Title: An Exercise in Futility
Beta Reader(s)/Viewer(s): ofankoma
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): SS/HP, AU, EWE.
Note: I would like to thank Emily Waters for a few great ideas and hand-holding, Ofankoma for being a wonderful beta and Cabepfir for her marvelous drawings and talent. You all were a great inspiration to me.
Summary: Sometimes you can only help yourself by helping the others. Sometimes when you're helping others, you realize that it's you who needs help.
The first time he came by, the door was slammed into his face without even being properly opened.
Well, if Snape thought he was being eloquent enough, he had another thing coming. Three days after that, Harry Potter came back. He'd stood under the nastiest kind of Manchester drizzle, which eventually turned into sheets of monotonous rain, for three hours, ranting and pouring out a few years' worth of pent-up stuff. It hardly made a dent in Snape's absolute lack of hospitality, but for some reason, Harry was sure that the greasy git had been listening. Harry had no choice but consider it progress.
When he came for the third time, he was prepared.
"I thought you might want to listen to all the reasons why opening that door and letting me in isn't all that bad for your peace," Harry shouted. There was impenetrable silence behind the closed door. Could Snape be listening? He might as well, but it could really mean anything, strong Muffling Charms, in particular.
But Harry took his chance nonetheless.
"I'm being chased by reporters these days, you know. I bet some of them have already caught wind of how often I go banging on your door. Rita Skeeter would commit her soul to the Devil for an interview. So, unless you want them to write a hot article about me developing a perverse sort of fancy for you, let me in."
The old, long un-oiled hinges creaked, and the door opened just a mite to reveal one beady eye and a beaky nose. Harry made a mental note to remember using a bit of a good old Slytherin blackmail when dealing with Slytherins from now on.
Snape was silent.
Harry sighed and braced himself.
"Look, I know you've all but vaulted yourself in here, cancelled out your Prophet subscription and aren't receiving any visitors."
An eyebrow flew up above the eye, and the visible half of Snape's face sneered at such brilliant deduction.
"Full marks, Potter. Pray tell, what makes you think I'll make an exception for you , of all people?"
Harry reached into an inner pocket of his robe and pulled out a gold- and silver-layered box with a Ministry emblem on it that held Snape's Order of Merlin, Second Class. Though he could only see half of Snape's face, it was a great satisfaction to see it drop and his mouth gape slightly. Harry even thought he'd seen something like amazement flit through Snape's visible eye.
All too soon, Snape composed himself and glared at Harry with even more venom, if that were at all possible.
"I thought I'd give you this." Harry said simply and thrust the box to Snape like it was a mere trinket. "Since you didn't bother to attend the ceremony, I took it upon myself to receive it on your behalf and to deliver it to you."
'Took it upon himself' wasn't even beginning to hit the boundaries of understatement. It took Harry months of constant haunting of every single Ministry threshold to exonerate Snape. He'd pulled every single lever he had over Kingsley and then some. Snape snarled like a caged animal. Harry was glad he'd been on the receiving end of Snape's anger before, otherwise he wasn't sure he wouldn't have faltered.
"The Ministry has a strange sense of justice, don't you think? They give me an Order of Merlin and top it with a parole and a tracking charm on my wand."
Harry made a commiserating face. He didn't know what to answer to that.
"I'd tell you where you can shove it and how far up, Potter, but I'll be polite, for a change. Why don't you go give it to McGonagall so it can dangle on her collar like the pretty little bauble it is when she turns into a cat? Or better — give it to Hagrid. He's always got a pet stashed away somewhere that could use a new toy."
His last words came out as a vicious hiss, and Harry recoiled.
Snape obviously triumphed.
"Aw," he cooed. "Everyone's little hero expected a thank you?"
It wasn't as if Harry had been anticipating a warmer welcome. But as Snape's door opened a tad wider, he stole a peek at a shabby, barren space inside, dimly lit, and corners cluttered. His nose caught a whiff of staleness and old sweat, as if the room hadn't been aired for ages. All the why's and what-for's that had ever been nagging Harry after these visits and for which he ever failed to find suitable answers swam to the front of his mind. He firmly pushed them back.
"I expected nothing of the kind. You think each and every Gryffindor deems himself a champion of the downtrodden of some sort, and you're right," Harry said with feeling, losing grip on his resolve and all the well-worded arguments he'd come up with. "I just think you deserve—"
Harry faltered and couldn't help but steal another look behind Snape at his dilapidated room. Snape narrowed his eyes at that, and if not for the timely intervention of Harry's foot, inserted into the opening without thinking, the door would have been slammed into his face.
"Who do you think you are to judge what I deserve?" Snape screeched, his voice lacking its usual overtones after the snake bite.
"You have to understand! I want to do something for you! It's not about retribution or owing anything, I just… Please! If there's anything I can do—"
An ugly, toothy smile spread over Snape's face like an ink blot on a crumpled old piece of parchment.
