marauderbigbang: (Default)
Title: Advanced Potion-Making
Author: fire_everything
Beta, cheerleader and all-around facilitator: brighty18
Artists: lilmisblack (banner), niccc (all other art)
Pairing: Snape/Lily
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Authorial presumption, profanity, magical dub-con, mild kink, possibly disturbing reproductive issues/procedures, angst, excessive length
Word Count: Um…shorter than Half-Blood Prince?
Summary: Nineteen-year-old Snape’s post-Hogwarts life is going surprisingly well. He has gainful employment, valued skills, a place of his own, a political affiliation, a mentor he admires, and hard-won freedom from several past relationships that tormented him. But he also has stubbornly lingering feelings for his estranged friend Lily Evans, an unquenchable hatred for her fiancé James Potter, and a continuing compulsion to tamper with and improve perfectly adequate potions recipes. When these three conditions come together one fateful day, Snape undertakes a potions experiment that will irrevocably change several people’s lives for better and worse.
Author’s Note: At one point while reading Deathly Hallows, I actually thought the book was going to end with the twist that serves as this story’s central plot point. When it didn’t, this corrective fic became necessary.
Special Note: Due to the unusual length and complexity of this fic, it will be posted in multiple parts. (Chapters 1-4 can be found here: http://community.livejournal.com/marauderbigbang/10805.html.) This post includes Chapter 5, "The Reversal." Subsequent chapters will be posted as they become ready, and will appear as new posts in your friends lists, so that readers who want to continue following the fic as it progresses will be automatically alerted to the appearance of new installments.
Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all characters, places, objects, ideas, and related material are the property of JK Rowling and her various publishing entities. Neither the author, the artists, nor the [personal profile] marauderbigbang are in any way making a monetary profit from this posting.



Chapter 5: The Reversal

When Snape returned to consciousness, he was lying on his back on what felt like a slab of stone. He felt strange: his mind was at peace, but the peace seemed artificial, imposed; somewhere underneath it, he knew there was something terribly, catastrophically wrong. Dragging himself back to the waking world, he forced himself to open his eyes.

When he saw the black stone wall beside him, it all came back instantly. He suddenly felt cold to his core, as if his blood itself had hardened into ice and could no longer circulate.

“Severus.” The cold feeling receded a little.

The voice was familiar to him, but something in the tone was odd. Snape turned his head and saw Albus Dumbledore sitting beside him. Solid black stone walls, devoid of any marking or decoration, surrounded them on all sides.

Snape sat up abruptly. As he did so, the wall behind Dumbledore shifted and shimmered; Snape could suddenly see into the empty space beyond, which seemed to be some sort of corridor. The next moment, however, the space was no longer empty; Snape saw the floating hem of a black robe flutter into view, and gasped. The coldness rolled back over him. But even as he watched, waiting for his fears to be confirmed, the space became a solid stone wall again. The room now felt even smaller than before, and Snape gasped again, as though the air in the room was being sucked away.

Though his back had been turned, Dumbledore seemed aware of what had happened too, for he rose to his feet, saying, “Excuse me for a moment.” He went to the wall and, as Snape watched, walked right through it.

Snape stared at the wall, and soon he could see through it to the corridor again. He got up and stumbled toward the open space, but as soon as he reached his fingers out to touch it, the wall became solid stone again. A moment later, Dumbledore walked effortlessly back through the wall, emerging right next to the place where Snape stood.

“I’m in Azkaban,” said Snape tonelessly.

“Yes,” said Dumbledore. His face was still and somber, and it occurred to Snape how unusual this was. Even in incongruous moments – times when Snape had been called into his office for some misdemeanor, for instance – the headmaster’s face was always mobile and often mischievous, the nimble play of his thoughts almost constantly visible in his expression. Now that face was nearly as stony as the walls around them.

“The wave of cold you felt washing over you just now was due to the presence of dementors nearby,” said Dumbledore, confirming what Snape had already guessed. “There are several of them on patrol here among the holding cells. I have already asked them to cease patrolling while we talk, and keep their distance, but dementors do not respond well to orders. I was forced to go out just now and cast the Patronus Charm to keep them away.”

Snape thought for a brief, hopeful moment of his own Patronus, the fiercely protective wolverine, then realized that of course he would never be able to summon it here. Half the point of this place was that one was completely powerless to ward off its evils. And of course his wand would have been confiscated upon his arrest, although he did not remember the Aurors saying anything about it. Snape felt for it anyway. As he confirmed its absence, he wondered with a chill whether it had already been destroyed.

“Your wand, incidentally,” said Dumbledore, as if Snape had spoken this last thought aloud, “is being held by the Auror Office until your trial is over.”

Snape’s insides seized up with fear at the thought of being tried. “Will they destroy it then?” he asked, not wanting to know the answer.

“That will depend on the trial’s outcome,” said Dumbledore. “But let us sit down.” Snape looked back toward the thing he had been lying on when he awoke, and saw with surprise that it was dressed like a comfortable-looking bed, with a blanket folded down to reveal a sheet and pillow. But as he sat back down on it, the bedding vanished instantly; it became, just as it had been at first, a slab of cold, naked stone.

Next to the bed was a stool that also appeared to be made of stone; it was on this stool that Dumbledore had been sitting at first, and the headmaster now resumed his seat there. Snape wondered, however, if the hard-looking stool was in reality padded and comfortable – though for Dumbledore only, of course, not for him.

Snape turned to look at the wall behind Dumbledore. It was still shifting and changing every few seconds. Thankfully, there were no dementors visible on the other side of it now.

“The wall is always solid, isn’t it,” said Snape, not phrasing the words as a question. “For me, I mean,” he added, “not for you. I can see right through it sometimes, but it’s an illusion.”

“It is a spell, placed there for the purpose of driving inmates more quickly to insanity and despair,” said Dumbledore bluntly. “It presents the momentary illusion of freedom, of course, and then takes it away. I would advise your keeping your eyes away from it. In fact, let us change our places.”

He produced his wand and waved it, and without either of them having moved, Snape found that the Illusioned wall was now in back of of him. Dumbledore was now facing toward it instead, while Snape gazed past the headmaster at unchangingly solid black stone.

“Severus,” Dumbledore began in a grave voice, “I have been to see your mother in St. Mungo’s.”

Snape’s stomach suddenly felt as if he had just swallowed a Bludger whole. He could not bear to imagine what Eileen must be thinking and feeling right now. He hoped the doctors were giving her loads of sedative and Forgetfulness Potion.

“How is she?” he found the voice to ask.

“Her bones are entirely mended, but she is not at all well, as you might imagine,” said Dumbledore. “She told me everything that happened – or rather, since I wished to spare her the pain of retelling it, she consented to let me view her memory of this morning’s events.”

Snape was not entirely sure what Dumbledore meant when he spoke of viewing Eileen’s memory, but at that moment he was more concerned with a different matter.

“This morning’s events?” he said anxiously. “How long have I been here?” It felt like weeks, months, seasons.

“About half an hour,” said Dumbledore. Snape felt a wave of sickness wash over him.

It must have shown in his face, for Dumbledore reached into a sort of knapsack at his feet that Snape had not noticed before, and produced a large bar of chocolate.

“Have a piece,” he said. “It will help keep your strength up as we talk.” Snape unwrapped the chocolate, broke off a corner of it, and put it in his mouth, though he did not feel the least bit hungry. He wondered how he was to keep his strength up after they talked, but perhaps it was a moot point. Perhaps, in the future, he would cease to care about keeping his strength up.

“I know from your mother’s memory,” resumed Dumbledore, “exactly how you came to cast the Cruciatus Curse on your father. Everything he said and did, everything your mother said and did, everything that led up to that point, including your father’s debt and the night he spent in jail.”

Snape closed his eyes and felt himself sinking. Tobias had spent one night in jail, but he would be here for the rest of his life.

“Severus,” said Dumbledore, touching his arm suddenly, “it is not a foregone conclusion that you will be here for the rest of your life.” Again he seemed to know exactly what Snape had been thinking.

“The Unforgivable Curses each carry a mandatory life sentence in this place, yes,” continued the headmaster, “but there are several circumstances in your case which may soften that blow. Chief among these, of course, is your age. You are not yet a legal adult, and the Wizengamot will have to take that factor into consideration when they sentence you.”

The partial comfort that this idea brought to Snape was immediately dispelled by the word “sentence.”

“Is there any chance I won’t have to serve time here?” asked Snape, though he felt sure he already knew the answer.

“No, Severus, there is no chance of that,” said Dumbledore heavily. “You may escape a life sentence, but you will certainly do some time here. I am aware of no legal precedents that suggest anything else.”

“But I was provoked!” cried Snape, realizing too late that Tobias had used those exact words a year ago to justify attacking his wife and son. He cringed, waiting for Dumbledore to repeat what he had told Tobias last summer: it was his job to resist provocation.

But Dumbledore surprised him. “I know you were,” he said, in a voice closer to kindness than any he had yet used. “Your father harmed you physically and humiliated you—”

Snape suddenly realized that he was no longer in physical pain. He put his hand to his nose, which did not hurt; then he put a finger into his mouth to feel for damage there, but found none.

“Your nose, which was broken, has been mended,” confirmed Dumbledore, “and the three teeth that your father knocked out have been restored. You were given a mild sedative as well, of which you might have felt the effects upon waking several minutes ago. The Aurors called a mediwizard to follow you here after they saw the condition you were in. There ought to be a full-time medical staff on call in this place; heaven knows they need one. But even medical generosity and selflessness have their limits: no humane doctor could bear to work here all the time.”

Dumbledore paused, then continued where he had left off a few moments before. “Your father, as I was saying, harmed and humiliated you, and he injured your mother in a particularly cruel way, a way that was both petty and sadistic.

“His behavior to both of you was disgusting,” added Dumbledore with surprising vehemence, “and I well understand why you reacted as you did. I understand it better than you know, Severus. The Wizengamot, too, may view your situation with a certain degree of sympathy.

“But the Unforgivable Curses are called Unforgivable for a reason. The pain of the Cruciatus Curse is beyond what a human being can endure for more than a few seconds – worse even than the pain your father inflicted on you and your mother. I cannot fully excuse what you did.”

Snape abruptly ceased to believe that Dumbledore could read his mind, for if he could, he would never have said such a thing. “It was more than just today!” Snape cried. “It’s gone on for years and years! He hates us both, he’s always hated us. He hates us for being magical, but he turns round and punishes us because he can’t exploit our magic. He’s tried to kill us in every way he could without actually taking our lives.”

“I know,” said Dumbledore simply, surprising Snape again. “And yet I cannot come between you and your punishment. As I did last year” – Snape felt an unwilling twinge of guilt at this reminder of the headmaster’s previous intervention on his behalf —“I will do everything legitimately within my power to convince the rest of the Wizengamot, of which I am a member, that they should be as lenient as the law will allow, even though I am no longer your headmaster.”

The realization of what this last sentence meant tore into Snape’s heart like a blunt knife. Of course he could never go back to Hogwarts; he would have known this even without the Aurors saying so. But this comparatively minor punishment almost seemed to him a worse fate than a life sentence in Azkaban. Hogwarts was everything; without it, what kind of life could there be for him? He might escape eternity in Azkaban, but what good could that do him without Hogwarts? He would be a nonentity, an outcast, a person without family, community or credentials; his life would be a prison whose walls were invisible but real, much like the Illusioned wall of his cell. He closed his eyes and twisted his mouth in a desperate bid to keep from crying.

“I did warn you that your place at school might be in jeopardy, Severus,” he heard Dumbledore say. “I am sorry that you did not, or could not, heed that warning.” At the touch of severity in the headmaster’s voice, Snape looked up angrily, all thought of tears forgotten. It was not until many years later that it would occur to Snape that perhaps these words had been Dumbledore’s way of doing him a small favor.

“That is all I will say on that subject, however,” said Dumbledore in a different tone, “now or ever again. You are hardly in need of further punishment from me, and it is no longer my place to give it to you anyway.”

“What am I going to do now?” said Snape.

“Wait,” said Dumbledore simply. “Wait for your trial date to be decided upon, then wait for your trial. Do not think beyond that; it will be a good exercise for you. Your future in this place depends, above all else, on your ability to control your own thinking. To think, at the times when it can do you some good, and to cease thinking when it cannot. And perhaps most importantly of all,” he added, “to learn which times are which.” He reached again for the knapsack on the floor at his feet.

“Because you are not, at present, under sentence, the rules which govern you are somewhat less strict than for other prisoners,” said Dumbledore. “You are allowed, for instance, a few personal effects.”

He drew out a substantial role of parchment, a new quill and a large bottle of ink. “These are for when you wish to think,” he said, and laid each item in turn on Snape’s bed.

Dumbledore reached into the the bag again. “This,” he continued, “is for when you do not wish to think.” He pulled out a book and handed it to Snape. It was Quidditch through the Ages, by Kennilworthy Whisp.

“I hate Quidditch!” exclaimed Snape.

“Your mother told me as much,” said Dumbledore. “That is why I chose this particular book.”

“What do you mean?” asked Snape.

Dumbledore replied, “Remember, this book is not for thinking. It is for not thinking. In that endeavor, it will help you.”

“Is that the only book that’s in there?” Snape asked, looking toward the knapsack.

“Yes,” said Dumbledore. “I could have brought others; for instance, I could have brought the sixth-year textbooks for Defence Against the Dark Arts or Potions.” Snape looked up at him eagerly; he had already looked ahead in his mother’s old copies of those textbooks, and been excited at the thought of covering the material in them in class. Then he froze, realizing: he would never take those classes, never use those books. He turned away from Dumbledore, screwing up his face again.

“Do you understand now why I did not choose those books?” asked Dumbledore, and Snape nodded mutely.

“There is more for you here, Severus,” Dumbledore continued. He brought out another chocolate bar as large as the first.

“This is to help keep your strength up,” he said. “I would advise you to eat it sparingly, however. There is no telling how long it may take your case to come to trial, though I will do all I can to speed up the process. And this,” he said at last, “is for when you cannot bear thinking, but cannot keep yourself from doing so.” He withdrew a small bottle of purple liquid that Snape recognized immediately: Sleeping Potion.

“No doubt you already know this,” said Dumbledore, “but I will say it anyway: this stuff will take you to a place of dreamless sleep for the full length of a night. But you should use it only in conditions of the greatest need. You must do your best to train your mind to do without such crutches for the time to come. In any case, there is much less of it than there is of the chocolate.”

Snape stared at Dumbledore. He knew he should say thank you, but he found he could not honestly feel thankful for very much just then.

“There is no need to thank me, Severus,” said Dumbledore, just as if Snape had spoken, “but you are welcome anyway.”

Snape stared again, then thought of something else. “Can I have visitors?”

“You are permitted three short audiences with visitors per week until your case comes to trial,” said Dumbledore.

But Snape had been thinking, and now he shook his head. “On second thought, I don’t think my mother should come here,” said Snape. “It would upset her too much.” Although this was perfectly true, he also thought seeing his mother would upset him too much.

To add to his misery, he had just thought about Lily for the first time since casting the Cruciatus Curse. She would never visit him here, nor should she. He ought to be to her now as someone dead, and as that thought came over him, he wished that he was. He put his hand on the cover of Quidditch through the Ages; he could already see what Dumbledore meant about the value of not thinking.

“I will speak to your mother tomorrow and see how she is,” said Dumbledore. “If we both feel it is a good thing for her to come, she will do so. If we do not, I will come instead.”

Snape nodded, not knowing what to say.

“Severus, I must leave you soon,” said Dumbledore. “Visiting hours are very strictly limited here. Do you think that you have what you need to make it through the afternoon and night?”

“I don’t know,” said Snape.

“A wise answer,” said Dumbledore. “I do not know either, but you have a strong mind, and I think you will do as well as anyone could under the circumstances.” He stood up and walked toward the Illusioned wall, which was suddenly in front of him again.

“Good luck, Severus, and remember that tomorrow will follow tonight, here as everywhere else,” said the headmaster. Snape nodded, but he was already beginning to think that that, indeed, was part of his problem.

“Goodbye, Severus,” said Dumbledore, and vanished through the Illusioned wall. Snape sat staring at the place where he had disappeared, waiting for the wall to become transparent again; but by the time it did, Dumbledore had gone.

Almost immediately the dementors began patrolling again, judging by the waves of coldness that gripped Snape at regular but unpredictable intervals. In an attempt to keep warm, he got up and began pacing back and forth in the small cell.

The problem with this, as Snape soon discovered, was that every time he turned to face the Illusioned wall, it became transparent and showed him a dementor hovering right on the other side, as if it had stopped in its patrol in order to stare (if one could use that word about a creature with no eyes) directly at Snape. The first time this happened, he froze in horror, but the creature did not advance, only loomed there waiting. Eventually Snape remembered that there was a wall between him and it – but perhaps dementors could get through walls if they wanted to? Terrifying as it was, he saw no choice but to turn his back on the thing and keep pacing. He began closing his eyes before he turned toward the Illusioned wall, and found that it helped.

He paced until he was too tired to continue, then sat down on the stone slab and tried to read; but he had to stop and clench his whole body in self-protection every time one of those cold waves rolled over him. In between these moments, he read all about the history of Quidditch.

Soon Snape had come to hate the game more than he ever had in his life before. He hated its triviality, its unoriginality, its violent impulses disguised as innocent fun, its boosterism, its stupid rivalries, its hypocritical attitude of superiority over Muggle sports when it was scarcely any different from them. He hated Kennilworthy Whisp too, for caring so much about this ridiculous game. But he also loved him, for Kennilworthy Whisp made Snape almost feel that there was a good side to being in Azkaban, where at least he would not have to play Quidditch, watch Quidditch, or hear people talk about Quidditch. Dumbledore had been right. Snape then began hating Dumbledore for always being right, or at least always thinking he was, and also began to love him for allowing Snape to hate him so.

He read all day and into the night – at least, it must have been hours, for he read the entire book and started over again. He remembered at one point that he had a pocket watch in his robes, and pulled it out, but it had stopped. Probably, Snape thought, that was what happened to all clocks and watches in this place. At one point he looked up and saw that a tray of what he supposed to be food had been placed just inside the threshold of his cell. The meal consisted of a bowl of grayish sludge and a glass of grayish water; it would have looked foul even to someone who was hungry. Nevertheless, Snape knew he ought to eat it; who knew when the next meal would come? He turned back to the book, intending to eat when he felt a little hungrier; but the next time he looked up, the tray and everything on it had vanished.

Scarcely caring about the loss of the sludge, he read on until he was too tired to keep his eyes open. Was it night? He was not sure; there were no windows in the cell, and the light never dimmed or went out in the corridor outside. Nor did there seem to be any means of making the inside of his cell darker.

He had already noticed with consternation that there did not seem to be a proper toilet or sink in his cell. Rather, there was a sort of ceramic basin fixed near the floor on one wall whose purpose he could not ascertain. It had a spigot like a sink, but no faucets to control water flow; it had a tank like a toilet, but no seat or means of flushing. He could no longer avoid his need to urinate, however, and this device seemed to be the only receptacle available. At least it was situated at a convenient height for the purpose.

As soon as Snape unzipped his trousers, however, the basin slid higher up the wall, coming to rest at about chest height from the floor. Only by clambering onto the stone slab would he now have any hope of being able to reach the basin. He did so, and after positioning himself unstably on his toes, he achieved an angle from which urination would at least be possible, though not at all comfortable.

As soon as he began urinating, however, the basin started to slide down the wall again; disoriented, he lost his balance and nearly tumbled off the stone slab. After finishing, he tried to evacuate the basin wandlessly with a Vanishing Spell, but was not surprised to find that nothing happened; he supposed that all inmates of this place were essentially rendered Squibs for the duration of their imprisonment. He bent down and tried to find a means of flushing the device, but instead soapy water began flowing from the spigot. Not knowing when he would next have the opportunity to wash his hands, Snape stuck them under the water. When it stopped flowing a moment later, the basin was filled with a mixture of soapy water and urine which was disgusting to look at. Snape turned away from it; with any luck it would eventually disappear as the food had.

Exhausted, he lay down and closed his eyes, but then the screaming started.

The first scream made him jump; it seemed to come from right next to his ear. He sat bolt upright, but there was no one there. The screams died down, then started up again: piteous, agonized, inhuman wails. As they went on and on, they sounded more and more like the screams of his mother when Tobias had smashed her face and wrists against the wall of their kitchen; then the sound was like the wail of despair his mother had made when she heard him cast the Cruciatus Curse; then it was like the deranged, animal cries Tobias had made while Snape held him fast in the beam of red light…

Then the screams ceased to be any of these things, but simply became the screams of dozens, hundreds, thousands of other prisoners around him, all tortured by their own consciences or nightmares, all trapped here forever with no escape, no comfort, and no hope.

“Shut up!” Snape shouted back at the top of his lungs, but the screams joined together, became a mass of high, shrill, inhuman sound, the sound of unsustainable, unendurable suffering that nevertheless sustained itself and endured. He grabbed the book and walked to and fro, reading aloud from Kennilworthy Whisp as loudly as he could, but then the light abruptly went out in his cell. He tossed the book in what he thought was the direction of the stone slab and kept walking, repeating the last sentence he had read: “It is advisable, too, to play at night.”

“It is advisable, too, to play at night,” Snape said over and over again as he walked. “It is advisable, too, to play at night.”

He recited this line until his throat was parched and his voice cracked, but still the screams kept coming. He walked until he could no longer stand, until he collapsed against the wall, and still the screams kept coming…He knew then that he would probably never be able to sleep for two minutes together while he was here, and that by the time this night ended he would have lost his mind…that is, if it was night at all, and if nights ever ended in this place.

* * *

Yet at some point he must have slept, for he was suddenly aware that his eyes, now open, had been closed a few moments before.

He was lying on the floor of the cell, and the stone was cold, but it was not the sort of marrow-deep cold that the dementors brought with them. He sat up.

Something else was different: the Illusioned wall was no longer shifting between solid stone and the appearance of open space. It was now transparent all the time. No dementors were visible in the corridor outside; indeed, there was no sign of life or movement at all. The screams had stopped; it was completely silent. Snape stared around him cautiously. He did not trust any of these new changes, not one bit. He must proceed carefully.

Before he could come to any decision about what to do, he heard footsteps sounding in the corridor. Snape knew, of course, that dementors, lacking feet, made no sound when they moved, but he was frightened nonetheless. He backed into the stone slab and sat down, his heart pounding.

Relief poured over him when he saw that the owner of the footsteps was Dumbledore. Yet even from a distance, Snape perceived immediately that something was wrong: the headmaster’s face was cast in deep shadow. Snape wondered if something had happened to his mother.

Dumbledore passed over the threshold of the cell, and strangely enough, this time he seemed to need no magical assistance whatsoever, as if there had been no wall there at all. The headmaster stood just inside the cell, looking most troubled.

“What is it?” Snape said nervously.

“You are free, Severus,” said Dumbledore grimly.

What?” said Snape. He wondered suddenly if perhaps Dumbledore’s entire presence there were another illusion, another trick of the prison to tease its inmates out of their sanity.

“You are free,” Dumbledore repeated. “You are free to leave this place right now.”

“I don’t believe you,” said Snape firmly, determined not to be taken in by whatever game the prison was playing.

“I scarcely believe it myself,” said Dumbledore. “Nevertheless, it is true.” Yet he still looked terribly troubled.

“What do you mean?” said Snape, a little shaken by the continuing realism of this particular illusion.

“The charge against you has been dropped,” said Dumbledore. “Or rather, to be strictly accurate, it has been wiped out of existence.”

Snape stared at him dumbly, too startled to think of arguing.

“This morning I went to the records library of the Wizengamot,” said Dumbledore. “I asked for the records of all underage wizards and witches who have ever been arrested for casting one of the Unforgivable Curses, beginning with yours. But the Wizengamot did not have a record for you. In fact, they had never heard of you.

“I was mystified, as you might imagine. I went straight to the Auror Office and looked for your arrest record there. But I found nothing in your file more recent than the court record from your hearing last summer.

“One by one, I sought out each of the four Aurors who came to arrest you yesterday. One by one, they told me they knew nothing about it. They did not recognize your name, and each of them said that he or she had made no arrests at all yesterday, for Unforgivable curses or anything else. Each of them was convinced I had confused them with someone else.

“I then went to St. Mungo’s and spoke to the three medical personnel who attended to your mother yesterday and witnessed your arrest. All three of them denied ever having been to your home, seen you, or provided aid to your mother. There is no record of your mother’s having been admitted to St. Mungo’s yesterday, so I could not even question the doctors who treated her.

“I then went to your home. Your mother was there, with her nose and wrists mended, and her health exactly what it was two days ago. I asked her how she was, and said I had heard she might have had some trouble recently concerning her husband.

“‘Funny you should ask me that, Professor,’ she said. ‘I did have, two days ago. He’d rung up a hundred-pound pub tab that he had no means of paying, and they arrested him for it. But when he got to the jail, the police sent him straight home again. They told me that ‘a good Samaritan’ had paid off the entire debt, and that Tobias’ record was clear. I’ve no idea who it might have been, and it bothers me that I’ll never know who did it. Though I’m not sure whether I ought to thank them or curse them.’”

Snape stared, unable to believe any of this, but also unable to close his ears to Dumbledore’s story.

“Finally I returned to Hogwarts. Yesterday morning, when you were arrested and simultaneously expelled from school, I received immediate notice of both facts from the Ministry, shortly after the event took place. I quickly made a copy of the notice, filed it, and took the original with me when I came to see you here. That original has vanished from the pocket of my robes in which I kept it – a pocket upon which I had placed a security charm to prevent the accidental loss or theft of its contents. The copy I filed – again in a secure place, locked and charmed – has also vanished.

“In short, Severus, all public record and all public memory of your arrest has been erased, exactly as if it had never happened,” concluded Dumbledore, looking suddenly older and more tired than Snape had ever seen him look. “Azkaban has no record of your ever having been incarcerated here, and if you step over this threshold now” – he looked down at it– “you should find the wall offers you no resistance. In fact—” Dumbledore took a closer look at something on the ground, then bent down to pick it up— “I believe this is yours.”

Dumbledore handed the object to Snape. It was his wand.

Snape took it, gripped it tightly, and came over to the threshold of his cell. Trembling a little, he put out his foot. He still rather expected it to smash into hard stone.

But it landed easily on the other side of the threshold. Dumbledore was right; the wall had gone. Snape followed with the rest of his body, then quickly looked up and down the corridor. No other person or thing besides themselves was about; he could see into several adjacent cells, and all were empty.

“How…?” Snape stammered. He turned back to the headmaster, who still stood just inside the cell, his face wearing a funereal expression. Snape could not understand why Dumbledore should be so downcast at this miraculous news. Was he frustrated by the miscarriage of justice it represented? Perhaps that was it, thought Snape; yet Dumbledore did not even seem angry, only strangely despairing.

“Why has this happened?” asked Snape. “Has there been some sort of time warp?”

“Severus, let us leave this place,” said Dumbledore, again with that mysterious unhappiness. “You are in no danger of being reincarcerated, and yet this is an unhealthy place in which to linger. Let us go. Since you are underage, you must Side-Along Apparate with me. I will take you home. Do you have your things?”

Time warp or no time warp, Snape was not about to step back inside that cell. He raised his wand, glad to have a chance of further testing the apparent restoration of his freedom.

Accio chocolate!” he called, and sure enough, the two chocolate bars (which he had managed not to touch since Dumbledore’s departure the day before) flew toward him. He then summoned the knapsack and dropped the chocolate into it. The sleeping potion, the writing implements, the book all followed, as he successfully summoned each.

Dumbledore left the cell then, and held out his arm to Snape. “I am astonished to find myself saying these words, but: I believe we can Apparate straight out of Azkaban,” said the headmaster. “Are you ready?”

Snape nodded vigorously, and took the offered arm. The next moment that awful pressure, that terrible feeling of being vacuum-packed inside a Muggle tin can, was upon him again.

They materialized seconds later in the entryway of the Snapes’ house in Spinners End. Snape stared around himself in astonishment: they had really done it. They had Apparated out of Azkaban and not a soul nor a Dementor had stopped them. He was free.

“Let us go into the sitting room and talk for a moment,” said Dumbledore.

“It’s a little dusty in there—” began Snape. He had not done any cleaning in the room all summer, hoping that Tobias would continue to consider the room as disused and not enter it for long enough to notice the broken window. Snape stopped in mid-sentence, however, as Dumbledore flipped the switch on the wall and turned on the overhead light: all four bulbs were now burning brightly. As they walked toward the sofa, Snape surreptitiously glanced at the end table and the coffee table: both were entirely free of dust. In fact, they gleamed as if very recently polished.

Dumbledore took the armchair; Snape sat down opposite him on the sofa.

“I still don’t understand,” said Snape. “Was there a time warp?” It was the only thing he knew of that might account for what had happened.

Dumbledore shook his head sadly. “No, Severus. Do you not see? Though part of me is glad you do not see,” he added, seemingly more to himself than to Snape. “Yet you must understand who has done all this.”

Who has done all this?” repeated Snape uncomprehendingly. “Who could’ve done all this?”

“There is only one person in the wizarding world who is both capable of exercising such power and unethical enough to want to do so,” said Dumbledore. “Now do you begin to see?”

And finally, Snape did see. But he did not believe.

“But that’s ridiculous,” exclaimed Snape. “Why would he – why would anyone – want to do this?”

“Only he knows that, Severus,” said Dumbledore. “Though I fear you may learn his reasons all too soon.”

“It’s impossible,” insisted Snape. Yet a warm feeling growing and spreading within him—a feeling of intense happiness, gratitude, admiration, perhaps even love – told him otherwise. His life had been saved. Was it really the Dark Lord who had saved it for him?

Snape suddenly remembered something else, something of the most critical importance. “Does this mean I can come back to Hogwarts?” he asked, unable to keep the hunger out of his voice.

“Of course you may come back,” said Dumbledore, very gravely. “Why should you not come back when by all appearances you were never expelled in the first place?”

Snape expelled a rapid breath, then bent forward and pressed his hands to the sides of his head, as if to keep it from bursting. He could have cried from joy and relief.

Recovering himself, he looked up to find Dumbledore gazing at him. There was something so sad, so piteous in his expression that Snape flinched.

“Severus,” said the headmaster quietly, “I will not pretend I am sorry to see your place at Hogwarts restored to you. But it has been so dearly bought that in the end you may wish your expulsion had been successful.” Snape, however, found it impossible to imagine any circumstances in which he would ever wish such a thing.

Dumbledore rose suddenly. “I must be off,” he said. “You have reminded me that I have Hogwarts business to attend to. The start of term is almost upon us.”

Snape stood up too, not knowing what to say that would not expose the ridiculous extent of his happiness.

“Thank you, sir,” he managed. It was the first time in the last two days that he had addressed Dumbledore as a student would address a headmaster, and for once in his life he was thoroughly glad to do so.

“You are welcome, Severus,” said Dumbledore soberly. “I will see you at school, then, in about a fortnight.”

Snape nodded.

“Enjoy the rest of your holidays,” said Dumbledore. Then, with a pop, he was gone.

Snape sat staring into space for a few moments, until he heard the door of Eileen’s room open. She came out into the hall, then jumped as she passed the sitting room and saw him sitting there. Snape looked her over closely. Her nose, her wrists all appeared intact. She looked just as she had two days ago.

“What are you doing home, Severus?” asked Eileen in confusion. Snape recalled with a jolt that it was the middle of the week; he was supposed to be at work now. He pulled his pocket watch out of his robes; it was running again. The time was nearly half-past noon.

“I forgot my lunch, Mum,” Snape said quickly, rising. “I just came home to get something out of the icebox. I’ve got to be right off again.” His euphoric mood had just been tempered somewhat; he realized that he had not turned up at work for two days in succession, nor had he called in sick. He was sure to be fired as soon as he got to Rankin’s.

To back up his story, he went straight to the kitchen and retrieved a tin of meat from the cupboard and a slice of bread from the breadbox. His mother stood at the doorway watching him.

“Are you all right, Mum?” he asked, looking down at her.

“I’m fine, Severus,” she said with a wan smile. “Or at least, no worse than usual.”

“I’ve got to run,” said Snape, moving toward the door. “See you tonight.”

But once outside he did not run. He was already two days late; what was difference was a few more minutes?

He pulled the tab on the tin, dumped the meat onto the bread, folded it over, and ate it as he walked, thinking mostly of how wonderful it was to be walking through his hated Muggle hometown, eating inferior bread and meat from a Muggle market, knowing he could go where he chose and come home to sleep in his own bed. He had lost his job, but what did that matter? There were only two weeks left in the summer anyway, and after that he would be returning to Hogwarts. Nothing could truly interfere with the satisfaction of that knowledge.

Nevertheless, he thought about his options. It occurred to him that he could simply tell Shankley the truth: he had had a family emergency, his mother had been hospitalized, and in the panic of the situation he had forgotten to call in. Shankley might turn out to be human enough to accept this. If not, which Snape thought was more likely, perhaps he could get some temporary work somewhere else for the remainder of the summer.

As he arrived at Rankin’s and approached the stockroom at the back, he was planning the wording of his explanation to Shankley. He found his boss standing over Marcus Tench as the latter entered some figures in a ledger.

“Don’t round yet, mind you!” Shankley told Tench warningly. “Don’t round till the very last moment. Every penny counts, you know.” Hearing footsteps behind him, he turned.

“Oh, hello, Snape,” said Shankley blandly. “You’re a decent hand with figures, aren’t you? You can check over Tench’s work when he’s done, get a second set of eyes on the numbers. In the meantime, there are some boxes out back that need breaking down.”

Snape stared. Was it possible? Had Voldemort even seen to this?

“You weren’t looking for me, were you, Sh—Mr. Shankley?” Snape corrected himself, just in time. “You didn’t miss me?”

“Snape, I don’t mind saying in front of Tench here that you and Morris are the best of a bad lot this summer, but I don’t like you that much,” said Shankley, and walked out of the room.

On the way home from work that evening, Snape finally remembered Tobias. It was a shame in a sense that Voldemort had had his father’s debt paid off, or wiped the barman’s memory or whatever it was he’d done; Snape would have liked to see his father held accountable for something for once in his life. But it was a small price to pay for having his wages in full, Eileen’s bones mended, and – most important of all – every excruciating memory, every painful hint that her son had been marked down to spend perhaps the rest of his life in Azkaban, gone from his mother’s mind forever.

