The air is hot and dank and the smell of bubotuber pus and dried knotgrass lingers in the cracks of the stone walls. The dungeon is hazy with the vestiges of a first year’s exploded cauldron and there is something vaguely swamp-like about the drip drip of liquid as Ginny fills and refills the vials in front of her. Her vibrant hair pulled back and her hands steady, she moves with cautious precision, measurements careful and accurate so as not to offend Professor Snape’s scrutinizing eye.
Some of these concoctions are like nothing Ginny has ever seen before. Green translucent bubbles rise from an otherwise clear mixture the consistency of thick oil, while in another vial, something like mud sloshes against the sides of the glass in rhythmic palpitation.
Now is not the time for awe, wonder, and idleness, Ginny reminds herself. While, at the moment, she is alone, in less than twenty minutes, Snape will return and it wouldn’t do to have her work half-finished and her eyes glossy with curiosity.
She lets her fingers linger over one of the small pewter cauldrons for a moment, letting the cool rising vapor ripple over her hand. She shivers. It feels like fire. It’s both refreshing and chilling at the same time.
In the glow of the strangely aromatic mist, Ginny’s skin appears pale and green, possessing an ethereal quality not unlike unicorn blood, or the slapping tentacle of the giant squid rising up out of the lake.
When Ginny catches her reflection in the mirror – one she hadn’t noticed was there before – she notes that her face is exactly the color of Professor Snape’s skin. She grimaces, hoping that work with potions does not cause permanent physical damage.
She raps her fingernails on the wood of the desk, brown eyes searching the din of the empty dungeon for more vials. Two or three should do it. She has filled all of the ones that had been laid out for her, and organized them meticulously into holders and boxes before returning them all to the shelves. Had she been one of her brothers – not Percy, mind – she might have tried to sabotage the ingredients. But that would just mean more effort, more time that she didn’t have, and Snape would find out. He always did.
She just needs to figure out where the extra vials were stored. The classroom is so sparse that there are not many places she can look. (Snape is not the finest of interior decorators; he seems to appreciate simple and functional over ostentatious.)
Beyond Snape’s desk, there is a cupboard. It is the only piece of furniture not currently covered with parchment for exams and assignments and it looks as though it hasn’t been used for anything. The frame is solid, the dark, rose lacquer still firmly in place.
When Ginny tries the handle, the door opens easily, the hinges offering just the slightest squeal.
It’s dark in there, the cupboard deeper than she’d expected, and it smells of firewood and ash mixed with murtlap and flowering asphodel. She should close the door now, leave well enough alone since there is no flicker of glass reflected in there. The cupboard is quite empty, in fact, save for a sheaf of black cloth draped ceremoniously over what might be a picture frame. Ginny glances instinctively over her shoulder, half expecting to see Severus Snape standing there behind her, glower licking over his lips and eyes darkened to beetle-black ink blotches.
The room is empty still, the silence thick and cold and punctuated only with the light whistle of steam rising from one of the vials.
Ginny turns back to the cupboard, drawing a breath as she lifts the cloth. Her fingers graze over a wooden frame, hardened and dark as if it had at one point been set on fire. Then her hands touch paint. It feels dry, layered with dust, swirling and cracked and crumbling over the old canvas.
She needs light.
Pulling her wand from her pocket, she murmurs, "Lumos," and the wood dances with a yellow glow.
She can see now, a single figure standing with his back to her, dark hair wild on his head, robes long, burgundy and majestic. His posture is tired, like he’s been standing in the same place forever.
He turns, as if he’s heard her, and her breath catches somewhere between her chest and her throat as he meets her eyes. He opens his mouth, saying something she cannot hear.
All she sees is the crackling paint of his skin, his hazel eyes dim with resignation, his black hair rising from his head like chaotic smoke. There is a streak down his forehead, a gash drawn not by a paintbrush but by something harsher.
~When in disgrace~
The first time Severus sees James Potter, it is on Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross station. James is tall, taller than Severus, anyway, and he is conversing confidently with two figures who must be his mother and father. Severus looks around for his own parents, recalling drearily that they dropped him off at the curb, their goodbyes nothing more than the jarring crack of apparition.
The boy looks friendly, Severus thinks, watching his grin curl mischievously as he whispers something to his father. The two chuckle, and James shakes his head, mop of obviously uncombed hair falling into his eyes in thick unruly strands.
Severus watches, standing in the middle of the crowd of first years, yet ignoring all of them. He stares for what must be a good five minutes, thinking silly things that will come to nothing. He thinks that this could be a friend.
It is only after James’ parents leave that Severus has the courage to walk over to the boy, and try to talk to him.