"Yes. Walk off the face of my planet. Travel to a parallel universe and don't come back. Get yourself another globe. Fuck off to history."
Harry swallowed and held on to his defiance. He's just being a vicious bastard, he's just being a vicious bastard, like he always was , was running though his head in circles, flashing in neon letters in the front of his mind.
There was something like a fluttery touch at the edge of Harry's mind, and then Snape's lips twisted into a victorious sneer.
"I'm not just BEING a vicious bastard. I AM a vicious bastard."
A mutter of a dozen merry conversations of the Burrow guests made quick work of dimming the memories of the encounter with Snape to the point where they seem distant and simply sad. The Burrow was often crowded these days. Fred's death still gaped like an ugly wound on the entire Weasley clan, but now that some time had passed since the war, they tried to rebuild their peace back. Having hoards of people over for dinners and celebrating every mite occasion with a party seemed a good enough palliative to create at least a pretense of the Weasley's home former bursting energy and warmth.
Harry detested Burrow gatherings of late, but their false cheer was better than real celebrations. To his unutterable surprise, now that the war was done with, he realized that he'd never had time to learn to be festive.
And yet, Harry noticed the way here and there a conversation came to a sad halt, or how eyes were averted suddenly, and a stray tear brushed away. It made him think of Hogwarts, and how every single feast used to be tinged with danger and death looming just behind the walls of the castle.
It made him think of Snape. What comfort did he have, besides his dingy solitude?
"Maybe you should just let Snape alone, Harry," Ron said with a sympathetic look when he'd heard of Harry's most recent failure to inflict some good on Snape. "The man's got some twisted sense of pride in him, and he wears it like an armor."
"I think Ron's got the gist of it, Harry," Hermione had added. "I heard they wouldn't even allow him to have his house Fideliused. As if he weren't humiliated enough. And maybe he takes your desire to help as yet another humiliation."
Somewhere these words rang too true, which only served to inflame Harry more.
"You don't understand!" he snapped at his friends with far more sharpness than they deserved.
Hermione recoiled, eyes misted with hurt. The damnedest thing about it was that it wasn't even hurt that Harry had just bestowed upon her. She was hurting for him. What an undeserving fool he was.
Harry hung his head and sighed.
Hermione put a hand on his shoulder.
"We do understand, Harry."
But the one who seemed to truly understand was Ginny. She offered neither sage words of advice nor comforting platitudes. But when Harry finally left the sad comfort of the Weasley home for his own unwelcoming house, full of unwelcome memories, she was waiting for him in the parlor.
"Maybe you should see Bill about Snape," she said matter-of-factly a propos of nothing. "Bill has access to the accounts, which is a lot more than people care to think. He might give some insight on how things really stand with Snape. Mind you, it's illegal, but I'm sure Bill would help."
Harry's enthusiasm and elation lasted exactly for three and a half days, until Bill shared the uncomfortable truth with him.
"He's beyond broke, Harry. Penniless. Not eligible for loans. No prospective inheritance. And goblins would know such things. Though I do hope these things won't go anywhere past this door. You know how goblins prohibit using writing charms on documents? His last letter of tax return is almost unreadable. He even has to water his ink."
Harry paced his living room, his hands itching to do something.
"I have money. I have plenty. I'll just pour it into his account."
"No, you won't. It's secured and monitored by the ministry. He's been stripped of pretty much everything he owned as a condition of his parole, and the Ministry won't allow you to sidestep it like that. Besides, Harry, it's Snape we're talking about. You'll have to be more subtle than that."
The next morning, when Harry left the sullen cage of the Grimmauld Place, he saw that someone had magicked 'Hero' over the driveway in putrid pinky letters.
When he appeared in front of the door with creaky hinges in Spinner's end it appeared to be smothered in something suspiciously like shit. 'Turncoat' was written over it in ugly tar.
Harry couldn't help the profound feeling of being able to relate.
Leaving food and paper and quills on Snape's door didn't even start to hit the boundaries of 'subtle', so Harry made a plan.
"I need you to brew me a potion," he said, inserting a foot in the crack of Snape's door, when it was finally opened up to him after an hour of pleads and threats.
Snape gave him a disdainful eyebrow.
Harry exhaled. So far everything was going well.
Harry took another breath. At least he was asking. Meaning, he really was in dire need.
Snape's thin lips spread over yellowed teeth in an ugly sneer.
"Potter, your ham-fisted attempt to stuff some money into my wallet jumps out at me like a flock of dolphins in a circus pool. Twyndyllyngs is taught during sixth year."
Just like Hermione had said it was supposed to. She'd recommended it for the limiting necessary qualities of the brewer and its relative complexity.
"I remember that, Professor. But Professor Slughorn didn't see fit to include it in the curriculum" Harry said airily.