Snape walked into the kitchen, feeling calmer and more equal to the demands of life than he’d done in ages. Upon seeing his father standing there peering into the icebox, however, some of his old nervous hostility returned.

Tobias turned, saw Snape, and visibly flinched.

“Stay away from me!” he cried. “I’m leaving now. Come into the room, but stay where I can see you. Don’t make any sudden moves, and don’t even think of putting your hands in your pockets.”

Snape held up his hands in a sarcastically exaggerated gesture, to show how empty they were. What was this all about?

“I’m leaving now,” repeated Tobias, whose hands were full of food he had just foraged. “Move away from the door and let me out. Don’t come near me.” Snape, not eager to come closer in any case, did as he was requested.

Tobias moved skittishly out the kitchen door; soon Snape heard his feet moving up the stairs. “And keep your boss away from me too!” Tobias yelled, as an afterthought.

“My boss?” said Snape. “What are you talking about?” Had Shankley somehow learned about Eileen after all, and come over to investigate Snape’s whereabouts while he had been away?

“That tall, odd bloke who looks like a vampire!” shouted Tobias, as if it were obvious to whom he was referring. “A fucking menace to society, he is. Keep him well away from me, I’m telling you!”

As it came clear to him what and whom his father meant, Snape almost laughed. Tobias, alone among the witnesses to Snape’s casting of the Cruciatus Curse, had not had his memory modified; on the contrary, he had apparently had it enhanced.

Snape put his head into the hall. “He’s hardly someone I’d give orders to,” he called up the stairs. “On the contrary, he’s a bit of a loose cannon. Nobody can control him. Nobody in their right mind would even try.”

“Get away from me!” screeched Tobias, and ran headlong up the stairs. A piece of cheese bounced back down in his wake, but he did not come back to retrieve it.

The rest of that summer was markedly more pleasant than the beginning. Snape hardly saw his father, who kept to himself and skulked away whenever he saw either Snape or Eileen coming. For his mother was leaving her room a little more often these days: by the last week in August, things had improved so much that on several occasions, Eileen sat in the kitchen all the while that Snape cooked dinner, then remained there to eat a full meal with him. During these times they talked about the coming term at Hogwarts. Eileen said that sixth year had been her favorite year of all.

“The anxiety of the O.W.L.s is all past, and the workload is a little less,” she said. “You’re not worried about the N.E.W.T.s yet, nor do you have to feel sad at the thought of leaving. It’s the perfect time, really.” Snape felt certain he would agree; never in his life before had he been so aware of the preciousness of another year at Hogwarts.

The day before he left for school, Snape made a final round of the house, which he was cleaning for the last time. He made one final discovery: the broken window in the sitting room had been mended.

Snape was standing and staring at the intact glass, marveling at the benficience and attention to detail of the man who had rescued him from a life in hell, when his mother came up behind him.

“He notices everything, doesn’t he?” said Eileen in a pleased voice.

Snape turned sharply. What did his mother know about Voldemort’s recent involvement in their family life? “Who?” he demanded.

“Professor Dumbledore,” said Eileen. “He came to see me earlier this month, just to ask if I was all right, and to make sure Tobias wasn’t bothering me. He remembered everything that had happened last summer, you know; he’s always had an extraordinarily good memory. We talked for a little in this room, and he never said a thing, never let on that he’d seen the window – he probably thought it would embarrass me if he called attention to it. But after he left, I noticed it was mended.”

Snape considered this, and concluded that Eileen was probably right about the source of the repair. It was, Snape thought, completely characteristic of the headmaster: a token gesture of kindness of the sort that won people over to him, yet left the larger problems of their lives unchanged.

* * *

Snape’s sixth year proved to be a bit more of a mixed bag than Eileen’s had evidently been. Just as she had said, following the strain of fifth-year and preparation for the O.W.L.s, the workload became far more manageable. Snape now felt more than comfortable academically, he felt cocky – particularly in Potions (where his knowledge now outstripped Slughorn’s to a noticeable extent; increasingly he cut class in favor of doing his own experiments in the Room of Requirement, showing up mainly to take and ace the exams) and Defence Against the Dark Arts, where his brilliance in the classroom was suddenly complemented by an enhanced extracurricular reputation.

Although they still had not covered Patronuses in class, word had somehow got round that Snape could already conjure one – indeed, that he had done it over a year ago and been punished by the Ministry for it. His Slytherin housemates seemed ambivalent about Patronuses themselves (“They’re really not our kind of thing,” Mulciber had objected, to which Snape had retorted, “I don’t care; I want to know everything"), but they enjoyed the thought of Snape’s flouting underage magical law, getting into a showdown with the Ministry, and coming away with a slap on the wrist – twenty Galleons! Practically pocket money! Across the houses, people were impressed by the level of skill the achievement represented, and it had the final bonus of confusing Gryffindors, something Snape felt was always worth doing.

Snape was not sure how word about his hearing had got out; he figured it must have originated with someone whose parents worked at the Ministry and had heard about it over the family dinner table. It certainly did not seem likely to have come from Lily, who was, if anything, even more adamant than she had been in the spring about not talking to him or having anything to do with him. She refused to make eye contact with him in class and walked away if he made so much as a move in her direction, so it hardly seemed possible that she would be the source of any gossip which might place him in an admiring light. To Snape’s extreme irritation, James Potter was hanging round Lily more and more often this year; his interest in her was now a subject of gossip and discussion well beyond the walls of the Gryffindor common room. Fortunately, she continued to treat him like the annoying insect he was, swatting him away with insults and even a choice hex or two.

Snape continued to think and worry about Eileen after he was back at Hogwarts. Tobias’ unmodified memory of being on the receiving end of the Cruciatus Curse, and the warning visit that Voldemort had apparently paid him later, had certainly seemed to put the fear of God or the Dark Lord into him at the end of the summer, but Snape could not be sure this reform would last. Now that Snape was away, after all, the immediate threat of Tobias’ being cursed again had been removed; Snape remembered all too well how utterly his mother’s second attempt at Repulsing Tobias during that fateful argument had failed. Wasn’t it possible his father would revert to his old, violent habits sooner or later?

When September came and went without a single letter from Eileen, Snape began to fear the worst. He had begun sending Pascal home every day, whether he had a letter to deliver or not, but the owl kept coming back with his talons empty. Snape wished that there were some magical means of looking in on her, talking to her, assuring himself that she was all right. Even Muggles had their telephones; how could it be that wizards had not invented something far better to serve the same function? The Ministry was still monitoring Eileen’s wand, presumably; perhaps he should contact them to see if they could check up on her, though these days he felt leery of even the slightest unnecessary contact with those people.

By the end of the first week in October, Snape was in such a panic over Eileen’s continuing silence that for two straight nights he hardly slept for worry. On the third night he lay down late, hoping that exhaustion would finally overwhelm his anxiety and allow him to drift off.

It must have worked, for Snape had a dream, a strange and exceedingly vivid dream about his mother. In it, he seemed almost to have become his mother: he was looking out at the house in Spinners End as if through her eyes, and seeing the familiar rooms as she walked through them. What was more, he was privy to her every thought and feeling. She was very weak, and worried that she was getting even worse; she was constantly concerned about money, which was tight again in the wake of Snape’s departure; she was irritated because she had entirely run out of magical ink and was having trouble getting hold even of the Muggle ink which she might use as a substitute. Each week she had sent the Holts’ son to a different store in search of it, but Muggles did not seem to use ink for writing at all anymore, and the boy kept returning with nothing.

Aside from these matters, however, Eileen did not seemed troubled or fearful. She thought of Tobias mostly when she heard him entering or leaving the house, and when she did think about him she seemed calm, secure, unfazed by his comings and goings or his movements about the house.

When Snape woke the next morning, he remembered this dream in incredible detail; but even more striking than the images that remained in his mind was the wonderfully convincing sense the dream left him with that his father was continuing to leave his mother alone, and that she no longer lived in fear of him. He knew that these feelings constituted no proof of anything, and that he ought to find out for sure what was going on at home before he allowed himself to relax, but the dream had already given him an intense sense of relief that he could not entirely talk himself out of.

The next night he had a similar dream: again he looked out at the world through his mother’s eyes, felt her feelings, experienced her thoughts. She had received another letter from her son that morning, the sixth of the term so far, and she had become quite agitated at her inability to answer Snape’s letters. She could not even find a Muggle pen or pencil around the house to use instead of a quill…at that point in her musings, Eileen had suddenly remembered a stationery store on the other side of town, a place she had not set foot in for years. It was an old-fashioned sort of shop; surely they would sell ink there. She would send the Holts’ boy there tomorrow, though it was so far away that she would have to pay him extra for the errand.

Two days later, Snape finally received a letter from his mother. In it she apologized for the long delay in writing back to him, and explained the reason for it: she had been unable to get hold of ink to write with, and after sending the Holts’ son all over creation, she had finally got some Muggle ink from Hanaby’s, the old stationery store across town (she had taken him there a few times as a child, but he probably did not remember…).

This was all intriguing enough, but the letter contained something else that got Snape’s attention: Eileen wrote that she knew it was silly, but she had somehow known or felt for the last few days that he was thinking about her and worrying about her – though perhaps this was really her own mind inventing things, because she herself was concerned about her long silence and the guesses he might make about it.

Just in case, she wanted him to know that she was fine, and he should not worry, truly. She did not know what had come over Tobias at the end of the summer, but he seemed really to have changed. She hardly saw him anymore; he did not even take food out of the icebox these days. She was living off weekly government checks, and though these were scanty, they were enough for one person. All in all, things were much better than they had been.

Snape was still thinking about Eileen’s letter when he entered the History of Magic classroom the next day. The stuff they were covering this term was boring even by the usual standards of this class – trade agreements between wizarding Britain and the rest of Europe, various regulatory acts and tariffs on imported goods, the imposition of unified safety standards on broomsticks, wands and cauldrons – and Snape found his mind wandering back to his mother. He wondered what she was doing at that very moment, and whether it was more interesting than what he was doing…

And suddenly he had his answer. As he sat there in class, he was inside his mother’s head again. She was thinking about Gobstones, wondering what was going on in the professional Gobstones leagues these days, which she had not followed since she had gotten married…She was thinking about starting a subscription to the Daily Prophet; she had never had one at Spinners End for fear of annoying Tobias, but these days he was around so infrequently that she thought it would not matter. The Prophet’s main Gobstones coverage had always been on Saturdays; perhaps she could afford a Saturdays-only subscription…

After that day, Snape found that with determination and effort, he was able to access his mother’s thoughts at will, almost any time he wanted to check up on her. He noticed that it was more difficult to do it at times when he was preoccupied or under strain, and on a few occasions (several of them during a period when Lily and James Potter had been partnered for a series of hexing exercises in Defence Against the Dark Arts, and she had not appeared to hate every minute of it) he had failed altogether.

But for the most part, the process was reliable, and the things Snape saw while doing it were often confirmed in his mother’s letters afterward; for instance, she did begin a Saturdays-only subscription to the Daily Prophet a few weeks after Snape had overheard her thinking about it. By second term, he stopped doing it quite as often: Eileen seemed sometimes to be aware of his presence inside her head, and he did not want her to think he was snooping on her; anyway, he was afraid that one day he might catch his mother thinking about…he did not know what, exactly, but something that would be embarassing to both of them. It was best, he thought, to reserve this new ability of his for situations of real need.

Meanwhile, Snape was hotly anticipating his coming birthday in January. He would finally be seventeen, a legal adult. At last he would be able to do magic at home without worrying about the Ministry; at last he would be able to get his Apparating license, a milestone he was looking forward to even more than most Hogwarts students, he thought. He had never been a particularly skilled flier, and his secondhand broom was a disgrace; anyway, Apparition was much faster than flying. His first-ever Apparition had been extraordinarily unpleasant, it was true, but he thought that was largely due to the awful circumstances in which it had taken place; his second experience with it had been, quite literally, liberating.

But the most important thing of all about turning seventeen was that he could finally, officially join with Voldemort and become a Death Eater. Voldemort had told him he could do so once he was of legal age, but he had not told him how to do so, and Snape was becoming rather concerned about this. He wanted to join up at the earliest possible moment, on his birthday itself if he could; this would show Voldemort that he had passion and initiative. But Voldemort had said nothing about how to contact him when the time came. Perhaps he was supposed to wait for Voldemort to contact him?

His seventeenth birthday, when it finally came, proved disappointing and anticlimactic in every way. He still could not Apparate: it had turned out that Apparition lessons would not be offered at Hogwarts until later in January, after which there would be twelve whole weeks of training to get through before he could get his license. On the chance that Voldemort might pay him another visit, he kept his entire evening open after classes were done, postponing the birthday drinks in Hogsmeade that Mulciber and Avery had invited him out for. But the Dark Lord never appeared, and Snape was now worried that Voldemort would take his failure to contact him in the wrong way.

To top it all off, he found himself thinking glumly about Lily, whom he had been trying hard to put out of his mind ever since that week when she and James Potter had been hexing partners and Snape had actually heard her laughing – more than once! – at Potter’s witless jokes. This would be the first time since he had turned ten that she would not be with him on his birthday, and he found himself stupidly hoping against hope that she would use the occasion to seek him out and make up with him. It appeared, however, that Lily intended to emulate the Dark Lord in her boycott of Snape’s birthday festivities. The only nice thing to happen all day, in fact, was Pascal’s delivery at breakfast of a set of new quills from Eileen. They were really Muggle novelty items – they had come from Hanaby’s, the Muggle stationery shop – but they worked just as well as wizard-made ones, and he knew she must have set aside money from her grocery budget to get them for him. He was touched.

Apparition lessons finally began on the thirtieth of January, which by rather unkind coincidence was Lily’s birthday. As the students entered the Great Hall, took their places, and were given wooden hoops to use as the hoped-for destinations of their first Apparitions, Snape’s eyes alighted on Lily from halfway across the hall. She was probably having a wonderful birthday: her first gift would probably be a successful Apparition attempt, followed later by a surprise party in the Gryffindor common room, planned and executed by James Potter…

She suddenly turned her head and saw him looking at her. The gesture had obviously been accidental, for she immediately turned her eyes forward again and refused to look back. It was a pointed rebuff, and Snape flushed with anger.

To comfort himself and put Lily out of his mind, Snape began thinking instead of Voldemort. Once he had his license, Snape thought, he would be able to Apparate to meet the Dark Lord and swear loyalty to him. If only he knew where to go!

Their Apparition instructor was a Ministry representative called Juanita Veracruz; according to rumor, her Apparating skills were so advanced that she commuted to her job every morning from her home in Spain. She gave them the three-step mantra they were to follow in their first lesson: “Destination, Determination, Deliberation.” Veracruz made a fuller explanation of each step, but Snape was so lost in thoughts of Voldemort that he missed half her instructions. Anyway, he remembered vividly what it had been like to Apparate out of Azkaban; though Dumbledore had been the one doing the steering, as it were, Snape thought that the headmaster could not possibly have felt greater determination than Snape had to leave that place, or a greater longing to arrive at their destination. For his first solo attempt, he thought, he would try to duplicate his feelings on that earlier occasion, then simply add in a pinch of deliberation.

Veracruz was speaking again, counting down to the group’s first Apparition attempt. “Turn on the spot, feel your way into nothingness, move with deliberation…On my command, now: one…two…three!”

Snape turned on the spot, felt the familiar feeling of intense constriction…and materialized directly in front of Lord Voldemort.

For a moment he was too startled to speak; fortunately, Voldemort took the conversational lead. “Hello, Severus,” he said placidly. He was sitting on a simple wooden chair with his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, looking deathly pale but entirely at his ease. His voice, as before, was high, cold and perfectly polite. “Allow me to wish you a belated happy birthday,” he added.

“Sir, where are we?” exclaimed Snape, then flushed self-consciously as he realized what the Dark Lord had just said. “I—thank you very much, sir.”

He looked around; they were in – could it be? – a place he knew all too well. It was a dusky, windowless room in an abandoned wooden building; the few items in it were heavily coated with dust (though Snape felt certain that Voldemort’s chair must have dusted itself off voluntarily in respectful anticipation of the Dark Lord’s sitting down there).

“Excuse me, sir, but what is this place?” asked Snape. “It looks exactly like the Shrieking Shack.“

“The Shrieking Shack?” asked Voldemort. “I did not realize it had that name.”

“I’m sure that’s not its real name -- that’s just what we call it at Hogwarts,” said Snape quickly. “That’s where I was till just a minute ago. How did I get here?”

“You were trying to get somewhere just now, were you not?” asked the Dark Lord.

“Yes, sir,” said Snape. “We’re having our first Apparating lesson back in the Great Hall, you see. But—”

“Then of course the normal enchantment that prevents Apparition out of Hogwarts will have been lifted,” said Voldemort logically. “And we are quite close to Hogwarts, after all.”

“But I wasn’t thinking about the Shrieking Shack at all,” said Snape. “I wasn’t trying to get here."

“Perhaps not,” said Voldemort, “but you were thinking about me, if I am not mistaken.”

“Yes, sir, I was,” said Snape, marveling internally at the Dark Lord’s omniscience. “You see,” he continued eagerly, “ever since I turned seventeen I’ve been trying to figure out how I could see you again.”

Voldemort smiled. “It seems that you found a way, Severus. ‘Destination, Determination, Deliberation,’ as they say.”

“You mean…that’s how I got here?” asked Snape. He was amazed, yet not entirely surprised.

“Perhaps it was a combination of your magic and mine,” said Voldemort. “A sort of Splinching, if you will.” Was this a joke? The Dark Lord seemed to be in rather a good mood; Snape thought this was most auspicious for the communication he wanted to make, so he forged ahead.

“Sir,” said Snape, “the reason I’ve been trying to find you was so that I could tell you…I want to join you. I want to be part of your movement.”

“I am pleased to hear that, Severus,” said Voldemort, “very pleased indeed.” He smiled again, and Snape felt he was sincere. He was thrilled.

“How does it work, sir? I mean, what should I do?” asked Snape.

“Wait,” said Voldemort. “When I am ready, I will call on you.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Snape, hoping Voldemort would be ready very soon.

“Now that you have joined me, Severus,” said Voldemort, “you may use the special form of address that my followers have for me. Perhaps you already know what it is.”

Snape congratulated himself for having asked Mulciber and Avery that very question nearly six months ago. “Thank you, my Lord,” Snape said, feeling as confident as if he were back in Defence Against the Dark Arts class and Voldemort were his professor – Merlin knew, they would probably need a new one soon anyway.

“You are most welcome, Severus,” said Voldemort. “And now, perhaps you should get back to your lesson before you are missed. What was your original destination?”

“A wooden hoop,” said Snape; and instantly he felt squeezed from all sides…A moment later he was back in the Great Hall, standing inside the hoop that had been placed in front of him earlier. Juanita Veracruz was a few paces away, watching and applauding.

“Well done!” she exclaimed. “Rather a long delay, but that sometimes happens at first. And the end result was perfect. Now try it in reverse!” And she walked on down the row of students.

Snape caught the eye of Avery, who was practicing next to him; from the looks of things, Avery had not made it into his hoop yet.

“Where were you?” Avery exclaimed. “We all thought you’d Splinched yourself and died.”

“I’m fine,” said Snape. “I got sort of sidetracked. I ran into someone I knew.”


To be continued…




Special Note:
Due to the unusual length and complexity of this fic, it will be posted in multiple parts. Subsequent chapters will be posted as they become ready, and will appear as new posts in your friends lists, so that readers who want to continue following the fic as it progresses will be automatically alerted to the appearance of new installments.
marauderbigbang: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] marauderbigbang at 05:50am on 29/09/2010


Title: Advanced Potion-Making
Author: [info]fire_everything
Beta, cheerleader and all-around facilitator: [info]brighty18
Artists: [info]lilmisblack (banner), [info]niccc (all other art)
Pairing: Snape/Lily
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Authorial presumption, profanity, magical dub-con, mild kink, possibly disturbing reproductive issues/procedures, angst, excessive length
Word Count: Um…shorter than Half-Blood Prince?
Summary: Nineteen-year-old Snape’s post-Hogwarts life is going surprisingly well. He has gainful employment, valued skills, a place of his own, a political affiliation, a mentor he admires, and hard-won freedom from several past relationships that tormented him. But he also has stubbornly lingering feelings for his estranged friend Lily Evans, an unquenchable hatred for her fiancé James Potter, and a continuing compulsion to tamper with and improve perfectly adequate potions recipes. When these three conditions come together one fateful day, Snape undertakes a potions experiment that will irrevocably change several people’s lives for better and worse.
Author’s Note: At one point while reading Deathly Hallows, I actually thought the book was going to end with the twist that serves as this story’s central plot point. When it didn’t, this corrective fic became necessary.
Acknowledgments: Enormous thanks to the Marauder mods, who have dealt kindly and tolerantly with this deadline-flouting, ever-expanding white elephant of a fic from the very beginning. Back in June, [info]fallenmelody allowed me to join the Bang with a draft that was only about 70% complete. More recently, [info]brighty18 took on the mighty task of betaing, with humor, patience, diligence and care, a monstrously long fic centered on a character she doesn’t even particularly dig; then, when the project’s growing scope threatened to make my continued participation impossible, she suggested a constructive compromise in the form of a flexible, add-a-chapter-as-you-finish posting schedule. She deserves extra-special thanks, a nice bottle of wine, and a massage. My two artists, [info]lilmisblack and [info]niccc , were likewise flexible and tolerant of the irregularities of my entry and its modified posting schedule; many thanks to both of you not only for the lovely art you’ve contributed, but for being so cool about everything. Finally, there are several extra-Bang parties whose contributions and assistance I’d like to acknowledge; in the interest of conserving space, those acknowledgments can be found at my journal here. (fire-everything.livejournal.com/10098.html)
Special Note: Due to the unusual length and complexity of this fic, it will be posted in multiple parts. (This initial post, which includes the first four chapters, is already longer than any of the other fic entries in the Bang, so it should keep readers busy for a while.) Subsequent chapters will be posted as they become ready, and will appear as new posts in your friends lists, so that readers who want to continue following the fic as it progresses will be automatically alerted to the appearance of new installments.
Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all characters, places, objects, ideas, and related material are the property of JK Rowling and her various publishing entities. Neither the author, the artists, nor the [info]marauderbigbang are in any way making a monetary profit from this posting.

This post includes the following chapters:

1: The Owls of October
2: Snape, Suspended
3: The Hearing
4: The Worst Summer


Read on! )
We,
Lily Eustacia Evans and James Augustus Potter,
request the honour of your presence as we celebrate our union
on
Tenth November nineteen hundred and seventy-nine
One minute past eleven in the morning
at
The Church of St. Fidelius
Godric’s Hollow

The joy that we take in each other, we hope also to share with you.


He sat down at the table and pushed his breakfast aside; he knew he would not finish it now.

This announcement could have come as no surprise to anybody of Lily Evans or James Potter’s acquaintance, even someone on its outermost edges like Snape. They had been an established couple for nearly two years, and though he was not on speaking terms with either of them, he had learned enough through hearsay to know that they had not broken up – not yet, anyway. Even so, there had always been that tantalizing possibility. Now all such hope was gone, or very nearly gone, and one of the key sources of optimism in Snape’s life was thereby extinguished.

Apart from the dreadfulness of the news itself, he did not at all know what to make of the invitation. Why had Lily (certainly it had been Lily; James Potter would have had less than no part in this) thought to invite him? They had not been in touch since their one-sided falling-out when they were sixteen; even had this not been the case, he hated her husband-to-be and assumed that the feeling was still intensely mutual. Politically, too, he and they were enemies. Why would she even think of having him at her wedding?

And yet…here apparently was the overture, the olive branch from her, that part of him had never ceased longing for ever since their break. Even though she had ended her silence only to confirm that she was spoken for, he could not help but feel a strange, nebulous hope. And certainly he had curiosity, however morbid, about what she now felt toward him.

A tapping sound interrupted his thoughts. Aubrey had invited himself in through the open window and was now perched on the kitchen counter, rapping peremptorily on a nearby cabinet with his beak.

“What are you waiting for, Aubrey? Go home!” said Snape irritably, but the owl only settled himself more firmly in place. Had he been human, Snape was sure, he would have folded his arms stubbornly across his chest.

What was Aubrey on about? Lily could not possibly expect a reply by return owl. He felt a flash of resentment. Was she so certain of his gratitude at her resumption of communications? – so sure he would drop all other commitments to attend her wedding that she felt no need to allow him the courtesy of a little time to think? Was there something he was missing here?

Suddenly a thought, or rather a very old memory, occurred to him. Following an impulse, he reached for his wand, tapped the parchment with it, and muttered “Aparecium!” And sure enough, a faint green flush colored the bottom of the parchment as a postscript, hand-written in jade-green invisible ink, gradually revealed itself.


Severus,
I’ve been worried about you. I hear all sorts of rumours lately, and I don’t like the sound of any of them.

I’ll be in Diagon Alley this Friday and Saturday. If you’re free, could we meet and talk for a bit? If you’re able and willing, please send your reply with Aubrey and suggest a time and place.

Yours,
Lily



Snape was now even less sure how to feel. Should he be flattered or insulted by Lily’s professed concern for him, her predictable (and probably smug) disapproval of his rumoured political allegiances? He wavered between opposite responses. But one thing he did know: to see that invisible ink appear, and to know she still retained the memory of their writing to each other this way as children, had thrilled him. During the two years between their first meeting and their entering Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they had clutched eagerly at any activity that seemed akin to the magic they were longing to be formally trained to do, and the writing of notes in invisible ink had been one of their favorite such pastimes. That Muggle children also knew about it did nothing to interfere with its charm.

The summer when they were ten, they had exchanged invisible-ink communiqués almost every morning, importantly setting forth what they planned to do together during the day. Snape’s mother’s owl, Pascal, had handled deliveries in both directions; Lily’s family, Muggles that they were, did not have an owl, and this small induction into the ways of the wizarding world had been an endless source of delight to her. Like Muggle children everywhere, they had used lemon juice to reveal each other’s messages, unaware that there was a simple magical spell to do that for them.

Her resuming this old custom now, when they were adults, was like having a stranger come up to you and give you a secret handshake, then realizing that the man was in fact the brother you had given up for dead. James Potter of course must know that Lily had invited him to their wedding, but Snape wondered if he knew about her invisible-ink postscript; he strongly thought not, and this idea made him very happy indeed.

Meanwhile, Aubrey was still standing by, waiting for his response to the second, secret part of Lily’s invitation. Snape thought fast. He certainly had his share of misgivings about seeing Lily again; the more sensible part of his mind told him that reminders of his Hogwarts days were best dispensed with, and that such a meeting could derail some of the progress he had made in his life since leaving school. But a larger part of him, one with a louder voice, longed to think that he could, after all, be reunited in some capacity with his oldest and dearest friend, in spite of the seeming gulf between their present lives. In the end, too, he had a simple curiosity that demanded to be satisfied.

He reached for the pale green outer parchment that had enclosed the invitation, turned it over, thought for another moment, and wrote in a studied scrawl he hoped would seem informal rather than overeager:


The Leaky Cauldron, Friday morning, ten o’clock.


Aubrey, who was now perched on the edge of the breakfast table, took up the parchment the moment Snape had folded it, and flew off with a series of low chiding noises. Old acquaintance was not, for certain owls, a sufficient excuse for wasting their valuable time.

Aubrey, however, was hardly the only one with a full day’s work still ahead of him. Glancing up at the kitchen clock, Snape saw that his transactions with the owl had consumed nearly half an hour, and that he was due at Foulmouth’s in five minutes. He slipped his wand into an inner pocket of his robes and picked up from the kitchen table the copy of Hemlock’s Potion-Making: The Art and Science that contained the notes and adjustments he had made the previous evening to a potion to induce temporary blindness. He headed for the back door, walking through the sitting room to the mud room. Before leaving, he glanced at himself in a small mirror that hung at shoulder height by the back door, grimaced, smoothed his hair, and grimaced again. He then stepped through the back door, shut it behind himself, muttered “Colloportus!,” scanned the yard for nosy Muggle neighbours, saw none…but then stood by the door, hesitating.

Finally he muttered “Alohomora!,” re-entered the house, strode back to the kitchen, picked up the roll of pale green parchment where it lay like a coiled snake on the table, tucked it into his robes, and retraced his steps out the door. He scanned the yard again and hastily Disapparated.

Having no time to spare, he arrived directly into the basement laboratory at Foulmouth’s – his privileges as an employee allowed him to bypass the protective charms that surrounded the building. He laid the Hemlock open on the counter to the page he had marked and got right to work, taking down various herbs and extracts from the supply cabinet above his head.

And not a moment too soon, for just then Snape heard the sound of boots descending the stairs from the main level.

“That you, Severus?” It was the voice of Fenwick Falmouth, the younger of the brothers who co-owned the business with their father.

“Yes, Fen,” answered Snape, not looking up from his scales.

Fenwick appeared a moment later, running a hand through his mousey-brown hair in vexation.

“A minute past eight in the morning, and Mrs. Klingenhammer’s already here, damn her,” he said. “You don’t by any chance have her brew ready?”

Snape reached into a rack of vials whose necks were tied and tagged with bits of parchment, picked out a tall, slender vial full of a murky green substance, and handed it to Fenwick with a grin. “Stayed late yesterday,” he said in explanation. “I knew she’d be banging down the door first thing. Anything to make a nuisance of herself.”

Fenwick grinned jubilantly. “She lives to find fault with ‘the help,’ does Madam Klingenhammer. This’ll ruin her whole day!” He vanished up the stairs with the vial.

Lucky saves like this (and by dint of knowledge, skill and hard work Snape had made his own luck) had been the trademark of Snape’s eight-month tenure at Foulmouth’s – still known formally on its Knockturn Alley storefront and its letterhead as Falmouth and Sons, but colloquially referred to by the entire wizarding population of Britain as Foulmouth’s. Fittingly, too – Snape had made many a disgusting concoction while working here that he would have hated to pass between his own lips.

His initial placement at the apothecary had undoubtedly been assisted by a favorable word from a certain dark wizard to whom one did not say no, if one valued one’s life and livelihood; but his rapid rise had been clearly attributable to his own merits. Had he been merely competent, he would have remained in the shop assistant’s position in which he had started, for there was no apparent opportunity for upward mobility at Foulmouth’s. However, Snape quickly proved himself superior in skill to the then junior potions master of the house, an old dog in his forties named Bronson Hemp. Berwick Falmouth, owner of the apothecary and father to Fenwick and his brother Warwick, then took it upon himself to fire Hemp and promote Snape into his job.

By the time a few more months had passed, it had become clear that Snape was the best potions maker under Foulmouth’s roof, and Berwick, a man of strong family loyalties and equally strong hunger for profit, had kicked his elder son Warwick, the erstwhile senior potions master, upstairs to handle (perhaps manhandle would be a better word) the house books. Warwick did not hold this against Snape, however, as his new accounting duties were far less labour-intensive than his old potion-making ones, and both brothers continued to get on with Snape more or less like a house afire.

The recently promoted senior potions master now lit one of the house cauldrons and began the blindness potion. He had made this recipe many times, and his newest alterations – reducing the cassava extract to let the white mangrove dominate, substituting heliotrope for valerian root, filtering the mixture through a mat of cowhage leaves – came mostly at the beginning of the recipe, so that after a few minutes his hands took over, leaving his mind free to wander.

Today was Monday, the first of October; on the fifth, Friday, he would see Lily again. He had chosen Friday partly because it was sooner than Saturday, and partly because he was certain he would be able to take the day off; he had not yet taken a holiday during his time at Foulmouth’s, a circumstance which Berwick had reminded him of the previous week and urged him to rectify. He now had a real reason to do so. He was not sure why his immediate instinct had been to free the whole day for the occasion; he could have easily arranged to meet Lily for lunch or for dinner after he finished work, but something made him loath to mix business with pleasure in that way.

But was pleasure even the right word? He was not sure he would not be miserable after their meeting; after all, she was about to marry his worst enemy. Perhaps that was why he had wanted the whole day: it would give him more time to recover afterwards.

But now Snape wondered whether his choice of Friday had been ill-judged: He did not, after all, want to appear to Lily as though he was chomping at the bit to see her. Nor was he sure it sent the right message to have offered to meet her on a workday, during working hours. Would she take from this that he was unemployed, idle, and in need of ways to kill time? Or that he was working full-time for Voldemort, and therefore conducting business primarily after dark? (Which was a ridiculous notion, based on fear and an ignorant misunderstanding of how both political resistance movements and the Dark Arts operated – but a widely held one nonetheless.)

No, Snape thought: if Lily had heard enough about his recent life to know of his reputed political activities, she would also have heard where he was working. This was a good thing, for in spite of its Knockturn Alley location and generally disagreeable reputation, Foulmouth’s retained a certain political ambiguity, largely because Berwick was thought to be an opportunist who would blow with whatever wind seemed likeliest to bring him profit. For this or whatever other reason, neither he nor his sons (who were deemed apolitical layabouts by most, and therefore unthreatening) had ever officially joined the Death Eaters. So while Snape’s own leanings might be generally suspected, and talked about as if they were known with certainty, when it came to the point he could not be firmly pinned down. He rather liked this – liked being an unknown and therefore potentially dangerous quantity.

He bristled with irritation, though, when he imagined what Lily would probably say about the impropriety of even appearing to sympathize with Voldemort. Lily had always operated on the assumption (a naïve one, in Snape’s view) that distinguishing good from evil was a fairly simple and instinctive matter. Nevertheless, her supposedly impeccable moral compass had not prevented her from attaching herself to one of the least commendable people the wizarding world had to offer, though this judgment unfortunately seemed to be held by few people besides himself. He remembered again their last year at Hogwarts, when Lily had, as Snape saw it, finally surrendered to the machinations and flattery of James Potter; and, once the initial phase of scorching hurt at her betrayal had passed, how angry he had been with her for giving herself away like that, along with all her principles.

