Word Count: 29645
Summary: Harry and Snape spend Christmas together and come to understand one another a little better.
Chapter 8: The Snow It Melts the Soonest
Just like his father. Snape repeated the thought, over and over again to himself, as he lay in bed that night. Of course the boy was just that; it was in his blood, and nothing could change that. And Snape could never care for him. He could never care for anyone. No, no, it was all or nothing for him, it always had been. He had given his all once, and it died within the heart of another. He could not repeat the process. He was too broken, too bloodied.
And yet…the boy had said he trusted him. And the doe had not run away. He felt the bittersweet sense that he would have to deny it all to go on, to push back whatever secret longing he had felt rising to the surface inside himself. He could not…care. Nor grow. Nor change. He had a job to do, a mask to wear, a petty vendetta to keep faith with. And a charge to protect…or so he had always thought.
“Don’t get too attached.”
Dumbledore’s words haunted him. Snape supposed he had occasionally suspected all had not been told to him about his mission, but it never disturbed him so very much. He was doing his duty, but the child had no bearing on him personally. Or at least that was how it had started, what he had convinced himself. It was for the mother alone, not the son.
But it did disturb him now. It made him question whether he was doing it all for nothing, sacrificing his very self on a vain venture meant to crumble into dust in the end, for some great victory paid for with the price of all meaning. It shook him inside, though outside he remained stiff, cold, unfeeling…like a corpse of a bird, lying dead on the path, frozen hard in flight during the winter’s rage. But his troubled dreams would not obey him…
Upon realizing that sleep would come to him no more that night, Snape sat up stiffly and squinted towards his window. It was still very dark, yet he had learned to perceive the dullness of the stars upon the snow, and the creeping of the gray predawn that rose quickly to transform his surroundings. A new day. And his last day in Cokeworth for the Christmas holiday. He and his student charge would be boarding the train back to Hogwarts come noon.
Snape got up and dressed promptly. When he stepped gingerly outside his room, he caught sight of Harry still lying on the couch under the throw blanket, with Angelfang curled up alongside him. Snape felt an automatic tightening in his throat, and prepared to give him a harsh reprimand for taking her out of her bed when she was so weak. But then he heard the sound of contented purring, and realized that the boy wasn’t doing her any harm. Just comforting her with gentle massaging down her fur, and talking to her.
“Maybe he’ll take you up to school this year, and let me see you sometimes, like just us, when he’s out or something,” Harry was telling Angelfang. “I know he’s never going to like me much at all, and likes me a whole lot less at school, but…I don’t know. Maybe I could try harder not to rile him. Like…I know I’m not ever going to be a wiz or anything, but if I study up a bit more, and maybe try not to give him cheek as much…maybe he’ll like me a little better up there…?”
Angelfang made an uncertain meow-yelp.
Harry sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. I doubt he’ll ever let it go. He’s so on and off, like how he was on the phone…” There was a long pause. “It’s been such a weird Christmas. Do you think he’ll want us to act like it never happened? I mean…I know some things have got to end, like our walks and stuff…but…but…” His voice cracked a little and he pulled the cat closer. “I…I don’t mind him just…being tough, and not liking me, and everything. I can live with that. It’s just…” Another long pause. “I’ll miss it here. Don’t ever tell him that, though, okay?”
Angelfang meowed obligingly, and started purring.
The boy wanted…to be wanted. That was all. He was vainly trying to figure out the magic key to unlock his teacher’s mind-block with regards to him, because he had found some semblance of humanity in the man that everyone had virtually forgotten existed. Snape himself had very nearly forgotten it. And he was afraid to remember. Because, by all that was holy, it hurt.
But this was Lily’s boy, afraid of being pushed away again after an accidental bond had begun to form. He didn’t want to go back, but Snape felt unable to move forward. He could not, he knew he could not, or even if thought he could, he knew it was impossible…had not the headmaster himself reminded him of it? His humanity was dead, and it dare not be revived.
But…Snape could not help but feel very small, very lonely…
He cleared his throat and the boy jerked up, looking slightly guilty as his eyes flitted down to Angelfang. But Snape did not bother addressing the issue.
