Title: The Winning Move
Category: Five (41- to 50-years-old and beyond)
Pairings & Characters: Severus Snape/Luna Lovegood, Severus Snape/Harry Potter, and Severus Snape/Lily Evans; Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore
Beta Readers: jin_fenghuang and eeyore9990
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Canon character death.
Word Count: 2380
Author's Note: Thanks to eeyore9990 for technical help with the poker game, to ragdoll for her help with the Tarot, and to r_grayjoy for all her help with the last-minute fidgets and edits!
Summary: Five ways Severus's 50th birthday could have happened, and one way it did happen.
Nargle is not a word. Luna looks like Lily did when she was younger, as she sits with her knees drawn up to her chest, her body pulled into a compact bundle as she looks at the board.
Sometimes, she looks at Severus. That's when she stretches out, and her pale hair falls loose over her shoulders, and her lips are parted as if she's about to speak. She never says anything unless it's a gentle correction – nargle is a word, she says. Lonely is not.
It's a ridiculous assertion, but Severus doesn't contradict her.
She showed up on his doorstop with a dictionary and a Scrabble board – she knows the English language as well as he does, and plays this game as well as he does or better. She's Ravenclaw to the core.
When she speaks, she touches him. She puts a finger on his lips to keep him quiet. Her wrist brushes against his as she points at the board. Her lips press against his skin with butterfly-like kisses, gone as soon as they're there.
It's enough to drive him crazy – flicker-touches, soft and fleeting, nothing that ever stays. She's young, the age his daughter might have been if he and Lily–
Nothing ever stays, but Luna has returned, coming back to his cottage again and again. She smells like apples and the fresh-fallen snow in the orchard, and Severus can almost believe that she's been rolling in it, that she charmed the trees to bear fruit out of season and ate them in a snowdrift. When he asks her about it, she frowns and tells him that such magic would kill the trees.
When she speaks of death, her eyes tell the story. They are shadowed, as Severus hasn't seen them since his year as Headmaster, since her stay in the dungeons.
Apples in winter, indeed.
She plays Scrabble with him while they wait for the clock to tick over the hours – the long games make midnight seem close. Syzygy is not a word, he tells her when she puts it on a triple word score. The points from that are more than enough to hurt his lead, even though she's used a blank tile.
It is, and she pulls out her dictionary to prove it. Any two related things, alike or opposite, she says, and he follows the line of her finger as she traces the words, running through the lines of the dictionary from sympathy to Szechwan, a long trail that loops back and reaches her goal in the end.
Severus concedes the point, and she smiles at him.
When the clock chimes midnight, he's fifty, and she kisses him, stealing the first breath of this year from his lips.
Harry cheats at cards only because Severus does, he says with a quirk of his lips. He has to even the score, or at least that's his excuse.
The score hasn't been even since the first life debt was brought into play, but Harry always dismisses those debts as if they don't matter.
Shuffling the cards, he asks if hearts can be wild.
Severus knows better than that and tells him to deal – five card stud, the way they always play.
Harry snickers into his glass of whiskey, and Severus swipes it before he can spill any. It's smooth and smoky, as golden as the sunlight it's been distilled from, and Severus has been saving it for this occasion. A year worth living is a year worth celebrating.
Harry deals the first cards while Severus drinks, the flavor lingering after he swallows. It's more than he once thought he'd have, Harry sitting opposite him and twining their legs together under the table.
He's barefoot already, working his cold toes under Severus's robes and pressing them against his skin. Severus makes no move to pull away, but he gestures impatiently for Harry to look at his cards.
Harry is the one who wanted to play this game, after all.
There's nothing in Severus's hand, but Harry folds as soon as he turns up his cards. He shimmies out of his shirt and leans forward to give Severus the agreed-upon kiss.
Harry only cheats when the stakes are high, or when he's particularly interested in them. Severus has seen him play and win at poker – game nights at the Burrow, where he cheats only when the twins are involved. He has enough magic in his smallest finger to switch his cards to a winning hand, if he wants to. There aren't many games that Harry loses when he has a mind to win.
When Harry is perched on the table, then, as naked as the day he was born, giving Severus the last kiss he won, Severus has no doubt at all that Harry intended to lose. He smirks and, standing so fast the whiskey goes to his head, carries Harry upstairs.
Harry, impish, asks him if he's sure – if he isn't too old for this now, an old man, already fifty.
Severus isn't feeling his age. To the victor go the spoils, he tells Harry, and there's no argument about that.
Lily's working her way down the third street when Severus has a double run. He pegs his way down the rest of the street, and she groans.
She tells him that he doesn't need to win, not every time, and he tells her that it's his birthday. He'll win if he wants to.
Of course, she says, humoring him. She kisses him. She's beautiful, even with the wrinkles that the years have given her. She is still the girl he knew at Hogwarts – the only one who spoke to him, the one he insulted, the one who accepted his apology. He remembers the day when the winter sunlight was pale and strained as though it was filtered through thick layers of water, as though it was not enough to cover the whole world, much less one more groveling boy.
He is the man he had become that day, the coward who apologized for his beliefs. Now, he pays for them every day, he lives a life of penance and his spine is caught up with knots like the beads on a rosary – twisted, he can no longer stand straight, and he aches when he moves.
They start another game. They drink whiskey and play cribbage until midnight, and Lily leans across the table to give him one last kiss as forfeit. Like the last one, it burns, hot but bittersweet.
It has none of the triumph of the kiss that she gave him, the day he apologized.