“Hi,” he says quietly, eyes on the ground; “I’m Severus.”
The moment James opens his mouth to respond, the Hogwarts Express suddenly seems far darker than before, the bright red that had illuminated James’ figure turning to some hopeless, ugly color.
“Well, that’s a rather stupid name.” The tone is dismissive and James thumbs the sleeve of his robe as if to further articulate the point.
Severus looks up, toeing the ground with his lightly polished dress shoes and waiting, for a laugh, a smile, some indication that it was a joke, that he wasn’t wrong about this boy. Maybe it is a test, maybe he says this sort of thing to everyone he meets.
Tucking a strand of his hair behind his ear, Severus tries to think of a proper response. He’d never had any particular feeling towards his name one way or another. It was just a name.
James speaks again, indolently this time as if Severus’ presence is nothing but a fly on his back. “What’s wrong? Is the size of your nose affecting your hearing or something?”
Severus wants to crawl under a rock, and, instinctively, looks around half-hoping there would be one over behind one of the nearby trunks.
“You heard me, you greasy little git.” There is a mocking tone this time, like this is all a cruel joke in James’ mind. Children can be so cruel sometimes, Severus recalls his mother saying. But this boy isn’t a child.
And Severus can’t bring himself to say anything in reply because he is still a child, and all he wants to do is cry.
But Severus Snape will not cry. Pureblood wizards never cry.
Severus sniffs, swallowing hard, and wills his eyes to stay dry. James narrows his eyes at him, assessing his expression, and then he laughs.
It is not the same laugh the boy shared with his parents moments earlier. This laugh is harsh and low and sounds like branches being cracked in half by strong hands. Severus sniffs again, not knowing what else to do and feeling his feet glued to the ground as if by magic. He can feel his lower lip trembling and just wishes that the other boy would go away.
“You going to cry or something? Sniveling pansy.” James pokes Severus in the chest, and Severus notes that the boy’s fingers are not round and soft like he thought they’d be. Rather, they feel hard and calloused and hurt just as much as his words.
Severus chokes out a defiant “no” that sounds more like a whine.
James grins darkly. “Poor thing… Did I hurt your feelings, Snivellus?”
Only then does Severus turn, quickly, leaving before James has the chance to see him cry. He doesn’t need that condescension. He doesn’t care to be talked down to. Pureblood wizards don’t need pity.
Severus exhales a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding, and climbs aboard the train.
He stands there frozen, for several moments, waiting for something to happen, like something should. He doesn’t realize that James has pushed past him until he sees black hair retreating down the corridor.
Severus follows, palming the tears from his cheeks and digging his hands into his pockets as if that will help him keep his balance.
James slides easily into one of the compartments up ahead, and Severus has half a mind to follow him until he hears the click of a lock.
And it would be all right if, when Severus walked by, he didn’t see James’ face, darkened by the dim light of the compartment, staring at him, tracing his every movement with his eyes. Their gazes break only when another boy, one with a broad smile and grey eyes, nudges him and they both laugh. Severus knows they’re laughing at him.
He continues walking, finally finding an empty compartment at the back of the train.
Severus Snape rides to Hogwarts alone, looking out the window at a landscape that is bleary through tears that he is determinedly not shedding, and wishes for rain.
~I all alone beweep~
Their cloaks swish over the ground as they walk, black skirting over the autumn leaves in their path.
Of the four who had entered the house in Godric’s Hollow, only three leave.
Wands are stowed, heads are bent, and it would almost seem like a funeral procession if not for their hastened pace.
There is a wavering, frightened note in the tone of the short man’s voice as he curls his fingers over his fallen master’s wand and murmurs something about how people will be here soon, how they must leave now or they will be killed too. Grey eyes meet his, eyes that could freeze fire with their hardened stare, and the short man goes silent immediately. Somewhere, a baby is crying, sounds muffled by the walls of the house and swallowed by the aftereffects of the failed curse.
Somewhere within the walls, Severus Snape brushes the dust from his cloak, ignoring the bemoaned, shrill pain that courses down his forearm. He moves slower than he should, knowing full well that someone – Dumbledore, if they’re particularly unlucky – will be on the scene in minutes, wand brandished and curses dropping from his lips.
Outside, he hears the confident crack of Lucius Malfoy Apparating away. Severus waits a moment, pausing in the doorway of the Potters’ front hall. He does not exhale again until he hears Pettigrew follow, Apparating from the grounds with a cough, like he’s trying to choke down a sound, likely a sob.
