Snape looked as if he'd just taken a bludger to the head, dazed and shocky and rather drunk around the eyes. The snakes were gone. In their place was –
Harry wasn't sure what. A silvery-pearl, iridescent sheen banded Snape's throat, swirling and flickering with an internal fire that pulsed, patterned like the underglow of opals. In the few seconds Harry stood watching, it stopped circling altogether and the moth-wing brilliance of colours faded into Snape's skin. They paled but didn't disappear completely, still glimmering and catching the light as Snape moved and breathed.
"Cripes," Harry said. "I think I did it." He straightened up and ruffled his hair into a haystack, gaping. "Actually, I don't know what I just did."
Snape wheezed faintly. It might have been laughter. "Merlin. Why am I not surprised."
"It's kind of beautiful," Harry told him, and then held his breath as Snape's fingers came up to explore this new addition to his body. "So, um, how does it feel?"
"On the outside," Snape said dreamily, "like silk. Rather pleasant, actually. Inside?" An introspective frown creased his features, distant and pained. Harry worried at his thumbnail, then jumped when Snape focused on him with a sharpness that hurt. "I'm still bound to something."
Harry frowned. That couldn't be right.
"It's only to be expected," Snape said, but he turned his face away. "If our positions were reversed, I doubt I could have managed any better."
"It's me," Harry blurted, realising. "Shit. You're bound to me."
Snape stood up, looking ready to explode. Harry searched through the threads of magic inside him. "I'm sorry." Remembering, he held out his arm. Snape stared at the opalescent ribbon shining faintly around Harry's wrist.
"I know you hate the idea, but listen. It doesn't have to matter. You're still free to go. You must know by now I'm not going to kill you. And I," Harry paused, making sure he spoke the truth before he said aloud, "I won't stop you from leaving."
Snape wrapped his arms around himself as if chilled. "Really, Potter? So sure of yourself?"
"Um," Harry said. He had a point. "Why don't we step outside and see?"
"We could do that. You might want to put some clothes on first."
"Right." While Harry scrambled around, Snape raised the wand and started summoning his own clothes and shoes, whatever personal items remained. They were all Muggle; his robes had burnt to nothing. He transfigured the scorched bedspread into a winter coat, then shrank the CDs and stuffed them in his pockets. The other clothes went into a leather bag, which he slung over his shoulder.
Dressing, Harry watched as Snape made his meagre preparations, and his heart started to race. Snape was taking him at his word. He was going to leave. Not tomorrow, not at some future date after Harry'd had time to get used to the idea, but now. Merlin, this was happening too fast.
Snape crossed to the loo in the corner, taking in the sooty, smashed glass and potions stains burnt into the tiles. Curtly, he banished them, then went inside and shut the door.
Fully clothed and about to fly apart at the seams, Harry looked around. More and more strands of green were feeling their way across the walls, looping and sneaking and shuffling, sprouting small, shy leaves. The vines really did ripple like snakeskin, emerald and supple. Anxiety twitched inside him, and suddenly he understood. He didn't panic, but he held himself very still. God forgive him, Snape was right. He needed to go. Now, in fact. They needed to hurry. Because Harry's possessiveness hadn't been exorcised with his ghosts. It was biding its time, climbing his insides, as resilient and unstoppable as the wards patiently re-weaving their nets.
He hadn't been lying to Snape about his short-lived generosity. The longer Snape delayed, the harder it would be for Harry to step back and let him go. The idea of never seeing him again triggered a hundred new shoots of selfishness, all quivering with hunger, all sprouting from a central conviction of mine.
He raised his arm, holding the narrow strip of iridescence up to his eyes. All he had to say was, "Come with me," and Snape would have no choice but to follow him to Grimmauld Place.
He doubted, as betrayals went, that even Voldemort could go one better.
Harry might not be a saint, but he wasn't a monster. Still, the temptation to at least ask made his mouth go dry.
