That night in August, Snape was having a Fire-whiskey in his half-lit room at the Leaking Cauldron in London. One of the windows was ajar, letting the night air in. After a short torrential summer rain, the air contained a compound of deep earthly scents mixed with the scents of the city. Snape found himself unsurprised, but not disappointed, at being back from the inauguration party arranged by the Art Federation of Magical Britain, at an early hour.
It had been an interesting day, all-in-all, there was no denying it. A vernissage, a shopping round at Diagon Alley and a Party - those were all the kind of futile, inflicted social events that the former Severus Snape would have sulked and sneered his way through, or else would have avoided altogether. This day had passed differently, however.
It’s amazing what a cleared, neutral and slightly wondrous outlook on the world can do to improve the meeting with people, thought Snape.
At first, at the vernissage, Snape had been fully occupied with keeping an eye on Harry, scrutinising the boy’s reactions, his grasp on himself, his bearings and his handling of the journalists. Following the initial state of vigilance, growing confident that the young wizard managed rather well, Snape had been able to relax.
After successfully, although politely, brushing off a few journalists targeting his own person, he had found himself wandering around and commenting, sometimes to complete strangers, on the pieces of arts, on the past war and on the new state of the world, without finding making conversation remotely unpleasant.
Even if he could honestly say that he probably only came across one or two people of the understanding and the intelligence that he valued enough for a longer conversation, he had been able to notice and give credit to other kinds of personal merits in people that made him bear with them and even appreciate them. He was able to overlook the often superficial comments which formerly would have annoyed him and unremittingly caused him to loathe the person in question. In other words, he had put up admirably, and quite enjoyed himself.
Snape had been introduced to the artist named Helena Rayo Hermosa and had been surprised that Harry had omitted to mention her beauty when he talked about her earlier. Even if one got the impression that the young woman had slipped her dress on without much thought for effect, not wearing any jewellery and omitting to make up her long hair, wearing it loose, it made her look all the more stunning.
The young artist appeared a bit eccentric to Snape, which was not necessarily a drawback as it seemed to make her almost immune to the admirers that gathered around her. She seemed on the contrary slightly irritated by their attentions, and wanted solely to talk about forms, movement and colours.
Harry approached her timidly at first, but soon got sucked into a passionate conversation about the memorial monument that was the crown piece of the exposition. There was so much talk about technicalities and magical sculpture theory that Snape kept quiet by their side until invited to give his opinion on the work. He chose his words carefully, without compromising, however, with what he really thought about the piece, and it had earned him an appreciative look from Miss Rayo Hermosa, although he realised that his view was not concordant with hers. Then he left the young artists and wandered off on his own.
A faint knock on the door to Snape’s hotel room interrupted his recalling of the day. Frowning, the wizard cast an identifying spell, then hasted to rise in order to let his travel companion in when he realised that it was Harry who was standing outside.
”You’re back early, too,” he greeted Harry, surprised, scrutinising the young man’s face. He had left Harry at the party, in the middle of a group of young artists where Harry seemed to fit in perfectly. Now, there was a down-cast look about him which spoke of embarrassment, maybe shame and of dejection? guessed Snape.
”May I come in for a while?” mumbled Harry.
”Of course. I was having a drink, would you care for one?” said Snape, letting Harry past him. Harry hesitated.
”No thanks. I had a glass of champagne at the party, then one single drink, and found that I’m unused to even modest amounts of alcohol… Not surprising really, as it’s not as if there’s been a feast every week-end at Hogwarts over the summer. That’s one of the reasons I left, though, because I felt that I couldn’t keep up with the others…” Harry smiled wryly, but it turned into a grimace. ”I hate to feel so green and so unsophisticated,” he mumbled.
”You were doing fine as far as I observed,” said Snape carefully. ”It’s your first outing for a long time. It’s probably sensible of you not to overdo it.” Harry chuckled cheerlessly.
”It was my first time to a big party, ever, if you don’t count the Yule ball at Hogwarts in forth year, where I had no clue what-so-ever what it was about, or Bill Weasley’s and Fleur Delacour’s wedding, which was interrupted by Voldemort’s coup at the Ministry,” he replied dryly.
