Harry arrived at the southern castle gate at quarter to ten, having watched from a high window as his classmates had left, straggling towards Hogsmeade in pairs and clusters, the sound of laughter and babbled conversation rising to the window, as if their laughter was lighter than air. He had seen Malfoy pass, pale hair incandescent in the morning light, in the company of hulking Goyle and Crabbe, whose guffaws came a beat too late after each of Malfoy's sneered comments. He had recognized the flaming copper of each Weasley-head, seen Hermione walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Ron, and seen the way her hand silently slipped into his. And he had felt removed from the situation by more than just a pane of glass.
He leaned against the wall of the gate, turning his face towards the sun. The sky was startlingly blue, an achingly clear shade that seemed to have spilled from an errant paint tube. Above a still-green lawn that sloped down to the lake, the trees stretched now-naked limbs heavenward. The lake itself mirrored and swallowed the sky, placid. Others might have found the placidity comforting, calming, but instead, Harry felt that nature was looking on in cool indifference. Beneath that glassy surface, he knew, lay depths where murk spilled like oil.
Minutes trickled by, the mixture of anticipation and anxiety warping the flow of time. What was it that he expected of Snape? What was it that he needed? He had no answer. But Snape alone did not see him as the savior-to-be of the wizarding world, halo already in place. Savior, he thought bitterly. You'd think that they know, already, what happens to saviors and saints. You'd think that they'd know there's no victory march, that the halo only comes after a crown of thorns and a bloody end. He thought of Hermione, arguing with Ron over his hospital bed—that he was a pawn to Dumbledore, if a valued one. He suppressed a shiver, and wrapped his robes closer, as if it was the weather that had chilled him.
Savior, despite the fact that all the sacrifices seem to be made by others. The blood of others, spilled to protect me. I didn't save them, and it seems I can't save myself. As if I deserved saving. If the glances that Snape had spared had been of contempt, mixed with loathing, that was likely more appropriate, free of the fairy tale that others seemed to determined to press upon him. All he had was the instinct that Snape understood what it was to be isolated, to be cast in a role without a choice and sent to play his part to the end, that he had known grief during the last war, no matter which side he had felt it for. That, and that fragment of tenderness in those dark eyes, a memory dreamlike now. He felt the tight hunger that bound the hollow places within him, the hunger that dared hope for things that he hardly deserved.
At last, Snape appeared. Harry started, straightened quickly, moved a half-step forward, but Snape did not pause; he passed as though Harry were an inconvenient piece of statuary, not warranting even a flicker of the eyes. The jolt of shock was tempered when Harry processed the words that had fallen from the professor's unmoving lips, dropped like a stray scrap of parchment: "Wait five minutes, then follow."
Harry reversed his forward movement, carefully reassembled his slouch against the gate. But of course. He can't be seen with me, Harry realized, tracking the movement of the dark figure along the grassy lakeshore. But then…why meet here, in the open, by the lake? Why here, on these shores; why not in the damp shadows of the dungeon; why not the infirmary; why not anywhere else, in a nearly-unoccupied castle? He felt the knot in his stomach clench tightly. Unfinished business, he thought, the borrowed—stolen—memory of that spring day flashing bright through his open eyes. It was with no small measure of relief that he saw Snape pass that particular spot, following the rim of the lakeshore to a copse of still-green trees, within which he vanished from view.
Harry straightened once again, and walked with his best approximation of a lazy stroll towards the lake. He fought the urge to cut around that sunny patch of lakeshore, that particular beech tree. Instead, he forced himself to it and pressed his palm to the smooth plate of bark, the trunk thicker than in memory, swollen with the passage of time. He realized, belatedly, that Snape could likely see clearly from the grove, see Harry's little reverie. Let him see. Let him understand. Let it all be bared now. The sins of the father, passed on to the son, he thought. And I was so proud of my father. What expression would be on his face, now, to see his son asking Snape for help? And Sirius. What would they say? Snivellus. Harry could imagine Sirius' voice, filled with contempt and the prospect of amusement. I expected more of you, Harry, said his father's voice, the dream voice, colored with faint surprise, accusation, disappointment. Well, I expected more of you, too, dad, Harry thought, and turned to the pine grove.
In the deep shade struck through with the autumn sun and the air sharp with pitchy scent of pine sap, Harry blinked as his eyes adjusted to the changed light. The clearing came into slow focus, the professor's shape among the dark tree trunks, then the planes of the pale face, the dark eyes.
Harry had mentally rehearsed dozens of speeches the night before—apologies and rages, confessions, pleas and accusations; most of them a volatile mixture of all elements. But now, he drew his shoulders straight, bracing himself physically against his emotion, and, forcing his voice steady, low and formal, Harry spoke, "Sir, I want to apologise. For the way that my father and Sirius treated you. And for the things I said during…Remedial Potions. Most of all for calling you a coward. " His eyes fixed upon Snape's own, searching the dark eyes for some expression, some thread of response to serve as a slender lifeline. His heart beat against his ribs, time slowing—as it did in Quiddich, as his fingers clasped the Snitch, or as, falling through the air, in the instant before he struck the ground.
Snape had thought that he was immune to surprise. Harry is making a habit of proving me wrong, in more ways than one. When had he begun using his first name? When had he unconsciously relinquished the formal name that kept the boy at a distance? Harry. He had watched as the boy crossed the grounds, as he hesitated at the tree, and realized that his choice of meeting place had perhaps been a poor one. But he had not expected an apology, and not an apology on James' behalf. The way that Harry had squared his shoulders sent a pang through him that he fought to suppress, fighting the protective paternalistic instinct that rose in him with the knowledge of the weight that the boy bore across those narrow shoulders. He had a sudden, acute sense of the vulnerability of the moment.