“Go on, time to get up,” he instructed. “I…want to show you something.”
“But…it’s so early!”
“You’ll have a damned good number of hours to sleep on the train back north,” he huffed. “Now get yourself dressed. Don’t want to be kept waiting.”
Harry did so, wondering to himself just what was going on, or what was so important to demand his immediate attention, when the sun hadn’t even risen yet. Then Snape pointed authoritatively at the coat rack, and Harry figured they’d be going out, but where he knew not.
He continued to be perplexed as they started their walk, in the opposite direction of their usual route, heading to the higher hills to the west, farther afield from the woods and the town, higher even than the hill with the tree where Harry had put the food for the animals. They looked out over the expanse of the land running out between them and the next town, whose first lights glimmered in the distance, and whose factory was already churning out its noxious fumes for the day’s work.
Then Snape’s eyes flickered upward, and there was unexpected light in them.
“Can you see that?” He gestured at the last remaining star in the sky.
“Yeah,” the boy answered. “It’s all clear from here. High enough to clear the haze.”
“Yes, yes, it always has been. It’s the morning star.” Snape swallowed back some of that strange excitement overtaking him. He hadn’t shown anyone this place before…not like this. Not since…she went away. He felt it full of pain now. “I…showed it to her then, and I knew about it all because I had read a book on astronomy and the names of the constellations. She thought it a fine thing.”
“It is,” Harry agreed.
And then they were quiet again, and awkward again, and they were shuffling along aimlessly. It was quiet as the sky lightened, just boots on the snow and the trudging of hearts attuned to the aching silence. The air here smelt of frost mixed with smoke, and it was cut by the winter birds with their crying, “I have survived, I have survived…yet another day…”
And then there was another sound, one rising up deep in the throat of man. And it had a tune.
“What’s that?” Harry asked.
“What’s what?” Snape retorted.
“Whatever you’re humming.”
He shrugged. “A song. An old song.”
“What are the words?”
“I’m certainly not singing it,” he grunted.
“Because…no good at it.”
The slightly awkward, honest way he said that made Harry feel a little bad for pressing him. “Well, I’m no good at it either, but I do it sometimes anyway.”
“How inconsiderate of you,” the man snorted.
“But sometimes a person has to sing,” Harry stated. “Like, they’ve just got no choice.”
“Yeah. They have to…remind themselves of something.”
Snape stared back at him. “And what are you trying to remind yourself of, hmm?”
“Well, that’s just it,” he mumbled. “You can’t explain it. You’ve got to…sing it.”
Snape turned his eyes back to the view in front of him, and then trudged on a little farther, quietly, quiet as the dawn scaring away the stars and piercing the chemical-singed air. But then, very lowly, under the fog of his breath, in a mix between speaking and singing, he let the tune emerge again, this time with words:
“The snow it melts the soonest when the winds begin to sing, and the corn it ripens fastest when the frost is settling in; I’ve seen a woman’s anger melt betwixt the night and more; ‘tis surely not a harder thing to tame a woman’s scorn…”
Harry found himself pausing to ponder the emptiness that seemed to pour out of that soft, silken voice, like hoof-prints in the snow. It wavered in the pitch of the notes, wavered in strength of enunciation, wavered in everything, and yet felt like the steadiest thing ever to come forth from the man
“The snow it melts the soonest when the winds begin to sing, and the bee that flew when summer shone in winter cannot sting, and all the flowers in all the land, so brightly there they be, and the snow it melts the soonest when my true love’s for me…”
Now it had become a crushing rasp, and the tune shivered in his throat. It was alive to him, real to him and the land; it seemed borne out of too many generations of suffering to survive, and of bones buried deep, deep down in the earth. He was singing it brokenly to himself, yes, and he was reminding himself…of something…
“So never bid me farewell here, no farewell I’ll receive, but you may meet me at the stile and kiss and take your leave, and I’ll wait here till the woodcock calls and the martin takes to wing, for the snow it melts the soonest when the winds begin to sing…”
Harry just stood there, struck by the silence of this place and the way that the song had seemed to have grown up from the ground almost, grown up rough and raw, imperfect and pounding with some ageless intensity.