If Snape was taken down a notch, he didn't show it.
"Have Granger brew it. She's capable enough," Snape grumbled with far less malice.
"You know full well I can't. She's a girl. It's not called Twyndyllyngs for nothing, is it? It has to be brewed by someone with an affinity both brewer and ingester have to be the same sex," Harry said boldly.
Snape didn't fail to rise to the bait.
"So Granger taught you how to learn a book by heart, but other than that you're still as dumb as they come. I'm rather positive that though Granger can't boast having a prick, the number of dissimilarities between you and me is so vast, a woman would be more successful in brewing you a Twyndyllyngs."
"I'm sure it's not so," Harry insisted, his fingers balling into fists at such a callous mention of Hermione.
"Just go with Dreamless Sleep, Potter. It will suffice well enough," Snape said tiredly.
"It's addictive," Harry answered a bit too shrilly, feeling how his newly adopted subtlety was thinning by the second.
"See if I care." Snape shrugged and pressed on the door meaningfully. Harry's foot didn't budge.
"Professor, please. I'll pay you double," Harry said through clenched teeth.
Suddenly, Snape's face was alight with something Harry had little liking for.
"Fine, Potter." The dulcet tone was even less appealing.
He couldn't have agreed so easily. Did Harry just make a mistake with the double payment offer? Did he seem too desperate? Snape seemed to be considering something for a minute, and Harry grew uneasy.
"I'll brew it for you," Snape finally said, his voice dripping with faux courtesy. "Free of charge. "
It took all of Harry's resolve to snap his mouth shut and not stand there gaping like a fish. You'd walked straight into it, idiot , he rebuked himself mentally. The only question was exactly what kind of a trap it was.
"Deal," he quacked, thinking frantically of ways to turn this in his favour and finding none.
"Come tomorrow for the list of ingredients. I'll be in dire need of your help with the shopping, you see," Snape said, all saccharine accommodation. "Some things will need to be bought from Muggles, and I am forbidden from forays into Muggle world by the conditions of my parole, no thanks to you," Snape said, laying a careful emphasis on 'parole' so that Harry knew immediately that Snape was far from ignorant as to who was responsible for his exoneration, and by what means.
Harry nodded in agreement. Snape plastered the look of melodramatic misery on his face and went on with the show.
"Venturing into a Diagon Alley would surely cost me my one and only cloak, since folk tend to like me covered in rotten eggs and filth these days. And I can't afford that, you know. Winters can be formidable in Manchester, and this cloak might be my only source of warmth, when Warming Charms give."
Snape shrugged an old rug of a coat about him, flaunting a badly patched sleeve of indefinite colour.
And then it dawned on Harry.
Snape wouldn't take his money. He wouldn't take anything from him. Instead he would make him even more miserable by pointing out his outrageous poverty and refusing help.
"I'll come tomorrow at nine for the list then," he heard himself speaking. Letting out a stream of curses like he wanted to was not conducive to maintaining this image. Snape had called his bluff, but admitting it now would be the surest way to end it all before it began.
For all the simplicity of its effects, Twyndyllyngs was a Potion of tedious complexity. It required an array of ingredients, chopped and minced and diced specifically, and added in a manner and at a timing that demanded uttermost precision. It couldn't be brewed by the intended ingester, and required the ingester's presence at a few stages of brewing. Which was going along with Harry's plan just fine.
The thing that was far from fine was that Harry didn't really need the potion, not even the Dreamless Sleep. His nightmares plagued his waking hours. The contrivance of Harry's reasons was obvious to Snape, or at least Harry thought so, and yet, Snape agreed, albeit on his own terms. The feeling that he'd bit off more than he could chew became Harry's new constant companion.
Harry had spent the morning puttering about Diagon Alley and Fishy Bottom, a small dingy magical district in Manchester, and even popped into a Muggle apothecary. Pure alcohol was one of the things where Muggles left wizards lagging far behind.
By the time he'd reached Spinner's End, laden with an assortment of potion ingredients and a few purchases he decided to add to them, a bleary March morning had seeped into an even blearier afternoon. Snape grabbed the bags without as much as a thank you and closed the door into Harry's face.
A few scarce trees with limbs blackened by hours of rain sprouted on the side of the paved road, gaunt and forbidding. Such a Snapely place to live , Harry thought absent-mindedly as he walked towards the Apparition point.
He spared a passing thought to a pork pie he'd stuffed between a vial of manticore venom and sheets of parchment and sighed. There absolutely had to be a way to get to Snape, to make his life better, to make him if not accepted, than, at least, somewhat less resented. Harry didn't know why it had become so important to him. It just had.
The next morning, Harry was banging on Snape's door just as the first tendrils of a Manchester sunrise were being swallowed by a bulging storm cloud, threatening sleet.
