Title: Heart on Your Sleeve|
Author: Juxian Tang
Pairings: Snape/others, Snape/Albus, very slight Snape/Harry
Warning: rape, gratuitous angst
Summary: "Fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions, who wallow in sad memories and allow themselves to be provoked so easily - weak people, in other words..."
HEART ON YOUR SLEEVE
This story is for Lilith
"Dear, dear, aren't you too young to be falling apart like that?"
He stood panting in an empty corridor, leaning on his hand pressed to the wall, and the portrait's shrill voice was cutting through his skull like a blade.
Stupid cow; what business was it of hers how young or old he was?
The corridor in front of him was quiet with that sleepy, dusty quietness of the last days before the start of the school year - and the door of the staff room seemed practically unreachable.
Fifty more steps, Severus knew it; behind the corner - he had walked this distance countless times in his nearly two decades here. But he couldn't deny that in the last three years it was taking much more effort - and became increasingly difficult with every month.
Perhaps next time he wouldn't be able to... but he didn't want to think about it. It would be a shame if he let such a degrading weakness to divert him from his duties. Next time - he'd just leave his quarters well in advance so that if his leg decided to fail him again, it wouldn't impede him.
But now he was going to be late. Severus knew they already were there, all of them, and it was so damn humiliating. He hated it.
This anger was exactly what gave him strength in the end to push away from the wall and keep walking - hobbling - along the rest of his way, right to the door with the sound of softly buzzing voices behind it. Yes, they had already started.
For a moment Severus stood still, bracing himself. He disliked entering rooms full of people - as he disliked everything that put him at disadvantage. With students he'd changed his habit of sweeping entrance - nothing *sweeping* for him any more - to being already there when they came in.
But now Severus didn't have a choice. He would enter and they would see it - his tiredness, his disability - and they would look at him, Minerva, and Potter, and Weasley, and others. They would look at him... and think.
He didn't care what they thought, Severus reminded himself. He wasn't weak. He hadn't ever failed in anything - either as a teacher or as the Head of the House - and that was the only thing that mattered; no one's concern was how much it cost him.
He had promised Albus to stay here; and he was going to keep this promise.
He pushed the door and entered, his walking stick hitting the floor with an obtrusive, too loud sound. The buzz didn't die out, though, heads not turning to him.
They all were there, as he thought - McGonagall in her Headmistress high chair, Flitwick, Hagrid, others - even Potter, teaching Defense for the second year, and Weasley, the idiot who of course couldn't teach anything but Quidditch. But they hadn't started the meeting yet.
They were *too busy*.
Shimmering with different colors wrapper was crumpled on the table, the red and yellow logo of the Weasley brothers' shop flashing on it. Severus glanced at it in distaste - and peered at the square object in Sinistra's hands - a framed picture or something. She was smiling - a sad, self-absorbed smile playing on her lips - and there was an outrageously distracted expression in her eyes. As if she was reading a sappy romance or listening to equally sappy music.
They all looked rather strange, Severus thought, even Minerva - somewhat mellow and quiet - and the look she gave Severus nearly startled him.
"Ah Severus, you're here. One moment and we shall begin."
He nodded silently, making it to his place, the pain in his hipbone rising to the peak but his face carefully blank.
"Yes, it was that, indeed," Sinistra said in a soft voice, handing the thing - a mirror? - to Weasley. "Please thank your brothers for me, all right?"
"I beg my pardon, shall we start today?"
"Professor?" What was it? Potter talking to him? Last year Potter had seemed to try staying as far away from Severus as possible, keeping silent unless it was absolutely necessary to communicate. Whether it had been a gesture of good will or out of fear, Severus never knew - and it didn't work anyway, since they always ended up quarrelling anyway, for any reason - from the time for Quidditch practice to Potter's methods - or lack of them - in teaching. And of course Weasley had to interfere... why did two of them have to be here? Why not Granger, who could be dreadfully annoying but who at least didn't seem to take all the air around.
"Um, Professor Snape..." It seemed Potter had his words stuck in his throat - and Severus really would be quite happy if he choked on them. "Would you like to look at it?"
He heard Weasley hiss loudly - and then pull Potter on the sleeve, making wild faces.
"Are you mad, Harry, do you want him to..."
"Professor Weasley, polite as always."
He couldn't resist having a dig - but in reality Severus hardly cared how idiotically ill-mannered Weasley could be. And he cared even less what Potter had in mind.
