By Telanu (email@example.com)
Categories: AU, Angst, Drama
Summary: You can't always get what you want.
Disclaimer: J.K. Rowling owns these fine people, not me.
Dedication: This is for Marie, winner for Gen Art at Walking The Plank's February Fanart Contest. Sorry it's been so long in coming, and hope you like it! ('Cos if you don't, well, it's not a good prize, is it?)
Warning: Not a terribly happy piece.
The silence is death.
It comes each day with its shock
to sit on my shoulder, a white bird,
and peck at the black eyes
and the vibrating red muscle
of my mouth.
- Anne Sexton, "Silence"
Harry blinks, raising his head from the parchment he realises he has been studying for far too long. His attention has wandered again, and he clears his throat, feeling the dry rasp at the back. "My apologies, Michaelmas. I'm afraid I got a little distracted."
Michaelmas Timber, the current Transfigurations professor and the only son of a mother unfortunately fond of holidays, gives him a concerned look, but only nods. Harry appreciates his discretion, and once again mulls over the possibility of Michaelmas becoming deputy headmaster in a few years. He'll have to speak to Gloriana about it later today, see if she gets the same feeling, if he would be a worthy successor to her office – if Glory feels like talking about such things. It often distresses her.
Harry drags his mind back to the present and the balding man sitting before him. He smiles benignly and Michaelmas visibly relaxes – it's almost sad, how much his colleagues and employees crave that reassurance, that paternal face, that all-knowing look of competence. But Harry remembers back in the mists of time when he himself had sought such reassurance from an even older man named Albus Dumbledore, and knows what a far-reaching effect on morale it can have. "That sounds fine, Michaelmas," he says, calling to mind with effort what the younger – young – man had said a few moments ago. "Thoroughly on top of things, as always. I commend you. But you are certain, absolutely certain that your contact in Beijing has not been discovered?"
"As certain as I can be," Michaelmas says resignedly. "I run all his messages through the wringer, magical and otherwise. I don't think Yang's people have caught him." The yet, as always, hangs in the air between them.
Soon he will, of course, be discovered, and that will be the end of the anonymous contact in Beijing, and there will be no more messages. If Yang has created a reputation beyond murder and greed, it is for thoroughness. Soon she will not have "people" – she will have forces, armies at her side, eager to run over the earth and beyond it, if they can manage it for her sake. But Harry only nods.
"I suppose that's all there is, then," he says.
Michaelmas gives him another keen look, then nods as well, and rises from his chair. "Thank you, Headmaster. Good day to you."
"And to you, my friend." Harry musters the energy for a mischievous smile. "It's fifth period – Gryffindors and Slytherins for you, if I remember correctly?"
Michalemas shudders. "Sixth years," he says in a voice far more haunted than the one he uses when speaking of Yang, and Harry actually laughs. It feels surprisingly good, for all it hurts his chest, and he and Michaelmas are momentarily the brighter for it. The younger professor leaves smiling.
Nevertheless, it was a difficult meeting, both discouraging and tiring. Harry looks down at his schedule, and is relieved to see that only one item remains for the day: more of Glory's sensitivity to his needs. A quick talk with two erring first-year boys and then he can rest until dinner. He frowns. It's an irksome business, resting. He's never been used to it before, and now it feels far too late to start.
The boys, both Slytherins, enter with expressions that shift from mutinous to frightened. Whatever injuries they sustained in their battle have obviously been treated in the hospital wing, and the only sign of their altercation is the guilt that lingers on both round, red faces. Harry can feel himself assuming his kind-yet-stern face as naturally as breathing. The boys, already impossibly small and young, appear to shrink even more, and he feels a brief surge of amused pity. Hogwarts has changed radically since the day he put on the Sorting Hat, but Slytherin is and always will be the house of those with ambition, cunning and generally irascible tempers. Still, it is rare that its members fight amongst themselves, and Harry's instincts had perked enough on hearing the news that he'd stepped in on Glory's territory as Head of House and asked to speak to the boys himself. Mystified, and a little offended, she had nevertheless agreed; a Slytherin willing to trust another without reserve, when the other is a Gryffindor to boot. A real treasure, Glory…times have changed indeed…
The students are such fascinating creatures. At times Harry can't tell whether his consuming interest in them is that of a father figure, or that of a scientist observing a bizarre new specimen. Such infinite variety and complexity, no matter the colour of their skin or their heritage – a microcosm of the human race within the walls of Hogwarts for him to study all day, at his leisure. As he listens to the boys' stumbling explanations, excuses and apologies, Harry has to hide a smile. "Specimens" indeed – does a day go by when he doesn't feel Severus' influence on his thoughts?