That anger could not coexist indefinitely with Snape’s other feelings toward her, and eventually it faded to a kind of grim, sardonic acceptance – but a shallow, temporary acceptance only. If he knew her at all, this “romance,” or whatever it was, would not last; this conviction had been so strong as to give him a measure of hope in the intervening years. And although it had been deeply shaken by seeing contradictory information laid out that morning in elegant, official script, his conviction still stood, he realised. He would not accept the notion of Potter and Lily as man and wife until he was forced to, and as he had this defiant thought, he almost looked forward to the meeting with Lily as a chance to examine her seeming happiness, her supposed love for Potter, at close range and in person. If there were cracks anywhere in the structure, he would find them.

In a sudden access of courage, he pulled the invitation from his robes and read it over again, taking in the details that he had missed at first. He realised that the wedding was over a month away. Between now and the tenth of November, he thought, a great deal could still happen.

He let his eyes drift past the gilt printing, past the cloying final line in which Potter and Lily generously sought to donate their excess joy to charity cases like himself, down to the postscript. He stood there gazing at the familiar curves and loops of the jade-green script, and analyzing every word of the message. Brief though it was, it sounded so much like her: frank, intelligent, down-to-earth, kind. In spite of Potter, she had not forgotten that he, Snape, existed; she had voluntarily thought about him, even if only in response to whatever gossip was circulating attached to his name. She had closed the note “Yours, Lily,” when she could have just said “Lily”: perhaps she did still care about him on some level.

“What’s that, a love letter?” Snape’s head jerked upward, and he instinctively pulled the invitation closer to himself, at such an angle that Lily’s writing would be hidden. Warwick Falmouth, a taller, darker-haired version of his younger brother, was standing at the foot of the stairs, grinning inquisitively at Snape. Either his descent had been unusually quiet, or Snape had been too lost in thought to hear him. Realizing that his protectiveness toward the invitation might itself give more away than he intended, he immediately made his posture casual again.

“Warwick,” Snape acknowledged, pressing his free hand to his chest in a gesture of exasperated surprise. “You won’t half give people heart attacks, coming up on them like that.” As indifferently as he could, he dropped the invitation onto the counter next to the Hemlock, hoping that by seeming uninterested in it himself, he might nip Warwick’s curiosity in the bud.

“I can’t help it if you’re hard of hearing,” said Warwick jovially, coming toward him. “Seriously, though, what is that?” he repeated, gesturing toward the invitation. “It’s Slytherin green, that bodes well. Spill it, Severus. Who’s your secret correspondent?”

Snape rolled his eyes and replied, in a tone of distaste, “It’s a wedding invitation, Warwick. From a bloke I can’t stand, too. I haven’t even responded to it – I was using it as a bookmark.” Indeed, he would have liked to shut the invitation away in the book that very moment.

“What bloke is that? – Don’t you worry, he’ll get what’s coming to him soon enough,” added Warwick, who was married himself and regarded the matrimonial state as a catchall punishment for whatever one’s sins happened to be. He reached over and grabbed the parchment; Snape, thinking of the postscript, groaned internally. There was no way he could prevent Warwick from reading it, and no way that questions would not follow once he had done so. But Snape kept his eyes to himself, reaching up into the cabinet over his head with feigned calm and removing exactly three sopophorus beans from a large jar of them.

“James Potter?” said Warwick, looking up from the parchment. “The big Quidditch star?” The mocking note in Warwick’s voice as he said this was gratifying, but the unwitting proof he had provided of the extent of James Potter’s fame was not: Warwick had graduated Hogwarts a full five years ahead of Potter and still managed to hear of his exploits on the Quidditch field.

“Marrying Lily Evans,” Warwick continued. “I think I remember her – uppity little redheaded Gryffindor girl, wasn’t she?” Snape did not dare contradict this description, which was as accurate a one as a Slytherin would be likely to provide in any case.

“Just Potter’s speed, I’m sure,” Warwick concluded. “But why on earth did they invite you?” he added, having finally registered the illogic of the situation.

“No idea,” said Snape. “They must have invited our entire year. Potter’s such an egotist he probably thought the whole school would be longing to come.” His voice remained controlled, but internally he was in a panic: Warwick must be reading Lily’s postscript now.

But Warwick dropped the invitation back onto the counter, and said only, “Do you have that sleeping potion for Mortimer Muyskens finished?” He began perusing the rack of tagged potions.

“Top row,” said Snape, bending over the blindness potion as if critically examining its depths. “Take the whole rack upstairs, why don’t you?”

“Actually I quite enjoy making people wait while I come down here,” said Warwick. “But I suppose you’re right – my laziness should take precedence over my desire to inconvenience our customers.”

“I can see what a painful choice it is for you,” said Snape sardonically.

Warwick grinned. “You’ll be up at half past noon, then?”

“Right.”

As soon as the basement door had closed behind Warwick, Snape reached for the invitation, his pulse still racing anxiously. He was startled to see, however, that the postscript had completely vanished. He was now in a panic of a different kind, and felt for his wand, wanting to restore Lily’s handwriting immediately. But the gesture was needless: already the green script was reappearing, as if it recognized him as the rightful recipient of the message. Snape was impressed, but not altogether surprised; Lily had always excelled at Charms, and this was a good one.
 
* * *

Snape added a final setting agent to the blindness potion, stirred it five times counterclockwise, and extinguished the flame. He would let it cool for an hour while he went upstairs to take over the till during Warwick’s lunch break, then bottle it when he returned. Meanwhile, he covered the cauldron with cheesecloth to keep out the air and anything unsuitable that Fen might inadvertently release into it while making potions in his absence.

In the spare moments he had between ringing up customers, Snape surveyed the apothecary with satisfaction. Not only was business booming, it had increased noticeably since he had begun working there less than a year ago, and he thought that he could safely take credit for part of that increase. Beginning with the first potion he had ever made at Foulmouth’s, Snape had kept a precise log not only of the orders he filled, but of the customers who placed them – their ages, occupations, family situations and other facts he thought might be relevant, along with their names. He likewise consulted the somewhat more haphazard records that Bronson Hemp and Warwick had kept, and as he became personally acquainted with some of the apothecary’s clientele, he began to develop a sense of who was buying what, in what quantities, and how often.

He made notes on any item a customer requested that Foulmouth’s did not carry or had run out of, to get a sense of how their stock might be improved. He made stealth visits to Slug and Jiggers, Foulmouth’s Diagon Alley competitor, to compare notes on their stock, prices and clientele. In particular, he consulted books and his own extensive knowledge of Dark potion-making, and drew up lists of items and ingredients that Slug and Jiggers seemed to have qualms about carrying, but which he knew there would be a demand for.

He also thought about what could be done to make the store more inviting and thereby draw in new customers. It was in this area that Snape had the early stroke of genius that made Berwick Falmouth receptive to any business suggestion he put forward thereafter: he changed the way Foulmouth’s smelled.

Every apothecary Snape had ever been in had reeked of cooked cabbage and rotten eggs; these drab, homely, depressing smells seemed to come with the territory. But all apothecaries sold pleasant-smelling ingredients as well as foul-smelling ones, and Snape did not see why the pleasant smells could not be made to dominate. He set to work first on a scent-suppressing charm, testing it at his house in Spinners’ End by actually preparing several large batches of cabbage (a food Snape detested; its smell and taste were to him the smell and taste of childhood poverty) and attempting to render them odorless as they cooked.

When he had achieved success at this, he reworked the charm so that rather than having no scent at all, the cooking cabbages would smell like bacon. This variant of the charm also proved successful, although the anticlimax of having one’s olfactory expectations of bacon met with the awful reality of cabbage was so intense that Snape had no choice but to return to the kitchen five minutes later and fry up some real bacon, meanwhile tossing the cabbage over the back fence to the Muggle dog next door. The dog bolted over eagerly at the smell, but then appeared to experience a similarly crushing disappointment when the truth was discovered; he walked disconsolately away, leaving the cabbage to rot in the yard.

When he felt practiced enough at scent alteration to apply his new skills at his workplace, Snape considered which smells would be likeliest to appeal to Foulmouth’s customers – or, to put it more bluntly, what would most entice them to buy things. He came into work early one day and placed the scent-suppressing charm on everything Foulmouth’s sold that smelled foul or dismal. Then he chose a few select wares from among the stock and applied their scents to the offending items. When he had finished, the whole place smelled sharp and spicy, like some mysterious incense that hinted at faraway, dark and dangerous places. Berwick Falmouth came downstairs from the family rooms, took one sniff, and immediately gave Snape a ten percent raise. Looking at the crowded storeroom floor now, and taking in that intoxicating scent, Snape wondered how much of Foulmouth’s increased traffic could be attributed to this change alone.

He had been behind the counter for nearly an hour when he spotted a friendly figure cutting through the crowd of lunchtime shoppers: Lucius Malfoy, elegant as always in his exquisitely cut black robes. Malfoy scanned the store quickly, located Snape at the register, acknowledged him with a broad grin, and made his way over.

“Severus, how goes it?” he said pleasantly, clapping Snape on the arm. Snape was struck yet again by the perfect model of dignified civility that Malfoy presented; this, he thought, was how social relations ought to be managed.

“Lucius,” he returned in the same spirit, smiling. “We missed you at last week’s meeting,” he added, lowering his voice. “We were told you were away doing some sort of field work.”

“You might say that,” said Lucius with a chuckle.

“All went well, then?” asked Snape.

“Very well,” replied Malfoy. “You’ll hear the details in good time. But Severus, I’m not actually here on business.”

“No?” said Snape. There was a twinkle in Malfoy’s eye that had lifted Snape’s mood without his really knowing why.

“No, I’ve a message from Narcissa,” said Malfoy. “She sends her greetings, and hopes that you’ll be able to come to dinner at our place on Wednesday night.”

“Our place” was Malfoy Manor, one of the most sumptuous wizard residences in Britain; though Snape had dined there several times before, he was by no means complacent about repeating the privilege. “Thank you, I’d love to,” said Snape, with genuine enthusiasm. “What’s the occasion?”

“Well, I think you’ve heard me mention my cousin Zenobia?” said Malfoy, with an expectant smile.

The Malfoys, who might be called clannish, mentioned their cousins, nephews, great-aunts once removed, and various other relations constantly. But for her unusual name, Snape would probably not have remembered this one. Remember it he happily did, however; and furthermore, it was dimly coupled in his mind with some other odd distinction. After a moment of sifting through various associations in his mind, he thought he recalled what it was.

“Doesn’t she go to Durmstrang?” Snape asked. Durmstrang Institute was indeed a place with odd and rather forbidding associations to Snape. The Continental, Germanic equivalent of Hogwarts, Durmstrang was rather shrouded in mystery, but one thing about it was perfectly well-known: it admitted only purebloods as students.

Did go to Durmstrang,” corrected Lucius, “she’s been out for a year. But yes, she’s the one,” he added, obviously pleased. “She’s coming to stay with us at the Manor for a while. Narcissa and I haven’t seen her since she was sixteen, so this is really rather exciting for us.”

“You sound quite fond of her,” said Snape.

“I am, rather,” said Malfoy. “She’s, perhaps, a little eccentric” – here he leaned toward Snape conspiratorily – “she’s a writer, you know.” He said this last as if it explained a great deal.

Snape, wondering what the conservative, traditional Malfoy family made of having an artist in its midst, asked, “Is she a Malfoy, then, or from a different branch of the family?”

“She’s a Wunderin,” said Lucius. “My mother’s cousin Hydrus’s daughter.” Snape knew he would never remember this information, but nodded amiably.

“Anyway,” continued Lucius, “I’ve always found her extremely entertaining. She’s good to talk to; she has all sorts of interesting opinions. In fact, Severus – I think the two of you might really get on.” And here Lucius grinned significantly.

Snape, rather astonished, was wondering if this meant what he thought it meant, but he thought it best to assume, and presume, nothing. So he merely said, “She’ll be at dinner on Wednesday, then?”

“Yes, the dinner is to celebrate her arrival, actually. Narcissa’s idea, and a capital one, I think. You’ll come, then?”

“Of course,” said Snape. “I look forward to it.”

“Good, good! Narcissa’s longing to see you again. It’s been too long since you were over.”

“How is Narcissa?” asked Snape.

“Well, since you mention it…” Lucius began, then proceeded to ask whether Foulmouth’s had anything on hand in the way of a headache cure. Narcissa had been complaining of a recurring ache near her left temple. Nothing serious, Lucius was sure, but all the same…

At that moment Fenwick appeared from behind Snape to relieve him at the till. Fen had clearly overheard the last part of the conversation with Malfoy, and, eager to give assistance to one of Foulmouth’s more distinguished customers, he immediately launched into a descriptive list of the several general headache remedies that the store carried, pulling samples down from a nearby shelf as he spoke.

Malfoy examined the four bottles that Fenwick had produced, selected the most expensive one, and paid for it with a Galleon note in a denomination so exotically large that Snape could not recall ever having seen any customer use one in a sales transaction before. Fenwick, indeed, seemed momentarily flummoxed by the prospect of making change for it, and handled the note with obvious awe.

Meanwhile, what Lucius had said about Narcissa’s headache recurring at the left temple interested Snape, and suggested to him a customized remedy for her ailment. “Come down to the lab with me for a moment,” said Snape to Malfoy, taking the bottle Malfoy had purchased with him. Lucius followed him through the door and down the basement stairs.

While Lucius looked around curiously at the well-stocked shelves and cupboards, Snape pulled Pilson Armley’s Encyclopaedia of Medical Potions down from the shelf, consulted it quickly, and added a miniscule amount of bright green liquid from a nearby flask to the bottle they had brought with them. “Headaches near the left temple are often caused by inflammation of the nerve endings under the eye,” he said. “I’ve added a touch of Shrinking Solution to help bring the swelling down. An off-label use, mind you,” he added, “but perfectly safe, and it works.” He handed the bottle to Lucius.

“You’re a brick, Severus,” said Malfoy.

“Well, it is my job,” Snape said equably. “Tell Narcissa to send it back if it doesn’t do the trick, and I’ll adjust it.”

“I’ll do that,” said Malfoy. He turned toward the stairs. “I ought to be going,” he said. “I’m due at the Ministry in a few minutes.”

“All right. See you Wednesday, then,” said Snape. “What time shall I be there?”

“Eight o’clock,” said Malfoy. He hesitated a moment, then added, “There’s something I ought to mention about Zenobia. It’s a bit delicate, so if I could ask you not to spread the information around…”

“Of course,” said Snape, now curious.

“She was married briefly, right out of Durmstrang, but it didn’t take. A bad match; her husband was some Romanian or Czechoslovakian half-blood – no offence,” added Lucius hastily.

“None taken,” said Snape.

“What I mean to say is, he was a person of dubious origins, and he treated her abominably. I don’t know all the details, but he was threatening, manipulative…some people in the family say he even beat her. She left him after less than a year. She really had no choice.”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Snape, quite sincerely.

Malfoy looked grateful, and said, “I knew you’d understand. But not everyone will look at it that way, of course…there are those who would see it as the stuff of scandal.”

“I won’t speak of it to anyone,” said Snape. “You have my word.”

“Narcissa and I would both appreciate that very much. And of course, please don’t mention to Zenobia that I’ve told you this.”

“I shan’t,” said Snape. “It’s none of my business, anyway.”

Malfoy smiled, and said again, “You’re a brick.” He pulled a pocket watch out of his robes and exclaimed, “I really must go, I’m late. Till Wednesday?”

“Till Wednesday,” said Snape, and followed Lucius up the stairs to see him out.
 
* * *

As Snape returned to the basement to start work on that morning’s orders, his thoughts were in an increasingly turbulent state. He fully intended to keep the promise he had just made to Malfoy to discuss his cousin’s failed marriage with no one; yet within the confines of his own mind he could not help dwelling on what he had just heard. It struck too close to home for him not to.

As a small child, Snape had regarded his mother and father as almost equally disagreeable people. Both Eileen and Tobias Snape were resentful, moody and inclined to take out their moods on their only child; both frequently punished the young Snape in ways that, even at the age of four or five, seemed to him arbitrary and unfair.

His mother, perhaps, had more understandable reasons for moodiness than his father. She often complained of feeling weak or sick and would sometimes retire to her room for hours or even days on end. Snape resented her illnesses, not only because they worsened her own moods, but because they left him alone in the house with his father. Tobias Snape was a man whose numerous and bitter grievances often spiraled into rages that terrified his son; though he had only slapped or smacked the young Severus on a handful of occasions, the threat of violence seemed to hang over all their interactions like a dark cloud.

Making matters worse, Eileen Snape’s prolonged absences from the family meant that chores would not get done around the house, which made Tobias’s mood even fouler. In an attempt to preserve the tenuous household peace, the young Severus had begun early on to step in for his mother when she was ill, doing dishes, sweeping floors, and even putting together rudimentary meals.

Of these tasks, the meal-making was the most critical in keeping his father’s anger at bay. One evening when he was nearly eight, Snape had been reading his room when Tobias arrived home at the dinner hour. Soon after, there was a loud banging on his bedroom door.

Snape, who had already learned to lock the door whenever he was in his room, called warily, “What is it?”

“Where’s your mother?” demanded Tobias. “Where’s my dinner?”

“In the icebox,” said Snape impatiently. Eileen had fallen into the habit of preparing dinner ahead of time and leaving it for them to eat while she retired to her room, and Snape assumed that today was the same as any other day.

“No, it isn’t!” yelled Tobias. “Your mother left us nothing. Get downstairs and fetch me something to eat!”

Dread crept over Snape. Was it true? Such a thing had never happened before. Had his mother really shirked her family responsibilities so completely? This could mean any of several things, all of them bad. And in the meantime, what on earth were they to do about dinner?

“Now!” shouted Tobias. “Or so help me I’ll break your mother’s door down.”

Terrified that his father might make good on this threat, Snape unlocked the door, stepped over the threshold, and quickly ducked out of range of his father’s hands – sometimes it was good to be small and thin. He ran down the stairs.

In the kitchen, he opened the icebox door: yes, it was true. There was certainly nothing made for dinner; in fact there was scarcely anything to eat at all.

As Tobias stood in the doorway with his arms folded, Snape moved frantically around the kitchen, searching for something they could make a meal from. He found the end of a loaf of bread, and was relieved: he knew how to make toast. He cut the bread into four not entirely uniform slices and began heating it in a pan on the stovetop.

While the bread was toasting, he unearthed three long, dirty carrots and a couple of bruised apples from the bottom of the icebox. He was pleased, almost excited: they would have more than one thing to eat. He washed these items, but the carrots still looked dirty. He remembered that you were supposed to peel carrots to get that dirty outer layer off, and went rummaging in the drawers for a utensil he could use for that purpose.

Miraculously, he found a vegetable peeler, but his hands were clumsy and it took him a long time to peel even one carrot. As he reached for the second one, he smelled something burning.

The toast! He flew to the stove and removed the pan, but the underside of the bread was black and smoking. There was no more bread, so Snape did his best to salvage the toast by scraping off the burnt part with a knife. Looking up, he saw Tobias coolly watching from the doorway, and tried to scrape faster.

Taking a deep breath, he resumed peeling the other two carrots. He began getting the hang of it by the time he began on the third carrot, but it was very unnerving having his father’s eyes on him all the while.

There was no butter, but he managed to find some jam for their toast. He went to spread it on the side that was not burnt, and realised he had not toasted the other side of the bread at all. But Tobias was waiting none too patiently, and Snape thought it best not to lose another few minutes on such niceties.

He prepared plates for each of them: two pieces of toast with jam and an apple each, plus two carrots for Tobias and one for himself. Warily, Snape brought Tobias’s plate to him where he stood in the doorway.

Tobias paused for a few seconds, looking down at his dinner.

“This is disgusting,” he pronounced, and flung the plate into the kitchen sink. Food flew everywhere, and the plate broke into several pieces.

“I’m going out for dinner,” Tobias announced to no one in particular. “If Eileen dares lecture me about the cost—” And he slammed out of the house.

The following day, knowing he could not risk the same thing happening again, Snape went to his school library after classes were over for the day. He was miserable in Muggle school, where no one liked him except for a few sympathetic teachers, and even they could not pretend to understand him. But the school library was a refuge for him, and the librarian was always tolerant of his presence. Having an urgent mission and no time to spare, he went straight up to her and asked if the library had any cookbooks.

He came away with several; they were aimed at children, and had titles like Cooking A to Zed and A Book for Young Cooks.

He paged through them and decided he would make spaghetti; it seemed simple and his mother had sometimes made it in the past, so it would seem a plausible menu to Tobias.

Snape knew from yesterday’s search how little food there was in the house, so he went to a local market on his way home and stole a box of dried spaghetti, some bottled tomato sauce, a can of processed parmesan cheese, a tiny container of oregano (the recipe had seemed to think this ingredient was very important), a packet of butter, and a squash. He looked around for the market’s security camera first, and disabled it by discreetly floating his hat up toward the camera and hanging it over the lens; after that it was easy to stuff the items he needed into his knapsack.

The spaghetti recipe was not hard to follow, and he made the squash with no recipe at all, simply slicing it and cooking it in a bit of butter, salt and pepper. He put the food into serving dishes and left it in the icebox as Eileen would have done.

When Tobias came home, he removed the food from the icebox with no comment, as if he had forgotten the incident of the previous night. He commented that the spaghetti was bland, but otherwise he ate it without complaint. Snape, tasting the food, thought it was not at all bad for a first attempt, and felt rather proud of himself.

From then on Snape cooked dinner whenever he came home from school and found the icebox empty; as time went on this happened more and more often. Sometimes he still resented the obligation, but increasingly he took a secret enjoyment in cooking. At first he followed recipes diligently, but as his skill increased he found he could improvise and do things by instinct.

It was not long before he had become a better cook than his mother, though admittedly this was not saying very much. Tobias, who had surely noticed that the quality of his dinners was improving, must have figured out that someone other than Eileen was cooking for him, but he never mentioned this to Snape, or, indeed, said anything at all about the food. As long as he was fed, he did not seem to care where the food came from.

Apart from cooking, however, the young Snape did not enjoy domestic chores, and he was frustrated and angered by the knowledge that his mother could have easily performed by magic the same tasks that he labored over manually for minutes or hours.

When Eileen was ill, she claimed that her magic was impaired, that she was not strong enough to order the dishes to wash themselves or to command a broom to sweep the floors, but the young Snape found this difficult to believe. At the same time, his mother forbade him to even attempt these tasks with magic, saying he was too young and the Ministry of Magic would send someone to punish him if he tried it. And magic or no magic, some household tasks were simply too complicated or difficult for a child under ten to undertake.

When the roof of their house in Spinner’s End began leaking during the rainy summer of Snape’s eighth year, he had no idea what could be done to fix it; the only thing he could think to do was to put cups and bowls out in the attic to catch the dripping water. Eileen insisted that magically repairing the roof was beyond her strength, but Tobias refused to believe her. Their arguments went on for months, while the leaks worsened.

Finally Eileen borrowed money from one of the few members of her family who were still speaking to her after the inexcusable marriage she had made, and paid a Muggle contractor to fix the roof. Even though the money had not come out of his wages – indeed, the loan was never repaid – Tobias could not forgive Eileen for this. He maintained that she could have made the necessary repairs magically, had she not been so lazy and willful; and even as he hated his father for saying this, Snape wondered whether he was right.

Why couldn’t his mother try a little harder to do her part, and why did his father have to be so mean and unforgiving? He tended to place greater blame on his father, whose attitude he felt was completely unreasonable; yet sometimes he could not help suspecting that his mother was exaggerating her symptoms in order to withdraw from their unpleasant family life, leaving an unequipped child to fight her battles in her place.

As he grew older, however, Snape began to see his mother’s illnesses in a different light.
 
* * *

When Snape was nine he had found an old photo album at the bottom of a box in the attic. It contained many pictures of a remarkably handsome young man who looked oddly familiar, but it was not until Snape came upon a wedding portrait in which this man stood next to his mother (as Snape watched, the man waved and hooted to people outside the frame and made rather mocking hand gestures behind his mother’s back) that he realised with a shock that the man was Tobias. The deterioration of his father’s looks over the previous decade had been as precipitous as the one that seemed to have taken place in his mother’s magic.

Astonished, Snape had taken the photo album to his mother and asked her about the pictures. As soon as she opened the album, a shadow had passed over his mother’s face and she had asked him to take it back to the attic and put it in a place where she would not stumble across it accidentally. “I can’t speak of that time, Severus,” she had said in a strained voice, “not even to you.” Snape hastened to remove the album from his mother’s sight, but he did not put it away; rather, he kept it in his own room and pored over the photos obsessively. That this handsome man had been his father was almost impossible to believe; the hooked nose that some might have considered Tobias’ only flaw was also the only characteristic he had passed on to his son.

Snape’s dark oily hair, sallow complexion and disagreeable cast of feature were all Eileen’s; the photos made clear that her ugliness had been no by-product of aging, but one of the constant facts of her life. He imagined what it must have meant to her to be courted by someone as attractive as Tobias had once been: important enough, perhaps, to make it meaningless that he was a Muggle. How much attention had young wizards ever paid Eileen, with a face like that? Nor, unless Eileen had once been far more amiable than she was now, would her personality have been any kind of redeeming factor to a potential suitor. Would she ever have had an opportunity to marry one of her own kind? Indeed, what would any man, wizard or Muggle, have seen in her?

Snape began asking each of his parents indirect and seemingly unrelated questions about their lives before they met each other, and gradually a picture emerged. Without his mother ever saying so aloud, Snape came to realise that Tobias had never loved Eileen, not even in the first flush of their acquaintance; he had only married her for her magic. A ne’er-do-well and a layabout in his youth as in his middle age, Tobias had been looking for an effortless fortune or at least a meal ticket, and had thought that in Eileen, an ugly but powerful young witch who was desperate for love, he had found exactly that. 

Once, in a fit of pique, Tobias told his son how he and the young Eileen Prince had met: in a Muggle pub, Eileen had seen him playing billiards and (according to Tobias) fallen for him on the spot, coming back night after night to watch him play. He, on the other hand, had not known she was alive until, one night, she stepped up to the billiard table and bet a conspicuously large sum of money on him. He won handily, and Eileen collected accordingly. The next night she was there again; once more she bet on him and claimed a substantial payout upon his winning.

After several more nights of this, Tobias became annoyed that this odd, ugly girl was profiting more from his billiards prowess than he was, and confronted her. She drew him aside and told him that, in fact, she was controlling the outcomes of his games, and could force him into a losing streak as easily as she could help him to keep winning.

“‘I can move the balls with my mind!,’ she said, and I laughed in her face,” Tobias recalled. “But oh, did she punish me for that! I couldn’t win for losing, all the rest of the night. She always was vindictive – if only I’d seen her true nature back then, what a lot of grief I’d have spared myself.”

After Tobias’ fourth straight loss of the night, with the pub about to shut, Eileen grabbed his arm and told him that she had rigged all his losses, and that she would prove it to him right then and there. With the back room of the pub empty but for themselves, Tobias watched as the triangle restraining the billiard balls flew off the table of its own accord; then some mysterious force, behaving exactly like an unseen cue, directed each ball in turn neatly into a different pocket of the table.

All his anger and skepticism were forgotten in light of the thrill of this discovery. Tobias, who was not at all happy in his current employment at the local textile mill, saw the potential uses to which Eileen’s powers could be put as quickly and clearly as Eileen herself had, and they immediately became a team. Eileen was clever and subtle, and used her invisible hand sparingly, allowing Tobias to struggle and to make errors in each game, so that bystanders would find his performances convincingly human. But he always won (or lost, if that was the way they had bet) in the end, and they split the resulting winnings. They always entered a pub or billiard hall separately, and never let on that they knew one another. Eileen further insured that no one would catch on to them by transfiguring her appearance, most often with Polyjuice Potion (Tobias called it “this awful mucky-looking stuff,” but his son, who had seen pictures of Polyjuice Potion in his mother’s books, immediately knew what he meant).

After a few highly lucrative months like this, Eileen “was madly in love with me,” as Tobias bragged; Tobias, for his part, thought that “there was no end to the money we could make together,” adding bitterly, “Little did I know what was coming.” It made sense to pool their winnings and for Tobias to secure his new cash cow legally, and they were married shortly thereafter.

For about a year, they had made quite a good income from their billiard betting. They bought the house in Spinner’s End and a car, long since broken down and abandoned. Then Eileen had fallen pregnant, which seemed to render her powers erratic and unreliable. Tobias assumed that after the baby was born, her abilities would bounce back, but in fact they continued to diminish. After a brief retirement from the town mill, Tobias had had to resume working part-time to supplement the income that Eileen’s increasingly infrequent scams brought in; then, as she worsened, he had been forced to become the family’s sole breadwinner, in maddeningly direct opposition to his plans.

Far from his ticket to a life of leisure, Eileen had become a millstone around his neck, a sideshow freak whose grotesqueness did not even bring in money. Their union tied him to the work he hated and, to add to his burdens, produced a son who was just as ugly and freakish as his mother, and whose magic was just as maddeningly out of the reach of exploitation.

As all this slowly became clear to Snape, his parents in their turn came gradually to understand what Snape knew about them. His relations with his mother underwent a subtle change during these years. Even at her moodiest, even when she was most angry with him, Eileen had always been intensely proud of her son’s magical abilities. She loved to revisit (in private, since the telling of it made Tobias furious) the story of the young Severus’ first display of magic: at the age of two, he had levitated a bottle of beer out of his father’s hands during dinner one night, and moved it through the air as far as the kitchen sink, where it dropped and shattered. In light of Tobias’ ever-increasing consumption of alcohol, and his exacerbated surliness when drunk, this incident had come to seem emblematic of Snape’s character to Eileen: “You were looking out for us even then,” she once told him.

As her own magic declined, and as relations between Eileen and her husband changed for the worse, she became more powerfully invested than ever in the young Snape’s growing magical ability. His every childish display – spontaneously turning a red wagon green, or suspending a mouse yowling in midair – seemed to increase the bond between them, and gradually they became allies in a cold war against Tobias, who, now that it was no longer useful to him, had grown to hate magic in all its forms.

Eileen began telling Severus everything she knew about magical defense, even though he would not be able to make practical use of the information until he left for Hogwarts. Both mother and son, in their different ways, feared not only Tobias, but the larger Muggle world that he stood for, with all of its hostility and jealousy toward magic and its eagerness to exploit what it could not have. Eileen, by now, deeply regretted the life she had married into, and feared the community around her, which could do nothing to alleviate or compensate for the disaster that her domestic life had become. The idea of self-defense and retaliation were powerful fantasies for her, and she passed them on to her fascinated son.

She told him all about Defence Against the Dark Arts, a subject she had excelled at at Hogwarts and that he too would soon learn; she pored over her old Defence textbooks with her son, confirming his view of the world as a dangerous place, but giving him an idea of all the things that magic could do to protect oneself and to punish one’s enemies. She taught him all sorts of curses and hexes, warning him simultaneously of the penalties he could incur for using them; she even told him about the three Unforgivable Curses, which most wizarding parents wanted to keep their children ignorant of for as long as possible. She told him too about Azkaban, the wizard prison where those who performed the Unforgivable Curses were sent, and from which no one had ever escaped. It was better, she said, that he know about such frightening things from the outset, for only by understanding the possibility and the nature of danger could he protect himself against it.

By the time the eleven-year-old Snape left for Hogwarts, the whole history of his parents’ marriage and the state of the family’s present relations had become an open secret, never spoken of but silently acknowledged as a subject of mutual understanding by each member of the household. Severus knew that Eileen would support him completely in his studies and his attempt to find a place for himself in the wizarding world; Eileen knew that Severus would take her part in the growing conflict between herself and Tobias. Tobias knew this too, and without ever saying so in words, he let it be known that he had no intention of letting the two “magicians” (a word which, in Tobias’ usage, clearly meant both “freak” and “fraud”) who shared his name and his household get the better of him. The powers of one were waning, while those of the other were immature and subject to restriction; a window of opportunity for triumph over them might soon present itself. Till then, he was biding his time.

In the later years of his childhood, Snape had often wished that he and his mother could escape from Spinner’s End and be shut of Tobias for good. Eileen had long since lost the ability to Apparate, which would make getting away much harder; still, Snape had a persistent fantasy of being roused in the middle of the night by his mother, who would tell him not to make a sound, then spirit him out of the house so that they could board the Knight Bus, a conveyance of which Tobias knew nothing, and vanish together into the safety of the wizarding world. But when Snape thought about what would happen after they were on their own, he saw what an impossible dream this was. They had no money, and his mother’s magic had deteriorated so much that Snape did not see how she could secure any kind of wizarding employment; on the other hand, she was too physically weak for Muggle work. He himself, it was already apparent, had magic in spades, but he could do nothing to support the family with it while he was underage, and anyway he had school to attend; all his hopes for something better in life were now pinned on Hogwarts.
 
* * *

Snape brooded on all of this as he prepared a double batch of Forgetfulness Potion. He sometimes wondered whether he would benefit from taking this stuff himself, but he always came back to the notion that only by maintaining a clear memory of the past could one ensure that one did not repeat it.

He thought again of Lucius’ cousin Zenobia. Miss Wunderin, unlike his mother, presumably had no loss of magic and no health problems to contend with; what was more, she apparently had no children to tie her to her husband or add to her cost of living. There was nothing to stop her from leaving her unhappy marriage, striking out for a new country, and starting her life anew – nothing except the weight of public opinion, and if she was as eccentric as Lucius seemed to think, that might not matter much to her anyway.

Why in the world should she not have done what she had done? In his mind Snape conjured up a picture of Zenobia – a vague one in the sense that he had no idea what she was like, but one which he endowed with all the thwarted hopes and possibilities of a young and not-yet-bowed Eileen Prince, and all of his own anger and desire for retribution against his father.

Then, somehow, this picture merged in his mind with one of Lily – a future Lily, married to James Potter and miserable, longing to be free of him and strike out on her own. Snape still hoped this terrible possibility could be prevented from coming to pass, but if it did come to pass…if it did, then nothing should be allowed to stand in Lily’s way either.

In the midst of all these thoughts, Snape felt a sudden painful heat on the inside of his left forearm. He had a flicker of panic: the Dark Lord was calling him, and in a moment, as he knew from long experience, a visual image would be projected via Legilimency from Voldemort’s mind into Snape’s of the place he was to go tonight for his Occlumency lesson – an obligation Snape had, in the agitation of the morning’s events, entirely forgotten about till now.