He just wanted this meeting to be over, as soon as possible - and get back to his rooms, and he needed a potion for pain, and lie down, and maybe for a while he'd be out of that.
"Really, Severus, please try."
Minerva too? It had to be some conspiracy. What did they want from him? It couldn't be something good, Severus thought as he looked at their expectant faces, Hagrid, Sinistra, Flitwick - and Potter's intense green eyes behind his glasses looked at him questioningly, almost begging.
It was disturbing. What did they try to push him into?
He had to protect himself, they might have thought he could be manipulated but he wouldn't let them, wouldn't play along. He clasped his damaged hand on the elbow-rest tightly, using pain as a reminder.
He wasn't weak. He was stronger than his body. Stronger than his fears.
"Whatever it is Professor Potter offers me, Headmistress," his voice sounded as sarcastic as he wanted it to, and Severus leaned against the back of the chair, "I have no intention to waste my time on it."
"Oh, you wouldn't have called this time wasted," Minerva said, her thin mouth curving in a smile that still was suspiciously soft. Something went dim in Potter's eyes - as if he was disappointed.
"So, Minerva, what about the meeting?"
"I told you he wouldn't recognize it even if it bit him on the nose," Weasley muttered, wrapping the mirror into the crumpled paper carefully - and Potter muttered back, something like: "Never mind."
The meeting was an unceasing sequence of small things to be discussed, the important issues already argued and decided. Severus did get into a token argument, with Flitwick about the timetable - and with Weasley about tryouts; rather forced himself into doing it, reminding himself it was his duty to look out for the interests of his Slytherins.
He sometimes felt it was almost insurmountable to do the things he'd done for years. But as long as Severus was here - he had to be useful. And he would do his duty best he could.
Finally the meeting was over, and Severus got up, pain jarring through all his body at once, like it always was after staying in one position for too long. He knew he didn't give it away, had trained himself into full control during last years.
Now he just had to get out of here.
The others were talking, not paying attention to him, and Severus let himself relax a little. And then...
He was not sure who exactly called for him.
Turning was excruciating, every time a scorching rod going through his hipbone. But he couldn't let his weakness rule him, right? That was exactly why he turned immediately.
There was Potter, and Weasley, behind him, and someone else, and the mirror was there, shining dullish grey and in a rather gauche brass frame. For a moment Severus saw his face with white compressed lips and narrowed eyes reflecting in it - and then the picture dissolved, changing into another.
It was him again, but looking different, for a moment Severus couldn't point how exactly different. No white strands in his hair, framing his face untidily - and the expression... he hadn't known that constant pain had left such an imprint on his features. Ah yes. He looked younger.
He was in a dim room - his own room? - and he had his grey nightshirt on. And there was Albus in front of him, long thin hand cupping his cheek.
He recognized it immediately. There was only one time like that - and Severus remembered it so well, to the extent that it seemed he still could feel cool, soft fingers touching his face.
Oh God. Albus... I miss you so much.
The feeling of loss, of regret was so powerful, so new and sharp as Severus hadn't felt for almost three years that had made it dull. Albus... dead. And Severus wanted to look at the mirror, to see him, again, as if he were alive - look at him as he touched Severus like that; wanted to look greedily, never stop looking. If he could make this moment last forever, nothing else would matter for him.
That was it, right? His weak spot, and Potter and Weasley caught him. Tricked him and threw his weakness at his face, found his moment of vulnerability.
He couldn't afford it, couldn't show his weakness.
He had to stop looking.
An awful surge of sadness enveloped him as the picture in the mirror started blurring but Severus did nothing to hold onto it, willed it to go. And again his face looked at him, pinched and even paler than usual, and with his eyes oozing pain with disgusting openness.
He was very aware of silence, and knew he'd done something revealing, and hated it so much that his hand unconsciously clenched on the wand.
No, it wouldn't do. It would make things even worse, if he shattered this mirror and showed everyone how hard it hit him. He relaxed his grip on the wand carefully.
"Very mature, isn't it? Professor Weasley, Professor Potter." Good; his voice was calm. A bit dead, maybe, but they wouldn't notice. "What to expect from students if the staff brings such abominable toys to the school?"