He was clutching the empty photo frame when the door clicked open and Snape emerged. Harry's heart still ached for the child who'd gone up in smoke. And even though he hadn't liked Eileen, that didn't change the fact that she'd been Snape's mum. He touched one of the shreds still clinging to the metal. It disintegrated.
Hand hiding his throat, Snape strode up to him.
"I'm impressed, Potter," he said, sounding actually rather irked. "It's a very good thing for the wizarding world that you have no interest in being the next Dark Lord. You would be unbelievably hard to resist. Your violence would come veiled in beauty, your darkness in light. People would love you, and as a consequence the world would never be rid of you."
Harry wasn't sure what to say to that. "I guess that means you don't like it much, eh?"
Snape glared. "Why do I waste my words on you? I didn't say that." He gestured irritably. "Shall we go down?"
Harry followed Snape out in silence. They were halfway down the stairs from the landing before he noticed. "Hey!"
"Yes?" A small shred of amusement curled in Snape's voice
"Yes, Potter, these are stairs. What of it?"
"There's no spell! I don't feel like I'm about to fall into – into nothing."
"The spell burned," Snape said. "Like all the rest of the magic. It's just an ordinary staircase now."
"So going down doesn't mean going up?"
Snape snorted and half-turned to look at him, one hand on the railing. "It never did. You were always climbing up. You just believed you were climbing down. That's one reason it was so disorienting. The spell used your empirical confusion against you."
"Oh." Harry put a hand on Snape's shoulder. He hadn't planned to; he hadn't even been thinking about it, except in the sense that his entire being was saturated with the thought: "Let me come with you."
Snape sighed and turned completely around to face him. "Shall we have this out now? Because once I'm outside, I don't intend to stand about arguing until the Aurors show up."
Harry said quickly, "Look, I won't get in your way. I promise. And I can help cover your tracks so that no one ever finds us – "
"Yes, because running away with the most famous celebrity in the wizarding world is an incalculable aid to disappearing off the face of the earth."
"And I'm legal and everything, which could be very useful, because you're – "
"An escaped Death Eater," Snape supplied helpfully. "Who may be cursed on sight. Yes, a brilliant idea to play decoy for a dangerous fugitive and end up taking the hit for him. Keep talking, Potter. Your every word confirms my original decision."
Harry was starting to get annoyed. "But what will you do? How will you live? All you've got is a bag of clothing and an unregistered wand!"
"Speaking of which." Snape pulled the wand from his coat pocket. "I never thanked you for this."
"I always meant to give it to you," Harry grumbled. "You kind of ruined the surprise by – um – "
"Taking the transparency of your intentions at face value?" Even in the darkness, it was possible to make out Snape's smirk. "I needed the wand when I needed it, Potter, not when it pleased you to bribe me with it."
Harry blushed. He hadn't expected Snape to figure that part out.
"As for funds, Albus set some money aside for me in a vault outside Britain. If I fail to collect it within seven years, it reverts to Hogwarts for scholarship purposes. I'm afraid Hogwarts loses out this time."
Surrendering, Harry leaned forward and rested his face against Snape's neck. Around them, the wards rustled. It smelled like smoke on the stairs, and even though the falling spell had been consumed by a stronger magic, the acute memory of not wanting to fall, the spell-induced sense of there being nothing down below to catch him, skated along his nerves.
Snape didn't push Harry away. Neither did he embrace him.
"What you just said," Harry muttered, blinking against the lenses of his glasses. "None of that would matter if you wanted me to come with you. So I guess you don't." He really hoped Snape would say something to that, but the git kept his own counsel. Maybe he was only tolerating Harry's presence. Maybe it was the excess of ghosts and guilt in his system, in which case Harry should take pity on him and stop with all the touching.
He straightened up. He could see Snape's collar in the dark, a faint, rainbow smudge of beauty. "Fuck, I'm going to miss you. You'd laugh if you knew how much."
