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The Syntax of Things

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He was supposed to meet Slughorn tonight, like he had done yesterday night and the night before that. Slughorn would offer him a glass of something, and they would sit by the fire and chat about things that either bored Harry or annoyed him. Once again, Harry found himself spending Christmas in the freezing grounds of Hogwarts – this time without his friends to keep him company. Slughorn was more than willing to invite him over, and Harry was beginning to think that the man was rather lonely to prefer the castle and Harry’s company to proper holidays. 

Slughorn never admitted how fond he was of pureblood wizards, but his insistence to associate with them betrayed his true interests. And no matter how much Harry was trying to reel their small talk to Voldemort, he couldn't.

Buttoning up his shirt, he descended from the Gryffindor tower and followed his own steps away. He had to bear it, if he wanted Slughorn to trust him enough. It felt like duty - he wasn't going to disappoint Dumbledore. 

The night was cold, and Hermione wasn’t here, and Ron wasn’t going to be here ever again.

Not in the way he wanted him to. Not in the way he ought to. And after all these years of knowing each other, he was surprised to feel nothing but a dim acknowledgement of the fact that nothing was going to be the same from now on.

He tried to care. He couldn’t. If only he could, just for one night, to stop cultivating this ball of messy worries inside his stomach, if he could leave aside Voldemort, prophecies, tasks, he would be just fine. Absolutely happy.

Just for a night. 

The feeling was too familiar to let go. He tried not to care. He couldn’t do that either. The way everything tunnelled into him made his soul feel small. 

It was already Christmas.

When he found himself outside a door that wasn’t Slughorn’s, he didn’t care. He knocked.


Severus preferred his decorations kept to a minimum.

As he opened the wine bottle, he decided to drink to Potter’s unprecedented prudence. Days had passed and he hadn’t even heard Potter’s name. Not a single mention of it.

Not from Dumbledore, not from Minerva, and thank Merlin, not from Poppy. God save the Boy Who Lived from sliding off his broomstick again. Now, that would be a suitable death. The History textbooks would have a nice version of it someday.

 

To Dumbledore too, then. For giving him the Defence position and forbidding him to teach anything but what the Ministry allowed. For keeping an eye on him as though he’d suddenly cast the Avada Kedavra on his own students. For saying nothing about the Horcruxes but insisting on learning everything about Draco’s motives.

But he trusted Severus.

Of course he trusted him.

The glass filled and emptied. It's holidays, it doesn't count. Christmas was a hateful word. Another feast for the fools, for families to gather together and laugh and giggle while they hate each other, for children to whine and let their snot run down their faces because they wanted something they could not have. And they always wanted something they could not have.

Stupid, childish Christmas wishes; all of them impossible. Ludicrous to the very end. Like a puppy that would never die, or a doll with voice and thoughts, or a father that would not send his wife to hospital on Christmas’ eve.

Stupid wishes. 

He was suddenly annoyed by his own displeasure. The throbbing of his thoughts deepened, so loud that... it wasn’t a throbbing. Someone was knocking.

He could only hope that it was a Slytherin. Then he was reminded that the few Slytherins that had stayed for the holidays had most likely no desire to seek their Head of House tonight. And if it wasn’t a Slytherin, there was only one other possibility.

“Potter.”

“Um. Hullo?”

For the life of his, he couldn’t imagine why Harry Potter would visit him on Christmas.

“What do you want?” 

“Um. Are you busy?”

It was not the proper time to judge whether busy was the fitting word for someone who had happily decided to sink himself into self-loathing and life-cursing dilemmas. Constructive it wasn’t, but it cleared a mind from wit and common sense, leaving the pure anger lurking inside to take control.

An anger he would swear that was right there a moment ago.

“Yes. What do you want?”

“I had an appointment with Professor Slughorn.”

“And?”

“May I come in?”

He slightly stepped aside, determined to not directly answer Potter’s request if he could help it.