In the end, it is nothing particularly complex. Nothing sinister. The boys dislike each other; their families have disliked each other for generations, as families are wont to do on occasion. One is poor, the other rich; Harry is unaccountably reminded of the nearly-forgotten hatred between Draco Malfoy and Ron. Funny how one thing can remind you of something else entirely, something long disappeared – he can no longer remember Draco's face. Another observation to file away in his studies. He admonishes the boys, assigns appropriate punishment, writes a note for Glory.
It is not until he sets the quill down that he notices the trembling in his hands.
Time to retire, then. It is only a few hours past lunch, and he's already useless for the rest of the day. Harry can feel his lips drawing into a grimace, and he works hard to push the bitterness away; he has been Headmaster of Hogwarts for fifteen years and is not accustomed to short days, or feebleness, or inactivity. But things change. Bodies change, and weaken. It does no good to get angry. It does no good to…resent.
Plenty of other people already resent it on his behalf, anyway.
He sits for a moment with his eyes closed before slowly rising from the desk, and then making his way – just as slowly – to the door at the back of the round office. Headmasters of generations past watch him compassionately; somewhere up there, Dumbledore is among them, but Harry no longer looks up. He knows what the old man's expression will be. Soon his own portrait will join them. Sooner than is convenient, no doubt.
He passes through the well-known and well-used study on the way from his office to his private rooms, his mind once again turning to the unwelcome issue of Yang. It must be a sign of his age that he is becoming so reflective, seeing patterns in everything where once he would have seen only problems to be addressed and solved.
Sometimes people tell him that he is the greatest wizard in the world, which is true. Certainly the greatest since Dumbledore. Maybe the greatest, period. And great wizards must have Dark wizards too; that's the standard by which they are measured, Harry muses. Dumbledore had his Grindelwald. Harry had his Voldemort. And now, some new star will have his or her Yang. It disturbs him that said star has not yet appeared; that no burning beacons are flaming on the side of Light, announcing, "I am the Chosen, who will fight this threat." It would make things much simpler. But while everyone wishes for simple, only a fool depends on it, and Harry Potter has never been a fool. He has laid his plans as carefully as he can, considering. It will most likely be left to another to execute them, but they are laid nevertheless.
He enters his private chambers, shutting the door behind him before sinking into the nearest chair. His eyes would like nothing better than to stare dully off into space, if only for a few moments before resuming their task of ever-watchfulness, but they are immediately arrested by twin burning coals. Of course.
Harry looks into the fierce eyes of Severus Snape, sitting in his own chair in the corner and watching his husband with a glare that has lost none of its intensity over the decades. A book lies in his lap, resting on one thin hand; the other hand clutches the arm of the chair a little harder than is normal. Harry quickly musters a weak smile. "Hullo, you."
A dark eyebrow raises, the question routine by now.
"Well," Harry says, eyeing their enormous bed longingly, "it was a long day, I'm afraid, Severus."
I'm afraid. He isn't, not really. But Severus is. Afraid, resentful, all of it. Harry can see it in the former Potions Master's rigid stance as he rises from the chair and strides over to the cabinet by the window, pulling out a familiar blue jar.
Harry winces. The stuff tastes awful. But he drinks it down, welcoming the pleasant, numbing sensation that eases the clenching pain in his chest, abdomen, legs, head, everywhere. It even seems to make the fatigue recede, though that won't last for long. Sometimes Harry thinks the almost continual exhaustion is worse than the pain. At least pain can be numbed; short of giving him a continuous feed of Pepper-Up Potion, or somesuch, there is nothing that can be done to revive Harry's failing vigour. Not anymore.