He must clear his mind immediately to receive the message, and if at all possible dissipate the emotions of the last few minutes, so that Voldemort would be unaware he had been thinking of such unseemly, un-Death Eater-like things. His heart sank with this last thought – his attempts at blocking the Dark Lord had never worked thus far – and sank still further at the realization that he also needed to prevent Voldemort from noticing that his heart was sinking. And all of this needed to be accomplished in no more than a couple of seconds!

Snape thought hard of an expanse of gray stone wall, like the wall of a cave, bare of any distinguishing marks – literally a blank slate. But outside the frame of this mental image, he could still feel his own agitation where it had been crowded onto the sidelines of his mind. He must do better at this, he must.

The next moment, the gray wall was replaced by an image of a windowless room lined with books, followed by another image of the exterior of a Muggle building, modern and ugly in style. Snape recognized the room and the building: the Rare Music and Books Room at the British Library in Euston Road. They had met there once before for their lessons: Voldemort had commandeered the room as the library closed for the night. Such temporary seizures of Muggle locations for his own use could be accomplished effortlessly, and though distasteful, these places were safer for him than anywhere in the wizarding world. It was as quiet as a tomb there, Snape remembered – quiet enough for Voldemort to hear the echo of every thought that had passed through Snape’s mind in the course of the day. But he must not think such things aloud, not now! He must find a way of thinking his thoughts without letting them become thoughts.

Although the information was not part of the image, Snape understood that he was to be there at eight o’clock sharp. Via Legilimency, Snape sent an acknowledgment to Voldemort that he had received the message and would be there at the appointed time – a sort of mental RSVP. The image of the reading room disappeared abruptly, and Snape, feeling the Dark Lord release his mind, began breathing normally again.
 
* * *

After Foulmouth’s closed that evening at seven, Snape stayed late for a few minutes cleaning up, then set off for his appointment with Voldemort. Whenever possible, he allowed extra time to reach the designated place for his lesson; Voldemort did not appreciate tardiness.

It was a pleasant evening, and he chose to walk to Euston Road rather than taking the tube; being underground and surrounded by Muggles always made him feel constricted and uncomfortable, in any case – it was like using the Floo Network, only slower. He arrived at the Library at ten minutes before eight; the building had already been closed for several hours. He stood in the deserted plaza in front of the entrance for a few minutes and tried – with some success, he thought – to empty his mind. At three minutes to eight, after looking around him carefully, he stepped into the shadows by the front face of the library and Apparated past the locked entrance directly into the Rare Books and Music Room.

Voldemort was sitting in a reading chair in the dimly lit room with an ancient-looking volume draped over his lap.

“Ah, Severus,” he said as Snape materialized. He closed the book, and with a dismissive “The things Muggles think precious,” sent it soaring across the room. It penetrated the glass of a display case without leaving a mark on the surface, and came to rest lying open against a bookstand inside.

Snape sat down in a chair opposite Voldemort. “Good evening, my Lord,” he said.

“Good evening,” said the Dark Lord. “How have you been since I saw you last?”

“Well, thank you,” said Snape, but he immediately moved to barricade his mind. He knew from experience that Voldemort might use Legilimency to test the honesty even of a trivial pleasantry like this.

“Yes, you are fairly well at the moment,” said the Dark Lord, “but that was not the case earlier today, was it?”

Snape took a deep breath and considered his response. “I’ve had a few irritating moments in the course of the day, yes. Difficult customers and such.”

“That is not what I mean,” said Voldemort. “When I contacted you to give you the details of our appointment, you were not happy to hear from me.”

“I confess I was not,” said Snape, “but only because I knew you would be disappointed by my failures in regulating my mind today.”

“Whether or not I am disappointed has yet to be determined, Severus. I am well aware that you are not yet advanced in your practice of mind control. But let us first look into the sources of your troubles. You received a communication this morning that agitated you, did you not?”

Snape evaded Voldemort’s eyes and did not answer. The Dark Lord had clearly gained a foothold in Snape’s mind, but he might still be prevented from gaining anything more. “It came from a woman,” continued the Dark Lord. “You are angry with me for my prying, Severus,” he added. “But that anger will not help you to block me.

“The woman is a figure from your childhood,” Voldemort resumed. “She is someone for whom you cared a great deal.” At this probing of an already vulnerable spot, Snape’s anger flared again, but he knew that the Dark Lord was right about its being counterproductive to successful Occlumency. In any case, he did not want Voldemort to think he could provoke Snape’s emotions so easily. He strove to calm himself.

“She was my best friend as a child,” Snape finally said. He felt the need to explain or justify his own feelings, even though he confirmed Voldemort’s suspicions in doing so.

“But I cannot tell what you feel toward her now. Better, Severus! Or perhaps you yourself do not know. Regardless, the fact that I cannot tell which it is indicates progress on your part.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” said Snape. He had largely mastered his earlier anger now, and was even calm enough that he could accept the Dark Lord’s compliment collectedly.

“Severus, I want you to think about your old friend now while I enter your mind. This time you will be able to feel me there. I will give you a moment to prepare yourself.

“When you feel me, I want you to block me. I will try to learn more about your friend. You must do your best to prevent me.”

Snape was afraid. He was not happy to have learned that Voldemort now knew of the fact of Lily’s existence, even in the most general way; it was now imperative that he, Snape, prevent the Dark Lord from learning anything more specific about her – any details that could be traced to Lily herself.

The first order of business was to thrust his fear into a place far away from his conscious mind, since fear in itself was telling and dangerous. He imagined his mind as a cross-section of earth, made up of multiple levels of sediment. He would bury his fear many layers below the surface, and everything he knew about Lily he would hide even deeper, in the very bedrock of his mind. Then he would lay anger (never a difficult emotion for him to conjure) thickly across the surface of his mind. Like a swarm of bees, it would distract and injure intruders, and deter excavation into the layers of soil and rock below.

“Are you ready?” asked Voldemort.

“Yes,” said Snape. It was as true as it was ever likely to be.

Voldemort raised his wand and said softly, “Legilimens.”

The next moment Voldemort was inside Snape’s mind. The intimacy of Legilimental penetration was something one could never get used to, Snape thought. He could feel the tentacles of Voldemort’s thought uncurling inside his head like those of an octopus, probing, finessing, seducing, trying to attach themselves to his own thoughts and pry them open. To have the Dark Lord deign to enter his head was both an unspeakable privilege and an undeniable assault; the flattery of it could not be separated from the brutality of it, or at least Snape had never been able to separate them.

He knew that Voldemort could hear him thinking all of this, but that was all right: the Dark Lord would accept it as a blocking tactic, and assume that Snape was thinking about him only to keep from thinking of the person he was trying to protect.

“What is her name?” asked Voldemort from inside his head.

“Petunia,” answered Snape, from the same location. The name had come readily to hand for reasons that were clear only to Snape; meanwhile, Lily and her older sister were so diametrically opposed in every important way that one woman’s name would probably never lead the Dark Lord to the other’s.

“Obviously it is not,” said Voldemort. “You will need a stronger defense than that. Such walls can be breached. What is her blood status?” the Dark Lord added, changing his line of attack.

Snape thought immediately of Petunia’s snobbery, as intense within her world as some unfairly supposed Lucius Malfoy’s to be within his.

“Severus, is this a wise tactic?” asked Voldemort in response. The thrust of his thoughts against Snape’s was almost physical, almost palpable. “Half-bloods and Muggle-borns are often shriller in their protests of blood purity than real purebloods, after all.”

Snape tried to simulate the feeling of having been found out. He paused in an imitation of reluctance. “She is a half-blood, my Lord.”

“You are lying,” said Voldemort. “That was clumsy, Severus. Your friend is either a pureblood or Muggle-born. And you grew up among Muggles, did you not?”

Snape had, and he had hated every one of them. A half-second’s calculation told him that a display of truthful emotion, in this case, would protect him better than a lie.

“Muggles are indeed detestable,” said Voldemort, “but that hardly means your friend is not the child of Muggles; she might even be one of them.” Abruptly Voldemort pulled himself out of Snape’s mind, leaving the space where he had been cold and void. Snape struggled to fill the vacuum with his own thoughts and restore his equilibrium.

“And,” Voldemort added aloud, “you were not only allowing me access to your honest thoughts just now, you were serving them to me on a platter. That was not good Occlumency, Severus.”

“I did the best I could,” said Snape, almost defiantly. Somewhere in his subconscious mind he was aware that his supposedly poor Occlumency had nevertheless detained the Dark Lord from discovery of Lily’s identity, but he did not allow this awareness to reach the level of conscious thought.

“Your irritation is understandable,” conceded Voldemort. “On the whole, you did improve on your performance of last week. Let us see if you can keep it up.

“You were also thinking quite a bit about your mother today. That made you agitated too, and I hardly need Legilimency to know why; your mother was an ill-served woman, I am well aware. But what, I wonder, brought on this bout of deep thinking? Legilimens,” said Voldemort with no further warning; he had not even raised his wand this time.

No, was Snape’s only thought as Voldemort entered his mind again. Was everyone who had ever been important in his life to be subject to this kind of probing and harassment? Wasn’t it enough that one woman was estranged from him and the other was dead? Couldn’t his mother be left in peace, even now? He spoke this final thought aloud inside his head.

“Keep me out, then,” responded Voldemort.

Snape felt incapable of any more of the exhausting concentration required to put up these mental walls; his mind groaned in protest. All he could think of was how unfair it all was. His mother had given so much to him when she had so little for herself. Her health and magic had failed, but her support of him had been unwavering. Now that he was an adult himself, it was even more painfully clear to him what she must have gone through while he was growing up. The loss of her magic had meant not merely the loss of specific powers, but of her whole identity. Meanwhile, the Muggle man and the Muggle world she might have looked to for a new one (however inferior) had failed her utterly. By the time of her death, at which point she was essentially a Squib, she had had nothing left – nothing except him, her only child.

Thinking of her, Snape was suddenly on the verge of tears. He knew he would get a lecture from Voldemort for letting emotion get the better of him like this, but at the moment he did not care. He felt an intense protective affection toward his mother, and an intense desire that the rest of the world, including Voldemort, leave her and her memory alone.

Suddenly he felt a vacuum in his mind again; Voldemort had withdrawn.

“You are tired, Severus,” said the Dark Lord. “Your Occlumency always declines when you are tired, but that is true of every beginner. We will stop for tonight.”

Snape was somehow even more disappointed than he was relieved. He had wanted to bring this lesson to a close by meeting Voldemort’s demands, not by inspiring his pity. But the Dark Lord’s decisions in such matters were not to be argued with. Snape rose to take his leave.

“Nevertheless,” said Voldemort suddenly, “there was a moment just now when you blocked me completely. Only a moment, but if you can find such a moment again and prolong it, you will have made a breakthrough. We will try again next week.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” said Snape. He had absolutely no idea which moment Voldemort was referring to, or what he had done to create it.

“Good night, Severus,” said the Dark Lord, who remained seated. “When it is time for us to meet again, I will call on you.”

“Good night, my Lord,” said Snape. He looked down at Voldemort, who was altogether relaxed, an emperor at home even on this borrowed throne. Snape felt his earlier resentment submerged in a wave of admiration for this most powerful of wizards, a leader of a great cause who nonetheless found time to spend with an insignificant person like himself, to pass along some small part of his knowledge and skill. He wished now that he could stay and continue the lesson, that he could reverse the course of the last few minutes and make the Dark Lord proud of him. But it was time for him to go.

The Dark Lord was looking up at him calmly, as if he understood all that was in Snape’s mind. “Thank you, my Lord,” Snape said again, and finally Disapparated.



Chapter 2: Snape, Suspended

Snape had first met Voldemort face to face the summer after his fifth year at Hogwarts. It had been, in fact, the very day he returned home from school.

The Snapes lived in northern England – not so far from Hogwarts, had Snape only realised it as an isolated and lonely child wizard. Since the Hogwarts Express made only one stop, at King’s Cross station in London, the train was an inconvenient means of transportation for children like Snape, a fact which the school acknowledged in its initial acceptance letter to him.

The letter outlined several alternate means of getting to Hogwarts for those families not well-served by the train’s London terminus, including the Knight Bus and the Floo Network; but Snape had heard so much about the Hogwarts Express from his mother – its departure from the hidden Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, the journey north through the mountains, the snack cart, the owls and cats and toads that accompanied the students, the excitement of changing into Hogwarts robes as the school neared – that he would have been heartbroken to travel to school by any other means, and insisted on being taken to London to meet the train there.

Had Eileen still been able to Apparate, this would have been a simple matter; as it was, however, their travel options were severely limited. Any wizarding home which also housed Muggles was legally barred from the Floo Network, and as getting to school the long way round was not exactly a situation of emergency, Eileen did not think the Knight Bus would see fit to pick them up. She was concerned about the expense of two Muggle train tickets from Manchester (the nearest large city to their village) to London (his father objected, and rather more violently, not only to the expense but to the entire enterprise). However, this worry was alleviated when Lily’s mother, who was as fascinated by the idea of the magical train as her daughter and was driving Lily down so that she should not miss out on such a crucial experience, insisted upon taking Snape, his mother, his trunk and the family owl, Pascal, with them in the Evanses’ car. Both children fell in love with the train during that first journey and would not hear of traveling to and from school in any other way thereafter, however geographically redundant it might be.

While Lily and Snape remained friends, this arrangement had not posed any problems; Mrs. Evans was happy to continue collecting and dropping off Snape and his luggage along with Lily and hers. When he and Lily fell out so bitterly in the spring of their fifth year, however, Snape realized he would have to make other arrangements for getting home from London. He was sure that the kind Mrs. Evans would offer to pick him up regardless of how things stood between him and Lily, but it would be awful and embarrassing to be trapped in a car with Lily for hours with her refusing to speak to him the whole way. The day before they were to leave Hogwarts, therefore, he sent an owl to Mrs. Evans, saying he would be staying with relatives in London for a few days after deboarding the Hogwarts Express, and that these entirely fictional family members would pick him up from King’s Cross.

That train trip home was the first time he had been thoroughly unhappy on the Hogwarts Express. For starters, on previous journeys home he had always sat with Lily; and though he was surrounded this time by a whole car full of Slytherin friends and should have had no call to feel lonely, he was haunted by the change and what it meant.

Then, when once he was through the barrier into Muggle King’s Cross, with no one having met him and no one to help him with his luggage, he spent nearly all his meager savings on a ticket for a Muggle train to Manchester. He dragged his trunk onto the train just as it was leaving, then found that every seat was taken. For the next two and a half hours he sat on his trunk near the door with Pascal’s cage balanced awkwardly on his lap, receiving stares and glares from everyone who squeezed past him on the way to the toilet.

He grew even more demoralized as he thought of what awaited him at home: two and a half months of family tension and the ever-present threat of violence; a dismal summer job in a Muggle market (critical for the extra income and discounted food it brought to the family); being forced to cook for Tobias again; and, to top it off, no Lily.

He would not even be able to do magic at home, for earlier that spring Eileen had contacted the Ministry to ask whether they could do anything to protect her from Tobias, whose drinking and aggressive outbursts were becoming more and more alarming. When the Ministry asked why she, a witch, was unable to defend herself against a mere Muggle, Eileen was forced to confess that her magic had diminished so much as to leave her nearly incapable of self-defense.

The Ministry’s response had been worse than useless: although they refused to intervene, claiming that marriages of mixed blood status were beyond the reach of their jurisdiction, they did notify Eileen that they would be closely monitoring all wand usage in the house in Spinner’s End from that point forward. When Snape read Eileen’s letter relating all this, he groaned aloud: the Ministry would now know that any magic performed during the summer originated not with Eileen, but with her underage son. His every Summoning Charm or use of Incendio to light the stove would bring on a Ministry inquiry at the very least, and most likely worse.

All in all, the next few months promised to be an unrelieved ordeal. Each of the previous summers had been a little less bearable than the last; Snape felt he was reaching a breaking point. He did not know what he was going to do to get through it.

At Manchester, he realized he did not have enough money left for a taxi, and Spinner’s End was twenty-eight miles away. He called home from a pay phone, hoping his mother might answer; though the family had no car, there was a slim chance she could enchant a passing lorry or van into coming to pick him up. But the line did not even ring; perhaps the phone had been disconnected.

He got into a taxi with Pascal and his trunk, knowing he would have to cheat the driver. When they reached Spinners End, he got out, pulled his trunk from the boot, handed the driver a pound note and ten, and said, “Sorry, this is all I’ve got.” The incredulous driver asked him to repeat himself, then slapped him hard across the face twice, got back in the car, and sped off in a stream of curses, nearly running Pascal over in the process.

With eyes still tearing from the slaps, and perhaps from more general causes, Snape made for the front door, longing to remove himself from the scene of his humiliation. It was locked. He went round to the back; it was locked as well. He banged on one door, then the other, for fully ten minutes, but no one answered. It was maddening: a simple Alohomora would have let him in, and would also have had the Ministry of Magic on his back practically by the time he was inside; he had been in trouble for using underage magic before.

Finally, cursing the world with every obscenity in his vocabulary, he broke one of the front windows by heaving his trunk through it, and climbed in after it – hopefully his mother could perform a quick repairing charm on the glass later. Right now, the door of her small room on the first floor was closed; if she had really not heard him – or worse, not been able to get up – it was clearly one of her bad days. His father, at least, was not around, so perhaps Snape could lock himself in his room, collapse on the bed, and enjoy a little peace and quiet as this long and trying day wound to a close. He seized his trunk yet again and heaved it up the stairs.

He was struggling backward into his bedroom, dragging the trunk after him, when a voice, high and cold, but quite civil, said, “Severus Snape, I presume?”

Snape nearly jumped out of his skin with surprise, but when he dropped the trunk and spun round to face the owner of the voice, he felt himself to be in danger of fainting outright. For there, sitting on the chair of Snape’s own desk with his legs calmly crossed, was a man whose appearance would have struck fear into anyone.

His dark hair and physical frame were normal-looking enough, but his skin was unsettlingly, abnormally pale, and there was a strange cast to his features that caused him to appear simultaneously more than and less than human. He could not have been said to be handsome - the perversely skewed proportions of his face prevented that – but there was nonetheless something compelling, something commanding about that face. And though he seemed rather altered from the pictures of him that Snape had seen – perhaps the Daily Prophet had only old photos of him on file? – there was no mistaking who he was. The Dark Lord, Voldemort himself, was sitting here in his bedroom, just as if he had been invited over for tea and biscuits.

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“You are Severus Snape?” repeated Voldemort – again quite politely, but fear of offending the Dark Lord with his delayed response finally loosened Snape’s tongue.

“Yes, sir,” he said, then immediately wondered: How did one address the Dark Lord? What was the proper form, especially given that they had not met before? He was afraid on the one hand of seeming too sycophantic – then again, perhaps that was what Voldemort would want? – and on the other of being too familiar. In the end, it seemed safest to address the Dark Lord as if he were a particularly exalted type of Hogwarts headmaster.

“Do you know who I am?” asked Voldemort.

“Yes, sir. You are Lord Voldemort, sir,” said Snape, managing with effort to keep his voice steady.

“Quite right,” said the Dark Lord. “Do you know why I am here, Severus – if I may call you that?”

“Of course – of course you may, sir,” Snape stuttered, completely flustered by the irony of Voldemort’s deigning to observe such niceties with him. “But I’m afraid I have no idea what brings you here.” Had this been the wrong thing to say? Should he have hazarded a guess, or would Voldemort have considered that presumptuous?

“I will get to that in a moment. But first of all, I must congratulate you, Severus,” said Voldemort. “You’ve done extremely well on your O.W.L.s.”

“Sir?” Snape was completely baffled. How was it possible Voldemort could know this? Fifth-year students had been told not to expect the owls that would bring them their test results for at least a week following the end of term.

“ ‘Outstanding’ in nine subjects, and ‘Exceeds Expectations’ in the remaining one,” elaborated the Dark Lord.

“Sir, are you sure there hasn’t been some mistake? You see, I haven’t actually received my O.W.L. results yet.”

“Nevertheless, I have seen them. One ‘E’ and nine ‘O’s. Really exceptional. You must be the top of your year.”

“Er,” said Snape, flushing, “I don’t know about that.” His emotions were a confusing blend of pleasure and discomfort, but at the moment the discomfort was rather strongly prevailing. He had to admit he was disappointed by the one ‘E.’ If the Dark Lord was going to be previewing his test results, he would have liked him to have seen a column of uninterrupted ‘O’s, of course, but it was more than that: he had worked devilishly hard in pursuit of a top score in every subject.

“Sir, if I may ask –” said Snape. He felt somewhat ridiculous, but he also wanted very much to know how things stood.

“Go on,” said Voldemort.

“What subject did I get the ‘E’ in?”

“History of Magic,” replied Voldemort. “So your deviation from perfection in this one case is more than forgivable. In fact, it is amazing that you managed to learn anything at all from that incompetent ghost.”

Snape almost felt that Voldemort was trying to engage him in a conspiratorial laugh at the expense of Professor Binns, the History of Magic teacher at Hogwarts, but he did not feel quite enough at his ease to indulge in any such thing.

“Did you have Professor Binns too, sir?” he said – then realized that it had probably been a stupid thing to ask. As a ghost who had already died ages ago, Binns would have had no cause to interrupt his tenure at Hogwarts for many decades.

“I certainly did,” said Voldemort. “I believe every student to attend Hogwarts for at least the last hundred years has had the misfortune of being taught by Binns. I remember that he never knew any of our names.”

“That hasn’t changed,” said Snape, venturing a grin. He was feeling a little more relaxed now.

“He used to call me ‘Conundrum’ – I am not sure whether he thought that was my first name, my last name, or simply a description of me. Perhaps he knows my name better now.”

“I would think so, sir.”

“At any rate, Severus, I did not come here to talk to you about Professor Binns. I came here to meet you, and to ask you a few things about yourself.”

“Me, sir?” Was this some sort of perverse joke? Snape did not see how a sixteen-year-old boy of no family or position could have the slightest significance in the Dark Lord’s worldview, no matter how well he might have done on his O.W.L.s.

“Any political movement worth its salt is constantly trying to refresh itself with new blood, to recruit new members to itself – particularly young ones with unlimited energy and potential. Is it so surprising, then, that I should be on the lookout for promising young wizards and witches, or that I would want to meet some of them personally?”

“I suppose not, sir, but I never expected anything like this. I mean, to have you here in my own home!” In saying this, it suddenly occurred to Snape that he was being rather a shabby host to his illustrious visitor.

“Sir, can I get you something to drink? Something to eat?” he heard himself adding hurriedly, although he hated to think of the very poor options his mother must have on hand in both departments.

“No, thank you, Severus. Your conversation is all I require. Please, tell me a little about yourself. Your family, your studies, what interests you.”

Voldemort’s mention of the word “family” sent a sudden chill down Snape’s spine. Did the Dark Lord know that his father was a Muggle? If Voldemort had access to the confidential test results of Hogwarts students, surely he also knew the ignominious facts of Snape’s parentage, which were, after all, a matter of public record. But if he knew Snape was not a pureblood, why was he here at all, and how could he possibly want to recruit Snape to his cause? He must not know, Snape thought tremblingly; it must have been overlooked somehow. Having come all this way and taken all this trouble, what was Voldemort liable to do if he found out he was barking up the wrong tree? Snape did not like to think. Meanwhile, the Dark Lord was still waiting on his reply.

Trying to buy himself a little more time to think, Snape began hastily, “Well, uh, my greatest interest is the Dark Arts. They’ve fascinated me since I was small. Defence Against the Dark Arts is my favorite subject – of course it’s as close as they’ll let you get at Hogwarts to studying the Dark Arts themselves, you have to come at them indirectly.”

“You are knowledgeable in this area, clearly; your test results show that,” said Voldemort. “I understand you also particularly excel at Potions.”

How in the world did Voldemort know this? “I suppose I have some aptitude for potion-making,” said Snape rather dismissively, “but ultimately I’d like to do something that has to do with the Dark Arts. Potion-making is a little…pedestrian by comparison.”

“On the contrary,” said Voldemort, “I consider potion-making to be a critical wizarding skill. I am always looking for good potions masters.” Snape, embarrassed, was wondering whether he had spoken out of turn, when Voldemort added suddenly, “What do you know about unicorn blood, Severus?”

Snape was surprised by this sudden turn in the conversation, but replied steadily, “Unicorn blood is a very powerful, very dangerous substance. Drinking it is supposed to make the drinker immortal.”

“Why doesn’t everyone drink it, then?” asked Voldemort. His tone was rhetorical; Snape could tell he already knew the answer, and was merely testing to see whether he, Snape, did as well.

“Because the immortality comes at a great cost,” Snape continued. He was confident now; this was ground he knew well. “The life you will have after drinking it will supposedly be a cursed life, a life worse than death to endure.”

“You say ‘supposedly.’ Do you not believe that to be true?”

“I don’t know, sir. I have no direct experience with unicorn blood, other than seeing it on the ground in the Forbidden Forest once.”

“If you had the opportunity to drink it, and the possibility of obtaining immortality thereby, would you take it?”

Snape considered for a moment. “No, I don’t think so,” he answered honestly.

“You would not wish to become immortal?” Voldemort asked. There was an undertone of disbelief in his voice; perhaps Snape had made a blunder in replying thus.

“If my experience of life so far is anything to go by…no.”

“Your experience of life thus far has not been a happy one?”

“Not always, no.”

“I am sorry,” said Voldemort. He paused contemplatively. “Tell me a little about your family.”

Fear rose up in Snape again, more powerfully than before. He was silent as he thought frantically about how best to respond. If he tried to hide the matter of his birth, Voldemort would surely find it out eventually, and Snape hated to think how he might express the displeasure resulting from the discovery. Then again, if he told him now, it might be the last thing he ever did.

“Have I touched on an unpleasant subject?” asked the Dark Lord. His tone could, without exaggeration, have been called “concerned,” and Snape was weirdly touched, even as he feared for his own life.

“Er,” Snape hesitated, “yes, rather. I suppose so. You see, I don’t always get along with them very well. My father in particular.”

“Why is that?”

“He’s…we don’t see eye-to-eye.” He could hear himself beating around the bush; worse, he could hear himself shifting blame for everything that was wrong with the Snapes – the family’s disharmony and its low blood status – to his father. He felt that his father was to blame for these things, and yet it was weakness in him, Severus, to try to escape Voldemort’s wrath by pointing a finger elsewhere; surely this would do no good in the end. There was nothing for it; he would have to come clean.

“Sir, before you go any further…there’s something about me you should know.”

“What is that, Severus?”

He took a deep breath and said, with his heart in his mouth, “I’m a half-blood. My father is a Muggle.”

For several seconds his head pounded with the pulse of his own fear, but the Dark Lord made no move for his wand; indeed, he sat still and silent, as if waiting for more. “And?” said Voldemort eventually.

“Well, isn’t that a problem? For your movement, I mean," said Snape nervously.

“Not at all,” said Voldemort. “There are many superb wizards who are half-bloods. I am one myself, in fact.”

Snape was taken aback. He felt a mixture of pleasure and anxiety at the confiding ease with which the Dark Lord made this disclosure about his own blood status. Surely this was privileged information? It certainly was not known in the wizarding world at large. Snape wondered, in fact, whether Voldemort should have been quite so free with this confession. Couldn’t the information be used against him by his detractors, even perhaps by his own followers?

“It’s only Mudbloods to whom my movement objects,” continued Voldemort. “People with no magical blood cannot, by definition, be wizards, and as such, should not enjoy the rights and privileges that true wizards have within our community. Let them lord it over their fellow Muggles, if they choose, but the wizarding world should have no part of them.”

“I – thank you, sir, I didn’t realise.”

Here Voldemort actually smiled at him. “My dear Severus, did you think I was going to pull out my wand and reduce you to dust merely because you are not a pureblood wizard?”

“I – I wasn’t sure, sir.”

“I am sorry to have caused you anxiety. Nonetheless, I value your frankness and your courage in telling me something you thought would cause me displeasure. This is as it should be. You should feel no need to keep secrets from me.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Snape, a little dumb with relief.

“Your Muggle father does not treat you well, then?” asked Voldemort.

“No,” said Snape. “But he treats my mother worse.”

“I am sorry for your trouble, Severus,” said Voldemort, “though I cannot say I am surprised. This is what comes of marriage between wizards and Muggles, or even wizards and Muggle-borns. And although it may be too late for your mother, at least there are measures that can be taken to discourage future generations from making the same mistake. Penalties against such intermarriage, for example – both legal and social.”

“That sounds like a good idea, sir," said Snape.

The Dark Lord smiled again. “Severus,” he said, “my visit here is somewhat premature, since you are not yet of age. But a young wizard of your talents will be much in demand from all quarters, and I did not want to risk your being lured away by misguided people who will argue attractively for their cause, but who secretly wish for the destruction of our world. I hope that when you turn seventeen you will remember all I’ve said to you today, and consider joining me in my work.”

Snape swallowed. “I will, sir. I’m honoured that you thought of me.”

“The honour was mine, Severus,” said the Dark Lord. “And now I must say goodbye for the moment. Till the next time we meet, I hope all will be well with you.” And before Snape could even reply, Voldemort was gone, leaving only a faint shimmer in the air behind him. There had been no pop of Apparition, no use of his wand, no verbal command; one moment he had been sitting there, and the next Snape was blinking at an empty desk chair. He supposed that the Dark Lord had his own specially advanced methods of moving from place to place.

One week later, Snape was making breakfast for himself and his mother, who was up and about for a change, when an owl flew through the open window of the kitchen bearing a large, square envelope with the Hogwarts insignia on it: his O.W.L. results. Barely breathing, Snape took the envelope and ripped through the seal.

Exactly as Voldemort had said, he had earned all “O”’s except for an “E” in History of Magic. He passed the results over to Eileen. In spite of the warmth of the day, the heat from the stove, and the exclamations of his delighted mother, Snape found himself shivering. He stood staring into space until the smell of fried eggs beginning to burn called him back to himself.
 
* * *

Perhaps Snape’s feeling of foreboding had been premonitory, for the arrival of his O.W.L. results was the last unequivocally good thing to happen that summer. Things went from bad to worse with alarming speed, until mid-August brought with it the greatest crisis of Snape’s young life.

It was clear to Snape almost immediately that during his fifth-year absence, relations between his parents had deteriorated catastrophically, reaching new extremes of hostility on his father’s side and new depths of impotence and misery on his mother’s. It had been a major blow to the family when Tobias had been made redundant at the mill during Snape’s third year at Hogwarts, but he had still been able to get contract work there on a somewhat regular basis. Over the last year, however, those jobs had been harder and harder to come by; the mill had less contract work on offer to begin with, and Tobias was rarely picked for jobs when they did come up. Eileen thought this was due to Tobias’ increasing local reputation for daytime drunkenness, a highly undesirable habit in a machine operator. But while Snape could see for himself that his father’s alcohol consumption was increasingly out of control, he thought it was more likely that Tobias was not even trying to get work anymore.

Whatever the case, the family was now living off the dole, as Eileen was utterly unable to work. The day after he returned home, Snape resumed his position as a summer stock boy at the same market he had shoplifted from as a child, which improved the family’s financial situation a little and enabled them to get groceries at a discount. Snape hated the work, which would have been tedious even with magic and was physically exhausting without it.

But work was a pleasure compared with being at home. The fact of his son’s employment threw Tobias’ own failure to get work into even sharper relief, and he seemed to exist now in a constant state of malicious rage. Fortunately he was not often home, but even in his absence an anticipatory dread hung over the house. For the last year, Tobias had seemed ready and willing to do violence to Eileen; all she had to put between herself and him was a locked bedroom door and a few last gasps of magic. Now she was nearly helpless, both physically and magically, and Snape was terrified that his father would seize the opening to do something irrevocable.

The window that Snape had broken in order to get into the house, and the response his family made to it, threw the new household conditions into terrible clarity.

The first and worst thing the broken window brought to light was the calamitous decline in his mother’s magic: She could not fix the window. Some time after Voldemort’s departure, Snape came downstairs to find that his mother had emerged from her room and was standing among the shards of glass with an expression of frantic concentration on her face. “Severus!” she said, turning as he entered the sitting room. “I’m glad you’re home, but why on earth did you have to come in through the window?” There was a sharp note of panic in her voice.

“I couldn’t get in, Mum,” said Snape, feeling the exasperation of a few hours ago rising in him again. “The doors were locked and nobody answered. I banged away for ages.”

“The front door was locked?” said Eileen in alarm. “I told Tobias to leave it open. I knew you were coming home today, and I can’t always get out of bed very quickly any more… I wanted you to be able to let yourself in.” But there was a look of dawning comprehension on her face.

“You told him I was coming?” said Snape, beginning to understand as well.

“I had to,” said Eileen. “The door is normally locked when I’m here alone. I couldn’t tell him to leave it open without a reason.”

“That’s why he locked it, then,” said Snape grimly, voicing what they were both thinking. “But you can fix it,” he said, looking down at the broken glass. He was suddenly afraid to meet his mother’s eye.

“I can’t, Severus,” said Eileen in a soft, pained voice. “I’ve been trying for the last ten minutes.” Snape looked at her then, and saw in her face just how bad everything had become. He was afraid to say anything else for fear of making her feel even worse, but he gave her a look of full understanding.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Eileen continued. A hint of desperation had entered her voice. “Tobias will be furious when he finds out.”

“It’s his fault!” Snape exclaimed angrily. “It’s his problem, let him deal with it for once.” But he knew it was useless to look at the situation in any terms that involved justice or logic. They simply had to fix the window, and quickly too. “Let me send Pascal off with a letter to the Ministry,” he suggested. “Maybe they’ll give me permission to do just this one bit of magic. We can tell them it’s necessary for the preservation of family harmony.”

“After last year?” said Eileen, her expression darkening further. “No, Severus, I don’t want you to do anything more to aggravate the Ministry. When you’re seventeen you can do as you like, but you’ve got to lie low for a few more months. Don’t give them any excuse to think ill of you now.”

The previous summer, Snape had indeed given the Ministry reason to think ill of him. Not that he cared what they thought in general; they were only a stupid bunch of bureaucrats. But they apparently had the power to remove him from Hogwarts, and for a brief but terrifying period last summer they had seriously threatened to do so. Snape still thought of the whole episode with a lingering sense of panic.
 