Accepting an invasion was one thing. Offering an invitation was another. A few days of silence. This was all Potter could do.

Severus watched as the boy took a seat without being told to. Severus sat on the other end of the sofa, refilling his glass. He was vaguely reminded of some subconscious warning about alcohol around the boy, but right now, he couldn't care less.

“Well?"

“What?”

Was Potter trying to drive him mad? “I am waiting to hear why you're here."

“Um. Well. I thought of coming here because I didn’t want to spend Christmas with professor Slughorn, actually. To be honest, I didn’t think of it exactly, I was just pissed off about having to, I guess, and then it just happened. I reckon I decided it somewhere if the middle of walking and I didn’t even know it until it was already done. So I just knocked and hoped you weren’t sleeping or working or something. Why? Is that wine?”

He didn’t want. To spend Christmas. With Slughorn.

Severus laughed. Hard. Inwardly. He hadn’t the faintest idea what was happening outwardly, and he wouldn’t care to stop it even if the Dark Lord himself entered the room and split Potter in evenly cut pieces.

So Potter wanted to spend Christmas with him.

He became aware of the mental wards around his safe universe beginning to crack, and that he was snorting. How to fix this? He stopped.

“You have an appointment. Go where you’re expected.” He was about to stand up, but his reflexes weren’t as good. Or his balance. Something was holding him back. He realised it was Potter’s hand. On him. On his arm.

Freezing on spot had never occurred to him that strongly. “What are you doing?”

“I won't stay long, I just came to say Merry Christmas and I'll leave. He doesn’t expect me yet.”

Severus swallowed what seemed to be a stone resting on his throat. “When does he expect you?”

A pause. “At ten.”

He could just as well write I’m lying on his forehead.

It would be a disgrace to his whole life as a double agent to pretend he had bought this. And it would serve Potter right to throw a tantrum at him and kick him out for daring seek his company after all the bitterness and the vice he had forced upon the boy.

For having not let go of his arm even after what seemed a whole minute to hell.

For still hoping to sedu–

Stop.

This wasn’t happening.

"So. Can I stay?"

He thought carefully. “Twenty minutes. Until ten.” Twenty minutes? Oh my. How rigorous I am. I might cry.

Potter grinned. And eventually took his damned hand away. “Cool. So, do you have any books here?”

Habits die hard, this everyone knew.

Severus couldn’t recall when this one began.


An hour passed. And then another one. By the third one, Potter was yawning.

The book on his lap was finally something that looked like he could actually read, and not just pretend to. The regular turning of the pages irritated Severus to no end; his gaze lost into the gleaming hearth, he repeatedly failed to summon the hate he was planning to compose tonight.

It took concentration for one to lose himself into the past. Concentration and abandonment impossible to relish in the presence of others. He snorted at his drink.

Frustrated for failing to be frustrated. The things Potter could cause.

“Can I have some?” Potter eyed the bottle, now half empty. No, not half empty. Half full. 

“Absolutely not.”

“Slughorn gives me.”

Severus couldn’t believe that Potter had the cheek to mention Horace again. Would it hurt him that much to help Severus save some of his dignity? Was it that hard for him to just mind?

It was provocation. It was a plan to destroy him - a brilliant, cunning plan to bare him from everything that he was. Potter had lied to him so he could stay. Then he stayed far more than he promised to, and now he didn’t even resist reminding him so.

“Then by all means, go to Slughorn.” That had to be Professor Slughorn. Well. Pity. Next time, maybe.

“Nah.”

Taking the bottle, Potter tried a sip. As soon as he swallowed, an impressive cough struck him, and he bent forward as his face turned red.

“Slughorn gives you,” Severus muttered, snatching the bottle from Potter’s hand. He then sneered off his new depravation. Drinking with a student who couldn’t handle a sip of wine. And not just any student.

“He does,” Potter protested, shrugging off his embarrassment. Then he looked up in curiosity. “What’s your Patronus?”