She heads up to their bedroom and Severus watches her on the stairs – the straight line of her back, the arch of her foot on each step. She goes up slowly, stopping and looking back at him.
She calls down and tells him not to stay up too late, but Severus pours himself another whiskey, knowing that she's waiting for him, that she's worried about the troubles that can come to an unwary wizard in the night. He sits there alone, drinking it and savoring the smoky taste.
He's fifty – he may be old, but he's not stupid. He knows that this is not the only life he could have lived. He'd had other options, once. He could have had fame and power – he could have had more than this life where he's afraid to leave his own house.
This is not the life he thought he wanted, but he is now the man he made himself. He's living in the shadows with a Mudblood wife, drinking whiskey to chase away the taste of her kisses and then following her footsteps up the dark stairs, following her as he always does and falling into bed with her.
Severus's bishop is lost – it's pinned and unable to move, and he won't be able to defend it before Albus brings a knight in to attack it. Without that bishop, he has no hope of winning the game. He spreads his hands, stretching his fingers and feeling the ache in joints swollen from five decades of brewing potions.
His hands are not as bad as Albus's, which is still scarred with the curse that eats away at his veins. Nothing has been able to save his left hand.
The progression of the flesh is from life to char to nothing – neither ashes nor dust remain after the curse.
When he was young and foolish, Severus had sworn that potions could cure any ill, could remedy any sin. Now, all he can do is slow the rot and poison – he cannot stop the degeneration of the flesh, he cannot reverse it.
Albus advises him to indulge in a sleeping potion and Severus nods, though he has no intention of leaving himself defenseless. The aches that come from sleeping stiff are nothing next to the alternatives.
Potter is sleeping in the dungeons, the only place that's safe for him. Severus has not asked him to put up silencing wards to muffle the sound of his nightmares, but even on the nights when Potter remembers to put them up, Severus knows that he's sleeping uneasily. A stone wall is the only thing that separates them – there's nothing more than that, and that is not enough.
At least Severus will not be the only one troubled by nightmares tonight.
He tips his king and nods to Albus. When he leaves, his teacup is sitting there by the board, still untouched. Albus's present to him was a potion in his tea – a mild truth serum, if the scent of vervain in the fumes signifies anything.
It is a pretty present. Albus does not trust Severus. Those who walk the edge between light and dark are never free of temptation. That is what Albus believes, and Severus will not gainsay him. Actions say more than mere words.
Severus hesitates between the teapot and the whiskey bottle and in the end, chooses both. It's his birthday, after all.
He's always played games on his birthday – there were the lonely birthdays when he was young, when his mum taught him how to lay out rows of cards and left him to play solitaire while she was busy around the house. There were the years of birthdays that he'd spent in the dungeons at Hogwarts, playing his part in the war as a double agent, locked behind wards that no-one could break.
He hadn't wanted anyone to acknowledge his birthday, and now that Albus is gone, no-one is willing or offering to do it.
Severus has been left alone since the end of the war. He aches with the cold of a harsh January – after all the time he spent in the dungeons, it's small wonder that the cold has soaked into his flesh and bones. He rubs his hands together to warm them before shuffling the cards.
When his mother watched over him when he played solitaire, he'd made stories out of the game: the king and the queen reunited, the knave plotting the king's downfall. Hearts united to defend against the attack of the spades – and later, when he was older, the stories had come from the deck of the tarot cards that Trelawney tried to force on him at every opportunity.
Her fortune-telling meant nothing. The lessons that Severus had learned at his mother's knee were the lessons that held true.
Strength meant that Potter would live another year – the ruined tower spelled the downfall of the Dark Lord. He saw his future, once, but now he does not care to look. These are only cards, flimsy pieces of Muggle paper, and there is no magic in them, no way to tell his fortune for the upcoming year.
Now, the cards tell only stories, and so he sets them out and drinks the tea to warm his bones.
Ace to the top – like Potter, the trump card that Albus had reserved for the fight against Voldemort and always protected and revered – the lesser cards still linger in the rows below, not worthy of being promoted. Severus finds his fingers still stiff with the cold and he hesitates before going through the deck. He doesn't know how the story will unfold this year, after everything is done.
Closing his eyes, he drops the stories and goes through the deck – each card is examined in its turn and placed with its fellows or left behind in the deck as need dictates. He has decades of practice with Occlumency, and it is a simple matter to close away the stories of the cards and lock them away in his mind. At the end of things, the stories will not matter.
The whiskey will warm him and carry him to his bed, forgetful at last. He's earned this bit of indulgence.
Severus is bound to the Shack and to Hogwarts – he hadn't known that his vow was fulfilled, hadn't known that Lily's son would be safe, and so he lingers on. He would be fifty today, if he had lived.
He's bound here but he hears the gossip from the castle ghosts, from the portraits, from the professors still willing to speak to him. Minerva gave him a pretty apology – the only birthday present he'll have now, it seems.
Severus stops in the middle of the Shrieking Shack, in one of the rooms he has haunted. Bound here, he has avoided the room where he was killed, but now he approaches it, coming closer to the place where his spirit left his body.
Potter is well – married and happy, from the sound of the stories that reach Severus's ears. He fought until Severus's portrait was hung in the Headmaster's office; he's a successful Auror and the father of three children. He celebrates his thirtieth birthday this year.
Nagini is gone, and Voldemort as well. Severus's promise has been fulfilled at last – he's watched over Lily's boy and saved him and seen him grown and happy, and that's enough to discharge his duty. It's over now – he knows it, he feels it with a deep certainty – and he comes close at last to the place where he died, and sinks into the soil where his bones fell.