As usual, Snape took his time to answer the door, so Harry was able to look around. The pork pie, sporting a footprint in the middle, but otherwise untouched, was sitting demonstratively on top of a garbage can.
Harry fought an urge to bust Snape's sallow face to kingdom come, when it appeared in the crack of an opened door.
"Potter," Snape said in a way of greeting. "I'm afraid you've forgotten a most delicious pork pie among the things for the potion the other day. I had such a lovely dinner that I thought I'd offer you to brew a potion for treating misplaced excess of altruism as a bonus," he added, obviously enjoying it.
Harry was half-sure to find the parchment he'd slipped into the bag serving as a toilet paper by then. It took all of his will to squeeze a tight-lipped smile and say, "I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Professor. Shall we?"
Snape pushed the door fully open.
Inside, it was even worse than Harry had expected. What little light was penetrating the room through a few greasy windows cast long shadows about a few shabby pieces of furniture. Books were strewn about, piles of them topped with cauldrons of varying sizes, dirty ladles, parchment stacks, covered with close-knit handwriting. Everything looked soiled and breathed neglect and decay. Snape offered no seat, so Harry went ahead and sat himself on a creaky chair, thinking about whether Molly would have a spell sufficient for cleaning his cloak afterwards.
"How long does it take to brew Twyndyllyngs?" Harry asked, going for nonchalant.
"Three days brewing, one day simmering. You'll have to be present nearby most of the time."
Harry was half-tempted to ask Snape to define 'nearby'. Waiting outside in rain seemed as good an option now as any, compared to that gods-awful cell Snape called home.
In for a Sickle, in for a Knut.
"Can I help with the brewing?"
"Is there anything—"
"Just stay out of my way, Potter."
At that, Snape grabbed Harry's hand, pricked a finger with a sharp lancet, and squeezed a few drops of blood, a necessary part of the potion.
Harry had been in close physical proximity of Snape before and had always been left with a feeling of revulsion or pity or wanting to get away.
Strangely enough, he was experiencing none of this. Just a flinty cautious something, as if he was being approached by a queer, ugly, yet peculiarly fascinating animal. It was like standing close to a Thestral.
Thestrals meant death and Hogwarts, and good things and unexpected help.
"Try not to bleed all over my carpet. I have none to spare," Snape snapped at him, breaking off his reverie.
As if he had a carpet to speak of. Harry looked at the filthy threadbare rug that had seen much better days under his feet, and smiled despite himself.
The first day of brewing passed, almost wordless and uneventful. Snape closeted himself up in a stuffy, tiny room barely large enough for one, chopping, mincing, grinding and occasionally swearing. Harry was tired of passively 'being nearby' after less than an hour and went exploring discreetly.
Snape's house was tiny and choked in various clutter, for all its emptiness. A small kitchenette and a pantry that could use a good few hours of scrubbing housed no food at all. A flight of stairs corkscrewed upwards from a dark corner of the living room. Harry didn't want to go up. Instead, he opened the backdoor, waded through a thicket of ivy that had grown over it, and into the small back garden. It was small and hideous, but suddenly Harry had a purpose. If Snape wasn't letting his altruism anywhere near his precious person, his garden couldn't say no. Harry rolled up his sleeves and set to work.
That evening, as Harry lay in his bed with a pleasant tickling soreness of long disuse in his muscles, there was a fleeting image right in that curious space between dreams and wakefulness just as he drifted off to sleep, an image of a garden that sported long black blades of greasy grass and sallow, ungainly white-and-yellow flowers that bloomed in the night, and all sorts of malevolent, prickly plants you'd better avoid, but were drawn to nonetheless.
It just needed a good gardener, Harry thought just before he succumbed to sleep fully.
"Just what the fuck do you think you're doing, Potter?"
Harry heard a bellow behind him just as he was planting a few tomato seedlings Molly had spared for him beside a bed of primulas.
"Far be it from me to forget that being grateful is not the charge one could lay at the door of Severus Snape." Harry rolled his eyes and got up to face eruption of Snape's volcanic what-for.
"Far be it from me to forget that the Boy-Who-Lives-to-Be-a-Pain-in-the-Arse is hero-worshipped so much he's become hell-bent on being everyone's champion, and even dilapidated gardens can't escape the fate." Snape's eyes were two flinty black shards, and a flick of a hand that Incedioed most of the newly planted seedlings was sharp and cold as ever.
Harry felt a rocky weight of fury in his gut, like a meal he couldn't digest.
"You know shit, Snape," he said quietly.
"Do I?" Snape's tone was disgustingly conversational. "Oh, you're right. Shit is something I'm very knowledgeable about. Just look at my life. Why, I think it's the single most fitting descriptor. So, tell me, Potter, what's a hero like you want here? Another notch on your 'Help Granted' list?"
