And I tried to believe it,
It was better without you
--Jason Robert Brown, "Songs for a New World"
- - -
Snape closed the door to his office. The door shut behind him with a thud, but he barely heard it. He walked up to his desk and took up a pile of sixth-year essays; he thought he would do some marking. He put them back down. Perhaps later; perhaps tomorrow.
He opened a drawer and took out the inventory for his private storeroom. He had ruined last night's batch of experimental potions; the remains lay in a coagulated mass under the laboratory sink. He needed to update his inventory and account for the losses. He thought of doing it in front of the fire in his chambers, his feet propped up on the coffee table. He nodded to himself, and made it five steps through the passage to his chambers, before he stopped and put the inventory notes down on a demilune table in the hallway. He caught his own expression in the mirror that hung above it; he looked away, and left the notes there.
He was tired but restless. His own indecision irritated him, and he itched for productive occupation. He paused, half-turning back to his office; tired, and suddenly wanting a glass of brandy, he allowed himself to resume the path to his rooms.
His sitting room was untidy. He could remember a time when it had not been so, but in the past few months most surfaces seemed to be occupied by half-open books, sheaves of notes, quills that could no longer be used because they had been stuck through a head of hair too often, and saucers full of uneaten sandwiches. Cat fur covered the green armchair that sat nearest the fire. He thought about getting a broom and sweeping through the room. He had told the elves to stay away from this room in particular. He could never abide by them trampling through and disturbing his notes.
He might as well do some of the cleaning up, and, telling himself he was a mature wizard who could handle this mundane task, he picked up a plate of cookie crumbs. He paused; if he recalled correctly, these crumbs came from the cookies with raspberry preserves pressed into the middles, like red thumbprints. He had never liked those cookies. He put the plate, the rest of the saucers, and a glass of lukewarm water from the previous night on a tray, which was the only thing the elves were allowed to touch.
Ignoring the feeling that something was eating through the organs in his chest, he resumed cleaning up. His apprentice, as thorough as she had tried to be in packing her things, had left some things untidied. She had promised him, in passing, that she would find him a big enough box for their combined notes on Ashwinder eggs; perhaps, in her excitement to leave, she forgot. The notes lay on the coffee table, one corner of the top sheet stained with his tea. He couldn't blame her for forgetting. It was irrelevant, anyway. He could, however, blame her for leaving behind an atrocious pencil that lay between the pages of one of his Potions journals. The pencil had bite marks all over it, and he shuddered as he touched it and bent to drop it into the waste bin. While straightening, he paused, and was poised to pick it back up. He shook himself and stood.
The rest of the hour passed, and at the end of it he had thrown away an empty packet of lemon drops, obsolete potions notes, and a tin of cat food that was still wrapped in brown paper; organized his notes into three piles; and returned the books to their proper places in the shelves. At the end of it he sat and looked at his sitting room. It was empty. The fire had died. It did not really matter.
She'd always been very particular about stoking the fire. Sometimes she would interrupt a conversation just to kneel before the grate, covering his view of the fire while she built it up again, making the room darker but allowing her hair to light up like a wild halo. One time, she had toasted a crumpet in that very same—
He stood up, and went to his room.
He did not bother lighting the lamps in their sconces. Dully, he moved through his nightly routine in the dark. Step one, take off boots. Step two, take off rest of clothes, fold them neatly, place in hamper. Step three, fetch a clean nightshirt. Four, put it on. Five, step into the bath to brush teeth and wash face.
The sheets were cold when he finally slipped in, and he thought of a warming charm. He felt around for his wand, but it was beyond arm's reach. He allowed his arm to fall back on the mattress, and he stared at the ceiling. Shadows danced there. He counted the cracks in the plaster.
He allowed himself to think of the object in his hand. He put it up before his eyes for both hands to hold. In the dark it was no more than an almost shapeless silhouette, but he knew what it was. She'd left her scarf in the sitting room, lying forgotten under a clipboard and the folds of his own cloak. He gave in. He brought the fabric close to his face. If there had been light he would have seen its patterns and colors, but he knew what it looked like by heart anyway. But the smell… his nose touched the fabric, and it was warm. He still knew the smell, he knew it now, but he was afraid he might forget it one day. He did not understand himself.
Lying in the bed he'd had for twenty years, in a place that he thought of as home, among his own things… lying in a place that had always been familiar, he felt lost. He confused himself. He wanted, this moment, to spring from bed and write down every exchange and every memory, working feverishly until morning. He thoughts of insects and their delicate, spindly legs and wings preserved in amber the color of her eyes. At the same time he wanted to close his eyes and forget the last two years. He wanted to get up from bed with no memories. What had he been like before those two years? He could hardly remember.
The smell was freesia and lavender and oranges. Nothing smelled like it.
He buried his face in the pillow, searching for the same smell in its depths. He fancied that traces of the smell lingered there. This was the same pillow she'd rested her head on, that one night she'd slept in his rooms. He remembered well. Her final potion took a night, and two people at least, to brew, even when she had tried to simplify the procedure. He remembered the look of gratitude on her face when he consented to be the second person, saying he didn't want to waste any more ingredients through the clumsiness of incompetent assistants. He remembered her tiredly stirring and glancing at the clock to read that it was two-thirty in the morning. He remembered taking up the spoon and letting her sit down for a rest. When he'd looked back at her, she was asleep, one hand sprawled out on the table in front of her as she pillowed her head on her arms.
