His very breath smells of it, cold and hungry, stirring dust in the empty room, feeding on the blood in this body and the beating heart of the Hogwarts stone. Behind six inches of slammed shut oak door jubilant voices call through the passageways; footsteps rush, stutter, stumble; a firecracker bursts, someone laughs - someone laughs. The air smells of decay and dry ice, gunpowder, magic: the aftermath of war won.
Rage tightens his eyes, constricts the brow of his nose. If he looks down - and he does - his hands are shaking with it, these misshapen stained clumsy fingers, this inadequate alien body. Snape's wards still nudge the hairs on his forearms, read his fingerprints and search out his beating heart and the essence of his blood. Despite his borrowed flesh he is a petitioner here where he should rule by right.
If he could have done, he would have blasted these delaying wards, and the stone, and the whole ridiculous, privileged castle to smithereens and danced on the shards. He can't. Crippled, bound, confined to this ridiculous carapace of flesh, he scuttled like a frightened insect to the shell of these rooms and they'll come for him soon, they'll come, how can they not -
'Who do you think you are', he says to himself. He remembers. He straightens. He's clawed his way back from worse and he'll do it again.
The wards fade. He is accepted.
Although for a moment he cannot conceive what impulse drove him here, to this body, these rooms. On the battlefield, it had been a defiant, denying strike against the anonymity of death. He had taken Snape's body as easily as if it had been his own. Quirrell had fought, weakly, amusingly: even his last body still carried the stain of a serpent and traces of Harry Potter's magic and passion. Snape had been empty of everything but flesh, almost as if the man himself was not present when he knew - oh yes, he knew well - Snape had been present on the field of his defeat.
Nothing of Snape left but his flesh. Yet, as if he were Snape in truth, he'd fled to nowhere but Snape's rooms, the last remnant of this own soul contained by Snape's skin and housed in Snape's walls.
The door is warm against his back, but the room is cold and dust coats the marble of the fireplace and the mahogany bookshelves. The carpet is grayed at the fringe and the fireplace dull with ash. The candles are years guttered. There's an abandoned cup tip-tilted on a saucer on the table and the armchair is pushed back with the rug rucked under it. If there was any laughter left in him, he'd laugh to see it, because he knows what this means, this dead story, but time is too short. They'll come.
Two empty portrait frames. Shelves of irrelevant texts and pointless records of ineffectual experimentation, potions that failed - failed! - have been failing him for years, a betrayal that cuts so deep he can still barely believe it. A mirror.
He's drawn to it.
His gait's still unsteady. These bony knees, these shanks of legs with their sharp black hairs catching at the fabric of his robe, uneven and awkward, this alien caress of flesh he hates with a passion almost erotic in its intensity. Flesh, skin, bone, his now: he runs a hand down the dry skin of his face, his stubbled chin and the flat lines of his chest, and knows possession. He'll grow into it, he's done it before, and all he needs is time. There will be another plan, there's always another plan. He's here. He's alive.
It's a small mirror and silent. Dust grays out his face and marks it a stranger's, and he barely recognises the hand wiping the glass. Four streaks mar the glass, claw marks across his skin. In this airless room, dust doesn't settle but lingers: he coughs once and is caught by the unexpected catch in his lungs, a pain so bright it's almost pleasure.
He looks up, when the pain fades. In the mirror, mute, his face. Awkward, angular, set. The architecture of bone seems misplaced, wrong - that towering nose, the cheekbones too broad, the chin too pointed, the forehead too high and smooth. Tangled hair. Pale, dry skin, with the irritating prickle of facial hair. He has hair between his eyebrows, a tuft in the curve of his nostril - he's lousy with hair, crawling with it, ugly as a muggle-born child rolling in pigshit -
He smashes the mirror.
Shards of it spin through the dead air, shattering, then pain, pain before the sharp cuts fill with blood that slides over the knotted bones of these hands. He lifts his fist to his mouth and licks it away. It tastes of nothing but dust, and itself.
Violence came without thought. He's learning the bounds of this body. It reminds him, centres him in the cold still place of his own self. He's played these games before, he'll play them again.
Unless he picks up the threads of this life they will come for him. There will be a feast: there is always a feast. There will be children. There will be people he hates with a passion so intense it has chilled in the making. But for tonight at least, and for other nights to come, until he can remake his own power he must be what they expect him to be.
This body is filthy in its corruption. It disgusts him: it will disgust them, but at this moment of all moments he cannot afford to be noticed. His mouth shapes a cleaning charm he'd forgotten years ago, a child's spell, wandless and necessarily so for he lost his wand on the battlefield along with so much else. It works, but his flesh cringes from the spell. His feet ache in their battered boots, his bones itch in his skin, he's not himself -
Footsteps outside the door, running. A shout. More. The voices of children chanting, the high-pitched scream of something he recognises, memory dragged out from years forgotten. A clock, ticking still. When he finds it, it says, time to go, although to what it refers he will not guess.