He's just being a bastard, he's just being a bastard, he's just being—, Harry repeated in his head, fumbling for the right words to say, when Snape stormed off suddenly.
He was back in the garden not two minutes later with the cauldron in his hands. The base of the Twynndyllngs Potion bubbled, pinkish and merry and hopelessly incongruous with the bleak afternoon, the overcast sky, and crackling, boiling tension between Harry and Snape.
Slowly, so as to make his point glaringly clear, Snape turned the cauldron over and started pouring the liquid out onto the blasted tomatoes.
"You're broadcasting again, Potter. I'm not BEING anything. I am who I am, and it's not for you to change it. Here goes your Twyndyllyngs, Potter. Now get off my property. I don't need any help from the Hero."
The edges of Harry's vision blurred with red. He charged at Snape with a viciousness he didn't know he possessed.
He must have taken Snape completely unawares, because at the next moment they were tumbling on the ground, Harry landing on top of Snape, his hands shaking him by the collar.
"I'm. Not. A. Fucking. Hero!" he screamed at Snape's unflinching face. "I don't want to be one! I want to just be! And I can't! Because I don't know how to!"
Snape's mouth split into a crooked thing, an abomination of a smile. Harry had a ridiculous thought that maybe, just maybe it was the most sincere emotion, besides anger, Snape was capable of showing.
"And whose fault is that?" Snape asked quietly, and Harry had a distinct feeling he was laying blame at his feet. Was it truly his own fault that now that his world had peace, he didn't know how to make it his peace, too?
For a moment, Harry thought he saw something in Snape's eyes. Something so fleeting and barely there it could have been a trick of his own mind seeing what it wanted to see. Nevertheless, Harry took it as a silent offer of détente.
And let go of Snape's collar.
They were both drenched in pink goo that still let out an occasional bubble.
"How far along was the Potion?" he asked, suddenly seeing a straw to grasp at.
Harry made a mental note to for once thank Hermione for drilling the properties of Twyndyllyngs into his head. Cures nightmares. Helps find peace. Can only be brewed by a person with an affinity. Affinity seen as early as second stage.
"I'm unharmed. If you weren't suitable for brewing it for me, I'd be a bloated puffball by now."
Snape looked him over morosely.
"So you are," he quipped, getting up and brushing soil and fallen leaves from his cloak.
"You didn't expect this, did you?" Harry suddenly realized. "That you'd have the affinity to brew it for me?"
"Whether I have an affinity or not is of no importance, Potter. You don't need the Potion. It's one of those wheels reinvented. Just get yourself Dreamless Sleep and a blood cleanser in the nearest Apothecary. If you even need Dreamless Sleep."
Straight for the jugular, how very Snape.
Snape stepped very close to him and looked into his eyes. Harry wondered if he was using some nonverbal Legilimency spell. He might be.
Up close, Snape's face was suddenly very mundane. There were crow's feet at the corners of his eyes and a small red spot where a capillary was too close to the surface. A tired, burdened, ugly face.
And then it contorted into an implacable mask, and Harry remembered that Snape did make first-years cry just by looking at them rather effortlessly.
"What do you really want, Potter?" Snape asked.
Harry tried to think of something no less honest than 'help you'. 'Help you' would only get him kicked out on his arse.
The words tumbled out of his mouth as if of their own accord.
"I want help."
Snape had the grace not to gloat.
"Making my garden look like Longbottom's first year Herbology project won't help you. Come. I'm not about to suffer you for an extra day. This time you'll do the cutting, and if you botch it, I won't bloody care," he said somberly before stalking away.
The rest of the day was spent in a surprisingly convenient silence. Either Snape was giving him tasks suitable for a first-year or Harry wasn't half-bad with potions. He was coping rather well. And there was a rough peacefulness in chopping and mincing and skinning. His hands cramped with exertion, and he cut his fingers more than once, but the entire process gave him simple comfort that neither Weasley home gushing love nor his friends' support could provide. Not even Ginny's arms around him at night.
No, you didn't feed rich meats and fancy sweets to a starved man; he wouldn't be able to keep them down. You fed him broth. This was his broth, this dingy, dim house, its stale air and window panes yellowed with filth, its mottles of dust and thin tea made of anything but tea that Snape drunk. And the peace. The peace of working side by side with one single man who didn't fit in, just like him.
When next day Harry brought chicken soup and half a meat pie, pulled it out and started eating around noon, Snape said nothing. Neither did he share the meal with Harry, but Harry knew better than to make an offer. He'd gladly eat with Snape himself, but didn't care to eat with his sour disposition.
The wonderful smells of hot soup and pie didn't seem to entice Snape. Harry's plan to make Snape's life easier was losing its footing fast, what with Snape's express prohibition of cleaning, repairing, improving or otherwise touching anything in his house and Harry realizing that he needed help just as much. And suddenly, Harry wasn't hungry. I'm failing, he thought with a sick sad feeling in the pit of his stomach, pushed the food away, and went back to the clink-and-clack of chopping, mincing, and grinding.