He knew they stared at him - Potter, Weasley, McGonagall, others, but their faces were a blur in front of his eyes. He *was* hurt; there was no way to deny it to himself. Pain was blinding, almost more than he could bear. But he wouldn't show it. Only fools wear their hearts on their sleeves. Life had taught him well - don't show it; especially if you feel vulnerable, don't show it.
"Abominable?" McGonagall asked, her voice sounding astonished. "But Severus, it is a useful item..."
Useful. Oh yes. One more tasteless joke, like everything the Weasley brothers were capable of creating. What did it show? Severus remembered there was something written on the frame, in stylized letters, but he hadn't had time to read. Last time you had sex or something?
Would it have shown him the rest if he kept looking?
If only he could keep looking...
He sneered; upper lip raised, in a short grimace that told students not to mess up with him. Potter and Weasley must have still remembered that.
"You will excuse me," he said turning and walking out.
"I told you he didn't have one all the same." Weasley's loud whisper caught on him but he didn't hear and didn't want to hear what Potter had to answer.
It was so good the corridors were empty, and he limped down, slowing, his leg protesting the initial speed and harshness of movements. Stupid; he'd let his nerves rule him, should've controlled himself better.
Calm down; calm down. He'd get to his dungeons soon and there he could react. Throw jars at the walls or burn something. There he would be safe.
"It is your home," Albus had said. "You will be safe here. Promise me you will stay here."
He could never deny Albus anything; he'd promised it. Severus wondered if even death would release him from this promise; or would he have to stay at Hogwarts as a ghost even after that? A companion for Bloody Baron?
But he couldn't even say that the thought scared him very much. He didn't have anywhere else to go anyway.
If only it didn't hurt so much to walk... and to think.
He remembered walking exactly like that along empty, dimly lit corridors, on that night, and every step seemed to resound through his body with a wave of pain but his mind was just numb.
It had been the beginning of the end of his usefulness as a spy. Later Severus could point at it quite clearly. But then he still had tried to deny it. Being a spy made him feel special. And he wanted to prolong this feeling of special-ness, of being able to do what no one else could.
And if sometimes he had to pay for it... so what?
He hadn't got used to Crucio - it was impossible; but being punished together with others, he still tried to see if there was gleam of anger or resentment in someone's eyes in the slits of the mask.
"Perhaps Flint is not all that happy with how it is going," he would tell Albus and offer to talk to a Death Eater - but Albus practically always stopped him, saying the risk was too great.
And so it went on. Summons came more and more often, and it became more difficult - nearly impossible - to please Voldemort or at least to anger him not so frequently.
Severus thought he was doing comparatively well - till the moment when he had to look at the broken bodies of a Ministry official and his wife and know that they would join the long line of those whose death he'd witnessed or caused.
And when one of Severus' companions knelt between the woman's legs and she screamed in a horrible, wheezing voice, he raised his wand and threw two green flashes, at her and her husband... not because he wanted to spare them but because he knew there were things he couldn't witness and still come back to keep spying after that.
And Severus wanted to come back, you see - he wanted to be useful for Albus.
He knew he would pay for the untimely 'Avada Kedavra' - and when the Dark Lord said almost mildly, looking at him with an indulgent smile on his thin colorless lips: "Lost your nerve again, Severus?" - he knew how everything would end. So, Severus just shrugged and bowed a little - and then Crucio hit him and he folded down over his knees, clenching his fists and trying not to scream. Voldemort liked making his servants scream but sometimes Severus, illogically, resisted giving in at once.
Another Crucio followed and through red haze his Lord's words were soft, almost contemplative: "Sometimes you make me wonder, Severus. So little control. Are you a fool or an enemy?"
But it was not yet then, Severus told himself, he didn't really suspect him.
He screamed his voice raw, and the execution still didn't stop, and he was dimly aware of other voices repeating Crucio at the order of their Lord.
But he almost was glad it was happening: he was paying. For those who'd died today and he did nothing to save them.
He lost consciousness when curses stopped - slid into darkness and nothingness in relief.
"You think you are too clean for that, Severus," he remembered the last words from his Lord.
And when he came round, his body still shaking in phantom pain - the meaning of these words became clear for him. Understanding came together with a shocking feeling of cold air on his naked body, and the edge of the table pressing into his belly, and someone's hands gripping his asscheeks, pulling them apart.
He was temporarily blinded by a spell - not because the Dark Lord was considerate and didn't want the punished to start hating the punishers. Rather it was a message - the only thing he had to know was that *the Dark Lord* was punishing him.