He'll not wait to be dragged out. He straightens his sleeves, tilts his chin. He's had less to work with, and tomorrow - tomorrow he'll leave, regroup, but not tonight. Tonight he's someone else.
He opens the door. Hogwarts waits.
The corridors unroll in distant familiarity, pathways of a half-remembered road. This corner, this turning, these stairs: his feet know the way although to his mind the stonework is strange and the scenery unfamiliar. His stride is steady now and his hands tuck into the sleeves of his robe as if accustomed.
All the pictures are empty but the passages are not. Face after face turns at his passing, voice after voice falls silent. At first, he thinks the mirror lied, that he is himself again and he walks to his own unmasking, that in this world of fools he will be judged by laughter, cut down to his own bone, failed. But the faces that follow his footsteps are guarded, not amused, and in their blankness he tastes fear, not the banquet he has feasted on so recently but still the crumbs of the feast. And although there are people, hundreds of people, talking, shouting, running, clustered in corners, knocking on doors, giving out notes, sending owls - they don't talk to him. Snape's reputation serves him well. He meets no-one's eyes, and hears silence gather in his wake. Snape is feared, here. There is power in fear. His stride lengthens. He can feel the robe loosen on his body, the awkward folds growing into ease. There is a certain cock to the elbows Snape perfected, a contemptuous flick of the hem he affects - yes. It's surprisingly easy.
Snape the traitor. Even now he can remember Snape's face: the moment when he showed his true loyalties. But it's Snape's betrayal that protects him now in ironic faithfulness.
He is Snape.
The hall is crowded. How can it not be? This is the great victory - the moment of triumph for the Order of the Phoenix and the Ministry and Dumbledore's bumbling, blighted idiots. Voldemort defeated.
It's worth a headline or two, surely. It's certainly brought the masses crawling from whatever hole they'd hidden themselves in for the duration. The hall is awash in robes, voices, owls: the portraits are crowded and the noise level ear-splitting: the place stinks of cinnamon and triumph. From the doorway it is nothing but a morass of exclamatory, over-excited elation, and not a witch or wizard among them worth the weight of their own breath. Idiots, the lot of them, cowardly fools unwilling to stand up for themselves, wizards who believe in the myth of the greater good, a motley of the do-gooders and the crowd-pleasing witless.
That'd be the way of it. Send the boy wonder out to do the deed. Cower behind the stone walls of the castle whilst he's at it. Fools.
He is not part of this. It's nothing to do with him. In this room of bumbling incompetents and children he is the only one who sees things as they are. That couple in the corner, whispering - he gives them three months, no more: the young man's eyes are already wandering. That group of gray-robed officials - Fudge, does he really think his jokes are that amusing? Without the sense to bind them, he'll lose those sycophants to the next candidate with the knack of charming babies. Those absurd houses, so evident in the scarves and banners, those bonds so fragile under stress. A man will betray his own name given the right incentive, every man. The cracks show, alliances shift, nothing is permanent. It takes only a finger - the right finger - on the scales and the world changes. He knows. He's done it. He'll do it again.
It's a long walk, to the high table where Snape's seat waits. He takes notes, catalogues the flicker of a witch's eyes and the laugh that comes hollow and seconds too late: the pureblood edging away from an animated group of students and the witch with the bonding rings tight on her finger but her eyes on someone else. These small treacheries are his own playing field, these people the nucleus of a new war. He doesn't need them - he needs no one! - but he notices.
There is no need to speak. Not yet. Tonight he has merely to be, and Snape has no need to talk. He nods, occasionally, and slides through the crowds.
The timing is perfect. He reaches the high table just as chimes ring out above the voices, unexpectedly loud, and a hush muffles the crowds as if Silencio fell. It is not him the faces turn to, but away, and he is aware, amused, of the hypocrisy of his own displeasure. Yet his own eyes follow theirs as if he's one of them.
In the doorway. Of course. Who else could it be, this night of all nights - Harry Potter.
But the shock of it still sends Snape's heart racing, when he had thought nothing would: the sight is an almost tangible blow to the skin, even before he himself has registered the untidy black hair and the scar, the unconscious arrogance of that stance in the doorway flanked by the sycophantic Weasley and the dangerous, myopic Granger. The winner. The victor, taking the spoils of the conflict here in the tilt of his head and the brightness of his smile.
He would never have believed it would come to this. Even this morning, he would not believe it. But the proof of it ducks his head, childishly blushes, and holds a hand up for silence as if he has the right to pronounce on the secrets of the universe.
This idiot child, to succeed where greater men had tried and failed.