“Professor,” the boy addressed him.
“Did you…think my mum was pretty?”
He blinked, and after a long pause, muttered, “Very.”
“Did you…ever tell her that?”
He shot up his eyes, and Harry thought he might lash out. But he didn’t. He just answered quietly, sincerely, “No, I…I was ill fit for such things. I had too…rough a tongue.”
“But…you were telling her yesterday, back with the doe, weren’t you?”
Snape stared at the boy, seemingly shocked by his ability to read through to that palpitating wounded place that he worked so very hard to bury. Then he swallowed hard, and said so very simply, so very truly, “She was…my friend.”
And Harry nodded sadly, realizing that that simple declaration explained all. “Then…she knows. She probably always has.”
The man’s eyes scanned the rolling hills off in the distance. “We hang onto things, all who come from this place. The land is too old to change. For good or ill, we cannot…forget…”
“But seasons change,” Harry mumbled. “Like…in the song.”
His teacher looked back at him. “When the wind sings, it also cuts, boy, sometimes to the heart. And how can the heart…beat again…?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled. “Maybe it can cut out the parts grown bitter.”
Snape blinked. “It would take…a lot of cutting, I fear. I doubt very much would be left in the end…”
“Maybe you’d be surprised.”
He looked back at the boy. “You don’t know…how deep it goes. I believe you would be the surprised one if I took you to see…” He paused, then gestured with his head to the east. “I’ll show you.”
Harry had never seen a place quite like where Snape took him. It was to the burnt-out ruins of the old factory that caught on fire almost a decade before, causing death and destruction to add to the misery of the community. The scorched building stood stark as a skeleton in the gray morning. There was a tooth-like shard of glass sticking out from one of the spaces in the wall, a place where a window must once have been.
“I worked here…for one day, in the factory,” Snape told the boy. “I was younger than you are…got glass in my hand…had to…bite it out…use wax paper for the bleeding…they wouldn’t pay me, said…I couldn’t work like that…but it seems I never stopped working with chemicals, does it? Bottling them, or mixing them…I should be…immune to them now…” He looked bleakly at the one-time window. “You know, in these parts, there are tales told of General Ludd…and his bands of common men, put out of work by the machines, the factories…they would hide in the forest, like the outlaws of old, and then come out and…smash whatever they could, to strike back…”
A chunk of broken brick was lying on the cold ground. Snape picked it up, numbly fingering it, letting it run against the scabs and scars on his hand. Then he cast back his arm and flung it far, and let it shatter the last of the glass with a crash that was elemental in its intensity. It looked hauntingly like jewels, shimmering on the ground in the morning sun. Perhaps they were…the jewels of poverty…of pain…
But behind the building, down in a sloping field, was a stranger sight yet. Harry saw things sticking out of the ground, sticks, stones, broken brittle things, worn down by rain and weather. And his throat tightened, realizing where they were. It was a graveyard. He drew closer and squinted. Yes, he could still make out names on some of the stones…many were Irish in origin.
Snape wandered a little, seemingly absently, between the markers, but Harry realized he knew where he was bound, for after scanning briefly he stopped in front of a particularly ill-kept marker, and Harry could make out the worn names of Tobias and Eileen Snape.
His teacher’s eyes glazed a little. “Some say a man would sell his soul to the devil to keep from being buried…in this place…”
The scene was the strangest, saddest, most desolate one Harry could remember. He had known the sense of haunting dread before, in the face of magic phenomena often enough, out-of-this-world sights and sounds, bizarre flights of fancy. But this…this cut far deeper. It was not for any fear of his own safety, but an oppressive weight of suffering that let him understand, all at once, the pain, raw and real, that his teacher wore about him like his black cloak.
“Do you come out here a lot?” Harry asked.
He shook his head. “Hardly at all.”
The boy squinted, looking at the garbage and broken bottles and empty cans littering the ground. “Why is there all this junk on the grave?” he asked, going over instinctively and starting to clean it away.
“Because…people throw things there, things they want to get rid of…”
“Why? Why would they do that?”
He swallowed. “Because they…they…” He gestured to the ground, to the bones below the ground. “They made…me.”
