"I think you should do as he asks."
Dumbledore stroked his long beard thoughtfully as he met Snape's eyes. Snape had a single, fleeting thought (he never asks anything) before his higher brain functions kicked in, and he stared back at the headmaster in disbelief.
"You do realize," he said in a equivocal tone that belied his inner incredulity, "that what the Dark Lord has iasked/i is nothing less than mental rape? That he wants me to invade Potter's mind and there torture the boy to the point of madness?"
To his credit, Dumbledore's eyes did not twinkle in the slightest as he answered, "I do."
Snape threw up his hands, then stood and stalked over to the far window. His breath clouded the cold panes of glass before him as he looked out over the darkened landscape.
It was a long moment before he said quietly, "And you would ask this of me, too? I'm not the monster you must think me, Headmaster."
A soft rustle of robes brought the headmaster's shadowy reflection into view behind Snape. Dumbledore laid a blackened hand on his shoulder, giving it a light squeeze.
"Is it monstrous to help keep the boy from the consequences of his natural inquisitiveness?" he murmured, and Snape turned to face him with narrowed eyes.
"Normally," Snape replied, "I would be the first to agree that Potter suffers from nothing so much as an overweening curiosity about affairs not his own; however, I wonder that you seem to find it so troublesome - you, who have encouraged him at nearly every turn..."
Dumbledore nodded and turned back towards his desk, walking with his hands clasped behind his back and his head bowed.
"It is true that I have turned a blind eye -" Snape barked a harsh laugh "- to many of Harry's adventures. Now, however, I fear that his suspicions about the Malfoy boy may lead him, however inadvertently, into harm's way. Draco has been careless -"
"He refuses to confide in me, Headmaster!" Snape interjected, and Dumbledore shook his head.
"I do not blame you, Severus. He is alone in his task and rather desperate, I dare say. But Harry has strayed too close to the truth, and I dread to think what might befall him - or them both - should his fears be confirmed."
"And how," asked Snape slowly, suspecting that he knew the answer, but wanting it confirmed all the same, "does this involve me?"
Dumbledore resumed his seat, propping his chin on tented fingertips to ponder Snape's question. As he waited for the headmaster's response, Snape occupied himself with trying to anticipate what could possibly be going through the other man's head; as usual, his wildest guess did not come close to the scenario Dumbledore ultimately proposed.
Harry groaned when Ron pulled back the curtain to his bed, curling into a ball and pulling the duvet over his head.
"Five more minutes," he moaned, but Ron shook his shoulder roughly.
"No can do," he replied. "You've already missed breakfast, and we have Defence in fifteen."
Harry sat bolt upright at the words, the sudden, wild alertness of his eyes contrasting with the dark rings that encircled them. "Fuck!" he cried as he leapt to his feet, haphazardly gathering together his toiletries. "Why'd you let me sleep so long?"
"M'not your keeper, mate. Besides, I thought you'd woken up earlier. You sat up and everything, and I thought you were right behind me. What's going on?"
"The usual," Harry replied as he rubbed his bleary eyes and headed to the bathroom, knowing that it was a lie. There was nothing at all 'usual' about his sleepless nights, nothing ordinary in the way he awoke, again and again, over the course of the night.
The dreams were the same as always, a never-ending parade of Voldemort and Dursleys and Cedric and Sirius, but instead of seeing them through to their inevitably bitter end, Harry kept just... startling awake. This past night alone - awoken at least four times, and always just as things were about to take a turn for the worse. Not that he was sorry to miss the worst of it, but sleep became progressively more elusive over the course of the night, until he would have given his wand arm for just a few minutes of rest.
Sixteen minutes later saw Harry and Ron tumbling through the door to the Defence classroom and directly into the sights of Professor Snape. He looked, if possible, worse than he normally did, and his eyes glittered with unadulterated venom as he spied the two boys taking their seats in the back of the room.
"Weasley," he intoned with a queasy grimace. "And Potter. How good of you to join us, and in such a timely manner. I trust my class is not interfering with more pressing engagements?" Ron, red-faced and sullen, shook his head as Harry flushed angrily. Snape silently stole closer, leaning close to Harry and hissing quietly, "Like father, like son, forever waltzing through the world as if it owes you a favour. But take heed, Mr Potter. This is my classroom - my rules. One more infraction, and I will see to it that you spend what remaining leisure time you have exclusively in my company."