Snape nodded in understanding. They had settled down in the arm chairs and Snape picked up his glass again. As if making a conscious effort to pull himself out of the oppressive mood he had arrived in, Harry spoke lightly.
”So, what’s your excuse for leaving the feast after only one hour, Severus? You were the first to leave, I believe. I saw a couple of Ministry people raise their brows and roll their eyes knowingly at that premature departure of yours. For those who still doubt your spectacular change in personality after the Resurrection, your impoliteness was grist to their mill.”
The resurrections of Snape and Dumbledore had been the rage of the papers during the whole summer. Snape had magnanimously given one interview to The Daily Prophet, believing that it would satisfy the curiosity of the public and that he would thence be left in peace, but it had only fuelled the sensationalism and made it all the more interesting to let a long row of third parties with different views of his person be heard. Snape looked at Harry imperturbable.
”First, my personality has not changed, only my sentiment about being alive and my outlook on the world have. Second, I don’t give a damn what others think about my actions,” he replied calmly. Harry grinned.
”Your excuse?” he insisted. Snape made a grimace.
”I didn’t want to go in the first place,” he pointed out. ”I had already gotten my fair share of socialising during the day. As soon as I watched you join your company of young friends, I felt there was no reason for me to stay.” Harry acquiesced the argument a little sadly.
”I’m sorry I dragged you along,” he said. ”I thought that you might enjoy - because of your new outlook on the world as you put it…” Harry paused and smiled, ”…that you might enjoy meeting people, you know…Don’t you?”
”I did, surprisingly,” Snape answered readily. ”At the vernissage, I didn’t mind speaking with people at all. I even found it pleasant… Parties, however, seem to aim at things that I’m not interested in: Showing off, for once - I couldn’t care less about something as nonsensical as that…”
Harry looked as if he agreed.
”As for dancing, flirting, finding a partner…” Snape trailed off.
”You’re not interested in finding a partner?” Harry asked carefully. Snape considered the question.
”I think I’m not,” he said slowly. ”I feel no longing, no need for, or interest in that kind of pursuit. Apparently that’s not why I came back to this life. Right now, I feel too open to the world to concentrate on one single person, if you understand my meaning? It would monopolise my time and I feel that it would be selfish, somehow.”
”You’re as entitled to happiness as anyone else,” Harry objected quickly. ”And everybody needs someone close, even if it’s not, you know, love in its traditional meaning… or a sexual relationship…” Harry turned his head away and Snape cleared his throat.
”You’re probably right,” he acknowledged with a mixture of dryness and embarrassment. ”I’m just not ready for it - whatever that would be - yet.”
In response, Harry unexpectedly inhaled deeply, put his face in his hands and said something in muffled words. Snape didn’t know how to respond to the sudden display of distress in front of him and shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
”Sorry, I didn’t catch that?” he said. Harry removed the hands from his face, but continued to stare down at the floor.
”I’m not ready, either…” repeated Harry in a low, better controlled voice than before. ”But I so wish… I long not to be alone… But I can’t… I’m such a coward…” The last words gushed out of him in an angry, defeated cry.
”That,” scoffed Snape reflexively, ”you most certainly are not!” As the young man in front of him was fervently shaking his head, Snape asked in a gentler tone: ”Is this about the stunning Miss Helena Rayo Hermosa?” Harry sighed again.
”She’s amazing,” he admitted. He linked his fingers together as if to steady them and thereby calm himself. ”I have admired her since I met her, but today… today was the first time that I… allowed myself to recognise… the attraction between us…” Harry’s face flushed fiercely. ”Apparently she feels the same,” he acknowledged in a low voice. ”It’s unbelievable, especially since she’s not the type to be attracted to fame, really she’s not.”
Harry looked insistently at Snape as if to convince him about the last statement, but since meeting with the eccentric lady, Snape understood what Harry meant, and had no problem believing him. So he just nodded, letting Harry hesitantly move on, when he met no opposition.