Harry’s heart thumped, hard. He turned his eyes down, and again was struck by the amount of glass littering the ground in so many different directions…oh, that cursed factory glass…
“Is this where they make those snow balls?”
Snape nodded. “Some…simply have nothing else to play with. Poverty teaches them cruelty. They cannot afford fineries; only things that thrill, no matter how dark…”
“But you weren’t like that, were you?”
He smirked, bitterly. “What, you think I lack the streak?”
“I don’t think you strike unless you think you’re striking back at something.”
His face drained of what little color it had. “I wished my father dead,” he spat. “What do you think of that?”
Harry blinked. “Did…did he like to…make it hurt?”
Snape felt shot to the heart by what he hated having the boy know, and he shivered. Too many memories of the beatings, the screaming of his mother, and the warm beer thrown in his face when he went to fetch his father out of the tavern as a little boy. “That’s another gift from Dame Poverty. She can turn weak men…cruel…” He turned his back on the graves abruptly. “The woman here…she wanted me…to be…educated,” he stated, crackle-voiced, like the crunch of dead leaves. “She said once…I was smart enough…not to be thrown in the ground here…”
“Well, she was right,” Harry remarked. “I mean…you’re a teacher. Head of House, even.”
“Has anything changed truly?” he queried. “Are we not just so many animals clawing at each other until our bones are thrown into some pit, somewhere?”
“I don’t think my mum thought so.”
“She was…a rare creature, to come forth from this world, and still be more angel than animal,” he whispered, gazing across the field. “She wasn’t even afraid of this place. As a child, I was; I never wanted to come here…”
Truth be told, he had been even more afraid of the alehouse where his father had spent so much time. He hated the course laughter of the men, the chemical-choked throats crudely spewing vulgarities, and the thinly clad, painted women, and how his father would fondle them. He saw far more than any child should have, but he always hid it from his mother as best he could, even though she knew all too well. But that place, and in this place, felt strangely the same…they reeked of death…
“This place, I used to think, was the end of all things, like the sea ends every river,” he continued. “It was just a sea of decay to me. But your mother…she brought…flowers. She spread out the petals here, let them melt among the bones and the green grass growing over them. She…she saw beauty, saw life…even in this…”
Harry gazed over at a pine tree a few paces away. He walked over to it, and started to pull off a piece from one of the low-hanging branches. This puzzled Snape.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“I’m…I’m going to put Evergreen on the grave here,” Harry said softly. “Some say it’s even better than flowers, ‘cause it never dies out altogether…”
“You little fool,” Snape growled suddenly, causing the boy to jump. “Those buried here are not worth anything to you, nor to anybody!”
“They’re your parents,” Harry insisted.
“Animals,” the man spat, “that mate, and spawn, and die.” There was a torn shaft of pain in his eye now, a strange grim glimmer that matched the surroundings so well. “Do you not yet know the nature of this life? It’s made up of futile ambition and fatal weakness, boiled down to chalk and dirt. Everything goes to the grave, everything…nothing can stop it, and nothing can raise one out of it! All that is beautiful is cursed all the sooner, cursed with a weakness that makes it sacrifice itself…for what, in the end? What are we doing now, but fooling ourselves with petty trifles to pass the time away until it is all over and done?”
Harry’s face had flushed red, shocked by the outburst of despair, and a lump rose in his throat. Snape saw it, and knew what he was thinking about, all too well.
“Look, she’s gone, she’s dead…and nothing can bring her back, nor your damned marauding father, and that’s all there is to it, understand? It’s all a lie, all nothing but damned lies, the pretty stories about angels and stars…don’t you know that by now? What do you think love is, but a dream that you want so badly to be real, that it breaks you up…and then ends in broken glass and moldy ground? Nothing can bring back what’s been lost! Wake the hell up, and face it!”
He saw the boy’s eyes, and they were hurting. Then burning. Then he saw the liquid against his eyelashes.
Snape swallowed back something, an unexpected surge of guilt overtaking him. “Boy…” He took a step towards him, and Harry automatically took a step back. The 12-year-old’s eyes were wary now, and they reminded Snape cuttingly of his own eyes at that age, so quick to perceive any sudden motion that might bring him harm. And he was no doubt thinking of…the day before…and what could Snape ever say to counteract it?