"People will talk, sir" Harry blurted out in response, a moment before his brain caught up with his mouth. His face suddenly leached of colour as he watched Snape's expression transform to a look of pure rage, but he met the professor's eyes with a green gaze that flashed in indignation.
"Get out," Snape snapped abruptly, and Harry, neck blotched and heart pounding an erratic beat, gathered up his belongings with shaky hands and stormed out of the classroom. Once outside the door he leaned against the cold stone wall, closed his eyes, and waited for the inner maelstrom to wane.
Harry passed a few minutes listening to Snape's muffled voice behind the door and the faraway echoes of activity elsewhere. He had long since abandoned any hope of ever being anything more than the much-reviled son of an enemy in Snape's eyes, but the barrage of insults and invective - almost intolerable on a good day - was simply more than he could handle today.
Letting out a long, deep sigh, Harry straightened and shouldered his bag. He had no intention of letting this unexpected respite go to waste, and so he shelved any reservations he might have had about skiving off class - however much it hadn't been his choice - and headed back towards Gryffindor Tower for a much-needed nap.
For the fourth time in as many nights, Snape entered his empty, darkened classroom, warded the door carefully, and cleared a space in the centre of the room with a muttered Mobilires. He paced for a moment in a circle that grew tighter and tighter until it was scarcely a yard wide; when it was the size he desired, he traced it with his wand and entered, facing North and kneeling on the floor, placing his wand before him. He laid his hands over his thighs, back straight, and closed his eyes, visualising Harry Potter's eyes.
This, thus far, had proven to be just the first of any number of disturbing experiences he typically encountered over the course of the spell.
Over the years, Snape had grown adept at avoiding Potter's eyes on most occasions; indeed, it was neither difficult nor any great hardship to ignore the boy altogether, and this afforded him a degree of peace that had been sorely strained during the Occlumency debacle. Now he called forth the image that had so disturbed his equanimity: the spring-green of the iris, unblemished by muddy impurities. The deep black of the pupil nested within, dilating wider the further Snape penetrated into Potter's mind, until it all but eclipsed the fine halo of green encircling it.
The image fixed in his mind, and the feelings it aroused carefully locked away, Snape turned his palms upwards in supplication and softly incanted, "Acquiescere in somniis," over and over until he felt a mental suck - not unlike that of a Portkey, but pulling his mind, rather than his body, through the vortex - and came to awareness within Potter's dreamscape.
Ah, he thought, the Diggory boy.
Potter lay prostrate over Diggory's still, unseeing form, beating on his chest and screaming through his tears, "Cedric! CEDRIC!" like a record with a skip. Snape wondered - not for the first time - how he could possibly make this scenario more horrific; for that was his directive, to turn the boy's dreams to nightmares, torture him in his sleep to the brink of insanity, and thereby weaken him enough to nullify the threat he constituted to both his tormentors.
But there was nothing Snape could do here that would compare to what Potter's own mind habitually inflicted upon itself. His own nightmares, from which he drew inspiration, were the stuff of rejection and betrayal, of misunderstanding and misbegotten choices and a loneliness so profound that he sometimes thought he might go mad from it. And the boy – Potter – Harry – had all this in spades. It was all Snape could do to stand by and observe as the black denouement of the Tri-Wizard Tournament faded into the banal suburban hell of 4 Privet Drive and subsequently transformed into some secret part of Hogwarts in which lurked a two-faced monster...a basilisk...a werewolf...a curtain, ripped and frayed and fluttering empty in the wind. "Sirius!" Harry would cry out. "Cedric!" A litany of names and waves of impotence and rage and terror so harrowing that Snape, night after night, succumbed to his own weakness and commanded Potter to wake, only to find himself thrust back into the isolated catacomb of his own mind when the order was obeyed.
Tonight, the Diggory nightmare gave way to one he had not yet seen, but with which he was oddly, intimately familiar. Spectator stands became shelves laden with cauldrons and murky jars, and he saw himself - surprisingly undistorted but for the pure hatred suffusing his face - stealthily slithering between empty desks towards Harry, who sat frozen in his habitual seat, whitened knuckles gripping the bench beneath him.