Severus watches Harry like a hawk as he drinks, the black eyes as startling as ever under the mop of shockingly white hair. At one hundred and eleven, he's aged well. Clear, sharp eyesight, limber movement, and – most of all – the devastating mind remains wholly intact. It is the mind that powers the movements and the impossible eyes. Harry can't imagine doing without it.
Of course, for seventy years he hadn't been able to imagine doing without Severus' voice either.
He gives the jar, half-emptied, back to his husband with a smile of thanks. Severus nods curtly, places a cool hand on Harry's forehead, lips pinched together. Then, as silently as always, he helps Harry out of his chair and toward their bed to rest.
Harry can't put his finger on it, the exact day when Severus Snape stopped speaking out loud. It's only been a year or two, and he still feels the absence of his husband's voice keenly; it is – was – a voice that could alternately flay him alive, leaving them both trembling and hurt in the aftermath, or a voice that could seduce him as recently as…well, a year or two ago. That's as precise as Harry or anybody else can get. It was, after all, a gradual process.
These days Severus speaks with his eyes. They burn. Often with concern, when Harry is having a particularly difficult day, sometimes with pleasure when a new potion eases the pain and lets them spend a little more of the day awake together – but always there, behind the concern or pleasure, lurks the rage. Harry, experienced in these things now, can almost taste it in the air Severus breathes, can certainly taste it in his kisses. It is the rage of a child who sees things aren't going properly, in spite of an adult's extravagant lies to the contrary. Severus and Harry have fought tremendous battles, both epic and personal, just to sit quietly in the Headmaster's Quarters at Hogwarts, condemned by no one. Severus in particular has toiled, fighting against, at various times, public opinion, his own conscience, Harry's stubbornness, Voldemort's machinations. It took years, but like any Slytherin he'd always kept the end goal in mind. Harry has tried, over and over, to explain to him that life is not a goal, but a continous striving. Severus has never wanted to understand that; one connives and plots to achieve something, not merely to go on conniving and plotting. And his plan, stretched out over the decades, has led here.
Of course, outliving Harry was never part of it. More, surviving to see yet another wave of Darkness rising was never part of it. For all his cynicism and bitter experience, Severus, Harry knows, had somehow hoped everything was going to turn out all right, at least in their lifetimes. That battles could be left to the next generation to fight or, failing that, that they would at least fight them together, one last time.
It doesn't matter that there is an army of Weasleys, redheaded and otherwise, quietly taking over the country and spreading beyond its borders, gifting them with innumerable godchildren and great-godchildren. It doesn't matter that it's been decades since Severus had a real fight with said Weasleys, or even Sirius Black, because at some point old men fighting each other become absurd. What matters is that Harry is being eaten from the inside out, slowly and painfully, by a disease for which neither the wizarding nor the Muggle world has a cure, even now. What matters is that the only thing that matters to Severus will die. Soon.
Harry lies down on the bed, sighing in relief as Severus crawls in behind him, tugging up the covers and wrapping his wiry body around Harry, giving much-welcomed warmth. The Headmaster of Hogwarts murmurs with contentment, and presses a kiss to his husband's palm. After seventy-odd years of marriage you really get to know a person rather well, he decides. By now, there is no part of Severus' body he does not know and has not touched, even if he hasn't touched some of them in a while. Although he read in a Muggle scientific journal once that the human body continually sheds cells – skin, hair, the like. The body is a new one every day. He likes the idea of that. The idea that, no matter how long he stays by Severus' side, he will never fully get the measure of the man. He feels himself relax, and in spite of himself, his eyes begin to drift shut. He does not wish to sleep – he wishes to lie awake here and talk to Severus about his day, maybe see what his former Professor has to not-say about Michaelmas as a deputy headmaster –
– pain. His body suddenly wrenches around his stomach, a sharp cry issuing from his throat as he is wracked with another agonising spasm. They come more frequently these days. Severus gasps, but says nothing, merely tightening his hold around Harry, eyes flashing around wildly for sight of the blue jar. Harry shakes his head as soon as he is able and manages, "Solamen – won't – help." Not with this. It will pass in a few moments – it has to, eventually, one way or the other –
…it does. He slumps against the mattress, against Severus, as his muscles relax. His breath comes in deep, effortful gasps that are nonetheless welcome, for all their pain. Not yet. Not yet. Managing to look behind at Severus, he sees the same thought reflected in those horrified ebony eyes. "It's over," he manages through teeth that are still tightly clenched, and as he relaxes further a soft "oh" escapes him before he can stop it. He winces as he feels Severus going too still behind him; the sound betrayed far more pain than he had intended. Quickly, he claws for Severus' hand and grips it as tightly as he can, wincing again when he realises it's not nearly tight enough.