Severus makes a point to run his hands over everything in the house, wanting to absorb the feeling into his skin, claim it since Lily and James no longer can. They won’t be needing the dust on the cabinet anymore. He touches the mirror, ignoring his darkened reflection, and smoothes his fingers over the petals of the flowers in the vase, wondering idly how it is that they look as fresh as the second they were placed there, while the rest of the house has gone cold and stale.
James Potter lies dead in the other room, probably, Severus wagers, a mere six or seven meters away from where he is standing just now. He doesn’t let his mind dwell on this for too long, and wrings his hands in the pockets of his robes instead.
He should leave.
He should leave now.
Leaning back against the wall behind him, Severus listens to the sounds of the house. Harry is crying softly in one of the upstairs rooms. The sound makes Severus fill nauseous and he tries not to think about it, focusing instead on the pain in his arm, the magic of the Dark Mark burning through his skin like acid. It is comforting but the calm doesn’t last long.
At first Snape swears it’s in his mind, that the stench of death and used curses is meddling with his sanity.
But then it comes again, and the voice is one he would know anywhere. He recognizes the smug inflection on his loathed nickname.
Severus Snape snaps around and finds himself face to face with a fifteen year old James Potter. His eyes are sparkling, dark flecks of hazel. The cloak he wears is smudges of ground vermilion, and moves in waves of chipping paint as he slouches and shifts from one foot to the other. Their eyes meet, paint seeping into Severus’ own, and James favors him with a familiar smile that was always more cruel than friendly.
James Potter smirks out of the frame, and crosses his oil-painted arms over his chest.
And suddenly Severus can’t stand it anymore. The room feels like it’s spinning – perhaps it is just the lingering green of Avada Kedavra – and there is a whirring in his ear that sounds distinctly like the engine of a Muggle motorbike. And James, all flourish of shiny colored paint and maple frame, is smirking at him like they’re back at Hogwarts again. It is too much.
He needs to leave.
Severus hisses a shrinking charm and tears the portrait from the wall, perhaps the most violent thing he’s done without the aid of his wand all year.
He shoves the frame into his robes, ignoring James’ stifled protesting, and Apparates away just as the headlight of Sirius Black’s motorcycle comes into view.
Severus plans on destroying the painting as soon as he can.
Lupin is back at Hogwarts and Severus is anything but pleased. The werewolf looks weary now, but he has still easily risen as the favorite amongst the students, and Severus grimaces each time he overhears a Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw cheerfully discussing a Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson during lunch. The Slytherins have learned to not mention Lupin’s name in Severus’ presence; it’s no secret that Snape is bitter.
With Lupin here, Severus finds that he needs James more than usual. He pulls the painting out of the cupboard at least five or six times a week these days, if only for the opportunity it gives him to yell at something, to rage at someone who is unable to fight back.
Severus doesn’t want to talk to James today. He isn’t particularly inclined to hear James speak either. So he casts a silencing charm around the frame of the painting and just stares, imagining the words James must be trying to form, watching Potter’s face flush with frustration as his profanity is rendered voiceless. Severus is in no mood for that cocky vitriol, the same insults that have been repeated now ten times over, yet still with the same edge. Severus muses that James should have thought up better things to throw at him by now, realizing with a sigh that as long as he continues to react with the same passive contempt James always loved, there won’t be a need to.
James leans against the right side of the frame, looking bored and indifferent. He rolls his eyes, deliberately failing to meet Severus’ gaze.
At least he isn’t asking about Sirius quite so much anymore. But he still won’t lower himself to have a real conversation with Severus. Even as a figure made of dried paint and smeared lines, James still has standards about the company he keeps.
Severus has never been good enough.
As he traces the features on James’ face, Severus tries to recall what they looked like in their three-dimensional state. This is just a pale imitation to the real James, Severus thinks, with something between bitterness and longing. The paint feels nothing like flesh, he notes dully for what must be the thousandth time this month.
When the door of the dungeon swings open, Severus closes the cupboard door with a snap, throwing James back into the darkness again – and just in time too; Malfoy and Parkinson have just walked in and are taking their seats in the front of the classroom.
~And look upon myself and curse my fate~
James’ tie is a sickening mix of blood and mustard stripes. Severus wonders why no one has ever informed the Gryffindors of this fact. When they look at each other, Severus is pleased to see his own house colors reflected in the golden tint of James’ glasses, giving them an ethereal quality of green and silver vying for power against the hazel backdrop of his eyes.
Sixteen year old James Potter is confident and fit and his hair is still far from tamed – something strangely comforting to Severus in its consistency. At least he can rely on James for that.