"Mr Potter," he heard himself hiss, voice more sibilant than in life. "What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?" The words echoed softly throughout the chamber, an ominous pulse that grew more razor-sharp with each iteration. The Harry of this dream - small and shabby against his own looming presence - looked up with eyes magnified to the size of saucers by a pair of disfiguring glasses and shook his head silently. Snape watched himself draw up to a monstrous height and cross his arms tightly across his chest.
"Well?" Snape sneered. "Cat got your tongue, Potter?"
Harry shook his head again and whispered, "I don't know."
"Of course you don't," said Snape, leaning in close and forcing Potter to cower further back in his seat. "You know nothing. Nothing. You're a fool, undeserving of your parents' sacrifice, undeserving of the Headmaster's favour, undeserving of those who have died for you, you insignificant, worthless thing. You are no wizard, Mr Potter," he saw himself continue, oblivious to the tears that began to stream down Harry's face. "You are an imposter. A fraud. " An ugly, smug grimace of a smile crossed the man's features. "A freak."
"I'm not a freak," Harry mumbled, shaking his head. "I'm not...m'not..."
"Oh, but you are, Mr Potter," the Doppelganger said as Harry brought his knees up in a tight curl, wrapping his arms around too-thin legs and burying his face between them. It seemed to surround him then, a swirling cloud of black malevolence whispering the worst of Potter's own fears in his ear, words like freak and failure and all your fault permeating the fog and lending it a throbbing virulence.
As he watched, Snape felt the stirrings of that vague compulsion which had become uncomfortably familiar over the past few days. This was the point at which he usually roused Potter to wakefulness - when the creeping discomfort of his self-inflicted tortures became too much to bear; but tonight, even that small kindness was not enough.
Unlike ordinary magic, dream magic worked by caprice, and it seemed that nothing more than a wisp of a thought (that isn't me) was enough to dissipate the black fog around the boy. Snape stepped forward to take its place, as corporeal as anything else in Potter's mind, and fell to bent knee by his side. "I - I apologise," Snape said haltingly, and Harry looked up at him. Gone was the wide-eyed stare, replaced by a shrewd glint that revealed more of the man he might become than the boy he yet remained. He unfolded his limbs to stand, and Snape rose with him.
"It's always my fault, Professor," Harry said calmly. "Always. Why on earth would you apologise?"
Snape frowned. He knew what he wanted to say - something safe and bitingly familiar that would restore the skewed balance between them - but it seemed that words were as prone to perversity as magic in this dream world, for all he could speak was the carefully concealed truth.
"It's seldom your fault, Potter. You're careless, to be sure, cocky and too confident at times. You're rash and thoughtless, impulsive and emotional. But..." Snape struggled against the inexplicable drive to speak, his considerable mental discipline unequal to the task of locking away his grudging admiration.
"Impulsive. But not without cause. The wizarding world has asked of you things that would leave most grown men quaking in their boots. With the exception of the headmaster, there is but one person in the world who has walked away from the Dark Lord more than once without sporting a Mark on his arm, Mr Potter. You. For that alone..." A wry smirk crossed Snape's face, and he shook his head. He met Harry's eyes and said simply, "Extraordinary."
Harry gaped, but he seemed to grow broader - taller - at the words. The smile that flowered briefly on his face turned wistful as he studied this strange Snape, observing, "It's too bad this is only a dream."
A need, born neither of duty nor fear, but rather nascent respect and a nameless ache, rose up within Snape and drove him to raise his hand - cup Harry's cheek and stroke it with a callused thumb - and quietly reply, "Is it?"
Harry brought his own hand to cover Snape's, closed his eyes and leant into the caress. They stood this way for a moment, then Snape startled back as if suddenly coming to his senses, breaking the connection between them and returning to consciousness in his classroom with a vow on his lips to abandon this sordid, loathsome task altogether.
When Harry awoke, it wasn't to his customary night sweats and racing heart, but to an overwhelming sense of well-being such as he had scarcely experienced before. He understood that this had been no ordinary dream, in much the same way that he had learned through hard-earned experience to see Voldemort's incursions into his mind for what they were. Yet, this was altogether different: warm, where Voldemort had been cold. Gentle, where the other dreams had been harsh and ultimately so unforgiving.