He used to have Seeker-strong hands. He used to tease Severus, when pinning him down, on the bed or elsewhere, about athletes having certain advantages over academicians. Used to, used to, useless, Potter. The past can't be relived – except in your own head, and what's the use of that?
Now it is Severus who holds him tightly pinned to the bed, to keep him from inadvertently hurting himself during a spasm. It is Severus whose sinews control their world. Severus, twenty-one years older than Harry and perfectly, utterly healthy, with as many as forty more years of life ahead of him.
Harry sighs, slowly rolls over, raises a hand to stroke the beloved, lined face. He smiles at Severus' fierce lip-biting. "Thank you. I love you." He makes sure to say the words every day, though more for his own sake; he suspects Severus recognizes them for what they are, a continuous in-case-this-is-goodbye, and hates them. But Harry feels they are too important to stop saying. Sometimes he think they are all that needs to be said, and then, when they're done, he can lapse into silence like his husband.
The dark lashes flutter for a moment, and then cool, dry lips are placed to the faded scar on his forehead. Bony fingers comb through Harry's long silver hair – too long to care for easily, especially now, but it is his one concession to vanity, as Severus long ago absolutely forbade him a beard. He closes his eyes and holds the memory of the voice close. "I'm not getting bloody rugburn because you've got it in your head to be exactly like Albus Dumbledore. Which you can't." Spot-on, as always. Severus never knew how to govern his tongue when speaking to mere mortals, but he spoke brutal truths. Not anymore, of course. Harry thinks it's a damned shame; he's the only one who can read exactly what those eyes mean to say, and although Sirius can pick up on the occasional vicious glare, it's not the same as having a stinging insult slung at him, of the kind only Snape could produce. Harry knows his godfather misses it. It defined their enmity for so long.
In the beginning of the silence, Harry found himself overcompensating, as if trying to speak enough for the both of them, coaxing Severus to respond. Now that he has accepted it for what it is – unspeakable grief, among other things – he can simply lie in their comfortable bed, and stroke that face, and plumb the depths of those eyes. Their marriage has not always been – has never been easy; there was a span of almost six years somewhere in there when they'd teetered on the edge of separation. Harry wonders if Severus regrets now that they did not part ways. His husband is almost obsessively loyal in his care for him, but occasionally, as is only natural, Harry can see the "oh god when will this be over please please let it be over soon" in his eyes. It disappears quickly, replaced by the more usual "don't go not yet," but it's unforgettable nevertheless. More than anything else, Harry hates being a burden.
This last spasm…it was quick, but bad. "They're getting worse," he says out loud, and Severus nods jerkily, kissing his forehead again. "How long until dinner?" Severus holds up two fingers. "Two hours…I should…I don't want to sleep."
The stern look in the eyes informs Harry that yes, he should. And then the resigned quirk of lips allows that Harry will undoubtedly do as he pleases anyway.
Harry wants to say something about Yang, and the contact in Beijing, but doesn't. There is nothing Severus can do about it right now, and it will only upset him. The only thing to do is lie here, resting, waiting, passing the time. Harry has laid his plans. He shifts in Severus' arms, brushing aside a strand of white hair from his husband's face almost playfully as he smiles.
"Well, my love," he says. "What do you think of Michaelmas Timber?"