He walks slowly past James, waiting for the other boy to react, as he knows he will. Severus has learned that sideways glances and muttered insults during class are not enough. Now they are alone, James is without his entourage of loyal Gryffindor minions and prospective girlfriends, and the hallway seems darker without them. It must be that there is less gold and red. Right now, the colors are put on equal footing, and that’s reassuring.
Their shoulders brush and Severus feels the world pause, for just a second, as he allows himself to memorize the feeling. It’s cold, just like everything else James does. It’s such a sharp contrast to the way James acts with his friends. Sometimes Severus thinks it must be all an act, that he can’t be both, that there’s no way he can be so cruel.
Perhaps Severus is not the one being lied to.
James grinds out an insult as the distance spreads between them, and the words are ones Severus has heard before. He could probably recite James’ repertoire of phrases if he tried. James is neither clever, nor cutting, in his words, but nevertheless, they are effective. James strikes a chord of truth that Severus never wants, but somehow needs, to hear. That’s what makes them work. James would never lie to Snape, or at least this is what Severus says to himself every night so he can sleep.
It is only later, after James has rounded the corner and his retreating footsteps have been replaced with the nocturnal sounds of feathers and wind, that Severus slides down the comforting cold wall and buries his head in his hands.
He’s not sure what he’s waiting for; knows only that whatever it is will never come.
Sirius must be free tonight, Severus thinks, the thought dry and bitter, but not unexpected.
~One more rich in hope~
The candles glitter against the enchanted sky in the Great Hall and mimic the look in Albus Dumbledore’s eyes so perfectly that Severus Snape has to smirk. He sits at the Head table next to Professor Quirrell and tries his best not to grimace as the obviously inept man tries to keep hold of his goblet, his hands trembling and sweaty. Severus makes a noncommittal expression and rolls his eyes. He doesn’t particularly want to be here. In fact, if he thought he could get away with it, he would slip out one of the side doors and retreat to the familiar cold of his dungeons. It’s far too stuffy and cheerful here.
The first years are wringing their hands anxiously in the center aisle, all so small and glassy-eyed and looking more anxious than Cornish Pixies. Severus idly hopes that he never looked that disgustingly vulnerable as a child. Smoothing back his hair in a way he’s sure must appear intimidating, he scours the group as they gawk at the enchanted ceiling and listen to the Sorting Hat carry on with its annoying ditty.
Severus would rather like to cast a clean Incendio on the bloody thing. He’d never been keen on music and this certainly wasn’t encouraging him to take up an interest anytime soon.
The students are called up one by one at a pace that is painfully slow, as if Minerva McGonagall is trying to draw the process out and turn it into something of meaning and purpose. Severus thinks he’d like to take a nap and wonders if the irritating turban wrapped around Professor Quirrell’s head – as though he fancies himself a Sheik – would make for a good pillow.
When Draco Malfoy’s name is called, Severus sits up a bit in his chair, watching the spitting image of Lucius Malfoy saunter up to the stool. His eyes flicker to rest on Severus’ own, for just a moment, and there’s a strangely broken look lurking in those grey irises. Severus almost wants to think it’s something like the darkened swirl he sees each morning in his own reflection but this is a Malfoy, and a Malfoy is not one to acknowledge rejection or defeat with anything more than casual indifference.
With no more than a blink of the eye, Draco Malfoy is sorted into Slytherin. He smirks appreciatively, and saunters off to join his classmates – an ugly bunch, Severus notes, without the slightest bit of surprise.
The list drones on, Minerva’s dark Scottish brogue sounding sharp on Severus’ ears like she’s reprimanding him specifically, as she had on innumerable occasions during his time as a student.
Severus stops paying attention, studying the wood grain pattern snaking over the table, until—
The world seems to freeze. From Hufflepuff, a girl’s gasp echoes in the still air and even the Slytherins seem to have taken interest in the proceedings.
A small boy with messy dark hair and overlarge glasses walks hesitantly up to where the sorting hat is perched atop the wooden stool. All eyes are on him, including Severus’. He evaluates the boy’s appearance, thinking that, if those glasses were more square than round, and if his eyes didn’t have that hint of emerald, then yes, that would be about right. He doesn’t realize his throat is clenching and tight until he goes to draw a breath and finds he has to struggle to swallow down the air.
He waits, watching the perverse imitation of James sitting there on the stool, practically drowning under the brim of the Hat, and it shouldn’t be taking as long as it is. The Hat shifts on his head, slipping down over his ears and Severus thinks that, if there wasn’t so much whispering from the Ravenclaws, he might be able to hear what is being said.
Hissing. Harry shaking his head. Harry whispering something under his breath. ”No.” A protest.