* * *

The act of underage magic that had put his future thus in jeopardy had happened half against his will, but very much in line with his true wishes. It had all begun innocently enough, with a seemingly harmless dream.

His parents had been fighting constantly, and one night after a particularly vicious argument between them, Snape had had a wonderful dream, a dream of triumphant revenge over Tobias. In it, his parents stood in the kitchen arguing with voices raised, while Snape looked on impotently – just as happened every evening in reality. Then the thing Snape was most afraid of in life happened in the dream: Tobias struck his mother, hard across the face. He raised his hand to do it again, but before the blow could fall, the dream Snape raised his wand and shouted, “Expecto Patronum!”

From the tip of his wand burst a silvery something that Snape could not even identify – it was a blur of fur, claws and teeth. The thing leapt forward and fastened its paws around Tobias’ throat, knocking him to the ground. Snape and his mother stood gaping as Tobias and the ghostly animal locked themselves together in struggle; finally the creature gained a clear upper hand and withdrew, leaving Tobias lying motionless in a puddle of gleaming silvery liquid. It paused for a moment, looking at the subdued figure as if in satisfaction; Snape still could not have said what animal it was. It looked like a miniature bear, though it was too small even for a bear cub; it might have been a particularly vicious badger, but it did not have the telltale markings.

Whatever it was, it turned, sprang into the air, and vanished out the kitchen window. Eileen clutched her son by the arm and they stared at one another. A look of relief and gratitude was on his mother’s face, and though Snape could not be sure whether Tobias was alive or dead, he somehow knew with certainty that his father would not trouble either of them again.

He woke immediately afterward, feeling happier than he could remember being in a long time, even though the dream offered no way out of his current troubles: conjuring a Patronus at home during the summer would, of course, have been a major violation of underage magical law. And the point was moot in any case, for outside of this dream, Snape had never yet been able to produce a Patronus.

This was by no means for lack of trying: although Patronuses were advanced magic and would not be covered in Defence Against the Dark Arts until seventh year, there was nothing to stop Snape from attempting to conjure one on his own, and in the last month of fourth year he had made repeated efforts to do so. He had thus far been unsuccessful beyond the appearance of a few silvery wisps; perhaps the memories he had been trying to use as inspiration (mostly moments of academic success in Potions or Defence Against the Dark Arts) had not been strong enough. But in his dream, Snape had conjured the mystery animal with almost no effort, and sometimes, he knew, dreams could be premonitions: part of the happiness he felt no doubt stemmed from the seeming hint he had been given that he would, in fact, be able to produce a Patronus one day soon.

The dream, as it turned out, was more painfully predictive of the future than Snape would ever have wished. The next night, Tobias came in drunk, as usual, and as usual his mother asked if there had been work that day. Tobias did not even bother to reply, but just as he had in the dream, struck Eileen straight across the face. Despite his long and fearful anticipation of this moment, Snape was not prepared for the reality of it; he stood paralyzed with shock and horror as Eileen reeled backwards and then tried to flee from the kitchen. But when Tobias advanced with his hand raised again, Snape’s body seemed to spring into action of its own accord. He charged at his father, both fists flying, but he was no match for him: Tobias easily blocked his son’s blows, then seized him by the shoulders and kicked him hard in the stomach.

Snape fell to the floor, gagging and ready to cry, but the tears that had sprung to his eyes came from rage as much as from physical pain. He thought desperately of his Patronus dream: the only thing that might redeem this moment would be the realization of the good things in that dream alongside the bad. At that moment he cared nothing for magical law or his own future; he only wanted his father punished. He drew his wand, closed his eyes and thought hard of the strange animal that had appeared in the dream – its clawing paws, its biting teeth – until he could actually feel its presence in the room with him. He reached out to the feeling of it as to a brother. “Expecto Patronum!” he shouted. His voice was shaky, yet it echoed through the room with surprising volume and force.

And to his joy – though a joy mixed from the beginning with foreboding – it worked. From the tip of his wand burst the same bearlike animal he had conjured in the dream; it leapt straight at Tobias, clutching him by the throat and wrestling him to the ground.

“Severus, what have you done?” cried Eileen. With a greater strength than he had imagined her still capable of, she ran to him and shook him hard. “You’ll be in such terrible trouble!” she said angrily. But then his normally undemonstrative mother startled him by hugging him fiercely. She added in a whisper, “I’ll cover for you, I’ll say it was me.”

The Patronus, meanwhile, continued to behave just as it had in the dream: it subdued Tobias, retreated, and watched him for a long moment, then turned and leapt through the window. But this time there was no silvery blood, or blood of any kind; after a few seconds Tobias sat up, rubbing his head, and pointed ominously at Snape.

“I don’t know what the bloody hell that was, but you’re as good as dead for bringing it here,” said Tobias. “Never mind what I’m going to do to you: they’ll expel you from that school now and no mistake. Won’t that just break your heart! I’m looking forward to it most thoroughly.”

“Don’t mind him, Severus,” whispered his mother, causing Tobias to yell, “Get away from him, you heathen bitch! There’ll be no conspiring between the two of you. He’s broken the law and he’s got to take his punishment.”

No sooner had the words escaped him than an owl flew in through the same window from which the Patronus had recently taken its leave. It carried a roll of parchment which it promptly deposited in Snape’s hands. A cold wave of nausea passed through him as he unrolled the message. It read,


Dear Mr. Snape,

The Ministry has received intelligence that at three minutes past seven this evening, you performed the Patronus Charm in a neighbourhood populated by Muggles and in the presence of a Muggle. Being thus in flagrant breach of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery, you are hereby expelled from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Ministry representatives will be calling at your place of residence shortly to destroy your wand.

Furthermore, the Ministry will require your presence at a hearing to take place at eight a.m sharp on 22nd August, at which we will decide whether further disciplinary action is necessary in your case.

Wishing you a lovely evening,

Dolores J. Umbridge

Improper Use of Magic Office
Ministry of Magic



Tobias grinned nastily. “What did I tell you?” he exclaimed. “They have given you the boot, I can see it in your face.” He had gotten up from the floor and was now advancing toward Snape, his hand out toward the parchment. “Give that here, I want to read it for myself.”

“Stay back!” shouted Snape, all the more angry for the terrible blow he had just received. “I can call that Patronus right back here if I choose to.”

Tobias gave a hoot of derisive laughter. “What did you call it?” he said. “You bloody magicians and the airs you give yourselves!” However, he had stopped where he stood and lowered his hand to his side.

His mother, meanwhile, had taken the parchment from him and was reading it. Snape saw her turn pale, but when she spoke her voice was determined. “Severus, don’t panic,” she said. “I swear on the grave of Salazar Slytherin himself, I’ll find a way to get you out of this. And don’t ever, ever give up your wand to any of those people.”

“Know where your wand is at all times” had been one of his mother’s first and most frequently repeated lessons during his childhood; but even without this, the idea of surrendering his wand would have been unthinkable to Snape. Being told that his wand would be destroyed, just after being told he had been expelled from Hogwarts, was like being killed twice over.

Just at that moment there was at knock at the front door. “Christ! Am I never to enjoy a moment of peace again?” exclaimed Tobias. Snape moved toward the door, feeling confrontational and reckless; if he had already lost Hogwarts, what more could anyone do to hurt him? His mother caught him by the arm as he passed, and warned, “See who it is first.” Eileen had a point; Snape knew of at least one past occasion when his parents’ fighting had brought on a visit from the Muggle police, and who knew how many more times it might have happened in the year he had been away?

Snape moved silently to the door and peered through the peephole. There on the doorstep in purple traveling robes, his hands placidly clasped in front of him and his half-moon glasses balanced precariously at the end of his nose, stood Albus Dumbledore. Snape was not sure whether the headmaster’s presence would lessen or increase the awfulness of his current predicament, but the obedient student in him had instinctively moved to open the door before he had time to think better of it.

“Ah, Severus,” said Dumbledore. “I understand you’ve had a bit of trouble here tonight.”

“I’ve been expelled from Hogwarts for conjuring a Patronus,” said Snape. He was surprised to hear how defiant his voice sounded.

“Congratulations,” said Dumbledore pleasantly, then added quickly, “On the Patronus, of course, not the expulsion. Was it your first time conjuring one?” Snape was not sure how to take the headmaster’s oddly conversational tone, and remained silent.

“When one is not used to the process, they can get rather out of hand, Patronuses,” continued Dumbledore. “Might I be right in suspecting there is more to this case than meets the eye?”

“Maybe,” muttered Snape.

“May I come in?” asked Dumbledore, and Snape stood aside mutely, unable to summon any greater degree of hospitality. Eileen, meanwhile, had entered the room and came up to them as quickly as her weakened condition would allow; Tobias could be seen behind her, peering around the doorjamb with evident suspicion.

“Professor Dumbledore,” said Eileen, “Severus is not to blame for what he did. He conjured the Patronus in his own defense, and in mine.”

“That’s a lie,” interjected Tobias, coming forward into the room. “He sicced the thing on me unawares and with malice aforethought, as the lawyers say.”

“Eileen – if I may still call you that,” replied Dumbledore, “I am prepared to hear the boy’s full explanation, along with any competing ones that may be relevant. Severus, what have you to say?”

Snape looked at his mother, whose face wore a tense, pleading expression. He would have to choose his words carefully, but he had no intention of sparing Tobias if he could help it.

“My father came home drunk,” Snape said bluntly, “and started a fight with my mother and me. He kicked me hard in the stomach and I tried to hit him back, but I couldn’t. He’s bigger than me,” Snape added in his own defense, although he had no intention of taking a self-pitying line. “I was afraid he’d get even more violent if nobody stopped him. I didn’t know what to do, so I cast the Patronus charm. I didn’t even know if it would work – I’ve never been able to do it before now. So it was partly self-defense, and partly a sort of accident,” Snape concluded. “Anyway, he deserved far worse.”

“It was no accident,” Tobias objected, and over Eileen’s imploring “Tobias, please,” he continued, “I’m no magician, for which fact I thank the good Lord every day of my life. But I know that what he did—” nodding vehemently toward Snape—“is considered wrong even among you people. He ought to be punished to the full extent of whatever laws you’ve got – assuming you’ve got any. He’ll feel it more, coming from you.”

Dumbledore looked penetratingly at Tobias, then at Eileen, then back at Tobias. “Our world does indeed have laws which govern our behavior and our ethics,” said Dumbledore calmly, “and I can assure you that when his case has been fully considered, your son will receive the punishment that is deemed appropriate to his offense. However" —and here Dumbledore’s tone became somehow sharper without becoming any less even—“I believe your world also has certain laws, laws which prohibit doing violence to one’s own family members, particularly those who are weaker than oneself. You do not seem to me to be acting within the bounds of those laws.”

“I was provoked,” said Tobias darkly.

“All parents are provoked at times,” replied Dumbledore. “It is a parent’s job to rise above provocation.”

“You don’t know the first thing about it, you self-important windbag,” said Tobias, moving in Dumbledore’s direction rather menacingly, “and I’ll thank you to stay out of my business from now on.”

“I would be more than happy to do that,” responded Dumbledore, “if you could compel yourself to stay out of your wife’s way and your son’s way. They are members of my community, and their troubles are my business.” Tobias stopped suddenly in his tracks, exactly as if he had walked straight into an unseen pane of glass. He stepped back, looking slightly dazed.

“Severus,” said Dumbledore, turning back to Snape and Eileen, “I understand that the Ministry has threatened to seize and destroy your wand. Now, the conjuring of a Patronus by a minor outside school grounds hardly seems to me an offense of wand-confiscating magnitude, and I think most reasonable minds would agree. It seems that there may be a few junior staff members at the Ministry who are a little over-assiduous in their desire to discipline underage offenders. However, I have already spoken to several more senior Ministry personnel and convinced them that in your case no such thing will be necessary.”

“Why, you interfering—” began Tobias angrily; but he broke off as another owl entered the room, having apparently arrived via the still-open window in the kitchen. It flew straight to Snape and dropped a letter similar to the earlier one into his hands.

“Ah, yes,” said Dumbledore. “I believe this message may contain better news.”

Desperately nervous and hopeful, Snape opened the letter.


Dear Mr. Snape,

Further to our letter of approximately eighteen minutes ago, the Ministry of Magic has revised its decision to destroy your wand forthwith. You may retain your wand until your disciplinary hearing on 22nd August, at which time an official decision will be taken.

Following discussion with the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Ministry has agreed that the question of your expulsion will also be decided at that time. You should therefore consider yourself suspended from school pending further inquiries.

With best wishes,
Yours sincerely,

Mafalda Hopkirk

Improper Use of Magic Office
Ministry of Magic



Snape exhaled. “I’m not definitely expelled,” he reported to the others. “They’ll decide at the hearing. And they’re not going to take my wand.”

“Thank God they’ve come round,” exclaimed Eileen. “And we’ll make sure they come all the way round. Won’t we, Professor?”

“I will be present at Severus’ hearing on the twenty-second as a witness for the defense, and you may rest assured that I will do all I can to support him in his case,” said Dumbledore to Eileen. “I have also informed the Ministry that you saw everything that happened tonight, and can appear as a witness yourself.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Eileen gratefully. Snape, for his part, had too many conflicting feelings to allow for speech at all.

“Why don’t you call me as a witness?” demanded Tobias. “My account’s as valid as anyone else’s. More so, as I’m the one who was attacked!”

“You are perfectly free to appear in that capacity,” said Dumbledore calmly, “if you have suddenly become convinced that the wizarding world is capable of the legitimate administration of justice. But I suspect your testimony would be thrown out on the basis of your demonstrable ignorance about our world, and of your clear hostility toward your son.”

At this, Tobias again began struggling to move toward Dumbledore, but he remained blocked by the same unseen barrier.

“Good night, and I hope that you can all three stay away from trouble in the future,” said Dumbledore. He walked quietly to the door and closed it behind him.

“What a colossal nerve,” muttered Tobias, and stalked out of the room. In a few moments Snape heard the door of the upstairs bedroom slam.

“You see, Severus?” said Eileen. “You’re going to be all right. In a case like this, Dumbledore is the most powerful ally you could have.”

Snape was silent. He simultaneously felt deep gratitude toward Dumbledore, and disgust at his own beholdenness to the headmaster.

“Are you angry with me?” he said at last.

“A little,” said Eileen, and looked stern for a moment. But the next moment she smiled – a rare and incongruous expression to see on his mother’s face these days. “But it doesn’t matter. Severus, a Patronus at fifteen! I could never manage one at all, not even at my strongest. Think how much it could have helped me. Think how much it’s going to help you. You’ve no idea how good I feel, knowing that you have one.”

“I don’t even know what it was,” Snape confessed. His mood, however, had already started to lift a little. He did feel proud of himself, in spite of everything.

Eileen smiled again, even more broadly. “Don’t you? That’s almost the best part! It was a wolverine, Severus.”

“A wolverine? What is that?” asked Snape, though he liked the sound of the word. “It looked like some kind of weird shrunken bear.”

“A small, but very fierce, defensive animal," said Eileen. "An excellent thing to have for a Patronus. A wolverine will protect you no matter what.”

“Good,” said Snape. “I might need it.”
 
* * *

A few minutes later, Snape sent Pascal to the Evans’ house with a note.


Lily,

I have good news and bad news. The good news is I conjured a Patronus. The bad news is that the Ministry expelled me from Hogwarts for it.

I know it’s late, but could I come over?

Severus



The reply came back in less than five minutes.


Sev,

I really wish we were old enough to Apparate! Start walking in the direction of the playground, and I’ll meet you halfway.

Lily



Lily was already waiting by the entrance when he arrived at the playground. When he told her what had happened, she was horrified at Tobias’ behavior and fully indignant on Snape’s behalf.

“What were you supposed to have done, let him hit her?” demanded Lily, as they walked past the swings and sat down on a bench. “What would the Ministry have done, I’d like to know? Anyway, when you think about it, it was probably the best thing you could’ve done.”

“Do you think so?” asked Snape, relieved. He knew how much Lily herself wanted to produce a Patronus; they had practiced trying to do it together at Hogwarts late in the last term. Nevertheless, he had been a bit worried about her reaction to the news of his ill-timed success in conjuring one; these days she seemed to disapprove of any defensive spell or hex he was practicing that fell outside their Defence Against the Dark Arts coursework. Snape regarded such extracurricular spells as additional insurance against attack, and simply smart defensive strategy. Lily, however, seemed to think that practicing them when a situation of need was absent constituted aggression, not defense; furthermore, she felt that many of them were gratuitously mean. Snape argued that spells had to be practiced well before a moment of need arose, and if these particular spells happened to require human targets, that was not his fault. As for meanness, did Lily really think kind and gentle spells would be effective in a battle?

“Yes,” replied Lily firmly to his question. “What you did was nonviolent, yet effective. It didn’t hurt Tobias, but it did make him stop.” (Snape had not referred to his father as anything but “Tobias” – or, when addressing him directly, “you”—for several years now, and the habit had rubbed off on Lily.)

“I mean, think of all the things you could have done!” she added. “He’s lucky you didn’t hex him. You are the last wizard in the world I would want to get hexed by.”

If there had been no law against underage hexing or cursing, Snape thought, he would have been more than happy to try either against Tobias; it had only been the resemblance of that real-life situation to his dream, he realized, that had put the Patronus charm into his mind ahead of other means of retaliation. If the truth were told, Snape had not been gratified to see his father get to his feet again uninjured after the Patronus attack; the version of events that had taken place in his dream had been much more satisfying. But the admiring tone in Lily’s voice just now, when she praised his nonviolent tactics, had thrilled him. He was not about to say anything to interfere with her suddenly elevated opinion of him.

“I didn’t even think about hexes,” Snape said, truthfully enough. “I just wanted him to stop what he was doing and never do it again.”

Lily looked grave. “I can’t believe he really did that to your mum.” She touched his arm in a clear gesture of sympathy; he flushed with a combination of embarrassment and pleasure, and turned his eyes to the pavement.

“Anyway, it just seems stupid of them to punish you for this – if anything, they should cite you for merit!” Lily went on. “I mean, it’s a Patronus, for Merlin’s sake! If you’d done it in school, Hobbes would be kissing your arse.”

“I don’t think Hobbes is capable of eating solid food at the moment, let alone kissing my arse,” said Snape. Their fourth-year Defence Against the Dark Arts professor had nearly died in a freak accident during the final Quidditch match of the year, when a rogue Bludger had flown into the stands and struck him in the head, causing him to lose his footing and fall several hundred feet from the stands to the pitch below. He had broken over half the bones in his body – including, most grievously, his skull, which had suffered multiple fractures.

A team of specialists at St. Mungo’s had managed to save his life, but Professor Hobbes was expected to be laid up in hospital for several months while his doctors assessed him for possible brain damage, and he was certainly not expected to return for the fall term. (“Another one bites the dust,” had been Snape’s blasé response when he and Lily read the latter announcement in the Daily Prophet; they had now had four Defence teachers in as many years, and had half expected something like this to happen.) The Department of Magical Law Enforcement was still trying to find out who had placed the curse on the obviously enchanted Bludger.

“Poor Hobbes. You’d think he’d never taught us Shield Charms, for all the good they did him, said Lily, shaking her head. “Anyway, I’m dead jealous of you. I wish I were in a position to get in this kind of trouble.”

“You’re really close, Lily,” said Snape. “You were as close as I was at the end of term. You’ll be able to conjure a Patronus as soon as you get back to Hogwarts, probably.” As soon as he had said this he winced. Would she be back to Hogwarts in a fortnight, without him?

“What did you think of to make it come?” she asked, all in earnest.

Snape told her about his dream, and she listened with fascination. “Well, that clinches it,” said Lily. “It was fate, obviously. Some higher power meant  for you to do this.”

“Somehow I don’t think the Ministry is going to care about higher powers,” said Snape.

“Sev, they’re not going to expel you,” said Lily. “They can’t possibly. Even if they had a case—which they don’t, because Tobias already knows about our world and isn’t about to tell anyone—Dumbledore obviously doesn’t want them to expel you, and he has more influence with the Ministry than anyone.”

“I don’t know,” mumbled Snape. “He said he’d do everything he could…I don’t know.” The feeling of cold queasiness that had engulfed him upon reading the letter came back to him again.



Chapter 3: The Hearing


Ten days later, Snape had taken the Knight Bus to the Ministry of Magic with two supporters at his side – his mother and Lily.

They arrived at the Ministry early, at a little after seven o’clock. Neither Snape nor Lily had been there before, though Snape knew that his mother had had some less than pleasant dealings with the place in the past. There were all sorts of legal complications that arose when a wizard or witch married a Muggle – mostly having to do with the maintenance of secrecy about the wizarding world by the Muggle in question and all of his or her connections. If one only notified the Ministry after one’s marriage had already taken place, as Eileen had, there were fines levied and more onerous paperwork to complete than there would have been otherwise. According to hints his mother had dropped, there was also an attitude to contend with on the part of the Ministry that such unions were second-class and doomed to failure.

Perhaps this was why Eileen, who had confidently maintained for the past few days that by hook or by crook, she would keep her son at Hogwarts, now gave short answers in a grim tone of voice to Snape and Lily’s questions as they made their way across the Atrium and had their wands registered by security.

Or perhaps, thought Snape ruefully, her bad mood was partly due to Lily’s presence. Earlier that summer, Snape had accused his mother outright of not liking Lily any more. Eileen had roundly denied it, but there was no doubt in his mind that his mother’s attitude toward his best friend had cooled over the last few years. When Eileen spoke to Lily these days, she was always polite, but she never went out of her way to make the girl feel welcome, as she once had. It was a far cry from the way Eileen had responded six years ago, when the nine-year-old Snape had come home one afternoon and told her in an excited whisper (Tobias having been home at the time), “Mum, I met a witch, and she’s my age!”

Eileen’s reciprocal excitement on hearing this news was obvious, though she responded cautiously. “Severus, it would be wonderful if you had, but there aren’t any wizarding families around for miles. Are you sure the girl you met is a witch?”

Yes, Mum!” said Snape eagerly. “She can fly!” Seeing his mother’s obvious disbelief, he amended, “Well, not exactly fly, but she jumped out of a swing when it was all the way up in the air, and made it so that she came down to the ground without hurting herself. And she made a flower open and close its petals without touching them.”

“Does she live nearby? Who are her parents?” asked Eileen, clearly gripped by Snape’s report. “Are they new to town?”

“No, they’re Muggles,” said Snape. “She didn’t even know she was a witch until I told her! It’s all right, though,” he added hastily, “she’s really nice.”

He didn’t think it would help his case to mention that the girl had a sister who was not a witch and who was not at all nice; the sister had almost ruined everything by butting into his and Lily’s private conversation about the wizarding world. He had only been able to salvage things by sending Pascal to the Evans’ house with a note of apology addressed to Lily. Included in the note were instructions on how to send him a reply, so that she could let him know if she wanted to meet again and talk more about witches and wizards. Happily, she had written back not long after, saying yes.

“You told her about us?” asked Eileen in a tone that suggested a reprimand was just around the corner. “Severus, you’ve got to careful about what you say to strangers!”

“I know, Mum!” Snape said impatiently. “But it was so obvious she was one of us, and when I explained to her about witches and wizards she liked the idea right away. She knew there was something different about her, she just didn’t know what.”

“You’ll have to invite her over someday,” said Eileen. She had every appearance of enthusiasm about the prospect; but when, two days later, Snape did bring Lily over, he was surprised to find his mother flustered by her sudden visit. “I wish you’d told me you were bringing her over today,” she told her son in an undertone. “The house is in such a state!”

Nevertheless, Eileen was initially delighted to meet Lily. She spoke to her kindly, and answered an endless stream of questions from the girl about Muggles and owls and Hogwarts, not just with patience, but with animated enthusiasm. Snape had been a little nervous about what his mother might say to Lily on the subject of Muggles, but Eileen was quite tactful, telling her that talented witches and wizards could be born to any kind of parents, and that the wizarding world was full of successful and respected Muggle-borns. She told both Snape and Lily, too, how glad she was that they had met each other and become friends.

The first pall on Eileen’s approval of Lily had come during the Christmas holidays of the children’s first year at Hogwarts, when Snape had finally communicated to his mother a piece of information he’d been leaving out of his letters all term: his best friend had been sorted into Gryffindor, not Slytherin.

“Gryffindor?” repeated Eileen, a crease appearing in her forehead. “But she’s so clever and sly! And charming, too – the girl could talk anyone into anything. She’s the rare Muggle-born who might have been at home in Slytherin. If she were to end up anywhere else, I’d have figured it to be Ravenclaw. But Gryffindor! That’s very odd.”

Snape, distressed by his mother’s obvious disapproval, protested, “Mum, not all Gryffindors are bad!” This statement contradicted everything he had ever been taught, but for Lily’s sake and his own, he had to believe it was true.

“Perhaps not,” said Eileen; but Snape could tell she was not convinced.

Ever since then, Eileen had seemed a little less pleased to see Lily every time she came home at Christmas or for the summer, to the point at which Lily herself had asked Snape, “Is your mum mad at me? Did I do something to offend her?”

“No, of course not,” said Snape, discomfited.

“She acts like she’s not exactly thrilled to see me,” said Lily. “And she doesn’t talk to me the way she used to.”

Snape could see she had already spotted the truth, and that there was no use trying to deny it.

“I know,” he said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her. You haven’t done anything.” He decided to share with her a theory he had privately formed about Eileen’s behaviour. “If you ask me, I think she’s jealous of you.”

“Why would she be jealous of me?” asked Lily, astonished.

“Because you’re pretty and she’s not,” said Snape. There was more to it than this – Lily had a personal attractiveness that went beyond looks, a kind of magnetism that Eileen was completely without. But Snape did not know how to put this into words that would make sense to Lily, and anyway, it would have made him very self-conscious to tell her something like that.

“But that would be so silly!” said Lily. “I’m a girl and she’s a grown woman. You can’t even compare us in that way. Anyway, there are a lot of people who’d find what you just said hilarious. Christopher Craven came up to me one day in the library last term, wearing dark glasses for no reason whatsoever. I said, “Why are you wearing those?” and he said that without them the glare from my ghostly white skin would blind him.”

“Christopher Craven is the stupidest person in all of Hufflepuff,” said Snape, “and that’s saying something. Also, he obviously he has a crush on you.”

Lily snorted at this.

“Anyway,” finished Snape, “the problem’s all on my mum’s side. I don’t really know why she’s being stupid. It’s not your fault; you’re as nice to her as you’ve always been.”

And Lily had continued to be so, right up to the present moment. In the lift, she kept saying encouraging things to Eileen about the flimsiness of the Ministry’s case against Snape and the help that Dumbledore’s support would provide. When she praised Snape’s magical abilities in almost the same words that Eileen herself had used – a Patronus at fifteen! – Snape thought he sensed his mother relenting toward her a little.

They took the lift to the second level of the Ministry, where the Department of Magical Law Enforcement was located. They were to report first to the Improper Use of Magic Office for the details of where Snape’s hearing would be held.

The reception area was presided over by a witch in her early thirties with brown wispy hair. She was almost as short and slight as a child – or perhaps she only appeared so, dwarfed as she was by several tottering stacks of files that framed her desk.

Eileen paused and squinted at the wispy-haired witch. “Mafalda?” she asked in an uncertain voice, coming forward. The witch behind the desk looked up, momentarily confused; then recognition appeared in her face.

“Eileen Prince, isn’t it?” said the wispy-haired witch. “My goodness! How have you been?” Her voice quickly assumed a note of heartiness; nevertheless, it seemed to Snape that the witch named Mafalda was not entirely glad to see his mother.

“Actually, it’s been Eileen Snape for a good many years now,” said Eileen.The insincere heartiness was now audible on both sides of the conversation. “In fact, a good fifteen! This is my son Severus,” she added, bringing Snape forward, “and this is his friend Lily. Severus, Lily, this is Mafalda—is it still Hopkirk?” asked Eileen, sounding a little too satisfied at the possibility.

“It is, I’m afraid,” said the latter, who did not look very happy to be reminded of the fact.

Changing tack and tone abruptly, Eileen continued, “Mafalda was Hufflepuff’s best Gobstones player when we were at Hogwarts.” Snape immediately suspected this was an exaggeration, but Mafalda’s eyes lit up at the praise. “You still play, I hope?” asked Eileen, the flattery audible in her voice.

“I do, as a matter of fact!” said the other witch; and here her enthusiasm seemed quite genuine. “There’s an adult league that meets once a week after work at the Department of Magical Games and Sports—“

“How wonderful,” interrupted Eileen. “Mafalda, I wonder if you could help us out a just a bit. Severus is here today for a hearing – could you tell us where it is, and give us a little hint about who the judges are?” She made this announcement about the hearing almost proudly, as if Snape were there to receive an award rather than a punishment.

“Oh, they don’t even tell us who’ll be present for each hearing, apart from the lead judge,” said Mafalda. “That’s all quite secret, you know. But the boy’s hearing will be held in the office of the seniormost judge assigned to his case. They’ll let us know who that is a few minutes before the hearing starts.”

“Oh, but you clearly have access to the files!” said Eileen, gesturing at the teetering stacks that surrounded Mafalda. “Surely you wouldn’t mind checking them to see who’ll be discussing Severus’ case with us?” she hinted.

Discussing? thought Snape with a cringe of discomfort. She was making it sound as if they were there for a pleasant, civilized negotiation involving some minor misunderstanding on the Ministry’s part. Snape assumed Eileen wanted the information about the judges so that she could coach him on how best to ingratiate himself with them; but given the level of success she was presently having in ingratiating herself with such a lowly person as Mafalda Hopkirk, Snape thought he might do better going into the hearing blind and ignorant.

“Oh, you overestimate my power here, Eileen!” exclaimed Mafalda. “They’ll let us know soon enough, I don’t doubt. In the meantime, why don’t you and Severus and his friend have a seat over there?” she added, indicating a row of rather hard-looking wooden chairs against the opposite wall. Eileen, seeming to sense that this particular well had run dry, did as she was asked, and Snape and Lily followed.

They were kept waiting for over half an hour, during which time Snape felt a rising sense of panic. Lily kept up an ongoing stream of whispered conversation on other topics, obviously intended to keep his mind off the coming ordeal, but to little avail. Snape could not sit comfortably, and kept changing his position, but it was as if his chair had had some kind of discomfort hex placed upon it.

Finally he got up, went over to Mafalda Hopkirk’s desk, and said, “Look, my hearing’s at eight o’clock. It’s five minutes to eight, and we still don’t know where to go—”

At that precise moment, a piece of lavender parchment, folded into a shape resembling that of a Muggle paper airplane, whizzed past Snape’s ear and landed in Mafalda Hopkirk’s hands. She opened it, read it and looked up in alarm. “They’ve just told me your hearing is in Courtroom Five!” she said. “This is most irregular, I don’t know why they’ve done it. But you’d better go down as fast as you can, they won’t look kindly on your turning up late!”

“Courtroom Five!” cried Eileen. “Where the hell is Courtroom Five?” exclaimed Snape almost simultaneously.

“Down on Level Ten,” said Mafalda. “But the lift only goes down as far as Level Nine; you’ll need to take the stairs from there. Hurry!”

Snape, Eileen and Lily left the office immediately. They would have broken into a run, but Eileen would not have been able to keep pace with the other two, so they settled for an anxious, frustrated trot.

The ride down to Level Nine felt four times as long as their journey from the Atrium up to Level Two on the way in, though they were only going one floor further in the opposite direction. As they hurried out of the lift and looked around frantically for the stairs, they caught sight of a broadly built witch with short brown hair who turned to the left ahead of them and disappeared; from the echoes of her receding steps, they could tell that she had entered a stairwell.

They followed her down to the next level, where they found that their surroundings suddenly resembled a medieval prison more than a center of administration. The walls were of stone; the doors were of heavy wood and iron, like the drawbridge to a castle; and torches in brackets on the walls provided the only light. Striding quickly forward ahead of them, as if she were in just as much of a hurry as they were, was the short-haired witch. She opened a door halfway down the corridor and vanished, but as they came closer, the witch suddenly re-emerged with a wizard in tow – an older man with a military bearing and an aggravated, impatient expression. Eileen gasped, and Snape and Lily immediately turned to look at her.

“Barty Crouch!” she exclaimed. “He’s the head of the Department of Law Enforcement. He’s not here for you, Severus, surely!”

Snape felt his nervousness intensify at this possibility. He had heard a good deal about Barty Crouch, partly because his son, Barty Jr., was at Hogwarts, two classes below Snape’s. If the rumours circulating among the students were to be believed, Crouch was a harsh disciplinarian and a crusader against anything even faintly tainted with Dark magic. He was not likely to be a lenient judge in a case like Snape’s.

They could hear the witch and wizard speaking to each other now, their voices carried down the corridor by the cavelike acoustics of the place.

“Barty, why has the venue changed?” the witch was asking; she sounded none too pleased. “The memo arrived all of two minutes ago, so naturally I’m late. Is this your idea?”

“It was Dolores’, actually,” said Crouch, “but quite a good one, I think. It can’t hurt to give underage offenders a taste of what real courtrooms and trials are like. Deterrence, you know.”

“Perhaps,” said the witch, though she sounded skeptical. “But who is Dolores?”

“My new assistant,” said Crouch. “Only with me a week, but she’s full of ideas. Anyway, don’t upset yourself, Amelia. The boy we’re trying is late too, so no one’s the wiser.”

The witch turned at the sound of their approaching footsteps. “This may be him now.” Raising her voice, she called out, “Severus Snape?”

“Yes,” said Snape, and his voice cracked so that the word was almost inaudible. “Yes,” he repeated in a stronger, louder tone. “Is that Courtroom Five?’ As they drew even with the door, he saw the answer to his question on the wall: an oval brass plaque engraved with a large numeral “5.”

“Yes,” said the witch. “This is Bartemius Crouch, the Head of the Department of Law Enforcement, and I am Amelia Bones,” she continued, as Crouch protested in an undertone, “He can hear all that when we’re inside, Amelia.”

Amelia Bones continued in formal, even tones, “We will be hearing your case today, along with three other judges. Please come inside.” And she opened the door and motioned for Snape, Eileen and Lily to pass through.