He's staring. He knows it: staring with the intensity of a starving man at a banquet. It is inconceivable that this child won. His mouth's still wet from his mother's breast (and what a pretty death that was!) and his magic still untried, the simpering fool.
But in this moment, he looks and looks again, as if he can't drag his eyes away, as if this is his own personal lodestone. His own bright enemy, all grown up. He's a man now, Harry Potter, who should have died years before, so long ago his very death would be forgotten. Stolen years have broadened his shoulders, darkened his chin, and filled out the muscles of his chest and thighs to ape his stolen power, incandescent to eyes that know how to see, so bright his form burns an after-image on the inside of closed eyelids.
Is he so weak, that he cannot look? All his seduction has failed, all his blandishment has been spurned, all offers have been brushed aside. He must listen and learn, for although the keys to this victory are held in this other man's hands victories are always hollow and crack in the grasping.
When Harry Potter speaks the crowd sighs towards him. He's known that too, the waiting silence for his every word.
But Harry Potter lets the moment slip through his fingers. Now is the moment to strike, to bind these men and women, to consolidate what he's won. But Potter looks up, almost shyly, and clears his throat and says:
"Well. I think we all know why we're here-"
Someone claps, and someone else, and quite suddenly the hall erupts in cheers, shouts, wolf whistles, screams. Potter turns to Granger. His mouth moves, but the words are unrecognisable.
He himself stands still. He will not clap. He will not shout. When Harry Potter looks up again, almost as if the contact is desired, their eyes meet.
Shock holds him motionless, when nameless panic closes his throat and sends the blood pounding through this body. For a moment, he's nothing but flesh, weak and hating himself for it. Harry Potter's gaze brands him as if in recognition.
It must be fallacy. Harry Potter's face is carefully blank. To the man he must be nothing but another creature of his schooldays. He'll be half-forgotten already. Surely the man cannot still hold a grudge over the old man's death? Such a beautiful moment: he could lose himself in the pleasure of it, were it not that the very man who should have stood by his side had failed him. Snape's betrayal had been proved and proved twice over, today.
The eyes move on, the noise subsides. Harry Potter smiles again, and says, "I'm not going to say much. Only that this is our victory, not just mine. We all worked for this."
He is amused enough that it will show. He steeples his hands, looks down to hide the humour in his eyes. Nothing so beautiful as naivety the moment before innocence fails. And if he stays - if Snape stays - who better than himself to peel those illusions of charity from the man's eyes?
It could be done very slowly indeed.
"I've nothing else to say," Harry Potter says. "Except- " He pauses. <i>"Quincux," Dumbledore says. "Pachyderm. Evocation."</i> Disconcertingly, Snape's body shivers. It must be cold, or one of the castle's ghosts overhead. "Let the feast begin."
A plate of rose-scored radishes burst into being under his nose in a shower of sparks. He blinks, and in the interval fate gifts him with a plateful of green mashed potatoes and a small china jug of mint sauce, a blunt fish knife and a silver mustard spoon. Snape's stomach tightens.
"I sometimes wonder what Albus was thinking of when he gave the House-elves a free hand with the cooking," a woman said, so close behind him he could almost feel her against Snape's robes. "Severus." It's a warm voice, intimate, someone Snape knows well. He turns round.
A small woman in a plaid Tam o'Shanter with an amethyst thistle on her gown. For a moment, he can't remember her name, then as if Snape's memory decides to give up its secrets, he knows this woman. Minerva McGonagall. Bright, fierce, but smiling now with what looks like genuine pleasure.
"Good to see you back," she says, and squeezes his forearm as if she has the right to Snape's personal space. Her teeth are that faint shade of yellow common to people of a certain age.
He can think of nothing to say. But he can feel Snape's face relax, and Minerva smiles as she looks up. "Don't leave it too long," she says. "We missed you." When she looks at him, behind the lenses of gold-rimmed glasses her eyes are fierce but almost unfocused, as if she's looking behind Snape's eyes. Not at him, at someone else.
He's almost tempted to turn round. His skin prickles.
Instead, Snape's voice, smooth as he can. "It's good to be back."
Minerva's eyes sharpen. "Is it?" she asks, and without waiting for a reply she turns away. She is stubborn in discussion, Minerva, but in her cat form will sit for hours at a lit fire and offer a silent and undemanding comfort. He can remember the tilt of her head and the softness of her ears -
He cannot. It is merely the ghost of Snape's memory that slides from his mind, unrealised. But it's vivid enough to make him grasp at the back of the chair in sudden dizziness.
"Professor! You're not well. Here, let me help you-"
A voice he does know, and with it comes a surge of hated so strong he almost chokes on it. The Weasley chit, blind as a bat, easily led as a cow to the slaughter, who nevertheless managed to foil his efforts with childish pique.