The Hat quiets for a moment, and then announces so that the whole hall can hear.
Severus sinks low in his seat, watching the almost-Slytherin clamber off the stool. He is so like James, Severus muses. His back is so like James’, Severus tells himself, recalling the countless times he remembers James walking away.
Severus presses his lips together.
As Harry walks off to join his fellow Gryffindors, he has the sudden twisted vision of the boy bent forward over a desk, naked and being raped by some faceless, robed figure. It’s a fleeting thought, one whose origin Severus cannot identify. It is wrong and cruel and so clear that the image seems to linger on the back of his eyelids.
Severus smiles, digging his knife into the meat on the plate before him.
~Desiring this man’s art~
Severus storms into the classroom and slams the door behind him. He stands there for a moment, feeling the dark wood panels cool against his back, and catches his breath. He doesn’t close his eyes, knows that if he does he will only see Potter again, smiling up at that oaf of a half-breed and sharing a secretive grin with the Weasley, the Weasley who is poor and dirty and still Harry Potter’s best friend. Potters never knew how to choose friends.
Harry Potter would never dare smile at Severus Snape. Jeer and ridicule behind his back, surely, but smile at him? Never. Severus wonders if his own cruel line of mouth is merely meant to return the favor.
He loosens the collar of his robes and walks forward down the center aisle of his classroom, striping an index finger down Weasley’s desk, marking him, as if the boy is somehow contained there in the wood and Severus needs only to touch him to make him bleed and fall and admit defeat.
The desk, as should have been expected, does nothing.
And Severus can’t take that.
He marches up to the cabinet beyond his desk and flings the door open, wrenching the painting out as if he means to break the frame in two. He throws the painting down onto his desk with a smack of wood against wood against James who doesn’t feel anything. Why doesn’t he feel anything?
When Severus removes the silencing charm, James is laughing. It’s a low cackle of adolescent boys with secrets and jokes and cruel pranks and it is the laugh that haunts Severus’ nightmares, sometimes even the dreams he has when he is awake.
“Snivellus, did the boys make fun of you again?” James asks, syllables jolted between laughs as he cracks a wicked grin and stares tauntingly at Severus, waiting patiently for some sort of response.
“Your son…” Severus grinds out coldly.
James throws his head back and laughs, barking the way Sirius used to.
“My son what, Snape? You want to bugger him too? Pervert, you are.”
Severus stares long and hard at the cracked-ink smile that forms over James’ mouth. It is the same smile he saw on Harry’s lips tonight at dinner. It is a smile that means friendship for some and rejection for others all in a single flash of white.
His eyes trace over the painted body of James Potter, as he stands in the cell of his frame, just as they have many times with his son. He hates everything about James, he decides, but especially the fact that he cannot touch this James. He’s tried to coax the clothing off on nights when he’s particularly inebriated on the bitter burn of firewhisky, but the James in the painting is blank under his robes. He wasn’t painted all the way through. There wouldn’t be anything to see but mocking white space splashing the canvas. And James refuses anyway, because this James is not his James. But then, Severus thinks dryly, James was never his in the first place, that was his own mistake.
The James in the painting clears his throat. Severus has been staring.
Anger converges with regret as James’ lips part to speak again, painted pink tongue flicking out between his teeth. James mouths something like “alone”, and somehow that’s worse than any other insult because it’s the one James know will always be true and effective.
Before Severus can help it, he’s grabbed a quill from his desk. James’ eyes fleck with green for a second, reflecting light off the Slytherin-green cufflinks of Severus’ dress robes. Severus wasn’t aware that paint could reflect light like that and it frustrates him further. He grips the quill and drives the ink-dipped point hard into the painting. James cackles. Severus’ eyes narrow.
When he lets go, the quill falls to the floor. It leaves an unsightly gash over the canvas, a tear of black across James’ forehead. A lightning bolt.
~Yet in these thoughts, myself almost despising~
Severus can feel Harry treading in the corners of his mind the moment he opens the door to his classroom. It’s an instinct more than anything, a feeling crawling up the back of his neck as he turned and saw Potter there, bent over his pensieve, staring into the mixture of memory, hate, and humiliation.
Harry’s hair is dripping wildly over his forehead and ears and Severus thinks it would need to be trimmed just slightly in order for it to look like—
Severus steels himself and stalks over to Harry, clenching his fingers around his arm.
There is a moment – one he will regret later that night as he is thrashing in his bed sheets, unable to sleep – when Severus turns, looks, for just a moment, into the swirling grey-green mist. He sees the scene, clearer than it ought to be, and sees James there with a twisting smirk over his lips. His face is so much brighter in the memory than in the painting, but in both cases, Severus is only allowed to look and long.