The room beyond the door was a little like a Quidditch pitch: high, curved benches surrounded the circular floor on all sides. But here there was no sunlight, nor were there any spectators, other than the three judges already seated near the center of the opposite bench and the two who were moving to join them – no, that was not quite all, Snape now saw: seated on another bench just to his left, so still and silent as to be almost invisible, was Albus Dumbledore.

Despite the moments of conflict Snape had had with the headmaster during his time at Hogwarts, he felt a rush of relief and gratitude at seeing Dumbledore there, calm and implacable, his hands folded in his lap. The headmaster turned to acknowledge him then, saying, “Good morning, Severus. How are you feeling?”

Snape did not particularly want to reinforce his state of mind by describing it, so he replied, “I don’t know.”

“That is natural,” said Dumbledore. “I will not try to tell you not to be nervous; it will do no good. But screw your courage to the sticking-place, as a great Muggle playwright says, and all may yet turn out well. Good morning, Eileen,” he added to Snape’s mother behind him, who nodded rather tensely in response. “And Lily,” the headmaster continued, as the latter stepped up to stand next to Snape. “I’m glad to see you here.”

“Hello, Professor,” said Lily, smiling at Dumbledore – the two of them had always got on well, rather to Snape’s irritation. Her tone then changed abruptly as she demanded, “They’re not going to expel him, are they?”

“Not if my testimony can be of any use,” said Dumbledore. “We will see.”

At that moment, Barty Crouch spoke in a peeved voice from the high bench opposite, where he now sat with Amelia Bones and the three other judges: “The accused will now take his seat so we can begin.” It was an order, not a request.

Crouch gestured toward a large chair that sat alone in the middle of the floor. Snape noticed that its armrests bore metal chains, and blanched. It reminded him of the electric chairs in which Muggles placed their most hardened criminals for execution – Snape had seen one in a Muggle film once and never forgotten it. He sometimes pointed to such things as evidence of Muggle barbarism, but it now seemed that those devices might have counterparts in the wizarding world.

“Sev, good luck,” said Lily, and without warning she hugged him quickly, then turned to follow Eileen, who had sat down on the bench just in front of Dumbledore’s. Quite disoriented by Lily’s spontaneous display of affection, Snape stumbled toward the chair in the middle of the floor. He sat down nervously and placed his hands very consciously in his lap.

“Put your arms on the armrests, boy,” intoned Crouch. There was no choice but to obey, and when Snape did so the chains jingled themselves alarmingly, as if restless to be put into use. But in the end they did not bind him – not for now, at least.

Snape raised his head. The judges were now above his eye level, seated together in the center of the first bench in front of him. Just below the ledge where they rested their hands and their paperwork, another oval brass plaque engraved with the numeral “5” was hung, as if the room itself was providing a reminder that these five people held his fate and his future in their hands.

“Disciplinary hearing of the twenty-second of August,” Crouch announced, “into offenses committed under the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery by Severus Tiberius Snape, resident at number ninety-four, Spinners End, Lower Bury, Greater Manchester.

“Interrogators: Bartemius Crouch, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement; Amelia Bones, Specialist of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement; Pius Thicknesse, Junior Member of the Department of Law Enforcement; Gawain Robards, Senior Member of the Auror Office; and Herbert Ogden, Head of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad.

“The charges against the accused are as follows: That he did knowingly, deliberately, and in full awareness of the illegality of his actions, produce a Patronus Charm in a Muggle-inhabited area, in the presence of a Muggle, on August the twelfth at three minutes past seven in the evening, which constitutes an offense under paragraph C of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery, 1875, and also under section thirteen of the International Confederation of Wizards’ Statute of Secrecy.

“You are Severus Tiberius Snape, of number ninety-four, Spinner’s End, Lower Bury, Greater Manchester?” asked Barty Crouch.

“Excuse me, Barty,” put in Dumbledore before Snape could even open his mouth, “but before you begin questioning Severus, might I ask the court to recognize the presence of two witnesses for the defense?”

“They will be recognized at such time as they are called to speak, Dumbledore,” said Crouch irritably, “as you well know.”

“I am aware that that is your standard procedure,” replied Dumbledore calmly. “However, I have seen enough hearings of this kind to know that a hearing may be over before the judges see fit to call a witness to speak, and that it is sometimes difficult for witnesses to get a word in edgewise. Therefore, if you have no objection, would you mind recognizing us now?”

Barty Crouch paused, grimacing in obvious displeasure. “Very well,” he finally replied.

“Thank you,” said Dumbledore. “If I may save the judges a bit of time, I will introduce us both.”

“Go on, then,” said Crouch impatiently.

“I, as you know, am Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, present headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” said Dumbledore. “I am acquainted with Severus in that capacity and know something of his history and character. Here just in front of me is someone who knows the boy even better – his mother, Eileen Snape, whom I also know from her time as a student at Hogwarts.”

“Your presences are duly noted,” said Pius Thicknesse drily, speaking for the first time. “But who is this girl?” he asked, pointing a finger at Lily.

“Lily Evans, sir,” she said promptly, springing to her feet. “I’m Severus’ friend, and we’re in the same class at Hogwarts. I’m mostly here for moral support, but I’d be happy to serve as a character witness if you need me to. I’ve known him since we were nine.” Snape flushed with gratitude at this display, and tried to catch Lily’s eye, but Thicknesse was already monopolizing her attention.

“I was not addressing you,” he told her superciliously. “If you don’t wish to hurt the boy’s chances, do not speak to this court out of turn.”

“Sorry,” said Lily in a characteristic tone that somehow managed to combine respect and irreverence; she often used it to great effect on her teachers at Hogwarts. She sat down again.

“And now,” announced Barty Crouch with barely contained sarcasm, “if the witnesses feel themselves sufficiently acknowledged, I will resume where I left off when I was interrupted.”

“By all means, Barty,” said Dumbledore cheerfully. “Thank you for your courtesy.”

Crouch turned his eyes from Dumbledore back to Snape. “You are Severus Tiberius Snape, of number ninety-four, Spinner’s End, Lower Bury, Greater Manchester?” he asked again.

“Yes,” Snape said.

“Did you, in fact, conjure a Patronus on the night of the twelfth of August?”

“Yes, but—” began Snape.

“Knowing that you are not permitted to use magic outside school while you are under the age of seventeen?”

“Yes, but—” said Snape again.

“Knowing that you were in an area full of Muggles, and fully aware that you were in close proximity to a Muggle at the time?”

“Yes,” said Snape, becoming angry at these interruptions, “but I only conjured it in self-defense, and the Muggle in question was my father.”

A murmur sprang up between Gawain Robards and Herbert Ogden as Barty Crouch rejoined sharply, “Do you think that what you did is therefore any less against the law? Does the fact that he was your father make him any less a Muggle?”

Before Snape could even reply, Amelia Bones put in, “That fact may indeed have a bearing on this boy’s case. There is a distinction between Muggles who are legally bound to our world by marriage, and have submitted themselves to the Secrecy Charm in return for the privilege, and more distant family relations who cannot be so bound and must be constantly monitored for breaches of secrecy.”

“Rather a hairsplitting distinction, Amelia,” said Crouch in a cross voice. “The fact remains that magic performed by underage wizards or witches outside of Hogwarts is a violation of the two laws I have already named, and carries punishment with it accordingly.”

“In the case of the Underage Sorcery law, yes, that is true,” said Amelia Bones. “But if the Muggle witness was his father, section thirteen of the International Confederation of Wizards’ Statute of Secrecy has not been violated.”

“That has not been proven,” retorted Crouch. “The Secrecy Charm is not infallible. If the union between a Muggle and a witch or wizard weakens, so may the Charm.”

“That is another circumstance which may have a bearing here,” replied Amelia Bones neutrally. “Boy,” she said, turning to Snape, “you conjured the Patronus in self-defense, you say. Can you explain what you mean by that?”

Snape paused and looked at his mother. Eileen looked steadily back at him, tight-lipped and obviously uncomfortable. “I conjured the Patronus to defend myself and my mother against my father,” he said carefully.

“Eileen Snape!” said Crouch loudly, and Snape’s mother jumped in her seat. “What portion of these events involving your son did you witness?”

“All of them, Mr. Crouch,” said Eileen. Her voice sounded weak, as if from disuse.

“So you do not deny that your son committed this breach of underage magical law,” said Thicknesse.

“No, I do not,” said Eileen, her voice sounding a bit stronger now.

“What did your father do to make you feel you needed to defend yourself?” asked Gawain Robards, looking at Snape.

“He was drunk and behaving violently,” said Snape, keeping his wording as vague as possible.

“Violently how?” asked Amelia Bones.

“He kicked me in the stomach,” said Snape, not wanting to bring his mother into this unless he had to.

“Eileen Snape, is this true? Did your husband kick his own son?” asked Barty Crouch.

“Yes, I’m afraid he did,” said Eileen softly. “And quite hard, too.”

Pius Thicknesse actually laughed at this. “I suppose you are both aware that there is a loophole in underage magical law providing for the use of magic in cases where an underage wizard’s life is at stake,” he said. “Are the two of you seriously contending that by kicking this boy in the stomach, his father was putting his life at risk?"

“No,” said Snape, then corrected himself rather defiantly: “I don’t know. He was drunk and out of control. There was no telling what he might’ve done next. I did the only thing I could think of at the time to stop him from hurting us any further.”

Herbert Ogden said, “It seems to me that in trying to conjure a Patronus to defend yourself, you were taking rather a gamble. You’re quite young for that sort of magic; I can’t imagine you’d done it before.”

“No,” Snape confirmed. “I’d tried before, but this was the first time I actually conjured one.”

“So you couldn’t be sure beforehand that it would work,” said Gawain Robards.

“No,” said Snape. “But I figured trying was better than standing there and doing nothing.”

“What happened after you conjured the Patronus?” asked Amelia Bones, who was listening with great interest.

“It sort of…tackled my father,” said Snape. “It leapt on top of him and subdued him, but it didn’t actually injure him. He got right up afterward.”

“Eileen Snape, is this true?” asked Pius Thicknesse.

“Yes, sir,” said Eileen.

“Your husband was attacked by the Patronus, but not seriously injured?” continued Thicknesse skeptically.

“He was knocked down, yes, but I don’t believe he was injured at all,” said Eileen. “As my son says, he got up right away when the Patronus had gone.”

“I can confirm that part of the story as well,” put in Dumbledore. “I visited the Snapes at their home perhaps half an hour after the incident. I saw Tobias Snape up and walking about, and he was feeling well enough to be quite argumentative.”

“Nobody asked you, Dumbledore,” said Thicknesse.

“Nevertheless, I am telling you,” said Dumbledore amiably.

“A Patronus attacking a human being?” said Crouch. “I never heard of such a thing. Patronuses aren’t violent, in my experience – they ward things off just by being there.”

“Boy, are you sure what you saw was a Patronus?” asked Thicknesse, who was eyeing Snape with skepticism and disdain.

“Of course I’m sure!” Snape burst out. “I conjured it by yelling ‘Expecto Patronum’! What else it could be?”

“What did it look like?” asked Amelia Bones.

“It was silvery and transparent,” said Snape impatiently. “It took the shape of a wolverine.”

“Fully corporeal, then,” said Robards, sounding almost pleased.

“That means it took a definite shape,” Ogden put in helpfully for Snape’s benefit. “Rather than looking like a wisp of cloud or something.”

Snape was insulted. “I know what ‘corporeal’ means, and yes, it was a corporeal Patronus,” he said irritably. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Lily grinning. Then Thicknesse turned his head in her direction and the grin instantly vanished.

“This is most interesting,” said Amelia Bones. Robards and Odgen both nodded in agreement.

“I still don’t understand how this Patronus could attack your father,” said Crouch, looking at Snape with obvious mistrust. “Did you order it to do that?”

“No, of course not,” said Snape. “I don’t think Patronuses even take orders, do they?”

“Not verbal ones,” said Crouch. “Yet they do respond to their conjurers’ nonverbal wishes. This suggests that you did in fact wish harm to be done to your father. Did you?”

“But how can you even ask that?” exclaimed Lily suddenly, startling everyone. “The fact that his father wasn’t harmed proves the opposite, doesn’t it?”

“You are not a witness, and no one has asked for your opinion,” said Thicknesse, his voice loud and contemptuous. “Kindly keep quiet until someone does ask!”

Lily said no more, but folded her arms across her chest in a manner that indicated her surrender was only temporary.

“I have a question for the judges,” put in Dumbledore quietly. “Is Severus on trial this morning for what he might have wished to do, or for what he actually did? I venture to suggest that if we were each of us in this room to be tried on the basis of our wishes, none of us would escape imprisonment in Azkaban.”

The room was silent for a moment. Then Barty Crouch said adamantly, “The boy is on trial for his actions in violation of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery. We are here to decide whether those actions, which all the relevant witnesses agree did take place, constitute sufficient grounds for his expulsion from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. At which place, I might add, he has a reputation for unparalleled knowledge of the Dark Arts!”

“How would you know that? What’s it got to do with you?” exclaimed Snape. This insinuation on Crouch’s part seemed to him completely unfair and below-the-belt. Lily seemed to think so too; she had raised her hand in the air and was waving it insistently.

“Indeed, Barty,” said Dumbledore. “How would you know that?”

“My son is a student there,” said Crouch. “Long before this hearing I had heard him mention this boy as the resident Dark Arts expert of Hogwarts.”

“He doesn’t even know me!” exclaimed Snape. “He’s not in my year, we’re not in classes together and we’re definitely not friends.” Snape had always found Barty Crouch, Jr., odd and rather suspicious. He was a Gryffindor who hung round Slytherins, which was strange enough; and those he tried to befriend were almost all much older than himself. Snape thought he must be a suck-up at best, and at worst, perhaps, some sort of informer for his father.

“He doesn’t need to know you,” said Crouch. “Your reputation has preceded you.”

“Are you trying young offenders based on reputation these days, Barty?” asked Dumbledore.

“The people your son hangs around with aren’t so heroic themselves!” Snape burst out. “There are plenty of people familiar with the Dark Arts in his circle, I can tell you that much.” He saw that Lily, frustrated at being ignored, had stood up with her hand still raised, though she remained perfectly silent.

“You will hardly win points for yourself by impugning my son,” said Crouch hotly. “You are on trial here, not he. Lying about him cannot help you.”

“I’m not lying,” said Snape.

It was Robards who finally acknowledged Lily. “Yes, miss?” he asked.

“Conjuring a Patronus is not practicing the Dark Arts, it’s the opposite!” Lily exclaimed. “You conjure a Patronus to defend yourself from Dark things!”

Now that someone had pointed this out, the truth of it seemed self-evident. In the rather embarrassed silence that now fell over the courtroom, Snape tried again to catch Lily’s eye. This time he succeeded, and she gave him a look and a shrug that seemed to say, “What kind of idiots are these people?” For the first time since entering the courtroom, Snape smiled; Lily, having made her point, sat down.

“Lily is correct, of course,” said Dumbledore, “as are you, Barty. Your son’s behavior at Hogwarts, as you say, is not relevant to this inquiry. Nor is Severus’ behavior there relevant. The Ministry has no authority to punish Hogwarts students for offenses committed at school. That is my domain.”

“Of course it is,” said Crouch. “But his behavior at school does have a bearing on his character, and his character has a bearing on this hearing.”

“Professor Dumbledore,” interjected Robards, “as the boy’s headmaster, what is your opinion of his character?”

Dumbledore paused contemplatively; the pause was long enough for Snape to think of the many damning things the headmaster might say when he opened his mouth.

“My personal opinion is of less value than what material evidence and records can show of Severus’ character,” said Dumbledore. “I will not attempt to deny that he has been in trouble a good many times for offences which, though minor in themselves, form what I consider to be a rather worrying pattern. He also appears to have formed some friendships at Hogwarts that appear to me to be unfortunate ones; these may have a negative influence on his life, perhaps a lasting one.

“On the other hand, Severus is both highly intelligent and a diligent student, as his marks and his teachers will attest. His magical abilities are already exceptional. He is only fifteen, and his character is hardly fully formed, nor would I feel comfortable judging him on the basis of some of the people he associates with – who are themselves still capable of change, of course. I might ask you, Barty: who among us would wish to be permanently judged on the basis of the friends we made in our youth?”

Suddenly Eileen stood up. “Don’t expel my son!” she exclaimed. “He was only trying to defend me. His father – my husband -- is a violent man. He’s kept his violent impulses in check for many years, because I was a witch and he knew I had powers greater than his. Now I’m ill and losing my magic. I’ve lost the greater part of it already, and the day will soon come that it’s entirely gone. My husband is getting ready for that day. He knows that soon he’ll be able to attack me and I’ll have no magic to defend myself. Severus was trying to stop that day from coming. He was trying to show his father that even when I do lose my magic, he won’t be able to get away with hurting me. How can you blame my son for that?”

The whole room had fallen silent. Everyone was staring at Eileen except Dumbledore, who had tactfully withdrawn his eyes.

“Severus conjured the Patronus that night because his father hit me,” continued Eileen, and several people in the room gasped. “He tried first to defend me with his bare hands, but he couldn’t. He’s still a boy; his father must weigh four stone more than Severus does. He couldn’t fend his father off that way, so he conjured the Patronus. How dare you judge him for that?” She sat down again abruptly, but continued moving her eyes around the room nervously, as if looking for a safe place to rest them. Finally she turned them toward her lap.

“Eileen, you have no reason to fear,” said Dumbledore, and she raised her head again. “The Ministry does not have the power to expel Hogwarts students.”

What?!” exclaimed Snape. “They don’t?”

“Barty, as I reminded you on the night of the tenth of August,” said Dumbledore, “absent a truly grievous charge, only a vote by the Hogwarts staff, including myself, has the power to expel a student. Nor does the Ministry have the right to confiscate wands until charges have been successfully brought, as I also pointed out to you that night. Your zeal for law enforcement is commendable, but you appear to me to be extending that zeal to laws which are not yours to enforce.”

“Not ours to enforce!” cried Crouch. “I’ll have you know, I had my assistant research the exact wording of the laws in question, and she’s very thorough—” He broke off, opening the file that lay in front of him and frantically rifling through the papers within.

“If they don’t have the right to expel me, then why the hell am I here?” demanded Snape. He was torn between tremulous hope and complete outrage. Eileen and Lily turned to one another in confusion, then to the judges, then back to Dumbledore.

“You are here because the Ministry does have the power to discipline you for performing underage magic, though expulsion is not one of their disciplinary options,” said Dumbledore.

“You could have told me that!” shouted Snape. “I’ve been worried sick!”

“Silence!” ordered Crouch furiously. “We certainly have the right to charge you with contempt of court if you continue making these sorts of outbursts; even Dumbledore will concede that.”

“I will indeed, Barty,” said Dumbledore. “Perhaps, Severus,” the headmaster continued quietly, “it has not been such a bad thing for you to consider the possibility of losing your place at Hogwarts. Although this particular youthful offense does not carry that penalty, there are certainly others that would. I have sometimes feared that if you continue in your current direction in life, the loss of Hogwarts might become more than a philosophical question for you to consider.”

Snape could not speak; he felt as if his head was about to explode. He sat silently in the chair, torn and trembling with conflicting emotions. He kept staring at the oval brass plaque that bore the numeral “5.” Everything important came in fives: Courtroom Five, five judges, year five of his Hogwarts career, five horrible new hexes he would invent to cast upon Dumbledore…

Amelia Bones, who had been consulting her own files and had not spoken for several minutes, suddenly said, “I believe I have heard all I need to cast a vote in this case, unless the witnesses have anything else to add.” She looked around the room. Eileen, like her son, seemed to have been stunned into silence, but she shook her head.

Dumbledore said, “No, Amelia, I have said my piece.”

Amelia Bones looked to Crouch, Robards and Ogden to her right and Thicknesse to her left. “Are the rest of you ready to vote as well?”

Robards, Ogden and Thicknesse nodded immediately. Crouch scowled. “Barty?” the witch asked.

“Yes,” the latter answered finally in a disagreeable tone.

“Those in favor of clearing the accused of the charge against him?” said Madam Bones in official tones, and paused. Snape looked up, his heart hammering in spite of himself.

She raised her own hand; Robards also raised his. Snape saw that unless someone abstained, he was going to be convicted and punished, but he scarcely cared any more. Any punishment would be bearable compared to expulsion from Hogwarts.

“Those in favor of conviction?” asked Amelia Bones, and Crouch, Thicknesse and Ogden all raised their hands.

“Severus Snape, you have been convicted of violating paragraph C of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery, 1875,” said Amelia Bones, who showed no emotion whatever at having been personally voted down. “The punishment for your offense is ten hours of community service and a fine of twenty Galleons. As you are underage, you must wait until you are back at Hogwarts to perform your community service, which may be fulfilled either at the school under supervision of the staff, or in the community of Hogsmeade."

“This inquiry is at an end,” she added, and the judges immediately rose and began to file out. Barty Crouch, in particular, looked as if he could not wait to be gone.

Snape sat completely still, staring at the ‘5’ on the plaque in front of him. He suddenly felt too exhausted even to get to his feet, let alone walk.

It was Eileen and Lily whose joint efforts uprooted him from his seat. Eileen embraced him for the second time in as many weeks, and whispered, “It’s all right, Severus. We’ll pay the fine somehow. The important thing is you’re back at school.”

When Eileen released him, Lily took her turn. Snape came out of his trance then, and flushed with delayed embarrassment. “Thank God it’s over,” Lily said. “I can’t believe Dumbledore knew all that and didn’t tell you!”

At the mention of Dumbledore’s name, Snape raised his head and looked about the courtroom, but the headmaster had already taken his leave.



Chapter 4: The Worst Summer

That hearing the previous summer had made Eileen even more wary and defensive than she had formerly been toward the Ministry of Magic. She felt sure that the whole family was already down in the Ministry's bad books, and that the best they could do was to steer clear of all unnecessary contact with the place and its representatives.

In the end, Snape did not send Pascal off with a letter to the Ministry about mending the window, though this was more in deference to his mother’s wishes than to a desire to stay on the Ministry’s good side. Instead he swept up the shards of glass with a broom, carefully removed the pieces of broken pane that were still in the window frame, and drew the shade down over the open window. Loads of insects would get in, of course, but at least the weather was warm. If all of this had happened during the winter holidays, it would have been a disaster.

Snape thought it was likely, too, that Tobias would not notice the damage for a while. The sitting room, where the broken window was, appeared not to have been used by anyone in the family for months; there was dust on every surface and three of the four bulbs in the overhead light fixture had burnt out. The television that Tobias had formerly watched there in the evenings was gone; according to Eileen, he had removed it to the upstairs master bedroom, where he had slept by himself ever since Eileen’s illness had made stair climbing difficult for her. Eileen, meanwhile, had been using the old mud room as a bedroom for some time past. She had been sleeping on a Muggle army cot until Snape had come home two Christmases ago and Transfigured the cot into a comfortable bed complete with box spring, mattress and a full set of sheets and pillows.

The dusty, unused sitting room, it turned out, was in far better shape than some other parts of the house. It was clear as Snape looked into the other rooms that between Eileen’s inability and Tobias’ unwillingness, little to no housekeeping had been done for months.

The kitchen was by far the worst. As Snape entered, Eileen trailed behind him, saying apologetically, “Severus, I’m sorry…I just can’t keep up with the mess he makes, and he never cleans up after himself.”

There were dirty dishes everywhere -- in the sink, stacked as deep as it would hold, and overflowing onto the counter and the kitchen table. It seemed, in fact, as if every dish the family owned had been dirtied and left out to sit. The dishes in the sink had at least been soaked, and looked as if they could be cleaned without too much difficulty, but most of the rest were crusted with dried food remnants that might have been hardening for weeks or months. There was mold visible on some dishes, in fact. Snape considered that Voldemort might have looked in on this scene on his way to Snape’s room, and flushed hot with shame. Hopefully, the Dark Lord had Apparated straight into the bedroom and avoided seeing the rest of the house.

Resentment rose up fiercely in Snape’s gut. “He’s disgusting!” he exclaimed. “How can he stand to live like this, even to spite you?”

“I don’t think he’s got much to live for these days,” said Eileen quietly.

“That’s his own fault,” retorted Snape. His mother made no reply.

Snape feared what he might find in the bathrooms, but the one downstairs was merely dirty, rather than noxious.

“I’ve got just enough magic left to make Mrs. Scower’s work,” explained Eileen. “I’m not strong enough to scrub, and I can’t bend down easily, but I can pour a few drops in the toilet bowl, and the stuff does quite a bit of cleaning on its own.” She added, “I can’t get to the upstairs bathroom, though. I won’t speak for what it’s like up there.” That was the bathroom closest to Snape’s own bedroom, so he would find out soon enough.

When Snape opened the door to Eileen’s room, a distressing smell of stale air and illness greeted him. It must have been a long time since the room was aired or the bedding washed, but Snape did not ask questions. He thought it would only upset his mother, and he was not sure he wanted to know the answers in any case.

It was clear that doing the laundry was a very pressing need, but cleaning the kitchen was even more so.

“What time does he usually get in?” asked Snape.

“Rarely before dark,” said Eileen. They seemed to have come to an instinctive agreement that whatever cleaning was to be done, it should be completed before Tobias’ arrival: to be caught in the act of mutinying against Tobias’ campaign of calculated filth would not do.

Snape looked around for a dishrag and soap; to his considerable relief, he found both. He ran a full basin of hot water and began doing dishes. His mother sat down at the kitchen table and talked to him quietly while he washed.

“It will be hard on you to be back, Severus,” said Eileen, “and for that I’m sorry. For myself, though, I’m glad.”

“How on earth have you been managing?” asked Snape. “What have you been eating?”

“I don’t need much, myself,” said Eileen. “I eat simple things that don’t need preparation. Bread and butter, you know, or tinned stuff. Tobias fends for himself. He eats out of his own wages, when he gets them. I don’t know what he does the rest of the time. Borrows money, maybe. I don’t ask. He doesn’t seem to be starving.”

“Obviously not,” said Snape, taking in the roomful of food-stained dishes with a glance.

“What about shopping? Are you well enough to do that?” asked Snape.

“Not very often, I’m afraid,” said Eileen. “I’m usually all right sitting, like now, but I can’t stand for more than a few minutes.”

“Don’t tell me Tobias is getting the groceries?” said Snape.

“No,” said Eileen. “The Holts next door have a ten-year-old son. I pay him a little to shop for me once a week. It’s more than I can afford, but food’s got to be got somehow. If you can get back in at Rankin’s” – this was the local market where Snape had worked the previous two summers – it would be an immense help.”

“I’ll see them tomorrow about it,” said Snape. He had hated the job and the manager there last summer, but clearly such antipathy was a luxury he could no longer afford.

Eileen’s energy gave out, and she retired to her room, well before Snape was finished doing the dishes some two hours later. He mopped his brow and leaned against the counter for a minute, surveying the still-dirty floor and tabletop.

Never before in his life had he needed magic as much as he was going to need it this summer, and at sixteen, a year away from independent adulthood, he was more helpless and restricted at home than he had been at eleven. These dishes could have been done in twenty minutes with magic, the kitchen cleaned with Mrs. Scower’s in half that time. It would be this way for the next two months; whatever housework got done here this summer would all be done by hand and by him.

He heard his own stomach rumbling and realized how hungry he was; his last meal had been the leaving breakfast at Hogwarts. Rummaging through the kitchen, he found bread and several tins of meat and made himself a sandwich. The meat tasted of chemicals, but it was the best thing on offer, and if he did not take it for himself, no doubt Tobias would.

Snape finished cleaning the kitchen and moved on to the downstairs loo. He had decided to save the laundry for the morning, as he did not want to disturb Eileen’s rest. Besides, he was exhausted.

He went upstairs and back into his room, again hoping fervently that this was the only part of the house Voldemort had seen. It was dusty in here too, but no one appeared to have disturbed the room since Snape had shut it up when he left for Hogwarts the previous September, and it was in fairly presentable shape.

He left the room and walked down the hall toward the upstairs bathroom with considerable trepidation. He was afraid he might be able to smell the place from quite a distance away, but thankfully that was not the case.

He put his head in cautiously at the open door, turned on the light, and blinked: the bathroom was clean. Not spotless: there was a stray curl of black hair in the sink, and water stains dotted the faucets. But really, it was in quite a civilized condition; he would not have been embarrassed, for instance, to have Lily see it. The contrast between this room and the kitchen was startling.

Putting that unbidden thought of Lily out of his mind, Snape went a little further down the hall and opened the door of the master bedroom. It, too, was reasonably neat. The television sat on the night table, right next to the nearer edge of the bed – presumably so that Tobias would not have to get up to change channels – but there were none of the beer bottles or lager cans that Snape might have expected to find. Curious, Snape entered the room and went round to the other side of the bed, where a rubbish bin stood underneath the other night table. He bent down: here they all were. The bin was full nearly to the rim with empty bottles and cans.

So this was how it was, thought Snape. The mess downstairs was a conscious act of aggression against Eileen; it ceased as soon as the space belonged to Tobias alone. The alcohol habit was clearly advanced, but still under enough control that Tobias could hide the physical evidence of it from himself as well as others.

Snape returned the bathroom to get ready for bed. He was no longer angry; rather, his new sense of the cold calculation of Tobias’ ongoing grudge match against his mother had changed his attitude to one of grim resolve. He went back to his room and locked the door. Almost calm now with the understanding of what he was up against, and worn out from the trials of the day, he fell asleep immediately.

He woke early the following morning, a plan for the day already formed in his mind. He would wait until Tobias left the house – according to Eileen, he was still trying to present the appearance of someone looking for work – then collect the laundry, take it out to the laundrette, bring the clean bedding back to Eileen, and leave for Rankin’s to see if they would take him on again for the summer.

Snape lingered in bed for a while, listening for the sound of Tobias moving about in his room or coming out of it, but the hall was unnaturally quiet. Eventually his bladder demanded that he get up, so with quiet, stealthy movements he slipped from his bed and out into the hall. All was still.

In the bathroom, the sink and countertop were dry. It appeared that Tobias was either still in bed or had not returned to the house the previous night at all.

Snape dressed, went downstairs and knocked softly on his mother’s door. He heard stirring within, and perhaps half a minute later she opened the door.

“Mum, you didn’t even ask who it was!” said Snape, a little worried by his mother’s incautious behaviour.

“Oh, I knew it was you, Severus,” she said calmly. “Tobias always bangs. Anyway, he didn’t come back last night. I always hear him when he comes in.”

“Does that happen often, him staying out all night?” asked Snape.

“Pretty often,” said his mother. “I don’t know where he goes.”

Snape came in, stripped the bed, and with his mother’s direction gathered the rest of the laundry that needed to be done. He tied it all up in one of the bedsheets and walked out with it. The closest laundrette was nearly half an hour away by foot, but with no car and no money to hire one, there was no other way to get there.

He set foot on the front doorstep again at a little before ten o’clock, sweating profusely. The sun was already high and bright in the sky, but even hotter was the bundle of freshly machine-dried laundry that he had shifted awkwardly from hand to hand as he walked. He had not wanted the sweat off his back to seep through his shirt to dirty the clean laundry again, but the awkwardness of every other possible carrying position had slowed his walk home significantly. He was feeling quite cross as he opened the front door, but at least this important chore had been done. He was planning to take the laundry to the now-clean kitchen table and fold it there, then have a late breakfast and set off for Rankin’s.

He was still holding the bundle of laundry in front of himself as he entered the kitchen, so he was not aware that the room was already occupied until a voice intoned mockingly, “Taken charge now you’re home, have you?”

Snape could not help jumping a little. Sitting there at the kitchen table was his father, with a plate of eggs and an open bottle of beer in front of him. Tobias snickered.

Snape recovered quickly, however. “Somebody had to,” he replied pointedly.

Tobias looked awful – paunchy and chronically ill-rested. There were several prominent new streaks of gray in his dark hair, which was as disheveled as if he had just risen from bed. Yet his expression was alert and malevolent.

“Young magician on the move, are you? Man about town and your home is your castle? Found the present state of the housekeeping intolerable for a young man of your stature, did you?”

“The present state of the housekeeping was intolerable even for a man of your stature,” said Snape. “Or should have been.”

“Blame your mother for that,” said Tobias. “She just can’t be bothered these days.”

Such a remark did not deserve the courtesy of a reply, and Snape merely fixed his father with a hard stare.

Snape knew that, for his mother’s sake, he should not goad Tobias, but the sight of his father’s face, the foul sound of his speech, were enough to make Snape dizzy with contempt. He bit his lip and said nothing as he set the bundle of laundry down by the door and moved toward the icebox. He would get something to eat and take his breakfast upstairs with the laundry.

“What’s this, then? Too good to talk to me these days, are you?” said Tobias to Snape’s back.

“Pretty much,” said Snape, without turning round. There was nothing in the icebox but beer and a few condiments.

“Why don’t you change me into a toad, then? Or is that still beyond your skill level?”

“I’d like to; you’d be much better company,” said Snape. “Unfortunately there are laws.”

“Oh, yes, laws!” exclaimed his father. “You didn’t seem to mind the law quite so much last time you were here, did you? Your little magician’s council didn’t much approve of that ridiculous transparent beaver you tried to do me in with, did they?”

“You’ve never seen a real beaver, clearly, if you think that was one,” Snape observed.

“‘Community service’!” continued Tobias with a snort. “Attempted murder with an invisible animal, and they give you community service. What’d you do, scrub out the school toilets with pixie dust? Serve soup to homeless faeries?”

“Something like that,” said Snape. In fact, he had helped plan the menu for St. Mungo’s annual charity Christmas dinner, and had also done a good deal of actual cooking on Christmas Day. He’d given up Saturdays for a month as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas itself, and grumbled about it a lot to Mulciber and Avery, but there had been moments at which he secretly enjoyed it. He had felt bad for leaving Eileen alone at Christmas, but she assured him that his time would be better spent away from home, and he couldn’t help but agree with her.

As for the twenty-Galleon fine, there was no way on earth Eileen could have paid it, so Snape had found a creative solution to the problem. They had a year to settle up with the Ministry, so he had begun brewing a batch of Felix Felicis – his first attempt – in the Room of Requirement as soon as he arrived in September, with the idea of selling it off to fellow students.