Between the two of them, the preparation stage was done soon enough, and Harry had nothing else to do but wander around the cramped space of Snape's house. One thing it did abound in was books. Hundreds of books. Harry walked leisurely around stacks and piles, seeking for anything less droll than advanced potions making or obscure old magics. A spot of purple drew his attention to a bookshelf in the corner. Oddly enough, it was stacked with old, mostly Muggle books. On the bookend, obscured from the view, unless one looked from where Harry was standing, lay a neatly folded pair of purple socks. It was covered with dust, yet obviously had never been worn, a thread still holding them sown together.
Harry swallowed a lump. He bet he knew just who gave Snape those socks. But it was a shock still that Snape would keep them.
"How is it going with Snape, Harry?" Hermione asked him that evening over a game of Exploding Snap at the Burrow. She tried to look sympathetic, and Harry knew it was an honest attempt, but she still couldn't help the way her face cringed slightly when she said Snape's name, as if she was chewing on a piece of a rotten lemon.
"He's still being a cruel vicious prick, but I'm getting there, I think," Harry said unconvincingly, grabbing for yet another one of Molly's ginger tarts and wondering what Snape was having for dinner, apart from his thin tea and dark brooding. "You know he keeps a present from Dumbledore. A pair of horrid violet socks. Dumbledore used to give those for Christmas to all and sundry." Harry trailed. Dumbledore was still a giant gaping sore in everyone's soul.
"And you took it to meaning Snape has a heart?" Ron said.
"I know he has. Think of all he did for us. For Dumbledore. For me."
There was a long silence, but the sad look exchanged between Ron and Hermione didn't escape Harry.
"Harry, he might have done all those things, but it doesn't change the fact that he is still a cruel, vicious prick. It just makes him a complex cruel, vicious prick," Hermione said with careful, quiet conviction.
Something snapped in Harry that moment, but it wasn't a temper flare. He felt something inside him detach and let go, leaving him blissfully doubtless. They all talked too much and said too little, and it didn't change anything, not even the love Harry bore for them all.
"I'd better go," he said, his own voice sounding hollow to him.
He gave Ron a perfunctory pat on his shoulder, planted a meaningless kiss on Hermione's cheek, and walked out, followed by Ginny, who had been silent all along.
"They can't see why you are so obsessed with Snape," Ginny suddenly said, as Harry was pulling out his wand to Apparate.
"Can you?" Harry asked, suddenly anxious, not about her answer, rather about the fact that her answer wouldn't make any difference.
"Sometimes I think I can. And then you go and do something like asking Mum for tomato seedlings for Snape's garden, and I'm back to thinking I don't get you."
"Sometimes I think I know why I'm doing it, and then he says something or does something and I'm back to thinking I'm just an idiot. But the morning comes and I need to go to him again."
"What is it that you're hoping to achieve, Harry? It's not like he's going to start being jolly like Santa Claus or adopt a kitten."
Harry had no answer to that. Only a gut feeling of doing the right thing.
Ginny sighed and instead of Apparating separately, pulled him in for a side-along.
When Harry came to Snape the next afternoon, the sun was peeking out of the clouds for the first time in ages, seemingly.
Its light did nothing to dilute the stale glumness of Snape's house, however, scarcely penetrating the filthy windows.
Snape sat at the table, a lonely plate with crumbs and remnants of yesterday's pie sitting on top of it. There was an almost empty Firewhisky bottle on the counter.
It looked like Snape was well into his cups.
"Have you been drinking, Professor?" Harry asked, trying not to infuse his voice with too much worry.
"Why, you want to help me with my whisky as well? Help yourself then, there's still a few fingers left." Snape slurred slightly.
"What happened?" Harry blurted.
"Nothing. I just needed to wash down the bile after eating that damn pie of yours," Snape said venomously.
He hates me, Harry thought with vast dismay. He was so hungry and helpless that he couldn't resist eating that godsdamned pie, and he hates me know. I'm a failure and a fool. I'm just making him more miserable.
"Do you hate me?" Harry asked simply.
There was a pregnant pause.
"I used to think you were just like your father. Such a disappointment, really. There was nothing of her in you, only the eyes. And even those looked… alien… on that Potter face of yours. Hate's too strong a word, Potter. But I did hate your father, yes."
Harry felt the cold fingers of old anger walk inside him and ignored them firmly. He wanted to shout at Snape, to tell him that his father was a good man, an honorable man. That more than anything he'd wished his father were alive.
"Why are you telling me this?" he asked instead.
"I see now that there's plenty of her in you as well. She was hell-bent on helping, too. She'd go out on a limb to help every wretch and underdog around her."
Snape was practically oozing resentment.
