The small glass vial gleamed in the dim light.
Snape turned it in his fingers, thinking absently how innocuous it looked. The liquid inside could have been water but for its deadly toxicity, and Snape found himself again wondering how it would feel when he finally uncorked it and downed its contents. A burn, perhaps, running through his esophagus, or maybe he'd not notice any effect at all until it had settled in his stomach, unfurling tendrils of pain throughout his body.
He had decided it would be tomorrow; what better day, when the rest of the world were gathered in cosy, tight-knit groups of family and friends? He certainly had nowhere to be – no one to be with – and if taking his life on Christmas reeked of a certain desperate melodrama, it was fitting nonetheless.
He had but one thing left to do.
A sigh escaped Snape's lips as he set the vial on the kitchen countertop, then turned towards the front door. He pulled on his threadbare overcoat, turning the collar up around his neck to ward off the cold, and winced when a cold blast of air hit him as he opened the door. Another sigh, bone-deep this time, then Snape hunched over and headed out into the darkness.
Harry – he'd been thinking of him as Harry for years now, though he never spoke the name – was waiting for him when he arrived at the pub. He was watching the telly with a blank look on his face, and Snape took a moment by the doorway to observe him.
This was no longer the boy who'd driven him to distraction at Hogwarts, but neither was he the man whose broad, easy grin frequently graced the cover of Witch's Weekly. This man – the quiet, pensive one with too many memories of pain and death – existed only here, with him; or so Snape fancied. He reckoned that Harry was probably this way behind closed doors, but he was also well aware that Harry kept this part of himself even from his closest friends.
Harry was his one regret – the one thing he'd miss in this godforsaken world. The one who would be hurt when he heard the news; the only reason Snape might have considered staying.
But even Harry wasn't enough. As much as Snape loved him – and he did, so much it hurt sometimes – he also knew that the time would come when that love, too, would become unbearable. When the gentle humour in Harry's eyes inevitably transformed to horror over the realisation that his friend, his old, oily ex-professor, iwanted/i him body and soul; and on those occasions when Snape was tempted to toss off to fantasies of pale skin, black hair, and green eyes, he had only to dredge up that imagined look (revulsion, maybe pity) to turn his ardour to ice, the better to smash it to pieces.
Snape shook himself from his reverie and gave Harry – waving to him from the corner of the dimly lit room – a curt nod. "Lager and a stout," he told the barman, then paid and brought the glasses over to the table, placing the lager before Harry.
"Ta," Harry said, wrapping his hands around the base of the glass as if anxious for something to keep them occupied.
Snape draped his coat over the back of the adjacent chair and sat. He couldn't bring himself to meet Harry's eyes, not yet, and before long Harry was dipping his head to try and catch Snape's averted gaze.
"Is something the matter?" he asked, and Snape's heart clenched at the concern he heard in Harry's voice. This…this, he might stay for. If this moment could only drag out indefinitely, if he could stay here, warm and cared for, forever. It would be enough.
Snape looked up, stark despair burning in his eyes, and Harry let out a soft gasp.
"You're scaring me, Snape. What's the matter?" Harry frowned. "More threats? Why won't you ask the Ministry for help? You're a – "
Snape held up a hand. "Don't say it, Potter," he growled, and Harry sat back with a huff of frustration. "Nothing has happened. It's just…" he paused, and Harry leaned forward again, reaching a hand across the table. They didn't touch – they never touched – but Snape drank in the small gesture.
"What is it?" Harry asked. "What's going on?"
Snape shook his head. I'm leaving, I'm going, he thought, but the words wouldn't come. He gulped down his stout; his fingers clenched, and he spat out, "I'm going away."
Had he not seen the color drain from Harry's face, he wouldn't have believed it possible.
"Going… what?" Harry stammered, his own fingers tightening into a fist. Harry's mouth hung open, and for a moment Snape could see the brainless boy he'd once been. Emotions warred across his face: bewilderment and loss, helplessness. Anger.
"Where?" he demanded.
Snape was fortified by this flash of Harry's temper. It made it – this – easier. Potter, he could walk away from – leave without regrets. Only Harry…
"It's none of your concern," Snape said coldly.
"None of my…" Harry echoed, his face breaking out in dull red blotches. "Are you fucking kidding me, Snape?" he hissed across the table. "Why didn't you tell me?"
A smirk, but skin-deep. "I just did."
Harry was silent for a moment. "I thought – I thought…" he said, and his gaze dropped to the tabletop.
Snape raised an eyebrow (push him away push him away) and said, "You thought wrong."
Harry exhaled harshly, as through he'd been struck.