"Potter, you're being an idiot," Snape replied, echoing a little in the dark stairwell. Even his voice withheld any scrap of comfort. "Don't you understand? I have more ghosts to bury than you can possibly imagine. I'm resigned to the fact that I'll end up having to live with a goodly number of them, perhaps forever. But you," he grasped Harry by the shoulders and slid his hands up to Harry's face, his thumbs pressing into the middle of his lips and smoothing outward, over and over, "you're a walking manifestation of guilt. My guilt. Your presence is a constant reminder of events I would prefer to leave behind."
"Okay," Harry said. "That kind of hits below the belt."
Snape kissed him. That was even more below the belt, but Harry was willing to take what he could get. "You haunt me, Potter," Snape said, his breath hot. "That's the long and the short of it. You come to me trailing ghosts. I'd rather not take the past with me, but I've no choice. Except for you." Snape paused, then passed his fingers across Harry's forehead, outlining the horcrux scar. They were both quiet, remembering. "Stay here and have the life you deserve, free from everyone else's sins. Especially mine."
"I don't have a life here," Harry said.
"Then make one."
"I thought," Harry said angrily, "that's what we were doing."
The wards made slithering sounds around them. "Think again."
Harry wondered how it was possible to feel so strongly about someone, to the point that they were a constant, gnawing, hungry ache that you carried with you everywhere, and still there would be moments when you'd happily throttle them with the collar conveniently provided for that purpose.
Snape gave a little grunt. "It's ridiculous to argue about this." He turned and finished descending the stairs, his footfalls stealthy, the quick, quiet steps of a boy who'd learned how to sneak about the house without being heard. For a moment Harry stayed where he was, feeling that they hadn't argued nearly enough. Then he thumped down the steps after Snape, making as much of a racket as possible.
Snape was already groping around the shadowy alcove for the latch. Finding it, he pressed down, leaning his weight into the hinged wall and pushing the shelving unit far enough open that they could squeeze out.
Partway through, Snape stopped, blocking the opening and leaving Harry stuck behind him. Before Harry could ask if something was wrong, Snape reached back, grabbed his hand and then scraped past the wooden shelves, leading him out. "Potter, look." His voice was almost a laugh, breaking slightly on Harry's name.
The sitting room was full of roses.
Far ahead of the upstairs wards, the vines here had grown lush, thick, restored to their former glory. They covered the walls and ceiling, hung nodding in the window, cast their glow across the room. They filled the now-empty bookshelves, knocking the ash of burnt books to the floor. Their colours were both delicate and intense, dark gold, pale orange, stippled with silky red edges. They blazed from wall to wall, but they didn't burn.
"There, you see?" Snape said. "From the blood of one miserable child, something beautiful can grow." He looked intensely satisfied, his black eyes gleaming as he turned to face Harry.
"This is what I've been trying to tell you," he said. "I've given you back your innocence. You have a fighting chance now. You're capable of fashioning a life that's not simply one long penance for having saved the world."
These words were very cold comfort, and Harry looked away. Snape gripped his jaw and forced Harry to look back at him. "You're the one beautiful thing I've ever made in my life," he said sharply, "and you want to cheapen it by following me. No, Potter." He released Harry's jaw and waited, as if expecting some sort of argument or objection. Harry's failure to speak evidently implied assent, because Snape nodded. "I'm bitter. I always have been. I'm full of ghosts, and that will never change. Anything pure that comes near me won't stay that way for long."
Still holding Harry by the hand, Snape led the way to the front door. Petals dropped onto him as they walked under the wards. Not in thick handfuls, but one here, one there, small touches, a fire-bright kiss sliding down his black hair, before each petal fell off and drifted to the floor. The roses didn't try to claim him; no thorns clawed at his coat, no blood beaded on his skin.
