A/N: For my dearest, the sweetest, Torina, on her birthday. Thank you to thesewarmstars and snow for the beta read.
I do not own or make any money from the characters or situations belonging, in all rights, to JK Rowling.
The Final Chapter
Severus looked up from his book towards the main office door, but the noise seemed not to come from that direction. He waited, slightly confused. Then the knocking came again and, with a start of surprise and breathy apprehension, he realised the sound was coming from the door to his right.
And wasn't he all too acutely aware of what had recently been placed just a small stride beyond that door?
He froze for a long moment and then, somewhat to his disgust, his heart rate caught up with his brain and started thundering. His breathing joined the melee by becoming too loud for the silence of his study, and the unaccountable consciousness that he hadn't glanced at a mirror this morning besieged him.
The knock-knock sounded for a third time.
Berating himself for a fool, he immediately bent his head back to his book, called "Come" in a tone that was at once satisfying and yet more biting than he had intended.
The door opened at the same speed with which he turned a page, his hand shaking slightly, he observed.
"Severus?" Harry said with a smile in every syllable. "May I come in?"
Severus grunted as though too immersed in his occupation to give the question thought.
"I can come back if you're busy."
Severus' heart raced even more and he choked on a vociferous "No!" and slid in a "Not at all" instead.
Content the tone was just as he could have wished, he finally looked up from his book and, leaning back in his chair as he did so, turned towards Harry.
His breath did a U-turn in his throat as his eyes took in the chimera before him; a chimera who was looking at him with hope writ in his eyes in every language he knew.
What a blessed sight!
Keeping his expression at a distinct variance with the heat in his blood, he raked his eyes over the messy hair, over pristine robes and down to the polished boots.
"What age are you?" he asked, honestly curious. "Thirty-five? Forty?"
Severus' own age, give or take a year. He mustered an "Ah" for want of a better response.
Harry obviously determined he was welcome and stepped farther into the room.
"May I?" he asked, with a wave of his hand towards the chair by Severus' desk; the one in which Albus normally sat. Severus acquiesced with a slight incline of his head.
He watched longingly as Harry smoothed his robes over his lap and gazed about him.
Severus was proud of his study and the bedroom through the curtained archway behind him. Both had been planned in minute detail to offer him everything he could imagine he would want: shelves upon shelves of books on myriad subjects; music to while away hours of blank time; plush textiles, intricately wrought by the brush to feel like an emotion in his hands; a large bed, secluded from sight and crafted in layers from soft feathers, crisp cottons and sumptuous velvets. A lot of money, hard-earned and long-saved, had gone into this home and he regretted none of it.
He therefore felt no need to trail Harry's gaze as it tested each corner and wall anew. Instead, he indulged in soaking up each feature of a face he found he had never forgotten, despite the years he had seen it look up at him with grey whiskers and a halo of fine white hair.
Harry tapped the desk with the pads of his fingers. "Huh!" Harry said interestedly. "It sounds just right."
Severus snorted his opinion but was secretly pleased with the observation.
Harry smiled and then opened his mouth, only to hesitate, his mouth hanging open in an 'O' of succulent pink. He swallowed; they both swallowed.
They sat like that: one waiting, the other trying to decide what should be said first.
"Thank you. For everything, Severus."
Severus tilted his head in question and Harry leaned forward, his nearness becoming intoxicating.
"I've already thanked you – many times – for all you did to help me defeat Voldemort. I've thanked you for saving my life and for being ready to sacrifice your name, your sanity, your... Everything."
Severus raised a brow.
"No, Severus, I am not suggesting you did it for me, but I was a beneficiary and so I thank you." He then fidgeted a bit in his seat, again tapping wood with his fingers, this time the arms of the chair. "But now I want to thank you for all you did for me as Headmaster. I wouldn't have made it through the first term if you, Albus and Minerva hadn't guided me. I wouldn't have made it these last sixty years without your continued wisdom and your company, and," he chuckled, "your timely interventions."
"My interventions?" Severus' other brow joined the first. "If you are referring to Mr Pimms, I merely advised that killing him would be messy and incur too much form-filling."
Harry chuckled again, a rich sound that echoed in Severus' heart, making it swell.
Then the laughter ceased and Harry's expression took on a more serious mien. "You've taught me a lot, Severus. You taught me how to appreciate learning for the sake of it, something that Hermione failed at spectacularly. I have developed a love for certain poetry under your guidance, can tell a good wine from the mediocre, and have learned the beauty of Bach and Rachmaninov." He paused to ensure he had Severus' full attention, and Severus was hard-pressed not to tell him he had it always. "You taught me to love again, Severus."
That was unexpected. So unexpected that Severus' whole being tingled with wishful thinking before he could guard against it.
"You appear surprised."
Severus was, implausibly so considering that the last twenty years had been punctuated by flirtatious comments and longing gazes from the other side of his portrait. Still, despite these lures, Severus had dampened his wayward hopes by excusing Harry's behaviour as an attempt at humour or as the bastion of the loneliness incumbent on a Hogwarts headmaster, and Harry in particular.
Never had Severus admitted, outside of dreams, that Harry had been doing anything other than amusing himself. Not cruelly, just a playful banter between friends. Severus had seen this happen between Albus and Minerva, between himself and Lucius, and even Harry and Ron Weasley.
That it could have been real had only been dreamt of, wondered at amid the fashioning of fantasy when in the seclusion of drawn velvet curtains.
"Do I look real?" Harry asked, interrupting Severus' stupefaction.
"I beg your pardon."