Snape knew it was better this way. Let him hate me, he thought, and stood to go. "I had thought to say goodbye properly," he said, looking down his nose at Harry, who sat dumbstruck before him. "But I see the mood has soured. I've enjoyed our little tête-à-têtes, Potter," Snape continued, pulling on his overcoat.
But the look in Harry's eyes, when they met his own, was enough to still Snape's movements. He had known that this would be a tense farewell, but he hadn't anticipated the sheer desolation now written over Harry's face. He hastened to leave, but Harry jumped up and grabbed him lightly by the forearm.
"Snape, I - " Harry began, then, reaching into the pocket of his own jacket, pulled out a small package. He held it out and said, "This is for you." Startled by this unanticipated snag, Snape accepted the gift, and Harry bolted around him and out the door with only a quick glance behind.
When Harry was gone, Snape dropped heavily into his chair and set the bundle on the table. It was wrapped in gaily patterned, if slightly battered, Christmas paper, and for a moment Snape was drawn from his thoughts of tomorrow by a devastating curiosity. He reached out and pulled one end of the ribbon that held the paper in place, and it unravelled to reveal an unadorned grey wool scarf.
The gesture seemed kind enough, if uninspired; but when Snape touched it, he was overwhelmed by a roiling current of memories, each vying for his attention and all of them of Snape: old ones, of himself stalking the corridors of Hogwarts – the aisles of his classroom – teaching robes billowing behind him; and newer ones, of quiet mornings spent in comfortable companionship, of walking with Harry in the dappled sunlight of a warm Spring afternoon, of crooning off-key songs late one drunken September's night.
Snape extended the scarf to its full length and slowly wrapped it around his (scarred, oh god how it must have hurt) neck, and the memories were joined by an undercurrent of confused, tangled emotions: insecurity and hope, anger and affection, and –
He nearly Apparated on the spot.
The windows of Grimmauld Place were dark, save one. Snape stood outside on the pavement and watched as a shadow passed by the window, again, and then again.
This was the moment. He could stand here, say his good byes silently, and then return to Spinner's End where the vial awaited him. Harry need never know he'd been here, and his anger over their encounter at the pub might be enough to see him through whatever loss he might feel at Snape's passing.
But the scarf nestled gently against the sensitive skin of his neck told a different story. The man who'd made this – who had imbued it with his own wild magic – would grieve until he bled. Maybe not on the outside, where someone might see and know to help, but on the inside, where it would stay hidden, slowly wreaking its destruction until he'd be beyond help altogether.
With no other recourse, Snape climbed the stairs and, after just a moment's hesitation, knocked. When there was no answer, he knocked again, and again until he was pounding against the door, any thoughts of simply Apparating inside forgotten in his blind need for Harry to let him in.
Tired, red-rimmed eyes greeted him when Harry finally opened the door.
"You," he said, too quietly.
"Me," Snape replied, and then lifted his hand to stroke down the length of the scarf. Harry's eyes widened.
"You opened it," he said.
Snape cleared his throat.
"May I come in?" he asked. Harry stood to the side, and Snape stepped up and inside, his memories of wartime Order meetings guiding him to the front parlour. Once there, he turned to find Harry leaning back against the wall by the door, arms hugging his chest tightly. Snape unwound the scarf from around his neck and gathered it up in his hands, closing his eyes as he allowed all the feelings he found there to seep into his veins and pump fresh life into his heart.
"You love me," he said bluntly, opening his eyes, and Harry did not deny it.
"I – " Snape started to say, and then he paused, thinking again that it wasn't yet too late. That there was still time to say his goodbyes and maybe ease, in some small way, the pain that would come. To return to his cold home and empty life and will it all away with a simple swig from a bottle.
He looked around for a moment, trying to think of words that would not come, and it was then that he noticed, with dawning realisation, that this home was no warmer than his own. That it was dark and shadowy and too still, and that this was where Harry lived his half-life, only ever allowing himself to come alive with the one other person in the world who knew, who iunderstood/i that there are some things you never quite put away, some things that burrow under your skin until they're a part of you. Some things you don't 'get over', no matter what your well-intentioned friends might wish.
"You love me," he said again.
"Yes," acknowledged Harry quietly, and Snape crossed the room to stand before him. He held out the ball of knitted wool almost like an accusation and said, "You made this?"
"What kind of magic - " began Snape, but Harry interrupted, "It wasn't magic. I - Hermione taught me how, back when she was crusading for elf rights. Fourth year, I think."
"But..." Snape swallowed. "The magic - your thoughts." He looked down at the scarf and said softly, "Your feelings."
Harry shook his head. "I don't know what you mean. I just made it. Over there," he pointed to a low chair by the window, "a bit every day after work. A bit more on weekends. It's a great way to let go of things, to let your mind wander a bit. To think and remember."