There is a second when James catches Severus’ gaze – the Severus of the past, the Severus that Snape wishes he could erase, the Severus he has tried to bury under layers of ashen heart and stoic demeanor. Severus sees his own face crumble like dust. James’ expression hurts more than any prank and Severus has to turn away, face white with something he hopes Harry will mistake for anger.
Potter just stares at him for a cold moment. The green of his eyes flashes like he has Snape all figured out.
~Haply I think on thee~
Everyone is gone now and the Shack has fallen into disrepair. There are new students, seventh years Severus remembers seeing in the Great Hall during mealtimes and first years he can sometimes pick out as sisters, brothers, cousins by hair color or posture.
Severus isn’t sure why he’s here. He will be meeting with Rosier and Malfoy later in the Hog’s Head, but he isn’t sure what compelled him to come here. The walls are nothing more than jagged shards of wood, and the creaking floorboards underfoot seem like something out of a horror novel. Light filters in dimly through some of the upstairs rafters and it’s cold light, tinted with November wind and flurries of snow.
He sits on the piano bench, thumbing Db lightly and listening to the off-key tinny sound linger in the chill air. He’s been here too many times, come back here too many times.
The Shack is dirty and Severus is sure no one came here during school but James, Lupin, Black, and Pettigrew. This gives Severus a sense of accomplishment, like he’s discovered something no one else has been able to. Once he went searching in the downstairs rooms for signs of….he wasn’t sure what exactly. He looked for books, logs, sketches, ways to get to know those Gryffindors, to get to know James. A lazy thought had entered his mind that maybe he could have them all figured out. Maybe the answers were all here within these walls.
Severus thinks of black hair as his right hand trails down the keys in a bitter glissando. The piano needs tuning and it’s missing an E and an A in one of the lower octaves, but the imperfect notes seem fitting because Severus knows they will be nothing like the music playing elsewhere today. He doesn’t want this to sound at all like cellos and charmed harps and flutes. This sounds natural and imperfect and crude and the G7, a chord Severus doesn’t know but plays anyway – tapering fingertips finding the keys easily as if in a dream – resonates soundly. It sounds like James, if James could be qualified in music.
Severus wants to be angry with himself for thinking these stupid sentimental things. But he counters his frustration with logic. He should be allowed a day to reflect. And that’s all this is. He will reflect and then it will be over and he will be able to move on. Today is a perfect day to move on, he tells himself.
His fingers arch and fall lightly again against the white and black. The resulting augmented fifth sounds like a stain in time, and Severus shivers, throwing his arm out over the keys so the sound is jarring and harsh. And somehow perfect.
The cruel sound echoes in the empty cold of the Shack, mimicking the feeling curling in Severus’ ribcage.
He thinks he should leave now. He doesn’t want to be late.
As he steps out of the Shack, sun setting like melting ice in front of him, he thinks he hears church bells.
He wonders if Lily’s family had enough money for a nice wedding.
~Like to the lark~
Harry Potter is taking an unusually long time to pack up his things. Severus watches as the other students file out leaving Potter – The Hogwarts Champion, he grudgingly attaches – slowly transferring books and papers from the smooth surface of his desk into his bag. He presses his lips together, as if in deep thought or concentration. He’s been that way for the past few weeks now, Severus muses, with the slightest note of concern.
The muscles of Harry’s shoulders clench as Severus inhales sharply, first experimentally and then again to see if Harry will react the same way a second time. He does, and Severus sneers, thinking James would, were he alive, be ashamed to call this his son. Severus thinks that if he can frighten Harry just by breathing, that he could mold him like clay, if he tried, and he knows that this is exactly what Dumbledore has done. Harry is meant to be the hero and so he plays the part.
Severus thinks idly, as he watches Harry’s arms pull forward to grab his quills and shove them roughly into his bag, that he could manipulate Harry just as easily. He circles the room in long strides, stopping when he is just a few rows behind Harry, knowing the boy must be trying overly hard to ignore his presence, imagining the Gryffindor’s burning green gaze trying to stare through the canvas of his satchel, concentrating on anything other than Snape’s footfalls. Severus wonders if Harry is taunting him by still being here, wonders if he is just trying to pull and strain at Snape’s will until he bends and breaks, and loses his last shred of control. Severus imagines things – terrible, horrible things that no professor should ever have thoughts about – but he won’t ever act on them because they’re in his subconscious, absent from his reasonable mind, and to act on those thoughts would be to relinquish control.