"That wasn't why she was your friend!" Harry said ardently, wanting suddenly to beat some sense into Snape.
"Wasn't it?" Snape gave him a lop-sided rueful sneer.
"This is not why I'm here, either."
"No, you're not. You're here because you said you needed help, and I promised to help you. Always. And the Twyndyllyngs is just an excuse, as transparent as the rest of you Gryffindor louts." He said it in a quieter voice.
Harry swallowed uneasily and felt at a loss for words.
"Those who don't accept help won't know how to help others," he said. It was something Hermione said a lot.
"Said kettle to a teapot."
It was Harry's turn to give a rueful smile. He thought of all the times he had neglected help and counsel from his friends, and how that had ended.
"Your potion is almost ready," Snape said wearily and got up from the chair in a movement that was too sharp for someone seemingly drunk.
His robes still billow, Harry thought absently. His robes billow, just like when he was in Hogwarts, just like when I was doing something important, when I had a purpose, and sun didn't shine out of my arse no matter what I'd do, when people around me were thinking bigger than their weddings and babies and celebrations of every stupid little thing, when trying to live a happy life didn't seem like a hopeless drudgery.
Snape turned to a small workbench and started decanting something when Harry felt it. The urge to go and press himself against him, to touch him, the last tangible vestige of the world before.
His legs moved as if they had a brain of their own and before he knew it, Harry was snaking his arms around Snape from behind, burrowing his face in the folds of his cloak. Despite all the myths, Snape didn't smell vile. It was just a smell. No flowers or herbs, just Snape. Harry let out a breath and realized that Snape stood stiff and unmoving.
"What are you doing, Potter?" he croaked as he slowly turned around.
The answer presented itself on Harry's tongue before his brain registered it.
"I'm helping myself," he whispered.
And then Snape kissed him.
At first Harry was surprised. Did he want to be kissed by Snape? What did he want exactly? Wasn't it Ginny he wanted? But when was the last time he really wanted Ginny? Then, as Snape's dry, thin lips pressed with a queer desperation, Harry thought that, yes, he wanted to be kissed by Snape. Snape emitted something like a low mewling, a sound so un-Snape-like and vulnerable that Harry felt heady at the thought he'd reduce Snape to that. To his horror and delight, his cock stirred and now he wanted not only to be kissed by Snape, but to be done things to by Snape.
So he dug under Snape's cloak, fumbling with buttons and folds of cloth until his hands found skin and dragged along it in as clear an invitation as Harry felt bold enough to convey.
It felt spectacularly wrong and blissfully right. A voice of reason shouted from the back of his mind that there was going to be an 'after' very soon, but Harry was only too happy when it let go and drowned under the roaring desire.
They were soon on the floor, and Snape was hooking his elbows under Harry's knees, and his face, unguarded and distorted by want was a haunting sight Harry couldn't tear his eyes from.
It hurt, and Harry might have screamed and clawed at Snape, but then the pain ebbed and there was pleasure, a rough, down-to-brown-earth creature comfort. And every thrust was filling a void deep inside Harry, a hungry, gaping, black, toothless mouth within him that couldn't chew on Ginny's sweet love or kind, soft support from Ron and Hermione, a mouth that puked out insipid adoration of the press and soured at frothing cheer of the mob. All it could take was broth.
And when that black mouth was almost full, full for the first time in seemingly ages, in the deafening pleasure, Harry thought he saw Snape smile.
Not a good smile. A horrible, condescending smile of someone who had just turned the tables.
When Harry floated in the afterglow, even as Snape was planting a shuddery kiss to his collar bone, Harry knew it. There was no heart there, beneath all Snape's layers and masks. And it was just a pity fuck.
Just a pity fuck, the words echoed in his head.
"See? You understand it perfectly well, Harry," Snape rasped in his ear, his breath wet on Harry's temple.
As Harry dressed, he knew that the pain would come later, but at the moment he was immensely grateful for the unfeeling hollowness inside that allowed him to look almost calm.
"You forgot your potion," Snape said as Harry was turning the door handle. There was nothing in his voice that suggested it was a veiled offer to stay.
He wanted to say that he didn't need the stupid potion, but the words stuck somewhere on their way out. It was a good thing, though. Harry didn't want to say it to the door, but if he turned around to talk, he knew there would be a smug smile on Snape's face.
He didn't want to see it.
Harry couldn't tell whether he'd walked a mile or ten miles. It was snowing, the fluttery, large flakes that had no business swirling around like that so late into March. It didn't matter now that Snape had put those tomato seedlings to Incendio, and the budding hyacinths and a small pumpkin plant, too. It didn't matter now. The snow would have done in for them as well, probably. And some things Harry planted as seeds, they didn't have time to break through the ground yet. Maybe the weather and Snape could show more mercy to them once they did, Harry thought.