“Boy…I’m not…” He didn’t know how to say it, didn’t even know if he wanted to, but he tried anyway. “I didn’t…mean…to hurt you…”
Alright, maybe he had once. Maybe he had wanted to make him feel all the pain James Potter had inflicted on him. Maybe, in his worst moments, he had even taken perverse satisfaction in the fact that this Marauder’s clone would never know his swine of a father, and that swine would never see his offspring grow up. Yes, he knew for a surety that he had.
But right now, in the Cokeworth factory graveyard, he saw no clone, no spawn, no swine. Just an orphaned little boy, with tears prickling in his emerald eyes, and a piece of matching evergreen held tight in his hand. And some sparkling piece of his precious Lily, who managed to see the best in everyone, in spite of themselves, and like some angel from heaven, bring it out in them.
And he dared to step a little closer to the child, and make an awkward motion with his hand, as if he was trying to say, “Come here…won’t hurt you…”
Harry himself swallowed, then very slowly did so, coming up very, very close to him indeed. They just stood still, facing each other, like some strange standoff neither one knew how to resolve. Then, out of nowhere, something seemed to snap, and Harry Potter fell up against the much taller man in front of him in an awkward, incomplete effort at an embrace.
“What the hell…what are you…?” Snape shuddered, crouching down to the boy’s height with the intent of pulling him away, but Harry was shaking so pathetically, and seemed to be forcing himself to keep his hands to himself…not to touch…
“Sorry…sorry, alright?” he whispered, clenching his fists at his side, but still not moving away from the bodily contact that he craved so deeply. “Don’t…get mad…okay?”
“Potter…” Snape’s voice faded into nothing, and it remained dead in the snow for what felt like forever. Then he said softly, “You can…hold, if you wish.”
Harry sniffled. “You’ll…you’ll…mock me out…”
“No. I…” He blinked. “You can imagine…it’s someone else.”
“Even if it’s…?”
Snape shut his eyes tight. Was he going to be filling in for his most hated enemy? Yet still he rasped out, “Yes.”
That was all the boy needed to complete his breakdown, and Snape found himself being squeezed with intensity, and a small boy’s very honest, very deep sobs falling in and out of him, his tearstained face pressed up against the man’s overcoat.
Snape didn’t know what to think, what to feel, but he began to wonder about the situation, almost like a science experiment. He knew about comforting cats, but children…what efforts would cause what reactions? He wondered if touching the boy would scare him…surely that’s how he’d wanted his touch to be taken by his students, time and again? His hand was for disciplining, not for soothing, and certainly not to caress the boy of his archenemy. But he was still curious…how the child might react if….
He touched him. It was a light touch, just to the shoulder, but his arm still formed a sort of brace from one of his shoulders to the other. And then there was a slight shivering of the boy’s frame, a squeaking catch in his throat, and he snuggled against Severus more deeply, seeming to be basking in the warmth of his own imaginings of what it felt like to belong in someone’s arms. And Snape felt…sick. So sick unto the root of his heart he thought had been pulled out long ago…
“Be…alright…” the man mumbled, and stroked the boy’s shoulder a little, allowing himself for one bizarre moment to let his own imagination reign, and to pretend this son of Potter was a son of his own being, born of his and Lily’s love…and a conviction…damn Dumbledore, so help me…so help me…the boy will live, while there is life enough in me to protect him…Lily, before God, so help me…
But the man’s voice, even if in its softest form, seemed to jolt Harry out of whatever dream he had been in, and Snape felt a twisting feeling in his stomach, his own attempt at make-believe shattered. He scared himself with the realization that he wanted the fantasy to last longer, to pretend that the child had truly meant the embrace not for his long-dead father, but for him instead. But it was over now…time to move on…
“Now then…now then…a few deep breaths, child,” Severus instructed calmly. “It’s alright, just take a few breaths…”
Harry did so, and Severus gingerly pulled him upright, breaking the contact at last. For a moment, though, they both just met each other’s eyes unflinchingly, and Harry felt perplexed by the level of understanding he saw gazing back at him. Then Snape cleared his throat and dug inside his coat for a handkerchief, which he promptly pressed up against Harry’s nose in his usual no-nonsense manner.