"So, you find your friends' games with Mudbloods detestable, Severus?"
He wanted to answer, wanted to try to talk his way out of it but there was a muffling spell that let only incoherent sounds leave his lips.
"Do you suppose you are better than them because of it? I cannot allow one of my servants to behave so condescendingly. You understand it, don't you, Severus?"
Oh he understood. He knew it was his arrogance, and he'd made a wrong step, and an even worse mistake of not smoothing it up - deciding in his hubris that he could pay with pain for his crime and this would redeem it.
But he never thought... Severus never thought the punishment would be like that.
Indeed, how could he think, right? He was not so stupid to think that that woman, bleeding and with half of bones broken in her body, could excite Dolohov. But his own ugliness, his loneliness, for years and years by now, made him forget, made it almost impossible to imagine that he could be used in such a way.
What a fool. No one was immune to anything.
It was just a punishment - not worse than what they'd done to Bella Lestrange when she had failed in the Department of Mysteries - throwing hexes at her until there was almost no her beautiful skin left un-scorched. Or with Bowen, when they spat at his face and he had to kiss boots of every one of them.
"Perhaps you would like to fight, Severus? To defend yourself?" His hands were bound, and he had no idea where his wand was but it wouldn't have stopped him. "Fight away."
He stopped himself.
He wouldn't ruin everything out of weakness, because he was unable to pay a price, because there were things that frightened him more than others - and *this* was one of them; some deeply ingrained, instinctive fear - the reason why he couldn't watch the woman's rape, one of the reasons why he'd defected the ranks of Death Eaters years ago.
But he was not weak; he wouldn't give up.
He repeated that again and again.
There was pain, quite bad - not so bad as Crucio, though, and more of a local kind - and Severus had had anal sex before, not a big deal - even though it had been a while, very much a while since the last time. He could deal with this pain. It didn't matter. The wet, sloppy sound of a cock entering his torn and loosened ass didn't matter. The edge of the table slamming into his groin with every thrust didn't matter.
Someone's semen running over his leg didn't matter, and another entering him, and Severus tried to breathe evenly but it didn't quite work, his breath still was loud and broken and it was good it was the only sound he could make.
He didn't want to panic. But he panicked all the same, the darkness over his face smothering, and he thought he would give anything, even would rather look at his rapists' faces - just not to stay in this darkness. But Severus had no choice - no one asked him. He probably thrashed somewhat because another spell pinned him down.
And so it continued. Not all of them were silent, and from their muffled words Severus knew he would have been able to deduce who they were. But he didn't care. Tearing pain became worse and worse, and Severus already wondered if they were ever going to stop.
They stopped eventually, and by then he was pretty numb, and it was such a relief.
He slumped down on the floor when the bindings were released but the darkness over his eyes was the last to be gone.
And the first thing he saw was the Dark Lord leaning slightly to him, the toe of his boot raising Severus' chin.
"I believe you have learned your lesson, haven't you?"
And he whispered: "Yes, my lord," hoarsely and even bothered to look contrite. He endured the Dark Lord's scrutiny, a look into his eyes, skillful probing into his thoughts, and didn't forget to shield all the necessary ones.
"Don't try to cheat next time, Severus. Play fair."
You shall watch me, I know.
He knew he would have to be extra careful since today. But Severus also knew that he couldn't think about it right now. He would keep it in mind, would take it to Albus, and talk it over, of course without explaining what had caused it.
But when he got to Hogwarts, he knew he couldn't see Albus at once. Cleaning spells did take care of sperm and blood but... but he still could feel it on his body.
And the only thought in his mind was that it was his fault. His conceit put his position under risk. He deserved what he got.
But shame or self-hatred was not what Albus needed from him. And in this state he wouldn't be able to deceive Albus pretending everything was all right.
He'd stop by at his quarters, take a potion, take a shower and change. And then he would be as good as new and Albus wouldn't know anything.
He swallowed the potion right from the bottle, a horrible burning making his choke, tears in his eyes. Severus would take a zillion points from any student who would suggest taking it without dissolving it one to ten in water. But then the advantage of being a potion master was in knowing when he could break rules. It would take effect much faster like that, and it was worth it.
He undressed quickly and stepped into the shower, and gave himself three minutes to soak - and then get back to his responsibilities.
And then his control started slipping away. It probably was the potion - too much of it - and warm water - and the last thing Severus remembered was hot streams falling on his raised face.