"Well, you do. It is quite strange... off-putting, even. From the other side you look just like a painting should. I remember noting how fine the brush strokes were on your robes. But here, now, this side, you look as though you are alive. I can't see any sign of a brush at all, or of paint."
Severus nodded his head, taking the time to jolt his emotions from the cliff-face of those other, more important thoughts.
"Indeed," he replied belatedly. "It seems that we all here have a semblance of reality shared only with each other and within our scenes. Have you not seen Albus or Minerva as yet?"
Harry grinned a skewed, wry affair that suggested Severus should already know the answer to that. He hoped he did.
"I see," Severus hedged.
"I would argue that you do not," Harry countered.
Severus blinked and his eyebrows jerked a trajectory that threatened to disappear beneath his hairline. "Then, please, feel free to elaborate."
As soon as the words were uttered, Severus knew an urge to recall them or at least define them better. That temptation grew on noting the green of Harry's eyes darken and sparkle with the invitation.
Too late, Severus became aware that the walls of his carefully structured world had grown thin and fragile. He held his breath, hoping its lack would preclude the whole coming down in a heap about his ears.
Long gone was the inarticulate boy who danced between temper and truculence when in Severus' presence. Now he faced a man of over a hundred, accompanied by a confidence the experience of those years had wrought in him. Unfortunately, too many of those experiences had twisted the Gryffindor mind towards Slytherin machinations and guile and so Severus braced himself.
"I love you, Severus, deeply and irrevocably."
Severus felt the walls shimmer and shake and he was inordinately thankful that Harry was aware enough and had the good grace to allow him a moment to recover his aplomb.
"This is no infatuation born of lust and passion, Severus; this was slow to form, built from the deep roots of respect and then rock-heavy friendship. This is a devotion of autumn, Severus.
"And I know you feel the same for me."
Severus felt a whimper uncurl in his chest and stutter into a low moan. He couldn't do this. This was too unearthly, too fantastical for Severus to trust in it. He just knew that were he to reach a hand to grasp the words, the meaning behind them, they would crumble into ash.
While Harry might think he loved him, that was when a barrier of the dead and the living was between them. That barrier ensured Severus was a safe choice as the focus for his feelings. Now that Harry too was dead, he would see that he had envisaged a pipe-dream. Severus was not – could never be, what Harry would want. And where would that leave Severus, were he to trust in hope?
Too much to risk now.
Therefore, he readied a sneer for his lips.
"Don't, Severus!" Harry reached out and placed a finger over Severus' mouth. "Don't hide from me... Not from me."
Severus swallowed the words he had planned on saying, but was left with a vacuum. How could he tell Harry how he felt? It was unthinkable!
Merlin only knew how Severus had come to this. Somehow, Harry had wormed his way into his dead heart and been cradled there by his phantasm soul. And Severus had permitted it; permitted that sliver of happiness to grow until the hard edges of Severus' life-long resistance had evanesced into nothingness.
Where was his strength?
Harry sighed and dropped his hand. "Let me prove it to you." He sat back in the chair and licked his lips in thought.
"You pinch the bridge of your nose when frustrated and tap your lips when in thought. Sarcasm is both your stalwart method of defence and a much-loved hobby. Texture is important to you, as are colours though you never wear them on your body. But that isn't for reasons of dramatis, rather to create a contrast to Elysian everywhere you go.
"You didn't have a potions lab painted because you like to wander down to that one in the dungeons, feeling the safety of your years there. Your idea of beauty is in a full library or ages-old woodland of bluebells. The scent of freshly laundered cotton causes your eyes to close in pleasure, while cooked onions will make you grimace. " He took a deep breath and, seeming to draw courage from it, continued in a stronger voice. "When you are aroused, your nostrils flare and your eyes darken to onyx, and you rearrange the sleeves of your robes to cover your shirt-cuffs.
"You love me deeply, but deny it to yourself because years ago you were erroneously taught you were unworthy. People think you hide every emotion, every human feeling behind shields to protect yourself from weakness and derision, but that is only true of a very few. You do openly feel and you do enjoy the finer, softer things for all to see if they knew what to look for. You just choose not to make a spectacle of yourself with overt display. Such a thing is anathema to your sense of propriety and your acute preference for privacy.
"I know you, Severus. I know that for years you have wanted to touch my face, my hands and share a glass of wine with your leg pressed against mine. I have known the truth of that for many years... as many as I have known the truth of wanting the same of you. That is why I had myself painted at this age, and why when I awoke this afternoon, I came straight to you. It is what we both want, what we have hoped for a long time now."
If Severus had had any doubts as to the beauty of words before, they had diminished in the embrace of those just spoken.
He leaned forwards and touched his lips to Harry's, pushing back the hitched breath with a swipe of his tongue to that wonderfully soft, moist flesh. A groan rumbled through the chest pressed against his and he wrapped an arm around Harry's back to urge it outwards, to share in it.
Hands scrabbled around his neck, pulling him in tight, and they shared more sounds, more breath.
Finally, Severus pulled back and did what Harry had known he had wanted. He spread his fingers wide to capture as much of Harry's face in his palm as he could, gently, lovingly.
"You are wrong, you know," he whispered breathlessly.
"Oh... How so?"
"I have never denied to myself how much I... care for you, just how much you care for me. If the book of my life were to be read..." Severus left his sentence hanging, not certain he could express himself adequately.
"Ah, but isn't it the final chapter that reveals the whole? The meaning of all that was before?"
Severus nodded, slowly, wonderingly. And then he reached out a tentative hand, both metaphorically and literally, and took hold of what he wanted.
"So be it," he whispered.