He stills now, watching Harry stop too, for just a second, imagines the boy’s lip tremble, and a shiver trace down his shoulders. From the back, Harry looks exactly like James. His robes shift as he moves again, his shoulders rolling back and, against his will, Severus finds himself imagining –
His hands are on that back, and now it’s naked and tan and Severus’ long, pale, potion-stained fingers scrabble at that flesh, clawing long dark marks down Harry’s spine as he bends the boy forward over his desk.
His eyes flick up and his desk is bare, save for a few sheafs of parchment, and the vision has dissipated. It’s for the best. He can’t think of –
Harry rises from his chair in a clumsy movement, swinging the strap of his bag over his shoulder.
Now, in Severus’ mind, the strap becomes a tie, snakes into silk and swooping green pulling him backwards where clamps and cuffs bind him against the wall – backwards – so his naked body is presented to Severus for the taking. And from the back, Harry looks exactly like James. From the back, Harry is James.
Severus shudders, eyes focusing again in the din of the dungeon classroom where Harry is looking at him rather quizzically. Severus has been blocking the door.
“Get out!” The words grind out abruptly, clipped and coarse and directed as much at the vision within his head as they are to its muse.
Severus closes his eyes and steps aside as Harry obediently exists the room. He hears only footsteps, doesn’t notice the expression on Harry’s face – a look of confusion mixed with pity – but the vision of Harry’s back lingers in the doorway even after he’s gone, and is waiting there when Severus opens his eyes again.
His throat is filled with the taste of dungeon air the moment he steps into the room that is to be his office. He tries to swallow but finds himself unable to, choking on the memories that make his heart feel punctured and aching and his stomach churn with nausea. The memories that hurt the most are the ones that never existed, all of the what-ifs and wishes that were broken and dead before they could ever be formed. Severus’ lips part as he thinks of all the times James walked away, of all the times he refused to speak, to move, to step closer, to pull away.
When Dumbledore nods to him kindly and closes the door, Severus pulls the painting from his robes, restores it to full size, and leans it cautiously on one of the shelves so that the frame is propped up against one of the stone walls. He hasn’t looked at it since he took it from the Potters’ home, and he swore he wouldn’t need to again, swore he would destroy it. But he couldn’t, more from his own will than the protective spells that might have been placed over the wood and paint.
He looks at the image for a long moment, watching James Potter doze soundly, head slumping in his arms, in the corner of the frame. The background is muted, and Severus can’t tell what sort of room it is. It’s just a sea of brown and gray paint swipes, slashing lines that blur into one another across the canvas. James is the only thing that’s defined.
It is in this moment that Severus makes a decision. Before he has a chance to think better of it, he places a charm around the painting, one that will assure that its occupant cannot migrate, or escape. For whatever power he had in life, James is now a prisoner in a cage of inky smears. And Severus is the warden.
It is revenge, Severus tells himself. That would be the logical explanation. At this moment, however, Severus Snape is hardly being rational.
He is tired and he will be meeting with Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall tomorrow morning, so he should get his rest.
James can wait.
~For thy sweet love remember’d, such wealth brings~
The train ride back from Hogwarts in the summer of 1978 is loud, and Severus sinks low in the seat of his empty compartment, listening to the commotion in the corridor where the other seventh years are giggling, chatting, and discussing their future plans. So many of them want to be Aurors, work in the Ministry and fight the growing threat of Dark wizards – wizards Severus already knows by name, a cause he’s promised to serve, a Mark he’s elected to take. Severus’ plans are already set in stone.
There’s nothing for him to celebrate.
He isn’t moping, he tells himself, pulling the sleeves of his green jumper down over his hands and leaning his head back against the seat cushion.
He hears James’ voice, loud and boisterous over the others as he claps someone on the back – Sirius, most likely – and croons something incomprehensible. They haven’t even had any butterbeer yet and they’re already acting like imbeciles. Severus sneers, telling himself that whatever they’re doing isn’t the sort of thing he wants to be a part of.
He catches a swish of red hair through the glass of the compartment door and imagines Lily’s lips pressing firmly against James’ a moment later, feeling instantly nauseous because the vision in his mind is just as it should be, and that’s not right at all.
He wonders, half-hopefully, if James and Sirius will come and taunt him, but they gave up on the insults months ago, James willing himself to ‘straighten-up’ (in more ways than one, thinks Severus) for Lily. When she’s around, he even drops the old, near-comforting ‘Snivellus’, and simply calls Severus the overly formal ‘Snape’, signifying no attachment whatsoever. Severus is reduced to just another Slytherin, no longer worthy even of ridicule.