And the next thing was cold water all around him, and someone's hand, strong but strangely gentle, gripped his upper arm, lifting him from the bottom of the tub.
He opened his eyes and groaned seeing very closely Albus' concerned face and blinking pale gaze.
Now could he be more stupid than that? Fallen asleep in the tub.
"It's good Sparky saw you coming home." It seemed it was not the first thing Albus was saying but Severus had no idea what had been said until then. And it probably didn't matter. "He also paid attention that you took too long for your bath - and alerted me."
"Figures," Severus whispered. "House-elves spying on me."
A small chuckle Albus made was very short, and his hand never failed, supporting Severus, helping him out of the tub. He realized that and tried to shrug it away, suddenly mortified on all accounts - his revealed weakness, his nakedness - and oh God, the bruises - some were normal consequences of Crucio but some - please let Albus not guess what they were...
"I went to check on you and you didn't open the door."
"And I supposed you knocked."
"So I came in and..."
Those were unnecessary things Albus said, carrying no information, and Severus knew what it was for: the steady string of words distracting him - as Albus' hands worked with unfailing efficiency, throwing a towel over him, wiping his hair.
"It's too damp in your dungeons to get cold showers, Severus."
The other voice calling him by his name, an intonation different, still sounded in his mind, and he shivered.
"Here, here," Albus said softly. "Accio nightshirt."
By the moment it floated in, Severus managed to get enough self-control.
"Albus, please. I'm not..."
Not a doll to be dressed, not a child, not an indisposed man.
"Of course you aren't." Albus agreed readily. "Here you are."
The nightshirt fell over him, hiding his body, and Severus felt better, felt safe enough to tilt up his chin stubbornly.
"I am sorry for not meeting you immediately after return. But I can tell you only what you probably already know - Frances and Cathrine Atwood are dead."
The Aurors must have already found the bodies - while he... while he'd been occupied in another way.
Albus' eyes were grave as he nodded, his gaze not leaving Severus for a moment. He recalled the last eye contact with Voldemort; only Albus didn't try to see his thoughts. He probably didn't need to - he knew them anyway.
"I could do nothing," he said. A token thing, Albus didn't demand from him anything. Severus felt the hand touching his shoulder, through the sleeve of his nightshirt, and this touch both made him yearn for more and fear. How could Albus touch him - did he not feel disgusted?
"Go lie down, my child."
The hand guided him a little, out of the bathroom and towards his bed - and Severus was so tired, so tired it seemed he stayed upright only thanks to this hand. But at the same time something in him was unsettled completely, protesting the repose.
"It's me who killed them," he said.
He thought that perhaps Albus even knew that - suspected at least; Albus was no fool and knew there was a price one had to pay for being close to the Dark Lord... and Severus knew there would be no condemnation.
So why did he have to say that? To share his guilt - put a part of it on Albus? Or was he fishing for pity? For Albus to tell him it was all right, he'd done the right thing, he could keep killing, good boy... his *child*.
And suddenly all of it was a bit too much. Laughter broke from him, hysterical, and Severus knew, in cold terror, that he couldn't stop it, he just laughed and laughed and his chest hurt, his belly hurt, all his body hurt. He folded down, hugging himself, making harsh coughing sounds, like barking. And he couldn't see Albus, could only guess that he was looking at him in disgust.
Something in him gave in - and he was about to slump on his knees - and there was that hand again, catching his arm, not letting him fall.
"Don't touch me!" It came out so hoarse - and he jerked so violently that shook the grip off - or maybe Albus let him go.
Straightening, his laughter gone completely, Severus made himself look at Albus - had to bear what he'd see there, even if it were contempt and rejection.
Only it was not. There was just understanding in the pale blue eyes - and it was so unbearable, was almost Severus' undoing.
Albus knew; without Legilimens, he knew everything. Shame made Severus flush ugly, heat in his face. What a pathetic git he was - foolish, worthless, arrogant, full of himself...
Yes, it was all because of his pride, of his wish to earn Albus'... Albus' what? Albus' love?
He could have never hoped for that. Oh, in his secret fantasies Severus did allow himself to hope - to imagine how it could be, to be loved by Albus... like he loved his Gryffindors - or maybe even more, maybe to be loved sexually. But even he was not that stupid.
He was the last person in the world - all right, the last person on their side - that Albus would decide to choose if he wanted an object for his personal love.