"Your father's actions are not your responsibility to bear. Were all we bound by the faults of our fathers—" He allowed the pause to linger. Potter has seen a few fragments of my childhood memories, such as they were, Snape thought, and those samples of Tobias Snape were quite enough to show his particularly grievous faults. "—we would be condemned at birth. Your apology, on the other hand I will accept." There was a subtle unwinding of tension in Harry's face, the jaw unclenching with a slight exhalation of breath. He realized suddenly that if apology was owed to him, that he owed an apology to Harry. As he had owed an apology, never delivered, to Lily. He was not in the habit of making apologies, not in the habit of being wrong. Apologies he had made as a child, to his father, as a man, to Voldemort. Never to those who were truly owed. And a part of him—the wounded, angry young man that he had been—raged against the idea of apology, though he knew in his heart that it was due, that it was necessary, though the boy would not imagine that he was owed. My transgressions against him warrant an apology. There is a debt that I owe, and if it requires a sacrifice…if it requires a sacrifice of pride, so much the better. Let the price be high, let it be the last thing that I cling to, now. Your pride is weakness, foolishness. The peace between them was fragile, easily crushed, and if this was what was required…Control youself, he thought.
"Upon the condition" he continued, forcing himself to shape words that went against every instinct and habit that he possessed, "that you excuse the particular set of assumptions I held regarding you, and the actions that I made predicated upon them." Snape winced internally, the words spoken as coldly as if he were describing a potion formulation. Harry nearly managed to hide his surprise, mustering a nod and an "Agreed, sir," only a few seconds late. Snape could sense, even without using legimency, the emotion that burned bitter within the boy, the dark tones of despair and caustic self-loathing. Should he speak or allow Harry the silence to fill with the question or confession?
Harry found among the press of his thoughts and shocks the question that he needed to ask, every word feeling doubly weighted, doubly sharp in this shadowed grove. "In the last war—everyone that was lost, so many—how did anyone bear it? How did you bear it?" One dark eyebrow arched upwards at this question.
"I cannot speak for anyone else, but as for myself…occlumency." Oh, gods, Harry thought. Snape continued, voice softer, "I understand what it is to make a misjudgement in a time of turmoil, and what it is to lose one dearly loved because of that mistake." There was a flash of fugitive tenderness in his gaze, then, as his eyes fixed on some memory, and Harry wondered who it had been that Snape had lost. "To allow grief to rule is to surrender to emotion. Occlumency would allow you to control that emotion. Not to eliminate it, but to bury it deeply enough to… continue to function. To fight."
Harry saw the spark and rise of grief in Snape, felt the brief, absurd, impulse to make some gesture of comfort, but had no sense of what action to take. The rituals of affection were strange to Harry, raised in a house barren of love or pity, more a prison than a home. But then, he supposed, they were hardly familiar to Snape. There were no moments of tenderness to be found in the meetings of the Death Eaters, no gestures of love in the house of Ellen Prince. He had lowered his guard for an instant, Harry thought, with the sensation that he had intruded upon him in some way. Then his eyes returned to Harry's, flat again, his tone cool. "You would find Dumbledore willing to resume lessons in the subject with you."
"Dumbledore-" Harry blurted, then more carefully, "Sir, I'd prefer it if you would teach me." as if it were a simple, polite request. Not as if his soul had been stretched over the anvil, beaten by the hammer of anguish, the strike unrelenting. Snape turned toward him sharply, as if seeing him anew. He had no words to convince the man; eloquence lost, lips powerless to give shape to emotions, only this. "Please."
The boy had reconstructed a paper-thin façade of stability, normality, since that collapse in the tower, but just beneath the surface, turmoil seethed. The effort required to cling to just that was evident in the tension of his frame, the pallor of his face, the slight tremor of his hands.
This is the point at which a decision must be made, he thought. In that face, those eyes, was everything that he had to lose. To the dark, one way, or another. I should turn now, turn and leave. If I stay, I will only fail him, as I failed Lily. What could I offer, how could I protect him? He haggled with himself over these slender sums, so weighted by his perilous emotions. The dark lord will find out, sooner or later, and then I will be only another weapon to further wound. But if I leave…who will save him then? Harry was drowning, still; he could see the pitch of grief in his eyes, in the depths that held such despair. If there is any hope for us at all, it lies in each other. He knew that he would die at the hands of the dark, one way or another; he had accepted this. What do I have to offer? My life, Dumbledore had said. "Very well," he said, letting the words slide, then fall like a gavel, like an axe, and Harry offered the briefest ghost of a smile. Snape felt a sudden, fatalistic sense of calm. This is how it will end. He would protect the boy, as Lily had. With his life, and with his death. And then—perhaps in time, he would dare to hope for redemption.
a/n: I felt that Snape should/would apologize, but I'm not quite sure that I pulled it off—it certainly isn't something that would come easily to his character. I hope that this chapter is cohesive with the rest of the story—I lost some momentum with my (ahem) extended break.
But I want to thank everyone for your reviews! You all are the reason that I came back to this story, because I kept getting notification in my inbox, and had that sense of guilt at leaving this unfinished, and leaving you hanging. I think that this story is finished, as far as I can foresee. I know it's sort of a terrible ending, and I apologize for that; writing this last chapter was a bit of a slog. I do, however, plan to write a "Harry gets Rescued from the Dursleys! (by Snape!) fic" during August (I have a 50,000 word writing project planned for July)—so if you're interested, check back for that. Again, thank you all so much for reading and for reviewing! 3