Title: Angels and Ministers of Grace
Character(s): Severus Snape, Harry Potter
Warnings: spoilers for DH
Author's Notes: Thanks to the mods for running such a great fest, A for the helpful beta, and my recipient for the inspiring prompt!
Potter and his band of ministering angels make the rounds every day. They bring the cold in with them – it comes in with the swirling hems of their cloaks, is borne on wind-chapped cheeks and cracked lips, the harsh puffs of their breath in the sterile air and tight curls of their fingers. They bring the cold in with them, and Severus turns them away.
Potter comes to Severus at last, after he has made his rounds – his angels fall back behind him, the timid chorus not daring to approach. They hang back by the door, and they speak in low voices as though Severus were dead.
The golden afternoon hours, the slow progression of shadows across the starched white linens, the pace of the day measured by the tolling bells from the church down the street – these are all brushed aside, and Potter keeps the time. His visit divides the day, a stark and immutable line bisecting the afternoon.
Severus does not wait for his visit. He does not curse Potter's absence, the long and heavy hours that lie with him in his stark bed, and he does not dread the moment when Potter swings his long legs out of his chair to make his gangly, awkward way to the door.
Potter has been reborn as a man, has died and come back with all the solemnity and triumph that is his due, but he walks still with the awkward, coltish stride of a man in an adolescent's body. His arms are too long and his feet are barriers to his grace.
Severus turns him and all of his angels away. He is still, his gaze fixed on the ceiling and his arms folded across his chest, and when Potter has left, he does not move.
There are no ends to the days in the hospital ward. Like candles, they burn themselves out to sputtering ends, the pale mist of twilight wrapped around the white walls and the shrouded windows. The sputtering, dying flame is never allowed to extinguish itself – guiding hands transfer the flame to a new candle, guarding the wick until the flicker is preserved. Nurses rattle along the corridors at all hours, their feet keeping the same steady pace during the night as during the day. They light the wall torches, they wear white and they fluff pillows, smoothing cool hands over fevered, restless brows. Severus does not want to be ministered to.
He closes his eyes when the nurses approach and waits until the echoes of their footsteps have died away before he relents, opening his eyes to stare again into the void. The dim light from the wall torches, the single beam of moonlight from the window, it is not enough light. Severus lies awake and stares up into the darkness, straining his eyes to see the ceiling.
The hum of activity dies when the rose-pink hue of dawn penetrates the darkness, lighting the ceiling and lending Severus a focus. The cracks in the ceiling form a strange geography – rivers, mountain ranges, his only map. His fingers itch to feel it, to trace the contours of strange countries and absorb the customs of strange lands. He rubs the starched sheet between two fingers – he has nothing more to touch.
Before the day nurses return, before the light is enough to permit anyone to see him, Severus lets his elbow bend. It moves by slow, gradual degrees, the light of false dawn creeping into the room as his hand moves up his chest. Before the light of day is realized, Severus brings his fingers to his throat and traces the round scars left there.
His skin is not smooth.
Reversing the process, he lets his arm swing back down, inch after slow inch, to rest by his side. He twitches the sheets straight until they lay, flat and unperturbed, around him. No hints of his exploration remain when the day nurses begin to bustle around the ward, bringing with them the smell of coffee and overdone eggs. Smart white shoes snap a steady rhythm on white tile floors, starched white robes rustle as the nurses move – order, routine, precision, it's meant to be a comfort.
Severus wrinkles the sheets, gripping the fabric between his fingers. The smooth plane is disturbed, a series of furrows taking its place. Irregular, disorderly – Severus smoothes the sheet again, stroking it until it is flat.
The snap of the nurses' heels, the slow fading of the sickly blooms, the changing smells of meals, none of these mark time the way that Potter's visits do. The clouds dim the sun when Potter enters the room, and Severus is left blinking. His eyes water.
Potter stands at his bedside, looking down at him. The angels of mercy cluster by the door, Potter's unholy trio turned pale and reluctant. After the monsters they have faced and defeated, they do not approach Snape in his sickbed – they do not dare. He takes no cheer from the fact, only pulls the sheets closer around him.
"Are you cold?" Fluffing his pillow, Potter straightens the sheets and opens a few cabinets in search of an extra blanket. Severus turns his head away and does not speak.
That afternoon, Potter leaves without his usual martyrdom, without his cloying offers of pity and support. He does not lean closer to Severus or put a hand on his shoulder to offer false claims of understanding. He does not promise to return or vow to set things right.
Severus has always been a difficult patient, and he has not changed. Potter has always been difficult.
There is nothing to it, at the end of the day. Severus closes his eyes and he sees Lily, half-ghostly in the darkness. She does not speak, nor does she approach him, and the breeze of the hospital ward, the half-felt draft from the nurses tapping their way down the long corridor, passes through her.
Her eyes shine in the darkness – they are easy to picture. Severus has seen them shining out of Harry's face in this same room, on this same day. She does not flinch as Severus looks at her, and there is nothing of blame or sorrow in her eyes.
Like any vision, she fades away before the sun.