But he *could* fantasize, right?
No, now he could not, any more.
He supposed a lot of time would have to pass before he would be able even to think about Albus and him together... even in his imagination. Before he would be able to forget.
He suddenly, absurdly felt a surge of hostility against the whole world - and against Albus - as if Albus was to blame for Severus' loss, for being so unattainable. He tried to look composed. Sometimes he could deceive Albus with it. Sometimes he could hide his hurt, whether it was inflicted by others or by Albus himself.
"I am sorry, Headmaster. I'm afraid I'm too tired to think straight. So if you don't mind to listen to my report in the morning, I'd better lie down... just as you said."
It came out stiffly but he didn't care - and why would Albus care? He should've been used to Severus being obedient, in the end.
His gaze went unfocused, tiredness and aftereffects of the potion making it almost impossible to concentrate. Severus could only see blue blinking eyes of Albus looking at him from behind the glasses - and wondered if there was hurt in them, if he offended Albus.
And then a thin hand rose and touched his cheek.
There was something in this touch - Severus shivered - something that seemed closer and more intimate than even when helping him in the bathroom. And these long fingers sliding over his burning cheek, the palm cupping his face... oh God, it couldn't be, it was too good, he didn't deserve it, Albus didn't know what he was doing, in his kindness.
"Come, dear boy," Albus said. "I'll take you to bed."
"As if." He chuckled painfully; the double meaning of it... Albus hardly even suspected it. And he, Severus, had said one more stupid thing.
He expected the hand to pull away from his cheek, as if scalded. But it didn't - and Albus was so close, tall and incredibly powerful, looking down at Severus with this unbearable mildness in his eyes.
"My poor boy," he said, and Severus would certainly feel exasperated with the gentle sympathy in these words - if not for the fingers that kept touching his face.
"I don't want pity," he muttered.
He wanted another thing - if Albus knew everything, did he know it as well?
"I don't think you know how to accept... compassion," Albus said, and Severus frowned. He didn't want to argue, he wanted to be good for Albus. Only he never managed to be good enough. "You'll learn," Albus said, and there was something very insistent in his words, like a he was sealing a prediction. "You will not grow old alone, Severus."
"And how can you know it?"
"I know it."
In a brief moment of dizzying elation Severus wondered if it could mean that...
"Will I... will it be with you?" He wanted it; oh, so much - wanted them together, for long, long years, nothing separating them.
"No." Albus smiled.
"Then I don't care."
I don't want anyone else with me, he thought. I don't trust anyone. If Albus rejected him...
"But it will be years till then," Albus said. The feeling of intense warmth, almost heat, reached Severus from the hand still touching his face. Albus' fingers were not cool anymore but nearly burning, and yet Severus wanted to lean into them, to melt into this touch to carry it with him forever.
"I failed you so often, my boy."
"No, you didn't."
It didn't matter. Something in him always belonged to Albus. He couldn't remember since then - perhaps since the shattering kindness of Albus' acceptance when Severus had come to him thinking that acceptance was not possible, only redemption was. And it was more important than anything else, than the pain Albus could inflict him, by choosing others over him.
"I don't want to fail you now."
Albus said it with determination Severus had heard in his voice before - when a decision was taken, a decision Albus probably didn't like but was not going to change it.
So, it was all over. The hand would withdraw now, and Albus would leave him in his lonely room, as it should be.
And then the other hand of Albus lay on his cheek, and Severus knew...
It couldn't be, could it? If he was misunderstanding - if it was a mistake - he couldn't bear it. It was just more than he could bear.
"Albus, please," he whispered.
"If you want it, Severus," Albus said. "I want you to come to bed with me."
And I want you to want to come to bed with me, Severus thought - but he knew he would never know for sure.
"Yes," he said.
And then there was heat, and kisses, lips touching his eyelids - and palms sliding everywhere, under the nightshirt - and everywhere where kisses landed and hands touched - his body was burning, being cleaned, filth and past and memories draining out of him. And the feeling of it was so complete, so *important* that nothing else mattered, and at this moment Severus knew only that: nothing was stronger than that. The Dark Lord, his activities with Death Eaters - he would cope with it. He wouldn't break, would do everything he had to. He was stronger - Albus made him stronger, letting him belong to him, their bodies together. And there was no pain, just heat building in his spine until his body arched - and that was all Severus wanted to remember.
Being together. Belonging.