Snape. He had been there, Harry realised; it had been him, really him, he was sure of it. Harry would never have dreamt that soft touch, would never have put words of encouragement and approbation in that spiteful mouth. Snape - ugly, greasy, awkward Snape - had given comfort in place of pain. Yet, where he could have eviscerated Harry from within and sliced his psyche into a thousand bloody ribbons, he had instead offered hope and a kind of camaraderie that succoured where it should rightly have terrified. Harry didn't know what to make of it, only that he wanted desperately to know how it had been possible and, even more desperately, to understand why.
Snape hated him - his every word, every clearly enunciated syllable, made it clear just how much - so why?
Months passed, and the dread that had dogged Snape since summer blossomed into a full-fledged terror. The headmaster was growing weaker, that much was certain, and it was only a matter of time before Draco succeeded where he had heretofore failed. Snape's days passed by in a blur of tedium, but his nights... that was when his increasingly fevered imagination came alive with possibility after horrifying possibility.
He had never again sought admission to Potter's dreams after that last, confusing encounter; indeed, with the exception of recent detentions intended to show the boy the error of his father's ways, if not his own grievous mistake, Snape managed to avoid all contact with him.
For Potter's part, one searching glance was all the curiosity he ever evinced about what had passed between them in the dreamscape, after which he, too, had shunned all but the most perfunctory interaction between them. And if Snape sometimes found his mind lingering over the softness of a supple cheek under stained fingertips, or ached with a vague yearning for the simple companionship of a passing moment, he deftly banished it from his thoughts before it could take root.
It was a night in mid-May when Snape found himself trapped within a nightmare of his own – familiar enough, but freshly terrifying nonetheless. In it, he stood between his two masters, one insinuating himself up against Snape, stroking his body with an excruciating electric touch as he sought out some weakness that would lay bare every rogue thought, every betrayal; the other encircling them both, observing with icy, calculating detachment as Snape struggled to fend off the Dark Lord, whispering a continuous stream of admonitions and ultimatums that broke Snape's spirit even as his body faltered.
Snape had fallen to his knees, his body wracked with shivers that bordered on spasms, tears of frustration - of anger and hurt and heartbreak - streaming down his hollow cheeks, when he became aware of a lull in the onslaught. He chanced a quick glance around, and his eyes were drawn to a lone, lanky figure in the distance: indistinct face, but with a long, loping gait that Snape recognised instantly.
Harry drew close and then he was on his knees before Snape, his eyes inquisitive, his hands - brushing back Snape's hair, wiping away the tears - gentle and kind. "Shhh," he whispered. "Shhh. It's just a dream... it's just a dream."
"It's every day of my life, Potter," Snape snarled like a wounded beast. "Every single day, trapped between my past and my present, both of them excruciating and relentless." He met Harry's eyes with a steely glint. "There is no waking from this. Soon the headmaster will be dead and I -"
Harry shook his head in horror. "No. He can't die - there's still too much to be done."
Snape laughed bitterly. "Oh, he will die," he said, and he couldn't stop the next words from spilling forth unbidden. "By my own hand, no less." Snape took in Harry's wide-eyed disbelief, drank it down as his due and nodded. "It's what he asked of me, and I have no means of denying him. He will die, and we will be cast adrift, and only you -" Snape recollected vaguely Dumbledore's latest revelation about the boy's role in the end days and somehow held back his words.
"There is no escape from this," he said instead. "No reprieve."
Snape expected Potter to recoil, but he instead surprised them both by framing Snape's face in his hands instead, bringing his lips to Snape's bony cheek...to the bridge of his nose and his broad forehead...to his mouth. And though his mind screamed at him to push Harry away, Snape raised his hands to Harry's shoulders, gripped them tightly and pulled him close, returning the kiss.
"It's just a dream," Harry murmured as he sank back onto a newly materialised pile of pillows. For a brief moment he seemed surprised to find himself prone in front of Snape, glancing with wide eyes at the rich, soft fabrics upon which he lay. Then he looked up at Snape and something – less than conviction but more than whim – flitted across his face.
"It's just a dream," he said again, and in that moment his clothes were gone, revealing pale skin painted in pink... panting, parted lips moist and swollen...black hair fanned around his face and green eyes gazing up at Snape. He held out a hand in invitation and whispered, "Let me… let me comfort you."