Why did he care? Severus returned the look, guarded against something he was failing to define. Potter slid a bit lower on the cushions.

“A bat,” he lied.

And Potter grinned. “I knew it.”

He knew nothing, or, he should know nothing. Or maybe he already knew too much. Disgustingly sleepy as he was, Potter fell in the mood of asking questions. He furrowed his brows and made a move of approaching the bottle again.

Slapping his hand was a good idea. Only it would contain physical contact. Which was a bad idea. He let Potter take the bottle and sighed off his surrender. This time, he managed not to choke himself.

As much as Severus wanted to put his feet on the table and stretch out, he pulled himself together. Apparently, he couldn’t be himself even in his own chambers anymore.

“What memory could bring up a bat? Or is it just your favourite animal?”

Nosy, insufferable child. “Favourite animal.”

“Hm. My favourite is owls. I hate dogs, though.”

Severus was aware that there was some memory that he should connect this to, but wasn’t sure. 

“I hate dogs too,” he spat. And am very glad they passed away.

Why was his glass empty? And why was Potter filling it for him? He drank.

“I told my friends,” Potter said. He told his friends about dogs? “I lost them.”

Realisation hit in. Oh. He had come out. Severus was almost impressed. “Define lost them.”

“Ron wanted to kill me. He said I was a trickster.”

“He was wrong.”

“I was going out with his sister.”

“Then he was right.” So that was how the black eye had occurred. Potter had managed to turn his world upside down once again. And who was picking up the ruins?

“I know.”

Was his friend who had hit him or Ginevra Weasley? “Is this the whole version of the events?”

Potter hid his smile behind the upturned bottle. After a moment, “No.” It was the I’m not going to tell you kind of no. Severus was quite glad about it.

The bottle hit Severus on the ribs as Potter yawned and stretched out. Severus took it, and watched as, with an unprecedented dumb look across his face, Potter put his feet on the table. 


“I think I need the lessons again,” Potter said. Unfortunately, all Severus could hear was I’m officially homosexual now. I need a good spanking, Professor!

Choking on his drink, Severus gulped forcefully. “Discuss it with the Headmaster, then.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I’ve heard that you're particularly fond of opening your heart to him lately. I believe he’ll assist you.”

“What does that mean?”

Yes, what does it? If it wasn’t for Dumbledore's absolute need of him, Severus would have gone through the Board of Governors for child enticement the second he let Potter into his bedroom. Considering his dubious past and the strained Ministry record, he would probably already be in Azkaban by now.

Then again, “If you wanted our lessons to continue you should have held your tongue. Apparently that is one of the many things you have yet to accomplish.”

"What are you talking about?" Potter frowned. 

"I told you, Potter, I warned you, I would be blamed for your stupidity should word of what you did ever come out. Come to think of it, perhaps that was your agenda all along."

“Wait. What? You think I told Dumbledore? I didn’t. I didn't tell anyone.”

“Really? Please, do fascinate me, then. I can’t wait to hear your subversive excuse of how you didn’t tell him.”

“But I didn’t."

"The very first day we came back."

Potter stared. "I didn't tell him anything. He tested my improvement, you know, Occlumency. He cast Legilimency on me so he could see how I resist. He saw that time I fell asleep on your bed, not – you know. He didn’t see anything else. I told him it wasn’t your fault. I didn't say anything.”

He was fascinated. Dazzled. Humiliated. Livid with submission to his one true master, and at the same time still respective enough as to not light his office on fire and vanish. Fuck it. He’d burn the entire castle someday.

He raised his glass. To Dumbledore’s maliciously wickedness. To Potter’s outstanding demonstration of maturity. To himself, who had divulged his newest sins to Dumbledore, completely unaware of his own stupidity.

It was Severus who had told him. Potter hadn’t talked. He felt betrayed. Thwarted.

Potter hadn’t talked.