”I think that she’s driven by her emotions and that she’s extremely impulsive, so when something feels good, Helena just goes along with it, without considering any buts rationally,” explained Harry. ”I mean that’s the only explanation for her to fancy me, because if she stopped to think, or to look at me, or considered to what extent I must be damaged by everything that has happened to me, she would be much more cautious, wouldn’t she? Because, I mean, I’m perfectly conscious that no one can come out of what I lived remotely normal - how could you? Moreover, I’m younger than her and my looks are frightfully plain. I’m shy and awkward, and short and…”
Snape frowned at Harry’s blatant display of low self-esteem, but chose not to comment on it for the moment being.
”What happened?” he asked instead. Harry’s voice shifted from analytical to anxious again.
”We… We had some privacy when I visited her atelier in the afternoon… And… And… we ended up kissing… Uhum…” A brief smile lit Harry’s face as he glanced apologetically at Snape. ”Not for very long,” he muttered regretfully, ”because we were interrupted.” Another flush. ”And I had to return to the hotel to change for the party.”
That little episode would explain Harry’s extreme absent-mindedness earlier the same night, thought Snape. Harry hadn’t said anything at the time, but behaved more whimsical than usual. Snape had written it down on account of nervousness in view of the big party and, according to himself, been exceptionally patient with the young wizard, as Harry had darted back and fro to his hotel room no less than thrice to cast protective, or preserving spells over various items, before they could leave the hotel for the feast.
Snape wondered what could have happened to thwart such a promising setting, because Harry’s early return from the party naturally meant that Helena the Beautiful and he had gone no further with the budding relationship. Snape did not need to inquire, because Harry continued his plaguing confession on his own accord.
”The… the interlude at the art studio was so brief that I was unsure what it meant, and… and I was all wondering… I was expectant and scared at the same time - and disbelieving, really. I could not fathom that she might fancy me. I thought it was some kind of mistake and I was trying to figure out in what way. But then, at the party, when we were talking and dancing, Helena didn’t hide her interest and it was clear from her behaviour that she expected us to… That she wanted me to…”
Harry’s voice broke and his face was wrinkled up with regret and shame. Snape felt a surge of pity for his young friend.
”I… I panicked,” Harry confessed. ”I’m such a coward. I realised that I couldn’t go on… I thought of Ginny, because… because we haven’t spoken properly since the end of the war, and I was caught with a guilty conscience. I was so in love with Ginny, you see, in sixth year, and I suppose I expected us to start over again. But she has taken care of her mother, and I’ve been ill, and so we’ve not seen each other much over the summer. I don’t know what she expects of me.”
”What either Miss Hermosa or Miss Weasley expects of you is irrelevant, Harry,” he said. ”It’s noble of you to consider their feelings, but what is important here is your own heart and mind. What do you want? If you prefer to wait for Miss Weasley, then you should simply explain that to the other young lady, and then visit, or write to Miss Weasley and clarify things between you. I hope you didn’t just walk out on Miss Hermosa without talking to her, did you?”
”No, no, of course not, I’m not that much of a git. But I don’t really remember what I reeled off when I tried to explain to her why I backed out.” Harry’s anxiousness rose again as he made an effort to remember the difficult moment. ”I don’t think that I mentioned Ginny, and I mean… the fact that I’m afraid of betraying Ginny is not the full truth, either…”
”No?” asked Snape.
”No, it’s more than that…” Harry swallowed, continuing in a low voice with crude self-honesty. ”I’m not ready for it,” he said. ”I’m not ready for a relationship. Not in the same altruistic way that you meant, because contrary to you, I want it so much, that I could crawl out of my own skin to have it. To have closeness and love.” The young wizard closed his eyes.
There was so much longing in Harry’s sorrowful voice that Snape’s eyes stung.
”But I’m not sure that I could handle the closeness,” whispered Harry. ”I feel so damn frail. I’m afraid that I would lose myself. I’m afraid that I might go mad. Look at what a mess I am since the end of the war! Even my own body is unreliable.” Harry was referring to a range of strange neurological symptoms that had plagued him since the horcrux was blown off him, like intermittent muscle weakness, numbness of the skin and loss of hearing.
