a phoenix song lingered, echoed, from the four walls before there was utter silence and suddenly a weight seemed to lift from the room. The wards of Hogwarts were lowered.
Severus took a deep breath, whispered his own quiet goodbye and Apparated from the place that had been his sanctuary too.
N.B - This fic is 1 of 2. For sequel read 'Burning Cardboard Bridges'.