He remembered thinking he should wake her up—it was her potion, after all. It would have been the proper thing to do. But she had been so tired, and it was so easy to cast a Stasis charm. He found himself carrying her through the passage to his bedroom, a parody of a wedding night. As he carried her, one of the quills she'd stuck in her hair threatened to fall to the ground, and he managed to get it out and set it on the demilune before continuing. He'd set her down in his bed, covering her with the sheets and conjuring a bedwarmer. It was the only time he'd ever touched her.
He remembered wanting to. It was last summer, and the staff were having lunch outside by the lake. What a damn fool idea. Flitwick and a couple of the younger professors had wanted to take a swim, and Flitwick had set out in an antiquated swimsuit among gales of laughter. Minerva was pushing dessert on everyone, but was distracted when Miss Granger came through the trees, panting heavily while carrying a basket of fruit. Snape had automatically stood to relieve her of it, but was anticipated by the new Quidditch coach. And then he understood why.
He remembered her white dress, and the way Minerva and Poppy had oohed and ahhed over it while she blushed and stammered her thanks, and how the young men of the party seemed to be paying particular attention to her. Her bare arms; the tiny scratches on her legs where the forest bushes had caught her. He'd retreated to his book and his spot under a tree, reading not a word and unable to concentrate for the sound of her laughter, carried by the wind. She was enjoying herself out of the stuffy dungeons, and she was so beautiful today, so beautiful always.
What he would have given for five minutes of her time.
Back in the present, Snape attempted to clear his mind of useless memories. He could not bear to let go of the scarf, but he could try getting some sleep. It was a new day tomorrow, and it was almost midnight. An old wizard like him couldn't afford to miss out on any sleep.
He closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of the pillow. It's only the first day, he told himself, feeling his throat working and a telltale, horrifying stinging at the corners of his eyes. It will be better tomorrow.
- - -
He woke to someone stroking his face, and in no time he was halfway across the bed with his wand in the air, his hand shaking. Was he dreaming, or was she really sitting on the edge of his bed? It could be a glamour; it could be Polyjuice; it could be a dream. It had only been a day. At this point he could still remember her features well, so well that he could effortlessly have conjured them, even fixing that look of tenderness there. Just a little slanting of the eyebrows and a softening of the mouth, and some crinkling at the corners of her eyes, and there. It couldn't really be real. He wondered how he could make it look so believable when he'd never seen it directed at him; he wondered how he had imagined that peculiar light in her eyes, like the brightness of unshed tears or of firelight reflected in coffee.
The apparition spoke. "I came back for my scarf."
He looked down; the hand that was not holding his wand still had the offending item in its grip, and his knuckles were white. It was slowly dawning on him that this was not a spectre of his imagination, and that the apprentice who had left the previous day—who had left to pursue a career that had nothing to do with him—who had left, he thought, never to return—was here, that she'd come back. Had she forgotten something? Oh, yes. Her scarf. He held it out to her. He was suddenly embarrassed to be in his nightshirt. She was bundled up against the cold and very fully dressed; he felt naked and exposed before her, even in the very dim light of the wand that she had propped up against his pillow. He felt that she could see right through him.
She took the scarf. Even as he felt the brush of her fingers he could not allow himself to believe she was real. He'd thought he would never see her again, and here she was, as present and substantial as she had been those nights before the fire or in the lab, as she had been on that summer's day so long ago. As though her departure had been nothing more than an unpleasant dream.
She was still standing in front of him, making no move to leave. She reached up to touch his face, and, overcoming his surprise, he forced himself to be still, to look at her levelly, without expression. It had only been a day, and yet he had felt himself paralysed by her absence, and it would be so again, after this. He fought the swelling in his chest, and tried not to think of the dreams that would stem from her touch on his face.
"Aren't you going to say something?" she whispered. "I'm really leaving this time."
He said nothing. He watched the wreck of his fortune in her eyes.
"Please tell me that I haven't been imagining things," she pleaded, her hand traveling across his forehead, down the curve of a cheek.
"I don't know what you mean," he managed. His voice sounded like the croaking of frogs in the still room. He felt the way he had that summer's day, hot and miserable at his inability to touch her.
She opened her mouth and closed it again. She paused, as though considering her words. Meanwhile both her hands had taken one of his, and Snape felt his senses rejoice at the contact. He would take, pathetically, greedily, whatever she would consent to give him.
"Please tell me," she managed finally, "if I'm wrong. If I am—if I am completely off the mark—if you tell me that I've read you wrong—you'll never hear from me again." She stepped closer, but to him, the distance between them was the distance between galaxies. She could never come close enough. Her voice was soft, but it was sad in a way he'd never heard before.
The question came, inexorably, terrifyingly. "Do you love me?"
- - -
It was the one, single, perfect decision of his life. He had lived for so many years and seen so many different things, and it was strange how the thing that he would always want to remember the most—the thing he would never want to forget—would be a moment in a dim room, hearing the sobbing and relieved laughter of a girl who had once been his student, then his apprentice.
While she cried her happiness into the thin material of his nightshirt, he found the courage to touch her, trying to assure himself that this was really happening. The scent that lingered still on his pillow assaulted his senses now, in full force, and he was dizzyingly happy. She was real. And she never left again.
A/N. This was written in an hour and a half, for a dare. I wanted to capture that feeling after someone you love has left you—when you feel lost, and indecisive, and you can't think of anything to make you feel better, and you move through the rooms of your house and touch your old things but nothing ever feels the same.
Credit where credit is due: This was inspired by the musical "The Last Five Years" by Jason Robert Brown. The title is from the song "These Foolish Things." I hope you enjoyed this story.