”I thought that you were recovering,” answered Snape, also in a low voice, because he was uncertain how to respond to Harry’s harsh self-condemnation.
”I’m bound to become a disappointment to my partner,” said Harry, ignoring Snape and staring defeatedly at his hands.
Harry’s words stirred a familiar feeling deep inside Snape, and for the first time in months he felt the prickling of irritation on his skin. He was about to snap at Harry that if he was going to let the fear of being a disappointment rule his life, then he was never going to experience romance or love, but the sudden reminiscence or his own youth stopped him.
In his teens and early twenties, when Snape realised that Lily Evans would not choose to be his partner, his desperation had prompted him to seek out relationships that had been downright destructive. Lily’s death had put an end to that behaviour, and for several years Snape had been depressed, without any internal incentive what-so-ever to seek closeness. Later in life, he had been prompted, mostly by others who were concerned for him, to make an effort at finding a partner and, half-heartedly, he had been through a series of unsatisfying relationships.
The mistake he had made then, Snape realised in his now clear-sighted state, had been to stubbornly disregard the ways in which his own background had affected him, and to mulishly ignore the importance of his inherited violence, his darkness and his flaws - because there just seemed to be so many of them that it was pointless to even try to improve! He had stupidly taken pride in being a git. Who-ever takes me, takes me as I am, he used to think, assuming no responsibility for making the relationship work. He had learned nothing from his short-comings and repeated his mistakes over and over again, until he had given up, embittered and without insight.
Drawing a deep breath, tempering his irritation, Snape said humbled, although with conviction:
”In my mind, you have too low an opinion of yourself, Harry. One day you’ll make an attentive, kind and passionate partner to the person who gains your heart. In the meantime, I’ll give you credit for realising, at your age, how the experiences from the past affects you and forms your character. It took me considerably longer to even get a hint at that.”
Harry glanced at Snape, a flash of curiosity and understanding in his sad eyes.
”But it’s not impossible to process the past, not hopeless to gain control over, and to mend those inner wounds,” continued Snape.
Harry’s eyes filled with tears and he shook his head fervently, disbelievingly.
”It’s not!” Snape reinforced sternly. ”You’re not damaged beyond repair, Harry. Don’t ever think that!”
Harry went all rigid, as if desperately trying to get rid of his emotions by tensing every single muscle in his body. The feelings seemed to refuse to be harnessed, and he gulped spasmodically, as if trying to swallow them back down the gullet they were erupting from, but was betrayed by letting out short hyperventilating gasps. Snape courteously waited until Harrys’ breathing calmed down before he went on.
”About the two ladies in question, here’s my opinion,” he said. ”If you’re not ready for it, then you’re not, and your instinct to back out of a possible relationship is probably right. Although certainly not because you’re unworthy, or some tripe like that!”
Snape glared fiercely at Harry who squirmed.
”On the contrary,” continued Snape, ”you simply need more time to get yourself together after your confrontation with Voldemort, and after finding yourself without.… without a true family.”
Why did Snape’s voice falter as if it were embarrassing to mention Harry’s lack of family support? As if the deaths of his uncle and cousin, and the rejection by his aunt were something shameful? As if the fact that Harry was eighteen meant that he shouldn’t need to depend on such support? Again, Snape felt a flare of irritation, not at Harry this time, but at himself. He shouldn’t find it embarrassing to mention Petunia’s betrayal, but he supposed it seemed so pitiful in comparison to what Harry had accomplished and suffered in the fight against Voldemort. Yet, Snape realised that the final blow coming from the family where Harry had grown up had had just as great impact on the young wizard as the war itself. And sure enough, Harry looked even more devastated at the mention of his former family. Snape forced himself to go on.
”You’re wise to wait before you get involved with someone. It’s not cowardice. It only shows that you’re a mature young man with great insight and… Heavens, Harry! You’ll do fine… You’ll do fine, I assure you.”