He felt happy. There was one foolish thing in the world that Potter hadn’t done. It was a start.

“It was Malfoy who cursed that girl, wasn't he?”

He raised an eyebrow and Potter sneered. Damned boy.

“Of course not.”

Severus watched as the arrogance faded to hesitation. “I followed you… After Slughorn’s party last week.”

A dilemma: Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee? The answer was always in between. Alcohol. “Go on,” he said carefully. He would have snorted at his own terror, but it’d cause trouble. More trouble.

“I heard you. Why does he think you’re trying to steal his glory?”

He had to silently applaud Potter for his arrogance. Eavesdropping, and then demanding to know the details he failed to catch. “Is this why you came here tonight?”

The rush of emotions that ran over Potter’s face nearly had Severus roll his eyes. He found himself too stunned at the realisation that the only reason the boy was here was to extend the nature of the little dark secret that was born last summer under the most bizarre of circumstances.

In your own house. So you can have another unthinkable bad experience in Spinner’s End, this time with a Potter.

“No. But I want to know. And don’t tell me it’s not my business because somehow it obviously is.”

Some part of Severus’ mind insisted that he should inform Dumbledore immediately that Potter once again was aware of things he shouldn’t. It can wait, the traitorous part of his mind argued, and he decided to be lured by that. The boy looked at him as though there was a conversation going on. There wasn’t.

“Change the subject, or leave. And if you ever stick your nose again where it doesn’t belong I’ll Obliviate myself out of your little brain once and for all.”

At last. Fear. How satisfying it was to watch that face suffer. He resolved not to speak until Potter was entirely panicked, but the moment never came.

“You can’t blackmail me with that.”

Severus sneered. Watch me.

Potter glared. “I’ll only change the subject because I want to.” 

The word “child” echoed so loudly in Severus’ head that the distinct impression that life loved to torture him became suddenly his only realm.

"But just so you know. You can't just drag Malfoy out of a party like that and expect people not to have questions."

"I quite understand your inability to judge -"

"I know. I was just curious, because of what you said."

"What did I say?"

"That you're his Head of House and you shall decide how hard, or otherwise, to be. So I wanted to see. How hard you'd be." Potter looked at him steadily, even while blushing.  

For fuck's sake. Severus banged his glass on the table with all his might. "Say anything like this again, and I mean anything," he hissed, "show lack of respect one more time, and I'll personally see that you get expelled. Then you'll see how hard I can be."

"'Kay."

Potter leaned back and rested his head on the cushions again. Silently damning himself, Severus rested his head back too and sighed, looking at the ceiling. May Dumbledore rot in hell. May he rot entangled with the Dark Lord’s limbs above a fuming, burning cauldron. One that'd be under Longbottom’s constant supervision.

Severus’ eye was twitching. He rolled his head. Potter was staring at him. His eyes were beaming, searching too deep for something that wasn’t a thought or a memory.

Potter was a problem, one of those that no matter how hard one ignores, they keep growing until they become the elephant in the room, and even then they demand to be fed and grow more. Suddenly, being sacked wasn’t his most frightening nightmare regarding Potter.

Potter’s stare wasn’t intense. It wasn’t challenging or contesting, or made to provoke him. What it was, was a close to sleep state of "I can barely focus but damn, look at you" and yet aware of every quick flickering of Severus’ own eyes.

It went on for a moment. Two.

“What?” Severus croaked.

“Didn’t it mean anything to you?”

Severus rolled his head back to watch the ceiling. The memory of the accident he refused to name kissing called to mind and he dismissed it. It had become an all too common occurrence to find himself terror stricken whenever he’d be reminded of it. The boy’s total disregard at his attempts to wipe it off their history would never cease to leave him speechless. He considered it.

Mean anything. Of course not.

What could it mean?

“No, Potter. Nothing.”

Potter chuckled. Severus sighed.

Wait.

Chuckled?

Potter didn’t believe him.

Fool Severus.