He had let the stuff stew in the Room for the better part of fifth year, bottled it in the spring, and sold small doses of it (advertised as “liquid luck”) in the Slytherin common room in the days before the final Quidditch and Gobstones matches of the year. Although he warned that it was untested, several wealthy housemates with enviable pocket money allowances had snapped up all six doses in about ten minutes, at seven Galleons a shot. (Snape did not see why he should not make an additional profit on the stuff if he could; Eileen could certainly use the extra money). One of the buyers had been the Slytherin Seeker, and Slytherin had won the final match and the Quidditch cup that year. Whether the two occurrences had any connection, however, Snape really could not say.

“Look out you don’t become a homeless faerie yourself,” Tobias said suddenly.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Snape, though he had a pretty good idea.

“Just what it sounds like,” said Tobias. “I still own this house, you know. You stay here at my discretion. I can pitch you out any time I see fit.”

Snape turned and stared intently at his father.“You co-own this house,” he corrected. He had once asked Eileen about this very matter.

“That’s only a technicality,” said Tobias. “Your mother is so incapacitated that it wouldn’t be difficult to have her legally declared such.”

“By the Muggle state, maybe,” said Snape. “But our Ministry would have something to say about it if you tried.”

This seemed to silence his father for a few moments; perhaps he was remembering the Shield Charm that Dumbledore had casually put up against him during the headmaster’s visit to the house the previous summer, and imagining an entire governing body full of people with similar powers.

But Tobias was not finished. “I see you don’t contradict the other part of what I said,” he added in a significant tone.

“I choose not to respond to it,” said Snape, who knew exactly what he was referring to, and had been prepared for this line of questioning.

“Hit the nail on the head, then, did I?” said Tobias.

“I don’t know why you’d think you know anything about it,” said Snape. “You know less about that sort of thing than anyone I’ve ever met in my life.” Far from being disturbed by the aspersions Tobias had cast on his sexual tastes, he took them as rather a compliment: if Tobias had fault to find with his son’s relations with the opposite sex, it probably meant Snape was doing something right.

“I know what I observe,” said Tobias. “And I observe that your only friend in this world is a girl. Boys whose friends are girls are generally faeries, everyone knows that.”

“None of my other friends live around here,” said Snape. “They can’t exactly drop by for tea. And even if they could,” he added pointedly, “this isn’t the kind of house I would bring a friend to.”

He spoke as coolly as he could, but in fact he was deeply disturbed: Tobias apparently knew a good deal more about Lily than Snape had thought and hoped he did.

From the beginning of his friendship with Lily, Snape’s instincts had told him to keep her away from Tobias. He had never formally introduced them to one another, and he always tried to discourage Lily from coming over at times when he knew Tobias would be home. He had not been able to prevent their occasionally glimpsing one another from a distance, but he could not recall their ever having spoken to each other. Increasingly, as things had got worse within the family, he had discouraged Lily from coming over at all; in the last few years, they had generally met at the Evanses’ house or elsewhere in the neighborhood. How Tobias had gleaned from this limited contact that Lily was his closest friend was a mystery, and also a cause for worry: had Eileen perhaps told him something?

“They don’t live around here, naturally,” said Tobias. “Convenient, that. They might or might not exist, these friends, but the red-haired girl is definitely real. And the red-haired girl says something very suspicious about you, Severus.”

Though he knew he must not use it, Snape could not help reaching for his wand at this last remark. Tobias so rarely addressed him by his name that his doing so now constituted a clear act of aggression; more importantly, his father needed to be forcibly shut up before he said another word about Lily. He had no call to be talking about her at all, let alone jumping to conclusions about her.

“Let me tell you,” Tobias continued insidiously, “if I were a sixteen-year-old boy and I knew a girl who looked like that, you can be sure I wouldn’t settle for just being friends with her. There are better uses for a girl like that.”

Shut up!” said Snape savagely. All pretence of composure had now become impossible. His mind flooded with hatred, and without even realizing he was doing it, he pulled his wand out of the pocket of his trousers and came forward several paces toward Tobias.

His father burst out laughing. “Look at you, with your little stick raised and all! It seems I’ve touched a nerve. Going to bring that beaver back for another round, are you?”

“There’s a lot worse than that I could do to you,” said Snape in a low, threatening tone. “Watch your mouth if you don’t want to find out what it is.”

“I do believe I’ve upset you, Severus,” said his father mockingly. “I was only paying your redheaded friend a compliment – she’s quite attractive, you know. Or hadn’t you noticed? But then I suppose you wouldn’t, would you, given your leanings.”

“Shut up!” Snape exclaimed again. “As if she’d even look at a nonentity like you – a wretched little fuck who hits his wife and can’t get a job to save his life.”

Tobias rose from the table abruptly, seizing and capping the bottle of beer as he did so. “Rather I hit you then, would you?” he asked menacingly. “Run your mouth off like that again, and I’ll be happy to.” He walked around the table toward Snape, holding up the half-full bottle as if ready to brandish it as a weapon.

“Stop right there!” shouted Snape, holding up his wand. His head pulsed with urgent, contradictory messages and emotions: he wanted to curse his father so badly he could taste it, but he also remembered standing in this very room a year ago, holding the letter expelling him from Hogwarts and feeling ready to keel over with nauseous horror.

Tobias came toward him. The thought flashed through Snape’s mind that he, Snape, was two inches taller than he had been last summer, and probably stronger as well.

He reached out for the beer bottle, imagining himself wrenching it away from Tobias and hitting him over the head with it. But Tobias’ grip was pincer-like, and he planted his free hand in the middle of Snape’s chest and shoved him away. Then he walked past Snape and over to the bundle of laundry that was sitting by the door. He uncapped the bottle, turned it upside-down and emptied it on the bundle, soaking it with beer.

Snaped lunged forward, but Tobias swung the empty bottle hard at his son’s face. Snape ducked, but the bottle connected with the side of his head, and he went down hard on the floor. As he dropped to his knees, pain ringing in his head, Tobias walked back to the table, retrieved his plate of half-eaten eggs, tossed it carelessly into the sink, and came back toward Snape. “Don’t look now,” said Tobias, “but there’s some more dirty laundry that needs doing.” He walked out of the room.
 
* * *

Snape left the house shortly after, having forgotten all thought of breakfast. He went down Spinner's End into town, but had to walk round in circles for an hour before his rage was tamped down enough by fatigue and hunger for him to think of going into Rankin’s to see about the job.

He found Shankley, the manager, in the stockroom at the back of the market, in the middle of haranguing a boy – clearly a new recruit, one of this summer’s victims – over the way he had shelved a shipment of boxes.

“The way you’ve got them now, we’ll have to take them down and shelve them all over again before we can take inventory,” said Shankley in his characteristic peevish tones. “Labels must face out and right-side-up, Morris, always.”

“Not upside-down labels!,” exclaimed Snape in a horrified voice, as he came up behind Shankley. “This is an error you won’t soon recover from, Morris. For,” he added, quoting one of Shankley’s favorite aphorisms,“‘a man who doesn’t respect details doesn’t respect himself,’ didn’t you know that?”

“Oh, hello,” said Shankley unenthusiastically, turning round. “Back for more, are you, Snape?”

“So it would seem,” said Snape. “Have you got summer places open?”

“This is your lucky day,” said Shankley with a benefactorial air. “I hadn’t till this morning, but one of Morris’ compatriots – Nachton Kincaid, you remember him – was caught stealing. Naturally I had to let him go.”

“Naturally,” said Snape. “What did he steal, a paper clip? A penny candy?” Shankley had been trying to catch Nachton out for stealing all the previous summer, for no reason that Snape could see. He had disliked Nachton himself, but knowing Shankley’s paranoid possessiveness toward Rankin’s stock, the charges against him had probably been trumped-up or nonexistent.

“A ballpoint pen,” said Shankley, in a deeply affronted voice.

“Shankley, you were far too kind to him,” chided another all-too-familiar voice. “You could’ve brought the police and the local news in. Think how entertaining that would’ve been.” The voice’s owner had just entered the stockroom, loaded down with a stack of oversized boxes that obscured his face, but Snape well remembered him from last summer: Marcus Tench, who was universally unpleasant to everybody. The good side of this was that “everybody” included Shankley.

Mister Shankley,” corrected the manager automatically. He had done this all last summer too, to no avail – the entire crew of stockboys had constantly addressed him as “Crankley,” “Spankley,” or, most commonly, “Wankley.” Shankley had actually done rather well just now, in that Tench had used his real name. He ought not to look a gift horse in the mouth, Snape thought.

Tench set the boxes down.“Hello there, Severus,” he said with satirical emphasis; Tench had gotten no end of enjoyment out of Snape’s name last year as well. “Thought you said you’d die before you’d ever work here again.”

“I did,” said Snape. “Believe me, I’m here against my will.”

“I really don’t think Nachton meant to take that pen, Mr. Shankley,” said Morris suddenly, as if his conscience was still bothering him about the incident. “He just put it behind his ear and forgot it was there. I’ve done the same thing loads of times.”

“Morris, that’s kind of you, but very naïve,” said Shankley. “I know Kincaid better than you do. Little things have gone missing ever since he started here two years ago, but I’ve never been able to catch him at it until today. Good riddance to bad rubbish, is what I say.”

“Can I start now?” asked Snape impatiently. He needed all the hours he could get, and the sooner he began the sooner he would get paid. Shankley consulted his watch and looked disapproving.

“You know what time the day starts around here, Snape,” said Shankley. “It’s certainly not at a quarter to noon. Normally I’d send you home with a reprimand, but because we’re down a man, I will allow you to start halfway through the workday.”

“Thank you,” said Snape in a less than gracious tone.

“You can start by working with Morris here on the shelves,” said Shankley. “I want everything done over again, in alphabetical order by product name, labels out on every box and right-side up.”
 
* * *

Snape returned home at half-past eight that night and promptly went out again with the beer-stained laundry, finally finishing his day at about eleven o’clock. Fortunately Tobias was out all evening again and their paths did not cross. He must have come back during the night, however, for the next day Snape entered the bathroom to get ready for work and found a morning greeting awaiting him: a toilet bowl full of shit.

Snape was sure this had not been an accident, but he merely cursed his father in absentia, flushed the toilet, and tried to put it out of his mind. It was his first full day of work, and he had plenty of other things to worry about, such as the fact that they were practically out of food. If there was to be any dinner tonight for himself and Eileen, he would either have to ask for an advance on his first paycheck, which Shankley was not likely to give; beg a loan from Tench or Morris, a thought at which his pride revolted; or swipe something off Rankin’s shelves, and risk following in Nachton’s footsteps. He was leaning toward the final option.

Thus began Snape’s summer. He worked six days a week – sometimes seven if he could get the extra hours – and then came home and cooked dinner for himself and his mother. With increasing frequency, Tobias began to come home earlier in the evenings too, lured by the chance at a free and decent meal. Sometimes, in fact, he would actually be there sitting pointedly at the table waiting when Snape came in.

On these occasions Snape would cook in contemptuous silence as his father sat there; when the food was ready he would prepare three plates, taking one to Eileen in her room and keeping one for himself. He would leave the third plate behind for Tobias with no further acknowledgement of his presence, and retire to his own room to eat his dinner, then read until bedtime.

The evenings, when he could at least read about magic, were the time he most often thought about Lily, so close by but so inaccessible. He wondered nearly every day what she was doing and thinking, how she was passing her summer. The two of them were the only magical children he knew of in the immediate neighborhood, but the Evanses had money to travel; perhaps Lily had been able to visit other friends who provided reminders of Hogwarts. For himself, she had been a lifeline in so many ways, and he felt her absence continually.

There was no one he could talk to about his problems except his mother, and he hardly thought it fair to add to Eileen’s burdens by complaining about his own, which were by any measurement less heavy. He imagined Mulciber and Avery, who lived within walking distance of each other and did not need to work for money, passing a leisurely summer together, amusing themselves in London without him. He prickled with envy and resentment when he thought of the contrast between their lives and his, but he also wished he could see them. He wrote each of them a letter full of entertainingly sarcastic remarks about his awful Muggle job and his arsehole Muggle father, but left out any description of Eileen’s condition or the mood of tension and foreboding that hung over the house. He looked every day for a reply, for proof that somewhere in the world, young wizards were living better lives than he was.

A few days later, happily, one came. The handwriting on the outside of the parchment was Avery’s, but there were messages inside from both of them.


Severus,

Sounds like your summer’s been a crashing bore so far. Can’t you chuck your job and come down to London for a few days at least? Come on, do. Roger and I have discovered some fascinating new forms of entertainment in the city, most of them involving Muggle girls. We’ve been getting in so much trouble I don’t even miss magic! (Well, almost.)

Seriously, let us know when you can get away. We’ll show you a few things that’ll blow your mind!

Orson



Farther down the page, Mulciber had added a postscript:


Severus,

Orson is NOT kidding. I once thought Muggle women were a waste of oxygen – no more. And London is a FAR better place for recreational use of the Imperius Curse than Hogwarts. The Ministry can detect it, sure, but it’s dead easy to get away before they get there, and there are millions of Muggles around to distract them and slow them up.

You need to get your arse down here right quick.

Roger



Snape’s feelings on reading these messages were very mixed indeed. He was irritated by Avery’s implication that he was only working by choice, perhaps for a little extra pocket money, and could throw it over any time he felt like it. The casual suggestion that he come down to London “for a few days”– did either of them have any idea what a train ticket to London cost, or what might happen to Eileen if he left town even for a day?

Then again, Snape reminded himself, they couldn’t have any idea of the consequences of his cutting work and skipping town: he had never told them how things stood between his father and mother, or how badly off his mother was these days. The only one of his friends whom he had ever told about Tobias’ violence toward Eileen was Lily, Snape recalled with a wince, and now he could expect no help or consolation from that quarter either. This summer, he was on his own.

Nor were Mulciber and Avery aware of how dire his family’s money problems were; they knew, in a general sense, that Snape wasn’t wealthy the way they were, but they would have been astonished and horrified to hear that Snape’s own meager income was, at this moment, almost the only thing that stood between his family and destitution.

Even more conflicted were Snape’s feelings about this new “entertainment” his friends had discovered involving Muggle girls and, apparently, the use of the Imperius Curse. Part of him was alarmed; though he could not guess the exact details of what they were doing, it sounded rash, gratuitously risky, and altogether ill-advised. It was also hypocritical: as Mulciber had implied, both he and Avery (and, indeed, Snape as well) had previously scorned all Muggle females as being entirely beneath them and unworthy of any kind of attention. Snape thought this sudden reversal on both their parts lacked principle, to say the least.

But if he was honest about it, Snape was also envious. Whether he envied the specific things his friends were doing, he could not say without knowing what they were; but it worried him that the other two were having experiences he had not had and would probably, given the constricted life he was leading, continue not to have. He already felt well behind his peers when it came to anything related to girls or sex, and now his own friends had begun doing things that would no doubt put him even further behind.

Snape thought again, with a rush of anger and shame, of Tobias’ leering remarks about Lily. The most horrifying thing about them, he now realized, was the thought that his own feelings toward Lily might not only be mistaken for the sort of sentiments that his father had expressed, but that they might really be the same. His father could not possibly have thought of Lily in that way – could he? And he, Snape, could not possibly have even the most trivial taste or attitude in common with Tobias – could he? Sitting there on his bed, he shook his head involuntarily and shuddered.

To distract himself from such thoughts, Snape read the messages again, dwelling this time on what Mulciber had said about the Imperius Curse and the difficulty of tracing its perpetrators in London. It was ironic that Mulciber and Avery were doing whatever they were doing without him, for Snape had been the one who had started them all off on their shared flirtation with the Unforgivable Curses by telling the other two, toward the end of fifth year, that the Ministry could not trace the Unforgivables when they were cast at Hogwarts. They could detect the fact of curses themselves, of course, but with three hundred magical children (and, indeed, a dozen faculty members) in such close proximity, there was no way to isolate the source of a given curse.

Snape knew all this from Eileen. She had told him a couple of years previous, in the strictest confidence, that she had once had to cast the Cruciatus Curse on a fellow student while at school. She stressed the words “had to”; she made it clear that the boy in question had done, or at least tried to do, something so utterly horrible to her that no other course was possible. When Snape had pressed her for details, she had refused to give them to him, saying only that he would have to take her word that it was something very, very awful. “All you need to know, Severus,” she had said, “is that he stopped doing it immediately.”

As Eileen told it, the Ministry’s response to the casting of the curse had been immediate: two Aurors had arrived at the Great Hall during dinner a few minutes later and made an announcement that someone had performed an Unforgivable Curse on school grounds. They did a great deal of threatening and fulminating, and a few students were questioned – mostly Slytherins with bad reputations, but Eileen herself was not among them. Eventually, however, the Aurors had left with nothing, and the investigation had petered out.

When Snape told Avery and Mulciber all this, they became very excited. If there were no way to get caught, why not practice the Unforgivable Curses on one another? Not Avada Kedavra, of course, but the two that were reversible. They all wanted to be able to cast the Imperius and Cruciatus Curses if they had to – they were growing up in an era of war, after all. And they were all curious, too, about what the curses felt like. What was it like to be magically compelled to do someone else’s bidding? Wouldn’t it be safer to be compelled this way by your friend, under controlled conditions, than by your enemy? Snape knew from Eileen that it was possible, with practice, to learn to resist the Imperius Curse; they all wanted to learn how to do this. As for the Cruciatus Curse, they couldn’t help but wonder just how painful it really was. Again, wouldn’t it be far better to have a friend cast it on you than an enemy, so that your experience of it could be carefully limited? If the Cruciatus really was unbearable, a friend would stop casting it when you told them to.

Snape had further assisted their quest by suggesting that they practice casting the Unforgivable Curses in the Room of Requirement – that way they would be certain not to get caught. Mulciber and Avery had congratulated Snape on this stroke of genius, and they had put their plan into action that same afternoon.

They had begun with the Imperius Curse, as it was clearly the most benign of the three. Snape, who had in fact cast the curse twice already at Hogwarts, under circumstances he preferred to keep private, had some experience to guide him, though he ascribed his knowledge to his mother’s teachings. He emphasized that you really had to want to cast these curses in order to make it happen; simply concentrating for a moment and waving your wand would not suffice.

“Believe me, I do want to,” said Mulciber.

“No more than I do, Roger,” said Avery, sounding slightly insulted.

After a little practice working up the proper motivation, they were each able to cast the Imperius Curse successfully and make each other do various silly or rude things against each other’s will. Mulciber made Snape write a letter of sexual proposition to their Potions professor, Horace Slughorn; when Mulciber lifted the curse and Snape read the letter, he immediately burned the evidence to a crisp with his wand as the others laughed uproariously. Snape then made Avery confess to the greatest sexual infatuation he had at Hogwarts; to the hilarity of the other two, this turned out to be Eleanor Greenbaum, a pink-cheeked, pixieish girl from Hufflepuff. (Much later, Avery would insist that he had actually been resisting the curse at the time he told them this, and that the true answer remained buried deep in his psyche.)

Perhaps a little miffed by his friends’ response to the confession they had forced from him, Avery revenged himself when his turn came to cast the curse, by ordering Mulciber to kiss Snape on the lips. Snape tried to flee the Room before this could happen, but for some reason the Room would not let him out, and the Imperiused Mulciber was persistent. Snape then tried casting the Knockback Jinx to protect himself, but Mulciber kept coming; perhaps it was the nature of Unforgivable Curses to override lesser forms of magic. As Avery hooted and catcalled, Mulciber finally grabbed Snape by the ears and did the deed. Avery enjoyed this performance thoroughly, but its participants were less enthusiastic: Snape’s response was to Stupefy Mulciber – which did work, now that Mulciber’s order had been carried out. Mulciber’s response, once the curse was lifted, was to punch Avery in the stomach.

Nor was Mulciber quite finished. He immediately suggested they move on to the Cruciatus Curse, and chose Avery as his first target. Snape immediately put up a Shield Charm between them, saying that was a very bad idea.

“Bollocks, it’s a great idea!” insisted Mulciber, kicking at the invisible barrier that blocked him from Avery. “You said we have to mean it for these curses to work. And just now I particularly mean it,” he said, glaring at Avery.

“That’s in battles, Roger,” said Snape. “For purposes of practicing, you mean it a little too much for my taste just now.”

To give Mulciber time to cool down, Snape volunteered to be the first victim, though he was not about to place himself in the sights of his vengeful friend. “You do it, Orson,” he suggested. “I don’t trust you yet, Roger, you’re still too mad.” At Snape’s insistence, they set strict rules for their Cruciatus exercise: the curse could be cast for five seconds maximum, and if the victim cried for mercy before then, the perpetrator had to lift the curse immediately.

Snape took on his role with more than a little bravado: his goal was to last the full five seconds without crying uncle. As Avery raised his wand, he was more curious than fearful; he might even have been looking forward to the experience a little.

But when Avery cried “Crucio!,” all that was immediately forgotten. A jet of red light hit Snape in the chest like a javelin, and the pain that followed was searing, screaming, unprecedented, unimaginable. Snape was unable to count off the seconds as they passed; he was barely able to master his wits enough to scream “Stop!”

He lay on the floor where he had fallen for what felt like a long time afterward, shaking. Avery came and bent over him, saying, “Merlin’s pants, mate, I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

A few seconds passed before Snape was able to reply in the affirmative. Eventually he sat up and glared at Avery accusingly. “Clearly you were still mad too, Orson, even if it wasn’t at me,” he said.

“Well, I’m not anymore,” said Avery, who looked sincerely repentant. “That was scary just to watch.”

“What is it like?” asked Mulciber in an awed voice.

“You don’t want to know,” said Snape. “In fact, I don’t think we should do this anymore.”

“I want to know what it’s like,” insisted Mulciber. “Let’s just bring the maximum time down a bit.”

This reminded Snape of his foolish resolution to tough out the curse for the full five seconds. “How long did I last?” he wanted to know. It had felt like five minutes.

“Three seconds, maybe,” said Avery. “I dunno, I think it would be better if we brought the time down to two seconds. Severus looked like he had more than what was good for him.”

“Of course I did,” retorted Snape. “This curse isn’t cast on you for your health.”

“Two seconds, then,” said Mulciber. “Orson, are you game?”

Avery did not look terribly happy about the prospect, but he made a brave effort. “I guess so,” he muttered. “But get it over with.” He held up a hand toward Mulciber. “Half a sec – I’m going to sit down first.”

“Good idea,” said Snape. “If you don’t, you’ll fall down anyway.”

Avery took a seat in a nearby armchair and braced himself. “OK, Roger,” he said. “Do it quick.”

Mulciber gave Avery a rather odd look, raised his wand, and said in a loud but strangely calm voice, “Crucio!”

When the jet of red light hit him, Avery began screaming immediately – first a brief, wordless howl of anguish, then a clear “Stop, stop!” Mulciber turned to look at his still-raised wand, much too slowly—

“Stop, Roger!” bellowed Snape, and Mulciber snapped out of his momentary trance. “Finite!” he cried.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, Roger?” exclaimed Snape, and knelt down in front of the moaning Avery, grasping him by the shoulders in an attempt to stop him shaking. “You’re all right, Orson, you’re all right. It’s over,” he said.

“Merlin’s arse,” groaned Avery.

Snape turned back to Mulciber. “You shouldn’t have done that, Roger. You were obviously still in a rage.”

“I wasn’t,” protested Mulciber. “I just – I don’t know, my brain got stuck and I couldn’t speak for a second.”

“This is not a joke!” shouted Snape. “Take the worst pain you’ve ever been in, and multiply it by about ten thousand. That’s what it feels like.”

“It’s like,” said Avery, still panting, “it’s like having your skin ripped off, then being thrown into fire.”

Mulciber stared, then laughed. “You’ve never had your skin ripped off or been thrown into fire. So how would you know?”

“He knows,” said Snape, and Avery insisted, “That’s what it feels like.”

“Do it to me,” said Mulciber defiantly. “No, not you,” he said, as Avery rose from the chair in response. “You,” he said, pointing at Snape.

Snape paused. “All right, I will,” he said. “You need to know what this curse is, so you can stop making stupid ignorant remarks about what it is and isn’t like.” He reached into his robes for his wand. “Sit down.”

Mulciber took Avery’s place in the armchair. “All right, I’m sitting,” he said. “Let me have it.”

“I’ll stop after two seconds or when you tell me to stop, whichever comes first,” said Snape. “Are you ready?”

“Ready,” said Mulciber.

Snape had never cast this curse before, but he did not think he would have any difficulty calling up the necessary anger or desire. He closed his eyes and imagined Tobias’ face before him. He dwelt on the image long enough for hate to well up in his gut, then – “Crucio!” he shouted.

For a long moment, Mulciber did not even cry out; he simply sat suspended, wide-eyed, in the jet of red light that erupted from Snape’s wand. It was eerie, disturbing, but it only lasted for a second. Then he too screamed, “Stop!”

“Finite!” cried Snape, almost before Mulciber had finished speaking. He turned away, as if to give Mulciber a moment of privacy to recover – and to repent. Eventually he turned back to look at him. He was deathly white in the face and breathing very hard.

“You’re right, Severus,” he said quietly. “Let’s not do this anymore. Once is enough.”

“Are you all right?” said Snape. In answer, Mulciber rose from the chair and got unsteadily to his feet.

“I’m hungry,” said Avery suddenly. “What time is it?”

They all looked up, and, this being the Room of Requirement, they found that there was a clock on the wall directly in front of them. It was dinnertime; the Great Hall downstairs must be filling up.

“Let’s stop this and go eat,” said Avery. The other two immediately nodded their acquiescence. The relief that filled the air was almost palpable.

As they left the Room of Requirement, Mulciber turned his head to look back, as if he had left something there. “What are you looking for?” asked Avery.

“I don’t know,” said Mulciber, and quickly turned to face forward again. They went down to dinner straight away, and did not do any more practice with the Unforgivable Curses for the rest of term.
 
* * *

Snape sent a letter back to Avery, saying he would not be able to come down to London that summer unless some unknown relative died and left him a million Galleons, so Avery and Mulciber would have to keep writing him about their adventures. Vicarious fun was the only kind he seemed likely to have for the next two months.

His job at Rankin’s, actually, had turned out to be closer to that description than any of his other obligations. Not that it wasn’t still miles away from real fun – it was a combination of hard physical work and mindless boredom – but things had improved since last year. Things had come to a pretty pass, Snape thought, if the hours he spent every day with Muggles had turned out to be the highlight of his days, but he was forced to admit that it was the truth.

First, Nachton Kincaid had been fired, which had made a notable difference in the quality of Snape’s working life. Kincaid had been a constant irritant to Snape the previous summer with his observations on Snape’s hair, clothes, large vocabulary, and lack of knowledge about popular music (“a hippie uni professor,” Kincaid had first termed him; then, upon learning that Snape did not know who an apparently significant Muggle by the name of Jim Morrison was, he had revised this to “a hippie uni professor with a lobotomy”). With Kincaid departed, the only remaining irritant among the stockboys was Marcus Tench; unfortunately, Tench was as irritating as four or five regular Muggles put together.

Tench, in fact, had aired his theory that Snape was a faerie a full year before Tobias had (basing his conclusion on Snape’s hair, clothes, large vocabulary, difficulty lifting the heavier boxes of canned goods that they stocked, and effete first name). He still rode Snape frequently about his name, but the latter’s physical strength had improved considerably over the last year, and Tench seemed also to have gradually come to a greater appreciation of Snape’s vocabulary, as it proved useful in coming up with creative insults for Shankley.

Morris, the other member of the stockboy work force, had turned out to be surprisingly tolerable for a Muggle. Only fourteen, he was already taller than the others but did not bother giving them a hard time about it; like Snape, he had long hair, but he was definitely no hippie. He confounded Tench’s unified theory of adolescent stereotypes by passionately liking a new type of Muggle music he referred to as “punk rock,” which, from Morris’ description, was loud, crude and extremely obnoxious. He wanted to know if Tench and Snape had heard of a new band called the Sex Pistols, whom he had seen perform in Manchester with his older brother a couple of months previous.

“Snape doesn’t listen to popular music, it’s pointless and worthless,” Marcus Tench had replied, parroting Snape’s own words of the previous summer following the Jim Morrison incident. (Snape had nearly called it “Muggle music,” but had caught himself just in time.)

“I don’t listen to popular music, it’s pointless and worthless,” Snape reaffirmed. “Anyway, that is the stupidest name for a band I’ve ever heard in my life.”

“That’s exactly why they chose it!” exclaimed Morris triumphantly. “They’re called the Sex Pistols because it was the most obnoxious thing they could think of. Being obnoxious is half the point of punk.”

“What’s the other half?” asked Snape indifferently.

“Getting laid,” replied Tench.

“No, it isn’t!” cried Morris indignantly. “That’s a corrupt sixties idea. Punk bands are against cheap sex, and groupies and that.”

“I’m sorry, Morris, no rock band is against cheap sex and groupies,” opined Tench.

“The Sex Pistols definitely don’t care about getting laid,” insisted Morris. “If you saw them you’d understand that. They want to destroy everything stupid and conformist. That’s the other half of the point of punk. Freedom from all the stupid crap in life. You’ve got to see them when they play here again. You too, Severus,” he added. “Even if you don’t like popular music. Because neither do they! They’d be right up your street.”

“Not bloody likely,” said Snape. Still, on the whole he found Morris quite acceptable. He had seemed a bit of a prat at first, what with calling their manager “Mr. Shankley” and treating him with respect, but after a week Morris caught on to what Shankley was like, and joined in the collective mocking of their supervisor, though he remained a bit gentler than the rest of them.

Midway through July, however, the stockboys received a rude shock. They came in one morning to find Shankley waiting for them in the stockroom, a strange man standing next to him. The stranger was tall, burly, and had strawberry blonde hair which he wore in a long but carefully combed style, making him look somehow Biblical. He was dressed in a white shirt, a gray tie, black trousers, and heavy black shoes. Looking at him, Snape felt a weird sense of foreboding.

As soon as they were all assembled, the stranger began speaking without preamble. “My name is Thomas Vogt,” he said, “and I am the new owner of this store, along with several others I have recently acquired in this region. I am here to tell you that starting today, things will be run in a very different manner from what you have apparently been used to.”

Vogt went on to relate what he had been told by Shankley of the disgraceful way the store had operated under the previous owner: the slackness, the lateness, the lack of oversight and accountability, the utter disrespect of the stockboys for their hardworking, upright, meticulous manager, Mr. Herman Shankley. But all that was about to change.

From now on, continued Vogt, they would be required to clock in and out every day upon arrival, upon departure and at lunch. Lunch privileges had been frequently abused, so the prescribed lunch period would be reduced from forty-five minutes to half an hour. Lunches would be taken on the premises and eaten in the break room unless permission was given for them to leave the store. Days off would be requested a week in advance; sick days would be reported at least an hour before the start of the business day. Inventory would be logged bi-weekly, not bi-monthly. And their manager would be treated with the utmost respect at all times, and always referred to as “Mr. Shankley.” Because lack of attention and respect for small matters was reflective of an employee’s lack of respect for the overall enterprise of the store (Shankley positively beamed at these words), any and all of these seemingly minor offenses would be grounds for firing.

Thomas Vogt then took his leave, concluding, “I am the boss here; if you don’t like it, you can leave. And don’t think that because I own many stores, I’ll be an absent supervisor. I visit each of my markets at least three times a week, and I don’t announce the days of my visits in advance.”

“Mr. Vogt, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to come and outline these excellent new policies for us,” said Shankley obsequiously. “I’m delighted to be finally working for someone who takes such matters as seriously as I do.”

“No trouble at all, Herman,” said Vogt, clapping Shankley on the back. “I’m glad to find a manager in place who already thinks along my lines. It’s so much trouble re-training people with lax ideas that I usually end by firing them.”

“May I see you out, sir?” asked Shankley, and for a moment Snape thought the manager was actually going to offer Vogt his arm.

“Certainly, Herman,” said Vogt, and he left the room with Shankley following doglike at his heels. The three stockboys looked at one another in mutual dismay.

“How bad do you think this is going to be?” asked Morris in a worried voice.

“Unbearable,” replied Tench grimly. “Did you see that shit-eating grin on Shankley’s face when Vogt was talking about attention to detail? He’s got a sponsor for his insanity now. Shankley absolutely loves this arsehole – he’s going to validate every stupid thing he does and says. It must have been hard for him not to get down on his knees and suck Vogt’s prick right in front of us.”

Morris grimaced at the revolting mental picture this description conjured up, but said only, “They do seem awfully pally, don’t they?”

“They can’t be that pally,” said Snape. “Shankley’s first name is Norman, not Herman.”

Tench gave a snort of laughter. “Details, details!” he said, waving his hand dismissively.

Morris grinned. “But a man who doesn’t respect details doesn’t respect himself!” he said.

“When a man’s in love, he’ll let the little things slide,” said Tench sardonically.

But it soon became clear that this little matter of his first name would henceforth be the only detail Shankley was willing to let slide. A new era had begun at Rankin’s, and Shankley was its agent and apostle. He had always been insufferable, but under the old owner he had had limited ability to impose his pettier ideas on people and make them stick. Now, with Vogt as his backer, he became a tyrant. While they were at lunch that day – the strict new thirty-minute lunch – Shankley had a punch clock installed in the stockroom; by the evening, their working hours were being monitored by the machine.

When Morris clocked in three minutes late the following morning, Shankley told him his pay would be docked by a full hour that week.

“But it isn’t my fault I was late!” exclaimed Morris. “This stupid driver sideswiped my bike and knocked me into the gutter. Look!”

He pointed to his jeans, which were freshly torn and streaked down one leg with mud.

“Were you hurt?” asked Shankley.

“No, not really,” said Morris.

“Was your bicycle damaged?”

“A little,” said Morris.

“But you rode it the rest of the way here,” said Shankley.

“Yeah,” said Morris.

“Then why were you late?” asked Shankley ominously.

“I don’t know, I was…shaken up,” said Morris. “And I had to stop and look at my bike to see if anything was bent out of shape…I mean, come on, it was only three extra minutes, Mr. Shankley!”

Shankley did not reply, but walked into his office and made a phone call. They heard him describing what had happened to the party on the other end, then adding, “His appearance really isn’t presentable either, Mr. Vogt. He’s got mud all over him.” There was a pause as Vogt said something, and then Shankley responded, “Very good, sir. I’ll tell him, Mr. Vogt.” He hung up the phone and came back into the stockroom.