"Sit down, here-"
"Let go of me." In Snape's voice, it's a rasping command. She does, and then hovers as he takes Snape's chair. He ignores her in favour of the gleaming crystal of his wineglass. Snape would do that, surely: his Snape has no more liking for the female adolescent than himself. They had joked about -
But that memory is false. Snape was never true to him.
"Leave me alone," he hisses, and is gratified at the degree of menace he can project through Snape's voice: the Weasley pales and retreats. He watches her go: it's to Granger that she flees. She'll get no joy there, that woman's interested in nothing but her books.
Granger does not glance back. That's interesting. So she doesn't like his beloved traitor either.
"Professor Snape," someone says. He turns back to the table. Over a proffered dish of string beans, a woman's face, strong, watchful. "You'll be wanting the pitch surfaced again."
Quidditch. Snape cared about Quidditch? "Yes," he manages. He takes the beans, and adds a pile to his plate although the very sogginess of them revolts. A dish of chicken breasts in cream appears at his elbow, and another of wilted spinach with nutmeg. The chair next to him creaks as someone sits down in it. His glass fills with something white and clear: he reaches for it, and almost chokes at the clear harsh burn of alcohol.
Hands spoon something sweet, with pastry, onto his plate. Scarred hands, but young. He looks up, but next to him Harry Potter's ruffled hair hides his eyes.
Hatred shivers across his skin, but his mouth waters. He's
He is not grateful. It's not his thought.
"Snape?" Potter's eyes, close up, are extraordinary, the white of them lucid and sharp against the green of his irises. Lily Evans' eyes had been exactly that shade of green.
Although he had never met Lily Evans in daylight.
"You're not yourself, are you?" Harry Potter says. He pauses, shifts the napkin on his nap. There is a bulge in the sleeve of his robe that can only be the length of his wand. Like blood, desire crawls through Snape's skin.
He cannot snatch Potter's wand at the High Table. He's not that foolish. Instead, he cuts into the pastry: cream and raspberries trail across his plate. He's saved from answering by someone who taps Potter on the shoulder. Within moments, the man is engulfed in hearty congratulations once more: within minutes, he has abandoned napkin, plate and chair.
Snape feels cold.
He waits out the inevitable aftermath of the feast, the acid-edged comments, the petty power games of reply and riposte. Hooch is angling for a House of her own. McGonagall stalls. Various Weasleys collapse chairs with miniature firestorms, most amusing. Invisible music heralds the arrival of poorly-matched couples on the dance floor. Potter is at the corner of his eye, a black-tufted head in the crowd. Occasionally his glasses glint across the room.
There can be nothing between Snape and Potter. Nothing.
But Snape's body tells him otherwise, and at the back of his mind there are pictures of Potter smiling. Snape's mind stinks of danger mixed with joy, and nothing of that is his own thoughts. There should be no trace of Snape left. None. That there is he will not think on it. Instead, crow at the feast, he leaves.
Snape's body moves freely for him, now. It's a sinuous thing, this body, sliding between pillars, padding silently over the stone of corridors, scarcely setting the flames of the scones on the wall to stutter. He could grow accustomed. He could rule from Hogwarts, although it would take time. And if he could find his wand on the battlefield, without suspicion -
would pick over the bones for his potions. It wouldn't be unusual. And
the fools would see it as unpleasant, only fitting for the traitor,
but they'd let him be. If he had his wand, and Slytherin House, for
who else would want them? And time. He'd hold them in the palm of his
hand. His own pretty babes. And here, in the heart of the old man's
power, he'd be free to rebuild, restart -
memory washes over him. Snape's voice, at the end: his and Potter's
twinned in desire: the treacherous betrayal of Snape's body, the realisation
of possession -
Nothing happens. Potter looks at him with detached interest.
"Petrificus Totalus, Imperio. Avada Kedavra!" Spittle chokes his tongue. "Cruciatus!"
His voice hoarsens. Still nothing: it's like holding dead wood, impotent. As if it were another man's wand.
"It won't work," Potter says. "Not for you."
It's not his hands that give the wand back, but Potter takes it with a grave nod of his head, as if the gift was expected.
He's a stranger in this body. It moves without his command, spreads itself against the sheets and curves to face its master.
"How long do you think you've got?" Potter says. "That was him at the end, you know."
His tongue's thick. It takes minutes to form the words. His mind is crowded with memories that are not his: half remembered recipes for arcane potions: the face of a woman, the eyes of the man opposite as a boy, slights and power games and moments he did not live.
For the moment, he's free to speak.
"I hate you," he says.
"I know," Harry Potter says.
They're not touching, but the potential is there. His skin warms. He remembers other nights he has not lived.
"But at the moment, you're all I've got of him. Tom."