"Just a dream," Snape echoed in a low voice as he fell on all fours and dipped his head, his own clothing disappearing in the space of a kiss. Harry's body arched into his, arms wrapping around Snape's long neck, pulling him close, and Snape ran his palms over the warm expanse of flesh beneath him.
"You're...this isn't what I expected," Harry said softly, his breath coming in shallow gasps. Snape nuzzled at the sweet spot under his ear, and Harry writhed against him.
"What did you expect?" he murmured, and Harry shook his head. "I don't know, just... not this. I didn't expect you... "
Snape pulled back, his hair falling into his eyes. "This may be just a dream, but I can stop." He moved as though to stand, and Harry grabbed his forearm. As luck would have it, it was the one on which the Mark stood out like a warning; Harry ran a careful hand over it, traced its contours with his fingers, then looked up at Snape above him and said, "No. I don't want to stop."
Harry wrapped an arm around Snape's shoulder, pulling him back down in a long kiss that tasted of sanctification, and Snape responded by drawing him close and burying himself deep inside Harry's open, willing body. Their eyes met as Snape pulled back, only to plunge forward again, and the dream-enhanced sensation caused Harry to throw back his head and bear down, the better to meet Snape halfway. An advance and a retreat, played on an infinite loop of desire until each thrust became an affirmation that ithis/i belonged to them, to Harry and Severus alone; that when it came time to give all they had for the good of the wizarding world, they could hold this one thing back, claim it for their own and take it to their graves. In the dark days ahead, each would know that, if only for these few, fleeting moments, they had been loved for themselves, and not for what they were willing to sacrifice.
And when it was over and they lay panting in each other's arms, Harry reached out to caress Snape's hair and said softly, "I see you for who you are, Severus Snape."
Snape grasped Harry's wrist and brought the hand to his lips. He kissed the palm reverently and said, "And I see you, Harry Potter. I see you."
When Snape awoke, it was to the knowledge that the intense satisfaction and comfort of his dream had been nothing more than the product of his own fevered longing to be known and understood.
The cold exchange of disdain and mutual enmity that passed between himself and Potter in the DADA classroom confirmed this; nor could he credit that the boy knew of the obscure magic which Snape had used to penetrate his dreams, in any case. He wanted to be smug about it, secure in his superiority over Potter, but instead he found himself nursing an incomprehensible hurt. He was alone again after what had seemed - had felt - so much like a true communion of souls, and the awareness of what he had lost - that thing he had never really possessed - caused him to sink further into the darkness that had been encroaching on him for so long.
Snape wasn't ready when the end came.
There were Death Eaters and Greyback and Bellatrix, all churning chaos in their wake. Draco, his face as grey as his eyes, stood with wand shakily drawn and pointed at Dumbledore; Dumbledore - old and frail and as determined as ever to see this through to the bitter end - and Snape saw himself draw his own wand, felt the despair and loneliness and anger that he was forced to do this thing well up inside, and he released it all in one burst of loathing - though for himself or the headmaster, he could not say.
"Out of here, quickly," said Snape. He seized Draco by the scruff of the neck and forced him through the door ahead of the rest. The others followed, and Snape was about to dart down the staircase after them when he heard the rustle of fabric against the tower wall. He whirled around to see Potter standing there, watching Snape with stark, solemn eyes.
"This is no dream, is it, Professor?" he asked quietly. Realisation hit Snape with the force of a Reducto, and he shook his head.
"This is no dream," he confirmed.
Harry swallowed, then stepped close. "The Acquiesco Variant. I found it - in the Restricted Section. I cast it. That... it was me."
Snape nodded, though he didn't understand. "You are no Legilimens, Potter," he said, and Harry had the grace to flush.
"That one time, during Occlumency. My iProtego/i - it was enough." He met Snape's eyes and continued, "Or perhaps it was enough that you had already made the connection. Professor."
"Yes," Snape replied, drinking in the sight of Harry's hair, his pale cheeks and clear green eyes, burning them in his memory to savour during the long nights ahead.
"I must go," he whispered, and Harry nodded.
"I see you, Professor," he said urgently as a wayward tear or two spilled from his eyes. "Severus. I see you."
Snape reached out and wiped the tears from Harry's cold cheeks. "I see you, too, Harry Potter."
And then he ran.
*acquiescere in somniis: acquiesce in dreams