He closes his eyes because now James and Sirius are singing some obscene song at the top of their lungs. Some things never change. He hears Lupin’s voice saying calming things like “Shouldn’t you be a bit more quiet?” and Severus has a mental image of Peter nodding adamantly, agreeing with whichever party suits him in that moment.
The singing stops and now they’re talking again. Severus hears the groan of wood as one of them leans back against one of the compartment walls. They’re talking about their plans for that summer, all of them together, how they won’t have to think about Hogwarts or Quidditch or N.E.W.T.s, how it will just be them and the sticky heat of the summer sun, and perhaps a beach somewhere if they’re lucky.
Severus bunches the right cuff of his jumper tightly in his fist and wonders if he’ll get in trouble for casting an especially strong silencing charm on his compartment.
He doesn’t though, perhaps because he wishes to sate some morbid curiosity, perhaps simply because after everything, he is still strangely comforted by the sound of James’ voice, even though it’s never said anything pleasant to him. Maybe he’s comforted in that consistency. He can rely on James for nothing, if not that.
When they reach the platform at King’s Cross, most of the students are anxious to leave and quickly make their way off the train, grabbing their trunks and walking excitedly to reunite with their parents and siblings. Severus takes his time, not wanting to be surrounded by the suffocating crowd of smiles and the air stiff with cheeriness that he can neither share nor understand.
He steps onto the platform somberly, and anyone who did not know him might assume that he was sad to leave Hogwarts. It wasn’t Hogwarts he would miss though.
Something sinks his chest when he sees Sirius say a quick ‘goodbye’ to James. It’s not a goodbye, really; more of a ‘see you later’. Because that’s what friends would say to each other. With friends, there are no goodbyes, only pauses in conversation. Breaks and commas but never full goodbyes.
With Severus, there was never a ‘hello’.
Lily kisses James lightly on the cheek before going to meet up with her family - Mudbloods, Severus thinks instinctually. Peter and Remus both nod and wave amicably, murmuring things that Severus cannot hear and isn’t sure he wants to anyway. And then they are gone too.
James stands alone in the crowd of students and parents, silhouetted against the red of the Hogwarts Express – a red that seems dimmer than when Severus first saw it.
Severus thinks he could just leave. He could Apparate home with a crack and never have to see James Potter again.
But he doesn’t.
Striding over to James, Severus tries to steel his confidence, still unsure of what to say to James but feeling like they can’t just part in silence.
James turns to face him and Severus stops, several paces away still and looking immediately trapped – as he always is.
“Snape.” James says the name like it’s painful, and Severus sees something flash in those hazel eyes like flitting memories of all the nights and days and times in-between. Severus sees his own flesh, sweat, and breath in those eyes like James has taken it – all of it. He has, Severus reminds himself coldly.
“James,” Severus says in reply, and it is not the first thing he’d intended to say but it’s the only one that matters.
James shrugs. “I hope you aren’t expecting some big ceremony of a goodbye.” His tone is acerbic and dark, and the only thing Severus hears is the underlying ‘I don’t want you’ in James’ voice.
“I…” Severus begins.
“Don’t,” James interrupts; “Don’t even say it. I don’t want to hear whatever it is you have to say.”
So Severus doesn’t.
And James walks away then. Severus doesn’t call out to him, though he knows that if he did he would have James’ attention and he would be able to say anything – everything – he wants to and James would listen, would have to listen. But he doesn’t call out to him. James keeps walking and Severus doesn’t call out to him, or run after him, or do anything but stand there on the platform and watch. He lets James walk away, memorizing the dark shadow his back leaves as it retreats into the crowd.
He senses that this is the last time he will see James Potter alive.
Ginny looks at the painting for a long time today, watching unblinking as its occupant paces slowly back and forth in the confines of the wooden frame. It’s getting late and soon she will have to leave; the dungeon is already thick with the stench of something colder and darker than any potion.
Her gaze shifts and she looks upon the desk that was emptied out just this morning. The shelves are bare and when her fingers trace over the countertop, where she’d measured potions into vials that night in detention two years ago, she finds the pads of her thumbs splintered.
On this occasion, things feel wrong and she doesn’t want to stay long. She just wants to say goodbye, feels she needs to since no one else had the chance to. A proper goodbye, she thinks.
Her eyes are dull as she murmurs a platitude, some excuse for an apology. She isn’t sure why it’s even necessary. When she finishes, and moves to close the cupboard door, she looks one last time at the figure in the painting.
James has changed, his painted self moving at an impossibly languid pace, eyelashes falling in dark lines against his cheeks and smile absent from his lips. He looks resigned and broken.
Ginny wonders idly if paintings can feel loss.
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least:
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee,--and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings'.