He'd never felt better than that night.
It was a one-time deal, and he knew it, and accepted it. Later he knew what exactly Albus had done - kept him from slipping, sliding into the utter despair of that night. Never again Albus had talked about it - except for saying once:
"If you ever feel, Severus, that it is too much for you - please promise me that you won't return there."
What promise wouldn't he give to Albus?
But it happened that when it became too much for him, it was not the matter of not returning. Because the girl sitting in the circle of hooded, masked figures and hugging her knees was Granger - and Severus knew that even if he killed her, to spare from long torture, it wouldn't be enough. He just couldn't do it. He didn't like her but she was too close, six years of teaching her, in a way, made her a part of him.
So he'd done what he could - spurted to her to portkey her away, and almost managed it - but for one curse, and he turned, shielding her, trying to block it. And that was actually the last thing Severus remembered in a long while: hideous, blazing pain exploding in his body.
He didn't remember landing in Dumbledore's office, next to Granger; didn't remember convulsing in agony, almost out of his mind with pain, as skin was coming off the left side of his body and his bones twisting. He barely remembered weeks at the hospital - just tiny flashes of them - until pain went down to a bearable level.
He remembered coming round to see Albus' sad face - and heard his voice:
"I was so afraid for you, dear boy."
The bones in his left arm and leg were damaged badly, and some of his ribs on the left side, and next six months Severus used to learn how to manage things in his new state - and to refute the predictions of mediwizards that he wouldn't be able to walk again.
He was stubborn and he knew what he wanted. He returned to Hogwarts and took over his position again. It was a hard work to intimidate the idiots in the class while limping and barely able to use his left hand - but Severus was twice more sadistic and implacable than before... and took *all* the points from Hufflepuff when one of them stupidly decided to mimic him.
His body hurt viciously, daily, giving him no repose at all, making sleep impossible without Dreamless potion - but Severus could handle it. He was good at self-control - and others had to see only that he hadn't lowered his standards; the rest of it was no one's business.
He'd got his Order of Merlin, which for some reason didn't bring him as much joy as, for example, smiling at the faces of his students' parents - when they didn't wear masks - and knowing that they might hate him to death but had to keep the pretence of civility. The Dark Lord was not all that successful at taking over the wizard world.
And then Albus died. When he became weak, he refused to go to St. Mungo's and stayed in his rooms - talking to teachers and students, one by one.
Severus remembered parchment-dry hands, fingers so thin they seemed nearly translucent, and Albus' tall body so frail under the brightly colored blanket. And Severus tortured his own damaged hand because this pain was the only thing that could keep his tears from spilling.
"Hogwarts is your home," Albus said. "Promise me you'll stay here."
Later Severus knew why he'd asked for this promise. With the Dark Lord still alive and free, the castle was the only safe place, and Severus was too weak then to really protect himself.
But he would have given any promise.
And he stayed.
He remembered Albus trying to raise his thin hand - and being to weak to do it, and a small apologetic smile on his lips as he looked at Severus, as if embarrassed with his weakness.
"Don't give up, Severus," he said. "Nothing is over for you yet."
And the thing Severus regretted probably more than anything else was that he didn't lean to Albus' hand then, didn't take Albus' fingers in his - because he felt too ugly, too unworthy to be touched. He could have had this touch - one more memory to hold onto.
He wanted nothing but these memories.
There were steps behind him, growing louder - and oh no, Potter's voice was the last thing Severus wanted to hear. He didn't stop. Why should he talk to Potter if he didn't want to? So, he continued his excruciating way.
Potter's steps were much faster.
"Professor... um, sir."
The voice was so close that it was not possible to ignore it. A thought that Potter could reach and touch him to make him stop made Severus shiver. He disliked being touched. The last person he'd allowed it was Albus.
He halted, pausing for a moment, then turned smoothly.
"Is there something else you want to demonstrate me, Professor Potter?" It sounded just like he wanted it to - softly, dangerously - and Severus knew it had an effect on Potter, just like the enunciated 'professor'... he remembered how it always had made him flustered when McGonagall and Flitwick called him 'professor', when he'd come to Hogwarts as a teacher, many years ago.
There was no mirror, nothing in Potter's hands at all - in fact, his hands were spread a little, as if he tried to look as unthreatening as possible. He was silent, and Severus' patience was running out very quickly.
"What?" he snapped.
"I... um, I want to apologize."