“Go on,” he ordered. “Blow it out. Don’t have all day…”
Harry did as instructed and watched diffidently as Snape cleaned the tears off his cheeks and the lenses of his glasses, and then stuck the handkerchief in the boy’s coat pocket. Then he clicked his tongue, seeing that the boy had still not mastered his zipper yet. Half in a fussy way, half in an affectionate way, Snape brushed the bits of snow off the old coat and got the zipper working with a flick of his wrist. This brought Harry a smile in spite of himself.
Then, hesitantly, the boy looked over his shoulder, back at the grave of Tobias and Eileen Snape. Slowly he turned towards it, and with a clear determination, straight-shot yet shaky-handed, he went over and tied the sprig of Evergreen into the twine upholding the small, broken cross that served as a grave marker.
Snape just watched, with a look of some astonishment, but did not object. And when his eyes met the boy’s again, he saw a glimmer of what he thought might be Christmas itself, that sparkle of something inexplicable that shines out in the strange, dark, wintery season and screams out to hell’s entrapment, “I’m not yours!”
Maybe, dare he think, it was a glimmer of hope?
Harry exhaled, and then asked steadily, “So…did my mum take you ice-skating like she talked about in the card?”
“She wasn’t…one to let me off the hook with such things…easily,” Snape admitted, his eyes glittering at the memory.
“Was it fun?” the boy inquired.
“Being browbeaten into enjoying myself by an infuriatingly determined little red-head…?”
He smiled ever so slightly, thinking back to how he’d kept trying to back out, and how she’d not taken no for an answer and practically pulled him onto the ice.
“Don’t be such a scardy-cat, Sev! You’ll do fine! Don’t worry…I’m good at this, and if you start to fall, I’ll catch you…”
She’ll catch me.
“Yes, I suppose…it was…what you said…fun.” The word seemed ill-fitted to his tongue, but Harry smiled anyway, and then reached out a hand to help him stand up. This time, Snape cautiously accepted the aid. But even when he had gotten himself upright, he found the smaller hand still clutching his for a long moment. As much as he thought he would feel unnerved by it, he found himself instead letting it happen. Maybe it was some small way the child had of revealing the hug had not just been for his father after all. Whatever it was, it felt warm…it felt right.
Oh, Lily, is this the way you catch me now…?
He gazed down at the boy, with some uncomfortableness, as if trying to decide what to do next. And he realized, just then, that he was looking for signs of either father or mother in him…no, he was just looking at him. And he muttered quietly, “I was…thinking of taking my cat with me for this term, you know, up to Hogwarts.” He lifted an eyebrow in question. “Do you think she would be safe from Gryffindor hoodlums?”
“Of course she would,” Harry assured. “You don’t honestly think Ron and Hermione and the gang are the type to beat up animals, do you?”
“Even if they belong to someone who has been none too merciful towards them?” He paused and admitted, “Even…unfair towards them at times?”
Harry shrugged. “It’s just not who they are.”
The man eyed the snow for a long moment. “You can…spend take care of the cat if you wish, after school hours.” He scuffled his boot in the icy patch.
Harry swallowed something swelling in his throat. “Professor Snape…”
“Mind you, I’m not going soft on you, Potter,” he warned. “Back up there, it’s back to where we were, and don’t you forget it…”
“You’re still a bloody irritation, with that marauding chip on your shoulder, and I highly doubt any good can come of you…”
“So mark me well, you best not cross me, Potter, for I don’t take any mouthing off or slacking down, and your golden boy status will not protect you in my classroom…”
“So…you just remember it.”
They were both silent again for a long time.
“Think there might be time to put out that birdseed and peanut butter before we leave?”
Snape exhaled, then nodded. He coaxed the boy forward with a hand to his shoulder, and there was a rough geniality in the act. He hadn’t intended it to be as familiar as it came off, but Harry sensed it, and felt quite warm all over.
“Come on then, boy,” Snape sighed, looking east to the fresh wintery morn. “Let’s go home.”