Severus has other visitors, though none as regular as Potter. Minerva pushes her thin wire spectacles up on her nose and tells him that "Albus would have wanted –" and Slughorn, with his jostling belly and loud laugh, says, "Always knew you would do it, my boy." Hagrid, whose loud, thumping stride down the corridor precedes his visit, keeps silence for Severus and only rustles through his pockets as he spreads loose change and small rodents' corpses and twine and Gobstones out on the bedside table before unearthing a crumpled packet of biscuits.
Severus refuses them all without a word. He does not need Minerva's concern or Slughorn's false pride or Hagrid's silent sympathy – he closes his eyes and ignores their visits. They have never mattered.
One life, a flame to his moth, a glove to his rough hand, is all that has ever mattered to him, and her son is safe. Severus uses Harry's visits to mark his days, to divide the morning and the afternoon hours, and to remember.
He had seen Potter in that one instant, as he'd never seen him before and has never seen him since – one breath, one shared moment, a vial of shared memories, and one touch, fingers against fingers. The vial had been cold in Severus's hand.
Potter had warm fingers – warm hands, warm heart – but he does not touch Severus now. He perches like a long-limbed bird next to Severus's bed, and his fingers leave prints on the bed's cold rails. Severus will trace them after Potter has left, will learn the shape of his hands and the swirls and whorls of his fingerprints. These are the things that he will mark in his memory, the tangible imprints of Potter's presence – the shape of his hands, the length of his fingers, and the pattern of his fingerprints, formed when he was carried in Lily's womb.
When Severus goes to an unmarked grave, none will carry such memories of him. He pulls his arms up to fold them across his chest.
Potter babbles, but his words are bright and insignificant. Everything that can be shared between them was caught in a small glass vial, taken from Severus's mind and brought through Potter's thick skull through some sheer miracle. He speaks, and Severus does not listen. His sentences are fragments that will haunt the surface of Severus's dreams, slipping past his wearied mind when he can no longer pinch himself awake, when the shadows and the murmurs of the almost-silent ward lull him into a doze.
"The bravest man I've ever known," Potter says, his hands sweat-slick on the bed rail. It squeaks when he leans on it, bed shaking under his weight. "Tribute and honor … you deserve more than this … your sacrifices … I brought these for you."
There is nothing of Potter in these words – this is only guilt. Granger or one of his other lackeys wrote a pretty speech for him, Severus is sure. Potter's voice wavers as he speaks, and he fidgets with the bed rail when he pauses. There is a clunk, a heavy sound on the bedside table, but Severus does not turn to look.
There is no silence here – there is no true silence for Severus. He closes his eyes to Potter and listens to him slip away, the soles of his shoes whispering softly on the tiles. Words are empty enough now, and Potter will do more with his life than his mother ever dreamed.
Severus crumples the sheets in his hands, wrinkling them until the smooth planes are lost, and still the sound of Potter's footfalls echoes, and still the scent of lilies hangs in the room. The boy knows – the wretched boy, Potter who had been burden and bother to Severus for so many years – he knew, and he thought to taunt Severus with it. He'd left lilies by Severus's bedside, sweet-scented blooms open to the light that comes in through the blinds in the afternoons.
Lilies toil not, nor do they spin, and Lily was infinitely more beautiful than they are, pale and paltry and leaning askew in their vase. Potter and his entourage of ministering angels are gone. They'd smoothed the weary brows, given solace to the homesick, brought cheer and smile and sunshine where there had been grief and pain – they'd done their duty by the fallen soldiers of the war, and Potter had left this last token to feed Severus's anguish.
This is what his sacrifices have come to – flowers and words and the white walls of the ward, the nurses bustling in to smooth the sheets wrinkled by his fingers. This is what he has wrought.
The ward is bright with Christmas lights and heavy with the smell of stale cinnamon when Potter's visits change. He no longer comes with the regularity of clockwork, the stark black line that divides Severus's days – he still comes, but at sporadic intervals, and his face is flushed with the cold blustering of the wind and not with unvoiced guilt.
His angels no longer lurk in the doorway, intimidated by Severus's presence – they dart around the ward while Potter pays his token visit. Severus can hear them, their high voices rising over the low rumble of Potter's words. Like the angels that he has called them, they are ministering to the unfortunate souls trapped here below. He recognizes their voices from stuttered answers, furtive whispers – yes, they had been his students. He had instilled fear, brewed terror, and wrought devastation on their adolescent lives. Now they pity him, and will not come near.
Potter knows Severus's secrets, and has told them all. There is no thin veneer of dignity left to him in the wake of the bumbling boy's victory speeches. Flush with too much mead and the glow of the approving eyes, Potter had confessed it all to the crowds, to the reporters with their eager pens. Severus is well shut of the world now.
He turns his face from Potter.
There's a new offering on the bedside table, a poinsettia in a green plastic pot. The spiky leaves tremble in the breeze made by Potter's awkward movements – he rocks on his heels and he babbles, and Severus has not spoken to him yet.
There is nothing left to be said.
Potter leaves when the others call him, tripping over his own feet in his eagerness to be gone. He leaves the poinsettia – he reaches out to Severus, a hand hovering over his shoulder, but does not touch him.