At the end, Snape softened, let go completely of the admonishing and surrendered in front of Harry’s shattered appearance. He leant over to grasp and press the young wizard’s taut wrist reassuringly, as if willing him to take in the message of hope that he was trying to convey.
Harry shut his eyes for a short time, allowing Snape’s comforting gesture.
”Thank you, Severus,” Harry finally murmured and Snape removed his hand. ”A part of me knows that what you’re saying is true, but there are so many contradicting thoughts inside my head that I think I’m going crazy sometimes. Just hearing you say these things aloud helps.” Harry drew a deep breath. ”I think I’ll retire to my own room now,” he said, rising from his chair.
”Need some sleep?” Snape inquired softly.
”I’ll do some painting first,” said Harry, avoiding Snape’s scrutinising gaze. ”I brought my things and there are a few techniques that I observed today at the exposition that I want to try out. I have a lot of magical energy bottled up. I need to get it out somehow.”
Snape realised with regret that the anxiety had only lessened its grip on Harry marginally, but that there was nothing more he could do, but to bid the young man goodnight.
Snape blinked and stared with unseeing eyes into the November snow storm that howled around Hogwarts. The faint light that was discernible earlier in the evening, in the tower most far away across the inner court, was extinguished. It was getting late and Albus had finally left his office, retiring, hopefully to get some rest, Snape thought. The old wizard had confided in him that he slept badly, waking up before the sun in the early morning hours. This was how Albus’ and Snape’s relationship had evolved during the autumn - a steady exchange of small confessions and naked reflections on their respective lives.
Snape grimaced to himself. There were two individuals who had insinuated themselves through his formidable armour of tranquility since the resurrection. Two persons that he felt anxious for. He found himself concerned for these persons’ well-being and afraid of what the caprices of life might cause them in terms of harm. Those persons were Albus and Harry.
He realised that the specific anxiety concerning Harry had augmented exponentially after the conversation that particular August night in the hotel room at the Leaking Cauldron in London. It had left him with such a dissatisfying feeling of helplessness, of not being able to do enough for his young friend.
It had multiplied a thousandfold the following morning when Harry had not shown up for breakfast and when Snape had eventually failed to keep his acquired serenity in place. His unlimited patience had crackled by the fear that Harry, in his strange mood of desperation, might have done something self-destructive. Unable to contain his anxiety as the time passed, Snape had ended up first shouting through the floo, then pounding, and finally blasting the door to Harry’s hotel room, when he got no answer.
It turned out that Harry had worked himself to exhaustion during the night, and eventually into a collapse. When Snape forced the wards of the room, he was met and arrested by the sight of three big canvasses in the middle of the room, thick with paint and vibrating with magic. They were certainly formidable and unusual art. But at what cost? Snape wondered as he bent over the pale, unconscious form of Harry Potter, prone on the floor.
Fortunately, after a couple of Enervate spells, Harry had come to rather quickly, embarrassed and repentant, urging Snape not to mention the event to Mme Pomfrey who was convinced that Harry was nearing his complete recovery. Snape had let himself be persuaded that Harry had got caught in the creative process of painting and not meant to harm himself on purpose. Snape could not circumvent the fact that what happened spoke of a recklessness on Harry’s part that was disquieting, and ever since that morning, it was as if part of Snape’s mind was on a constant guard to pick up signs about the state of Harry’s mental health.
The fire in the floo crackled again, more insistently this time, and a few green flames licked the inner walls of the fire place. Snape approached apprehensively with furrowed brows. The green light flickered uncertainly until it gained strength and started to glow more confidently. Snape raised his eyebrows as he waited for the floo to open up completely and let the person calling appear. It must be a powerful wizard, or witch, flooing who was able to stabilise the atmospheric disturbances, and desperate enough to make an attempt at this hour, in this tempestuous weather.
Finally, a head appeared in the fire, and when Snape realised who it was, he turned pale. In the middle of the green flames, Bill Weasley’s handsomely scarred and slightly wolfish features appeared.