Harry felt them, too. No, actually, they were too weightless for that. It was more their scent as they brushed his cheeks in passing, the faint, remote sweetness, the hint of dew on a cold morning.
The rose-laden vines swayed, parting as they neared the front door, and Snape's chest expanded as he drew a deep breath.
Harry wanted him to keep talking; the moment when Snape would slip from his grasp was approaching steadily, as if they were walking toward a mirror, watching themselves in it, and the moment Snape reached his reflection was the moment Snape would disappear.
Harry didn't know what to do. "Shouldn't you say good-bye? To," he waved a hand, "to everything."
"I said my good-byes to this house a long time ago," Snape replied, opening the door. He stepped through it, into the world.
Concentrating very hard, Harry followed him. He wanted Snape to be free. He was afraid the collar might pick up on the treacherous undercurrents of emotional coercion, though, so he was silent and preoccupied as he trailed Snape into the street.
It was sunset. Salmon-bellied clouds burned in the western light, but the brisk wind had opened up the sky. Most of the street lay in shadow, except for a scattering of upper-storey windows brilliant with reflected fire. It was the dinner hour, and the few families around Snape's house had retreated inside. A car crossed at the intersection, accelerating with a growl.
Snape stepped off the kerb and walked into the middle of the tarmac. His head was tilted up, as if daring the collar to stop him. As he went, his fingers slipped from Harry's, and it was all Harry could do not to grab them back. He didn't, though. He kept his word.
Snape was utterly indifferent to the street around him; he looked instead at the sky. The seconds passed, and an expression of triumph possessed his face. Under his heavy black coat, he was still wearing the burnt t-shirt, which left bare the subtle markings around his throat. They seemed to pick up the sinking rays of the sun, shimmering with the lustre of opals.
Harry fisted his hands in his pockets. He wouldn't touch. That was all over now. He'd behave himself.
Snape looked past him then, his black eyes exultant, alive. "Potter," he said. "For God's sake, turn around."
Harry's muscles locked. The moment his back was turned, Snape would Disapparate. He turned anyway, leaden and cold, because Snape wished it, then was surprised to feel him step closer, the wings of his coat brushing Harry's arm.
The house. Good God, the house. Streaked with the last light of the sun, it flamed, incandescent. Roses crammed every window, spilled over the bricks, wound around the chimney pot and the outside pipes. Harry stared in wonder, his mouth open. The bitter house of Snape's childhood was practically unrecognisable, joyously alight, burnished and a-blaze with a red-gold so deep it rivalled the sun. There was a splendour about it that hardly seemed possible. It glowed.
Snape's arms wound around Harry from behind, tightening. The unexpectedness of it jarred Harry's tongue loose, and all his precious control went out the window. In a rush, he said, "There are different kinds of innocence, you know. I'm too old to be a child anymore. I like being impure." He could feel Snape's heart beating as if through his veins, Snape standing pressed against him as if they still shared the same wand, Snape's lips crushed to his ear, hot and velvety like petals, making no effort to hide the teeth behind the kiss.
"There are some things about me you can't change," Harry said. "Because you made those, too. I don't even know who I'd be without them." He hesitated, then admitted the obvious. "Or you."
Snape's tongue striped his ear, a long, wet lick that burned straight to Harry's groin. "Then find me," he whispered, and a loud crack pierced Harry to the marrow of his bones. The street grew cold and empty at his back, where a thin body in a black coat had been pressed against him in the fading light.
Darkness took a long time falling. Harry stood there alone and watched the house burn.
In bed that night, Grimmauld Place empty around him, the roses of Snape's blood still blazed behind his eyes. Sighing, Harry flopped over and hugged his pillow.
Around his wrist, in the gloom, the iridescent thread glimmered.
On impulse, Harry kissed it. Against his lips, he felt the pulse flutter. His heart. And far off, beating at the end of the leash, another's.
Find me. Smiling, his mouth barely touching the rune, Harry closed his eyes and dreamed of roses.