Severus shifts in his bed. The starched sheets have become uncomfortable, after all these months – they no longer soothe fevered flesh, are no longer smooth against scars and aches. The bed is hard beneath him, uncomfortable. The bustle of Christmas is approaching.
The nurses have set wreaths on the walls, stiff plastic things turned gaudy with Gryffindor red bows, and there is a tree in the corridor – Severus can see it when he's wheeled out. It's a glittering monstrosity. Severus takes no part in the hospital celebrations.
The poison in his body is fading, for there is nothing left for it to attack. Nagini's last bite has lost all of its strength, and the coils of death will release Severus once again. He will be strong again by spring, and then he will be gone from here.
The wind will be frosting the windows at Spinner's End now, painting curious pictures with ice crystals and the first meager drifts of snow. The chair where Eileen had sat, rocking young Severus with fairy stories and his first lessons, it will be cold – abandoned as the house, waiting for Severus to return.
He has come from Spinner's End, and he will return to it – he will be as he once was, and the world will be none the wiser for it. There are secrets that Potter cannot spill.
Severus will not admit to owing Potter a debt. He's done enough – they have both done enough, and when Potter hovers over him, his shadow quivering over the poinsettia leaves, Severus only closes his eyes. Quick wits and quick work, a daring Gryffindor rescue, the knowledge to stop the poison in his heart and stop the blood pouring from his veins – all of that had come from Potter, yes.
The sacrifice had come from Severus – the will and magic and power needed to stop death. It had come from Severus, and it had been used, and now it is gone. Death cannot be stoppered – it can be stopped, delayed for a while, but it cannot be put off forever.
Severus will be dead to the world he had known, the world he had jealously guarded, the world that had been bright and precious because Lily had walked in it.
Severus had guarded the boy, had watched him, had led him like a lamb to the slaughter – after all of this, debts cannot be counted. "Don't you see?" Potter asks. He's standing at the window, tracing the first line of frost with a fingernail. It scrapes against the glass and sends shivers down Severus's spine.
"Don't you see that none of it would have happened without you? You needn't stay trapped here, you needn't return to Spinner's End and the Muggle world. You're a hero, Snape – everyone will welcome you with open arms if you return to teach at Hogwarts again … or open an apothecary. You can do anything you want."
Severus could not have denied Lily anything – he will deny her son everything. He closes his eyes and listens to Potter leaving the room and the slow, deliberate pace of his footfalls down the corridor.
The angels come with Potter on his last visit, approaching the bed with due fear and skittish tremors. Granger and Weasley, yes – Lovegood, Longbottom, Finnegan, Weasley, Weasley, Weasley, it reads like the roll call of Snape's nightmare classes. He glares, but they do not cower before him.
Granger darts close to him, smoothing the sheet over his chest. She comes too close to touching him, and Severus jerks away from her. "Are you sure this is wise, sir?" she asks. "So soon – you'll set back your recovery. The doctors don't think that you're ready to be moved yet, and to go back to Spinner's End alone …"
It is Potter who comes to Severus's rescue, pulling Granger away from him. It is Potter, in the end, who understands him. "Maybe Snape has to do this, Hermione."
If he squints his eyes, making their figures blur, lines and colors coming together into an almost-indecipherable mass – if he squints, he can see their halos. They are the heroes of this war, bedecked in fitting radiance, gleaming with their magic.
Potter is foremost among them, offering Snape the bedraggled poinsettia. The nurses have neglected to water it and it droops, limp leaves brushing against Potter's forearm. "Are you sure there isn't anything that we can do for you, sir?"
For all that has passed between them, for all that has been done and undone, said and unsaid – Severus raises his head and looks at Potter again. He sees Potter, as he has seen him once before, and he acknowledges him for the first time since the last battle. Their eyes meet.
Harry bends close to speak to Severus, his fingers clenched around the bedrail. He makes no attempt to close the distance between them, no move to touch Severus. "I …" he clears his throat and speaks in a low voice.
"I'm going to marry Ginny," he tells Severus. "I – If we have any sons, I'll name one of them after you… in tribute to everything that you've done."
It is more than Severus had expected – it is unnecessary, foolish, unthinkable. Lily's grandson will be named after him. He nods, dropping his gaze down to his lap, and does not look at Potter again.
Potter steps back as the nurse helps Severus from the bed to the wheeled chair. The poinsettia is still daggling from Potter's fingers, and the window has frosted over with a thick coat of spiky crystals. Spinner's End will be cold and abandoned, it will be waiting for Severus, and he will make the house into his home again.
The Muggle world is his only refuge – stripped of magic, left to life, Severus must leave Lily for the last time. He leaves the world she loved, the son she bore, the sacrifice she wrought, and Potter understands. He rests a hand on the arm of the chair before Severus is wheeled down to the entrance, before he is left to make his shaky way back to the world where he came from.
Severus looks back from the door – Potter and his angels are there waiting, ready to minister to the other wounded, to heal those who can be healed, to go out into the world that is bright and ready and waiting for them and their good works. Potter does not look at Severus – he is turned toward the future, and they have said their last goodbye, have made the last acknowledgement of all the things that have passed between them. Everything has passed between them.