Really. Who needed Potter's forced apologies? And there was no even Albus who could make him do it, like that time, right after Severus had been out of the hospital, when Potter, Weasley and Granger, all three, came to thank him.
He'd got rid of them in no time at all, Granger running away in tears and Potter and Weasley obviously hating him even more than before, if it were possible.
He saw Potter frown. Did every thought have to be written on the boy's face so clearly? Twenty years old - and still flaunting his emotions. He'd never learned anything about control.
"For... making you look at the mirror?"
"It doesn't bother me. Your 'um, apologies' are unnecessary."
He didn't hate the boy. Potter was reality, an unavoidable thing, and Severus mostly had resigned himself to it. Besides, he'd killed Voldemort.
But Severus didn't have to nice to him.
Potter's lips compressed, nostrils flaring - and hurt showed in his eyes. My oh my, how could that happen? The Boy-Who-Lived decided to apologize - and his apologies were turned down.
"Yes, Professor Potter."
Severus leaned on the walking stick a little heavier, and the boy still stood there, eyeing him resentfully. Please, Potter didn't think about actually pouting, did he?
"We didn't do anything all that wrong, really."
"You still operate under the notion that I'm your teacher, Professor Potter? I'm not, for three years. I don't care how exactly you waste your free time."
"It is not a waste of time!" Now his cheeks were flushed, real anger in his voice. And why did he stay here, arguing, instead of just leaving, may one ask? "Even you..." his voice broke and he started again, heatedly. "Even you - I thought you would appreciate that. It was... it was important for you - what you saw, right?"
For a moment the words didn't make sense, and it was easy to dismiss them - but then the thought, or suspicion, unshaped, came to Severus, and he spoke even before he could stop himself.
"What... was it?"
"The mirror... why..." Potter looked a bit surprised. "Of the best memory, of course."
Of course. What else could it be? He was a fool. Severus dimly heard Potter blathering away, something like: "Fred and George created it, an experimental exemplar, it can be used, you know, for focusing on the best memory, for creating Patronus..."
Severus knew Potter was right, it was true - but all of it just slid away, barely touching his mind. Potter went silent, in a rare moment of perceptiveness. There was something strange in his green eyes, something that Severus didn't quite know how to take. No enmity. Something almost like understanding.
He didn't want to be understood by Harry Potter.
And he knew he would look like a fool but he couldn't help it, he had to ask for it - and then Potter might think about him whatever he wanted.
"May I... Professor Potter, would you mind me seeing this mirror once more?"
Something changed in Potter's eyes and his mouth curved a little.
Of course; how could it be otherwise?
"It's experimental, it works so far only once for one person. But for Patronus, when you realize what your happy memory is, you can focus on it..."
What a fool. Severus thought his heart would burst, with aching, swelling pain in it. He'd lost his chance - once again. He wouldn't see that memory, wouldn't see Albus.
"But I," Potter said suddenly, "I can ask Fred and George to send another mirror, I mean with another mirror it will work again. Later they want to make so that it worked many times with one mirror but so far..."
He nodded. He had to bite the inside of his lip to keep his expression calm - and what was he going to do, really - start crying in front of Potter? Snivellus indeed.
Potter nodded too, his eyes somewhat brightening, very serious.
"I'll do it then."
"Thank you," Severus said tightly.
Potter still stood and looked at him, as if there was something else between them to say, and the strangest thing was that Severus didn't move either.
"All right," Potter said smiling a little, apologetically. "I'll go then."
And suddenly Potter's hand was shoved at him, in a gesture that Severus was almost about to interpret as threatening. Because how could he really imagine that the Boy-Who-Lived would want to... to shake hands with him?
He didn't like to be touched, unless it was absolutely necessary. It was good that no one wanted to touch him anyway, especially after the curse - and it spared him many uncomfortable moments.
But this time... he couldn't refuse. Or rather, he didn't want to.
He put the walking stick from his right hand to left, his movements awkward - and Potter waited all the way with his hand reached. Then Severus touched it - and felt hot shin and rough calluses from a broom - and the handshake was short and strong, and then their hands unclasped.
"Um... see you," Potter said.
Severus turned away and walked along the corridor, continuing his way, and heard Potter stand there for a few moments, and then turn and walk back, his steps slowly getting distant. He touched his hand with his damaged one carefully, still aware of the feeling of heat and strength coming from the handshake.