He stopped to catch a few snowflakes on his tongue, and they dissolved in his mouth like tiny, icy kisses. Maybe if he could swallow enough of them, they'd cover the scorched, blackened place inside him like a cooling, pretty blanket, just like they hid the ugly drab of slums Harry was passing through and made them look almost presentable.
Ginny blasted his door on the third day. Harry did see the stricken look of horror on her face before she composed herself and set about throwing the windows open, lighting the fire in the hearth, and sprucing things up a bit.
"Talk to me, Harry," she pleaded, after she all but dragged him in and out of the bath. "Talk to me, gods damn it!"
Harry wanted to, he really did. He wanted to tell her how lucky he was to have her, how beautiful and lively and loving she was. Except at the moment he wasn't feeling any of those things. The world about was an emotional blur, as if he was looking at it without his glasses. Ginny's love that burned for him as bright as her flaming hair was but a pale flicker somewhere in this murky numb fog, and so was everything else but the scorched black place inside him, barren like a rocky, salty shore?
I'm a poor gardener he thought.
"Harry, what is it?" Ginny touched his arm gently. "Did Snape do something?"
So perceptive. Except that he didn't. I tried to give him a fish and then to give him a stick and teach him how to fish, but what he really needs is the reason to take that stick and learn, and that I can't give. He wanted to tell her that, truly, but the words that fell from his lips were, "I've been with Snape."
At first she just stood there, her face a rock. Only a slight flare of her nostrils. Harry knew she was profoundly shocked, and the one thing he was most terribly afraid to see was revulsion.
She hid it well enough.
In the next moment, Ginny was picking her things, minimizing them and stuffing them in her pockets and purse at random.
"What are you doing, Ginny?" Harry blurted, his voice pitched high, blood suddenly ringing in his ears with the realization that he was losing her, losing her.
There wasn't a single drop of malice in her words. Just a statement.
"You can't. Please don't. I need you."
Such a flappy platitude. Harry bit his stupid lip.
She turned to him, finally showing her tears.
"No, Harry, you don't. Snape has something you need that I do not," she said, broken.
"A cock?" Harry asked, not even bothering to feel stupid.
She laughed, the saddest sound Harry'd heard in a long while.
Then Ginny ran to him, sniffling, and took his face in her hands.
"Wish it were, Harry. That could have been helped, you know," Ginny said, smiling and crying feely. "It's just that Snape hasn't moved on. Neither does he seem to want to or be ready to. Just like you are. You're the only ones who got stuck in the past."
"And are you? Ready to move on?" Harry whispered and licked his lips. There was salt on them as well now.
She kissed him full on the lips and left.
Harry kicked the pile of crushed vines and ripped flowers at his door step and sighed. Autumn was gracious this year, summer streaking long into October, all rains gone to bother people elsewhere for once.
His days had been flying by, each one so like the previous that Harry couldn't even tell weekends from weekdays sometimes. He'd made a mental note to be thankful to all the people who had dragged him through as soon as he could muster enough emotion to mean it.
Spring had thawed and summer had bloomed, and there had been again weddings to go to, anniversaries to honour, celebrations not to miss, and babies to baptize.
Harry had learned that if he gave their questions the answers they expected and patted their children on heads and drank to their health, and said their wives were lovely and the food delicious, they let him be soon enough.
He could even go as far as accept their help if they offered to.
It all mattered very little, and the not mattering was a good thing.
Harry discovered that there was an advantage to people moving on: the hype around him was dying out, and his doorstep sported piles of unopened mail and old newspapers rather than pink love confessions and hero-worship tokens.
But today's intruder was rather persistent.
A large barn owl was giving him a thunderous eye from the railing that used to be twined in glossy ivy vines, the remains of which were now covering his steps.
"You've been waiting here long, haven't you, bird?" Harry asked and beckoned to the owl with his hand in reconciliation.
It gave a scornful hoot, flew down and stretched a paw out.
The parchment was most indistinguishable, and yet Harry would know it anywhere. Once he used to think it was all gone wiping on scrawny ass, whose owner Harry didn't care to think of more than he absolutely had to.
Did someone write to him that Snape died? Starved to death? Drank himself to eternal oblivion?
He unwrapped it with shaking fingers, his throat suddenly tight, the black, scorched maws inside him, the ones which never learned how to eat anything but broth and kept chewing on Harry's soul for a long time, these maws opened, eager.
The message was short.
The thyme and the singing campanellas you planted in spring are better off sown in late Autumn. Where did you get the breeds? I could use a few more seeds if you could spare them.
And the tomatoes, come spring, too.
PS: The Twynndyllyngs can be kept under a Stasis for almost a year. It's still yours if you want it.
Harry felt his face muscles distend in a long-forgotten stretch of a sincere smile. The blackness inside him knit together and imploded on itself, the maw closed and sprouted something new and green.
Maybe, it was a bud of things to come.