He blushed as he said this, and Snape unthinkingly brought the back of his fingers up to stroke lightly down the length of Harry's warm cheek. Harry looked up at him, his eyes open, his heart laid bare, and raised his hand to Snape's chest, sliding it, trembling, up to his shoulder, over the puckered skin, and around to the nape of his neck. He tugged gently, and Snape closed the distance between them, brushing his lips over Harry's once - twice. Panting softly as his forehead met Harry's, as he wrapped long arms around his waist and pulled Harry close.
Harry's eyes met Snape's. "You love me, too," he said breathlessly, and Snape answered in the affirmative with a kiss that had Harry clasping his hands around Snape's neck and arching into him. Snape's hands slipped under Harry's jumper, travelling up the smooth torso, and Harry gasped - pulled back and said, low, "Not here."
Snape nodded and Harry took his hand. They Apparated into a darkened bedroom, the only light that of a single street lamp leaking through the curtains. Harry, sitting down on the bed behind him, clenched his hands in Snape's overcoat and drew him close. He reached up and pushed the coat off Snape's shoulders, then pulled his shirt out from where it was tucked into his trousers. Button by button he revealed the scarred landscape of Snape's chest, tracing each pale line, each darkened pock with his fingertips, and Snape could feel - god, he could feel - Harry's reverence in his touch.
He brought his hand to Harry's hair and raked his fingers through it, his heart stuttering when Harry closed his eyes and leaned into the caress. Snape carefully removed Harry's glasses, laying them on the table beside the bed, and bent to kiss his forehead, his eyes, his lips. He pulled Harry's jumper over his head, then dropped to his knees before him and began to unfasten his jeans.
"You don't -" Harry started, and Snape lifted a finger to his lips.
"Allow me this," he said, and Harry nodded, kissing the fingertip that stilled his words. He lifted his hips and Snape drew down both jeans and pants. He wrapped his long fingers around Harry's length and gave a gentle squeeze, and he was rewarded with Harry's gasp and the look of amazement that glazed his face. Snape licked his lips and brought them to the head, kissing it softly.
"Jesus," Harry breathed, and when Snape slid his mouth down, then sucked back up, Harry's length in one smooth movement, he fell back on the bed and spread his legs wide, bucking up uncontrollably. Snape grasped Harry's hips and pinned them against the bed, letting his tongue lick, tease and coax, his mouth suckle and - eventually - swallow.
And when Harry's harsh pants had calmed, when his legs lay loosely splayed over the edge of the bed, he sat up and pulled Snape forward in a deep, searing kiss, lapping his own come from Snape's lips and probing his mouth with his tongue. He stood and pulled Snape to his feet, turning them so now it was Snape whose back was to the bed – Snape who allowed Harry to push him back and climb on top, nipping at his jaw, his earlobes, his lips, devouring him.
By unspoken agreement, they adjusted themselves on the bed, Snape laying back against a bank of pillows and accommodating Harry when he impatiently tugged at his trousers and boxers, coming undone when Harry's eyes glittered at his first sight of Snape's erect cock. Harry clambered over Snape, straddling him, rubbing himself against him as he kissed Snape's chest with open mouth and wet tongue. And when it wasn't enough anymore, he reached into the drawer and pulled out a well-used tube, pouring its contents into his hand. He reached around and slid his slickened hand up and down Snape's length, then raised up on his knees and sank down slowly, his hands resting on Snape's chest, his eyes fixed on the man beneath him.
It was an indescribable sensation, the way Harry's body enveloped Snape in its warmth, and Snape raised his hand to brush Harry's hair from his face, feeling more complete than he ever had before.
Harry's eyes filled at the simple gesture and soon a tear or two followed, tracing their way down his cheeks, dropping heavily on Snape's chest. Not quite those of a phoenix, Harry's tears nonetheless had a healing power of their own. He began to ride Snape, and Snape rose to meet him, his hands sliding over the smooth muscles of Harry's arms, over his broad shoulders and down to his hips, guiding him, rising and falling with him until Snape felt a familiar tightening. He arched his back – clutched Harry's hips – and cried out as his release came in waves of delirious pleasure.
Then Harry slumped to Snape's side, his hair plastered to his brow with sweat, and lay his head on Snape's outstretched arm, facing him. He curled a fist against Snape's chest and puffed out a soft breath.
"Don't go," he said softly, and Snape didn't miss the slight waver in his voice.
Snape sighed. No matter what had happened tonight, tomorrow would bring with it the same pains, the same petty tortures that he faced every day. Mornings he would awaken, only to close his eyes again; nights when he would sink into black despair.
But now he had love, an unknown variable in an ever-evolving equation.
He sighed again.
"I'll stay," he answered, stroking Harry's hair. "I'll stay."