“Morris, go back home and change your clothes,” said Shankley. “And come back quickly. You will not be paid for the time you’re gone.”

“But—” said Morris.

“Don’t bother arguing,” said Shankley. “You heard me on the phone with Mr. Vogt just now. This is his decision. If you don’t like it, you can always turn in your notice.”

Morris looked furious enough to do exactly that. He hesitated, but then seemed to grow fatalistic. He shook his head, turned and walked out the stockroom door; a few seconds later they heard the metallic spring of a kickstand being returned to its place, then a crunch of gravel.

Snape and Tench looked at each other, in clear agreement about something for perhaps the first time in two years: Shankley and Vogt were both certifiable.
 
* * *

The following week, Snape received another letter. This one was from Mulciber and described one of his recent adventures – one he had had alone, without Avery -- in rather more graphic detail than Snape was prepared for. The letter filled him with yearning, shame, and an intense anger than he did not entirely understand.

The following evening, for no reason, he took a detour on the way home from Rankin’s. He found himself walking toward the playground where he and Lily had met and talked the previous year after he had cast the Patronus and been expelled from Hogwarts. He stopped in front of the bench where they had sat, staring at it, thinking hard. Then he walked in the direction of Lily’s house.

He was not sure what he expected to find when he got there. It was still light outside, which meant that he had to be careful about being seen loitering.

He reached the house from the back and crept into the side yard, with a vague plan of looking into the kitchen window; perhaps he might catch a glimpse of Lily eating dinner with her parents. But the kitchen light was out, as was every other light on that side of the house.

Then Snape heard a car approaching, getting quite near. The car stopped in front of the Evans’ house; Snape could hear its engine idling out front. Could it possibly have arrived to drop off Lily, or pick her up? He ran toward the front yard to see, keeping close to the side of the house.

He heard the front door close, then the sound of a woman’s high heels clicking on the pavement of the front walk. Snape wondered at this; Lily had never gone in for that sort of dress, but perhaps she was dressing differently in deference to her Muggle surroundings…Then the owner of the heels came into view. Though Snape could see her only from the back, there was no mistaking the blonde hair and abnormally long neck of Petunia Evans. He had entirely forgotten that he might see her here as easily as Lily.

Though Petunia could not possibly have seen him, some instinct of self-protection made Snape drop to the ground, where he crouched behind a shrubbery at the corner of the house, peering out through the spaces between its leaves. He saw Petunia get into the passenger side of the car and close the door. On the other side of her was a young man; Snape glimpsed him only for an instant before the car moved away, but it was long enough to see that he had brown hair and a mustache that looked more mature than the rest of his face.

Disappointment washed over him, and with it an intense mortification: here he was, skulking about on his knees in the yard of a girl who was not around and who would not have spoken to him if she was. His only reward for his troubles had been a glimpse of her repellent older sister, who was apparently – could it be? – going out on a date. When Snape considered that even Petunia Evans seemed to be finding her way more firmly in the world of adult romance than he was, he felt utterly depressed, thwarted and humiliated. He had to get out of here immediately. He got to his feet; still bent double, he made a break for the street, then took off running.

As if his mood was not already low enough, he found Tobias in the kitchen waiting for him at home. Without saying a word, Snape walked past his father, put butter on to heat, took down some bottles of spices from the cabinets and began chopping ingredients for a curry.

Tobias was silent for a few minutes as Snape began cooking. He was starting to think he might not have to parry his father’s hostile conversational thrusts at all that evening, when Tobias suddenly spoke.

“What’s happened to your redheaded friend?” he asked. “I never see her around any more.”

Snape tensed. How on earth had Tobias been able to notice or sense a change in Snape’s relations with Lily? Even Eileen had not asked Snape about her since he had returned home; perhaps Lily was a sore subject for her, or perhaps she was preoccupied with her own problems.

And why had Tobias asked about Lily today, of all days? Did he somehow know that Snape had been over to her house this evening, eager for some fragmentary proof of her presence? It was uncanny, this ability of Tobias’ to pinpoint the subjects and the moments that caused Snape to feel most vulnerable. It was as if he had the selective ability to read Snape’s mind.

“She’s away for the summer,” said Snape after the briefest of pauses. For all he knew, it might have been true.

“Sure she didn’t get wise to you and cut you out of her life?”

Internally Snape gave a yelp of protest. How was it possible for Tobias to keep guessing right? In an attempt to stay calm, he took a moment to plan out the next steps in making the curry. Soon he would add tomatoes to the cooking chickpeas; then, after waiting about two minutes, he would add spinach.

“What do you mean, get wise to me?” he then asked, both to buy time and to find out exactly what his father knew.

“I mean that you fancy her,” said Tobias, and Snape cursed silently. But there was an obvious reply to this.

“Thought you’d decided I was a faerie,” he said.

“I’ve changed my mind,” said Tobias. “It was obvious from the way you reacted during our previous conversation that my innocent expression of interest in your friend made you jealous. Hence, you must fancy her.”

“Jealous of you?” said Snape, laughing incredulously. “I don’t have anything to say to that.” He added the spinach leaves to the curry; in only a few minutes, thankfully, it would be finished.

“Of course you don’t, because I’m right,” said Tobias calmly. “And yes, of course you’re jealous. I have a way with women that you don’t have and never will.”

Snape turned around to face his father, still laughing. “And look at all you have to show for it!” he exclaimed, opening his arms wide to take in the kitchen, the house, the family. “If that’s what a way with women gets you, I’ll be more than happy to do without it.”

Tobias, however, did not seem fazed. “Tell your redheaded friend to look out for me,” he said. “That is, if she’s still talking to you.”

Snape stared at his father in disbelief. “You’re off your head,” he said. “She knows all about you, and she can’t stand you.”

“That’s what they all say,” replied Tobias evenly. “It’s called playing hard to get. They all do it, don’t they?”

“You’re beyond belief,” said Snape in disgust. Thankfully, the curry was now ready, and he began spooning out portions of it over rice for himself and his mother.

“Don’t forget what I’ve said,” said Tobias as Snape left the room with bowls of curry in hand.
 
* * *

One evening in early August, Snape was reading in his room when there came a loud and insistent knocking at the front door downstairs.

Snape sat perfectly still on the bed, as if by doing so he could convince the knocker that no one was home. But after a brief silence, the knocking resumed, louder than before.

Afraid his mother would feel compelled to get up and answer the door, Snape left his room and ran down the stairs. A look through the peephole revealed a middle-aged Muggle man whom Snape had never seen before. He did not look happy.

“Who is it?” called Snape through the door.

“Wallace Burroughs, barman at the Cross Keys Inn,” came the gruff reply.

Snape immediately thought of Tobias. Had he been in a bar brawl? Was he injured, perhaps even dead? Against all reason, Snape’s hopes rose.

“What’re you here for?” yelled Snape.

“Open up and I’ll tell you,” replied Burroughs sourly.

Cautiously, Snape opened the door.

“Is this the residence of Tobias Snape?” asked Burroughs.

“Sometimes,” said Snape.

“How about now?” asked Burroughs impatiently.

“No, he’s not here now,” said Snape. “Why, what’s he done?”

“Reached and breached his credit limit at my place, is what he’s done,” said Burroughs. “Tobias Snape now owes me one hundred and two pounds and change. Which I’ve come to collect, on the highly unlikely chance that he or someone else here has got it—”

“No one here can pay it,” said Snape immediately, but Burroughs continued as if he hadn’t spoken.

“—and if not, to notify him that he’s banned until such time as he can do so. In the meantime, I’ll be taking legal measures to ensure that my losses are recouped.”

“What do you mean? What sort of measures?” said Snape. “Do you mean locking him up until he pays?” Here, perhaps was a glimmer of hope: Tobias in jail, housed and fed by the Muggle state until such time as he could pay up – a time that might never come…

“I mean whatever measures can get me my hundred pounds in the quickest possible manner,” said Burroughs. “Do tell him that if you see him, won’t you?” And with a satirical tip of his hat, Burroughs turned round and began walking back up Spinners End.

Snape found out the next day what sort of measures Burroughs had in mind. He was in the middle of stickering a shipment of sponges when Shankley came up to him and seized him by the shoulder.

“A word with you in my office, Snape, if you please,” said Shankley. Snape sighed and rose, wondering what imaginary offense he had committed against Shankley’s dignity.

In Shankley’s office, ominously, Thomas Vogt was waiting. With him was a stranger, a young man with slicked-back black hair and a black pinstriped suit. “Snape, this is Mr. Laughton Grimm,” said Shankley, indicating the young man in black. “He is a lawyer in private practice in Manchester.”

“What a surprise,” said Snape. With a name like that, what else could he possibly have been?

Shankley, who apparently detected no impudence in Snape’s remark, continued solemnly, “Mr. Grimm has been hired by a man called Wallace Burroughs, barman and owner of the Cross Arms pub just down the street from here, to collect one hundred and two pounds that your father owes him.”

Snape froze. “That’s nothing to do with me,” he said firmly.

“I’m afraid that’s not so, Snape,” said Shankley. “Mr. Grimm, will you explain the situation?”

“Certainly,” said Grimm. “Tobias Snape -- who is your father, is he not?”

Snape said nothing, only stared back at Grimm.

“Tobias Snape was arrested this morning as he returned to his residence, which I believe you share with him,” Grimm went on.

“Does my mother know that? Where is he now?” Snape ventured, feeling cautiously optimistic at the news of his father’s arrest.

“He’s being held in Lower Bury jail overnight or until someone pays fifty pounds to release him,” said Grimm.

“What about my mother?” asked Snape.

“Is Eileen Snape your mother?” asked Grimm, and Snape nodded. “She is aware of your father’s arrest.”

“We can’t pay to release him,” said Snape, “and we wouldn’t if we could.”

“That is what your mother said, more or less,” said Grimm. “That is as you wish. However, the hundred and two pounds that your father owes is another matter. If your father cannot pay it, it can be recouped from anyone in his immediate family who can.”

“None of us can,” said Snape immediately.

“Mr. Snape, I’m afraid that’s not the case,” put in Thomas Vogt; it was the first time he had spoken. “You can.”
 
* * *

There was nothing Snape could do: Vogt had control over his wages, and Vogt was in full sympathy with Burroughs and, more particularly, with Grimm. Debts must be paid, the books must be squared, and Shankley announced to Snape that his wages would be garnished for the rest of the summer until the hundred-and-two-pound fine was paid.

“You can’t do that!” shouted Snape. “It’s not my fault!” Instinctively he reached into the side pocket of his stockboy’s vest for his wand, though he knew he could do nothing but hold it. Still, its familiar shape and feel held a comforting promise of justice and revenge, however slow they might be in coming.

“I’m afraid that’s not the point, Snape,” said Shankley, who beneath a thin veneer of concern seemed barely able to suppress his satisfaction. “The sins of the fathers come back to visit the sons, don’t they? My own father left my mother with three young children and a mountain of debt. It was a trial at the time, but it made me the man I am today – disciplined, law-abiding, fully aware of the value of money. These are lessons I wish I could impose on every young layabout and ingrate I’ve had the misfortune of employing. You’ll be better for it in the end.”

Layabout?!” sputtered Snape. “Did you just call me a layabout? Do you have any idea how hard I work?” His head was throbbing with rage, with fantasies of hexing or cursing Shankley into humiliated submission.

“You work long hours, yes, that’s true,” said Shankley. “But your attitude has never been what I consider properly grateful or respectful. Perhaps this little setback will help you to adjust it.” He turned to the lawyer, and said, “Thank you very much, Mr. Grimm. May I walk you out?”

“Certainly, Sheckley, thank you,” said Grimm, and they turned and left the office along with Vogt, leaving Snape alone with his wrath.

When Snape came home that evening, he went immediately to Eileen’s room and knocked on her door. Normally he tried to leave her alone to rest until he came to bring her her dinner, but today had not been a normal day. Ill as she was, she needed to know what had happened and what they were now up against.Her reaction to the news surprised him: rather than despairing or resigned, she was angry.

“What he’s done to me over the years is one thing,” she told her son grimly. “That’s my affair. But for him to do this to you – that’s another matter entirely. This debt will be worked off by his efforts, not by yours, and when he gets home I plan to tell him so. We’re not powerless, Severus. In less than six months your magic will be out of the Ministry’s control, and in the meantime I feel almost certain I still have a few defensive spells left in me, if I’m determined and the situation demands them. When he’s released tomorrow I’ll tell him how things stand.”

“No, Mum,” said Snape, alarmed by the thought of his mother facing his father alone. “Wait until the evening when I’m home. We’ll talk to him together.”
 
* * *

But they did not have to wait that long. Snape was eating breakfast the next morning with Eileen, who in the safety promised by Tobias’ imprisonment had ventured out of her room to sit with her son, when they heard a vehicle pull up in the street outside.

Mother and son quickly turned to look at each other. “Have they released him already?” Eileen wondered nervously. They had their answer when they heard Tobias’ key turn in the front door lock. Eileen got to her feet, a hard look on her face.

“Not yet, Mum – save your strength. He’ll come to us,” whispered Snape. And in less than half a minute, Tobias appeared in the kitchen doorway.

His face was dark with unshaven beard, but clearly also with fatigue. His hair stood up wildly from his head in places, while elsewhere hanks of it fell into his eyes. His shirt was untucked, and Snape saw more clearly than before the paunch that Tobias had developed from drinking; but there was also a rip down one of his sleeves that exposed the still-powerful muscles underneath. Snape had never seen his father look quite so desperate, or so dangerous. He stood up from the table.

“You two let me rot in that place overnight!” shouted Tobias. His voice was the voice of someone who had not slept in more nights than one – hoarse and rusty, and also unmoored from sense or judgment.

Snape opened his mouth, but Eileen, who had remained standing, put a restraining hand on his arm. “Tobias, you know perfectly well we’ve not got the money to bail you out of jail,” she said.

“You have!” said Tobias accusingly, and pointed a finger at Snape. “He has!”

“Your son’s wages go to feed this family, as you very well know,” said Eileen evenly. “You also know, if you’ve given it five seconds’ thought, that neither Severus nor I, nor the two of us combined, have had fifty pounds at one time for any number of years past. Furthermore, his wages are being threatened with garnishment because of your hundred-pound debt.”

“As well they should be!” exclaimed Tobias. “My wages have been garnished for sixteen years because of his existence, haven’t they? I never wanted a child, magical or normal. But I paid for his food and keep for all that time even so, didn’t I? Let him take his turn supporting me a little, and see what it feels like to pay someone else’s way unwillingly!”

“If I had my way, Severus’ wages would be entirely his own,” said Eileen. “But as things stand, if those wages are garnished, we will not eat. However, Severus’ wages will not be garnished. You will find work to pay off your debt, and you’ll do it today. I don’t care what work you find, and I don’t care if you think it beneath you. I still have some magic to command if the situation demands it, as you’ll find if you choose to ignore what I’ve said.”

“If you still have magic and you’re not putting it to use for the family good, you’re far worse than I am,” said Tobias. “I’ve always suspected you were holding it back to spite me, and now you tell me it’s true. Severus, look to your mother when you’re doling out blame, not to me. She’s the one who failed you first.”

At these words Snape almost trembled with anger. “You bastard, how dare you say that?” he shouted. “Her magic failed because of you! Wizards and witches aren’t that different from Muggles – they get worn down when they do nothing but suffer all the time, they can’t muster the energy or the will to do things anymore. Magic takes will! You think it’s just a stupid flick of the wand, but it takes discipline and work and will! She’s been so miserable for so long that she can barely do it any more, and that’s down to you. You made her what she is, by being such a tragedy of a husband and a father and a human being. How dare you try to blame her for the fact that you are a failure in every way?”

“You ungrateful fucking brat!” yelled Tobias, his voice taking on a deranged edge. “You two ruined my life, and you have the nerve to blame me for my failures? You both need to have some sense pounded into you. You don’t even know what pain is, and by God you need to learn in a way you don’t ever forget.” He strode forward, straight toward his son.

Snape came out from behind the table, blind with rage. “Going to kill me then at last, are you?” he shouted. “Go on and do it then. Just take care I don’t kill you first!” And he rushed headlong at his father, pouncing on him with his full weight.

“Severus, no, no, don’t do it, he’s mad, he’s not in his right mind!” shouted Eileen, waving her hands frantically. “He’ll hurt you, he’ll kill you!”

“I don’t care,” screamed Snape. And his own madness was paying off: for the first time in his life he had physically overpowered Tobias. He had knocked him to the ground, and now he sat up and straddled his father’s chest, restraining him at the wrists. His two months of hauling crates and boxes at Rankin’s had been worth something after all.

“What’s this, then?” cried Tobias. “Couldn’t get your little beaver to come back and knock me over this time? Had to do it yourself? What’s the matter, do you lack the will?”

“I’ll show you will, you fucking arse!” hollered Snape, and reached into his trouser pocket for his wand.

“Severus, don’t!” screamed his mother.

It was, in retrospect, his fatal mistake, the point at which everything unraveled. To reach his wand, he had to release one of his father’s hands. That hand instantly raised itself in a fist, knocking the wand right back out of Snape’s hand just before it connected with his face.

Immediately his mouth filled with blood; more blood gushed from his nose to join it. His vision was blurred with tears. Snape blinked and tried to spit the blood out, aiming for Tobias’s face but unable to see clearly. In that split-second of blindness, Tobias’s fist met Snape’s face again. He reeled toward the floor, gagging on blood. He saw something small and red clatter across the floor and realized it was his own tooth. His father threw him off and, almost before Tobias could get to his feet, he was kicking Snape in the stomach.

Reducto!” shouted a high, shrill, half-crazed voice. It was his mother.

Tobias was flung off his feet and into the kitchen table, which crashed in turn into the cabinets and tipped over, sending several chairs flying. One of them, propelled straight upward by the impact of the collision, hit Tobias in the head as it crashed back down to the floor.

“Keep your hands off my son!” screamed Eileen, panting.

Snape would have cheered, if he had not still been choking. His mother did still have some magic, and she had made it count.

He coughed frantically to clear the blood from his throat and looked around. Where was his own wand?

And Tobias was getting to his feet again, like some kind of brute, unstoppable mountain troll. He was moving toward Eileen. Snape flailed his arms in sheer panic. Where in the name of Merlin was his wand?

Finally he spotted it: it had rolled all the way to the opposite wall. As he lunged toward it, Eileen shouted again, “Reducto!”

Snape raised his head eagerly, but this time, to his horror, nothing happened: Tobias kept coming. Eileen, now terrified, backed into a corner.

“Shut up! Shut up!” cried Tobias maniacally. He pulled Eileen toward him by the arm, raised his hand to the back of her head and shoved her face into the wall next to him.

Snape heard her strangled scream and the crunch of bones breaking. “You’ll not do that ever again!” shouted Tobias. He seized the wrist of her right hand, and the wand in it fell to the floor. With the full weight of his body, he crushed that wrist into the wall; again Snape heard the sound of something breaking.

Eileen screamed in agony, and Snape reached frantically for his wand, which rolled and rolled maddeningly where it was pinned against the wall; his shaking fingers could not grasp it. He heard the sickening crack of yet another bone breaking, and looked up to see Tobias smashing Eileen’s other hand into the wall. “That’s for good measure, you fucking bitch!” he cried.

Snape grasped his wand at last. Swinging away from the wall, he pointed it straight at his father. “Crucio!” he screamed.

“Severus, no!” moaned Eileen.

A jet of red light hit Tobias straight in the chest, sending off other arrows of red which wrapped around his body. He sank to his knees, held aloft in the red light and seemingly unable to fall further. Then he began screaming.

Snape trembled in furious satisfaction as he held his father suspended in the blood-red beam. A second passed, then two, as Tobias twitched and danced and cried out in agony. Finally, finally, here was his father’s just reward: pain he could neither mock, nor overcome, nor ignore. Eileen was screaming too, but Snape heard only Tobias, finally, undeniably, unforgettably suffering as he had caused them to suffer for the last sixteen years.

Then the sound of his screams changed quality, became inhuman and insane, like those of an animal being slaughtered. Snape suddenly became aware of himself not as a formless rage, but as a person. The jolt of realization caused the wand to drop from his shaking hand; the beam of red light instantly vanished.

Finite,” Snape muttered redundantly. He was trembling all over. Tobias keeled over on his side and lay there on the floor, shaking and groaning feebly. Snape could still hear someone wailing in agony, but he soon realized it was his mother.

Before he had time to think any further on what he had just done, there was a loud pop, as loud as a Muggle gunshot. The next moment, a man and a woman simultaneously Apparated into the room, one on either side of him. Neither spoke, but tight silver cuffs suddenly materialized on both of his wrists. Some unseen force then propelled his arms to meet behind his back; there was a click, and Snape could feel that his wrists were now linked by some sort of chain.

Two more pops were now heard in the room, and Snape looked up and around. Another man and woman had appeared to join the first couple; these two were now standing in front and in back of him. All four of them wore gray robes and grim faces. They were Aurors.

“Severus Snape,” intoned the first male Auror, “you are hereby arrested for performing the Cruciatus Curse approximately thirty seconds ago.”

“We are here to remove you to Azkaban, where you will be held while you await trial,” continued the first female Auror.

The second female Auror to arrive added, “Needless to say, you are also expelled from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.”

“The charge is false!” cried Eileen hoarsely. Snape looked at his mother then: she was slumped against the wall, her nose bloody and broken, her maimed wrists held limply in her lap. He could not bear the sight, and quickly turned away. “I performed the Cruciatus Curse, I did!” he heard her cry.

“Eileen Snape,” said the second male Auror, “your wand has been individually monitored by the Ministry ever since you stated at your son’s hearing last year that your magic was nearly gone. When a witch or wizard’s magic dies, there are, of course, records to be closed out, administrative loose ends to tie up. Unsurprisingly, we are rarely notified when someone’s magic dies, so we must do what we can to keep track in other ways.”

“It does appear, however,” put in the first female Auror, “that your statement of last year was false, or at the very least premature. We recorded your wand performing the Reductor Curse four minutes ago, and that is hardly a minor spell.”

“You see, I’m a liar, I still have magic!” cried Eileen desperately. “Enough to perform Cruciatus, too. I’m the one who did it.”

“Pardon me for saying so, ma’am,” said the first male Auror not unkindly, “but I have some medical training, and I can plainly see that both your wrists were broken about three minutes ago. Clearly you are in no shape to have performed the Cruciatus Curse just now.”

Snape, who had been in a kind of trance for the last several minutes, finally roused himself to speak. “Why haven’t you called St. Mungo’s?” he demanded. “Can’t you see my mother’s hurt?” His voice came out as a harsh bark; had he not known that he was speaking, he would not have recognized it as his own.

“They have already been called,” said the second female Auror. “In fact, I don’t know why they’re not—“

At that very moment, three more people Apparated into the room with quick successive pops. “So sorry!” panted one of them, a woman in lime green nursing robes who drew her wand and gave it a complicated series of flicks and twirls, causing a stretcher to materialize and then hover in the air. “Would you believe, we collided with another emergency medical team over Sheffield, and Derek here Splinched himself up with a member of the other crew! It’s lucky we’re professionals and could put that right immediately, isn’t it? Anyway, we got here as fast as we could.”

With great care, the mediwizard called Derek levitated Eileen’s body and let her down gently onto the stretcher; the other medic had already produced a bottle of candy-pink liquid that Snape recognized as Bone-Mending Potion, which he began applying topically to Eileen’s nose and wrists.

Derek, meanwhile, had begun wiping the blood gently from Eileen’s face with a cloth dipped in a silvery liquid – some kind of wound-cleaning solution, Snape thought.

“Give her a Calming Draft too, Damian, won’t you?” said Derek to the other man, who promptly pulled a bottle of pale, creamy-looking stuff from his robes, unscrewed the cap, and raised it to Eileen’s lips.

“No!” she cried. “Don’t drug me up, don’t put me under! Let me go with my son! Please!”

“When you’ve recovered from your injuries,” said the second male Auror, “you may see your son. Till then, St. Mungo’s will take care of you. We must be on our way.” And with that, he put his arm through Snape’s. The first female Auror did the same, and the next moment Snape felt a suffocating pressure beginning.

Snape knew, from Eileen’s descriptions of what Apparition felt like, that this must be what was happening to him. After the events of the last few minutes, however, it was impossible to believe that the Aurors were merely trying to transport him somewhere else; rather, he felt that they were trying to crush out what little life remained in him. It was too much; he went numb as his body gave way.
 

 


TO BE CONTINUED!…


Special Note:
Due to the unusual length and complexity of this fic, it will be posted in multiple parts. Subsequent chapters will be posted as they become ready, and will appear as new posts in your friends lists, so that readers who want to continue following the fic as it progresses will be automatically alerted to the appearance of new installments. In the meantime, here is a visual preview (a trailer, if you will!) of chapters to come, courtesy of the lovely and talented niccc:



 
 
 

marauderbigbang: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] marauderbigbang at 08:02am on 26/09/2010
Title: Dust
Author: Trinity Day ([personal profile] trinity )
Artists: [personal profile] melisus and Yue [profile] littlewolfstar
Pairing(s): None (Alt: Characters: James, Sirius, Peter, Remus)
Rating and Warnings: PG-13 for off-screen death
Summary: James Potter’s second year at Hogwarts is shaping up to be just as great as his first. Sure, his teachers are always at him to pay more attention in class, but at least he has three good mates who know the importance of having a little fun (and causing a little mischief). However, life is not as idyllic in the wizarding world at large and soon whispers and rumours are reaching even the safest corridors of Hogwarts.
Word Count: 21627
Notes: With more thanks than I can properly convey to my betas, V and Zazz.
Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all characters, places, objects, ideas, and related material are the property of JK Rowling and her various publishing entities. Neither the author, the artists, nor the [info]marauderbigbang are in any way making a monetary profit from this posting.




If James hadn't already dropped his belongings halfway down the stairs, he would have been caught then and there and none of it would have happened. He would have waltzed right into the common room, right into the arms of the people searching for him, leaving no chance for him to go warn Sirius that McGonagall was on the lookout for him. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference in the long run, except they could have saved the prank for a time when pulling it might have made James feel better like it should have instead of worse like it did.

As it was, the only thing James worried about when he heard McGonagall had summoned Sirius was that she had somehow cottoned on to their plans. It shouldn’t have been possible. McGonagall was good—James had been forced to admit that early on last year after the Pudding Incident—but she was no Legilimens, and mindreading would have been the only way to know about the prank the Marauders were currently planning.

They weren’t even supposed to do anything with the prank that day. If Remus had had his way, the four of them would have been in the library studying, but schoolwork on a Saturday was never James’ idea of a good time. James had begged off, saying he needed to write his parents, who expected an owl at least once a week. Sirius had made his excuses, too, but poor Peter hadn’t been able to think of anything in time to stop Remus from dragging him off to worry about the ins and outs of Hover Charms.

James was just taking the letter to the Owlery, practicing his tossing and catching while going down the dormitory stairs. The scroll wasn’t as good as a proper Quidditch ball, being both lighter and bigger than a Quaffle, but every little bit of practice helped if he wanted to move up from his position as a reserve player. No matter how many people told him it was an honour just to make the team in only his second year, James knew he had to be better.

Dropping the letter all the way down the stairs didn’t feel as badly as fumbling did on the Quidditch Pitch, though it helped that no one was around to see it tumble down the steps. James really felt better about the fumble when the extra seconds it took for him to bend down and pick up the scroll let him overhear Robbie Tait’s entrance into the common room.

Tait was the sixth year Gryffindor prefect and he hated James. The feeling was mutual. Sirius and James had spent many a rainy afternoon thinking up new ways to make his life miserable after he’d busted them one too many times for being too noisy when others were studying or for getting back to the Common Room after lights out. James had even wanted Tait to be the main victim of the prank that they were currently planning, but Sirius thought that would be a bad idea since they the male dormitories were so close together. James had agreed with Sirius at the time, but now, hearing Tait badmouth them, he was ready to change his mind again.

“Where is that little bugger? What has he done this time?” Robbie Tait demanded about two seconds after the Fat Lady’s portrait slammed against the wall. The Fat Lady exclaimed quite loudly with indignation that James shared on her behalf.

Most of the room went quiet, more because they were hoping to see something entertaining than because they were intimidated. Even James held his breath, and he swore he could hear Diana Wells, the other sixth year prefect, the one Remus had a crush on, give a resigned sigh. James might not fancy her like Remus did, but she didn’t take any of Tait’s bullying sitting down, which wasn’t bad in his books.

“Which one?” she asked. James could definitely detect a note of long suffering in her voice. “Are you looking for Potter or Black?”

Tait always did save the best name-calling for James and his mates. The whole of Gryffindor knew who he was looking for from that greeting.

“Where there’s one, there’s the other,” Tait grumbled. “McGonagall said Black, but you know that Potter is up to his nose in whatever it is Black’s getting in trouble for.”

“I haven’t seen either of them all day,” said Diana.

James didn’t wait to see if anyone else in the room would pipe up and give away their location; by that point he was already scrambling up the stairs back to his room as fast as he could.

“Quick!” he shouted, startling Sirius into knocking over his inkwell. “Where’s my Cloak?”

Without waiting for an answer, which was just as well because Sirius was busy cursing and trying to find some scrap parchment to blot up the ink, James dove for his bed. He usually kept the Invisibility Cloak underneath, since his trunk was generally too much of a mess to find things when he was in a rush. It was exactly for this kind of emergency that James liked keeping the Cloak close at hand.

“What is the matter with you?” Sirius demanded, trying to wipe some of the ink off his hands.

“Shh!” James said instead, since he could hear footsteps on the stairs. Tait was going to find them any second now. There was no time left to explain, so he tackled Sirius off his chair and threw the Invisibility Cloak over the both of them. He covered Sirius’ mouth to keep him from crying out or asking what was going on.

James was just in time. There was a loud thumping at the door and Tait hollered: “Potter? Black? Open the door.”

The thumping continued, Tait not giving them enough time to respond even if they had wanted to. “Are you in there? Pettigrew? Lupin? Let me in.”

“Give them a chance to reply.” Diana had followed Tait up, and she sounded just as annoyed with his impatience as James was.

Tait didn’t seem to want to. “We’re coming in,” he declared at the same time he started turning the doorknob.

“I don’t think they’re here,” Diana said before the door opened completely. “See?” she added, when they were presented with what appeared to be an empty room.

Tait wasn’t satisfied. He came into the room and started poking around. Dipping his finger into the spilled ink, he frowned when it marked his finger, although James wasn’t sure what else he had expected a puddle of ink to do.

“What are you doing, Robbie?” Diana asked anxiously. Even prefects weren’t allowed in other people’s room without permission, except in the direst of circumstances. James didn’t think that a summons to McGonagall’s office counted as such.

“Just checking things out. Something’s not right here.”

James held his breath—and beneath him, he noticed Sirius do the same—as Tait unknowingly walked right towards them. The Invisibility Cloak would be of no help at all if Tait tripped over them, but luckily all he did was righten the fallen chair, tucking it back under Sirius’ desk.

James wasn’t able to relax for long, because instead of leaving, Tait continued to explore the room, seemingly at random. He picked up Remus’ old copy of A Beginner’s Guide to Transfiguration, thumbing through it idly, not taking any notice of the careful notes Remus wrote to himself in the margins. Whatever he was looking for, he didn’t find it in Remus’ belongings because next he moved onto Peter’s desk, picking up his set of Gobstones despite Diana’s pleas to leave things alone and get out of there. Much to James’ dismay, they didn’t go off in his face.

The more Tait went through their things, the more James had to bite his lip to keep from yelling at him. The worst test of James’ self control came a few minutes later when Tait tripped, literally, over James’ broomstick. He cursed, blaming James for being messy rather than accepting his own clumsiness. James silently cursed him right back, wishing at that moment, more than ever before, that he was old enough to learn wandless magic. If Tait had hurt his broomstick—if so much of a twig was out of place—there would be hell to pay.

Diana appeared to feel some indignation on James’ broomsticks behalf as well, because she finally had had enough. She grabbed Tait’s arm and tried to pull him out of the room. “They’re not here. It was obvious from the get-go. Let’s try the library.”

“The library?” Tait sneered, trying to resist her tug. “What are the chances of that, do you think?”

James made a note to himself to let Remus drag him there the next time, just to prove the snotty troll of a sixth year wrong.

“The Quidditch pitch, then,” Diana said.

“Potter’s broomstick is here,” Tait said.

Somewhere, then. Anywhere. But not here. Look around! Where do you think they can be hiding? Under the beds?”

Tait’s eyes definitely darted towards the beds when she said that, and James thought for a minute he was going to get down on his knees and peer underneath.

“Let’s go,” Diana said, tugging at Tait’s arm again, this time succeeding in pulling him towards the door.

“That was close,” Sirius said, pushing James and the cloak off him as soon as the prefects’ footsteps faded out. He dusted himself off rather pointedly, but James only barely recognized the passive-aggressive show of displeasure over the clumsy tackle as he rushed over to his broomstick to make sure that Tait hadn’t damaged it.

When he failed to make James react, Sirius asked, “What was that about, anyway?”

Finally deciding that the broomstick hadn’t been damaged, James remembered the more pressing issue at hand. His eyes widened in alarm all over again. “McGonagall’s after us.”

“What?” Sirius asked. “Why? We haven’t done anything lately. I mean, there were the firecrackers that we got into the Slytherin common room by hiding them in Snape’s bag, but that was ages ago. Well, we hid them ages ago. Should have known that Snivellus doesn’t clean out his bag. Maybe next time we should use ones that start when they get too smelly, not the ones that start when they get wet.”

Sirius shook his head slightly, getting off his tangent. “The only thing we’re up to now... it could only be...” he trailed off, eyes opening as wide as James’ in dread.

“Exactly,” said James gravely, glad to have a mate like Sirius who got things just as quickly as he did. “Tukwila’s Terrible Tincture.”

“But how could she know? You don’t think she’s found the room, do you?”

“We have to go and see ourselves. It might be that she only suspects, wants to talk to us to get us to incriminate ourselves. We didn’t leave anything that’s obviously ours there, did we?”

Sirius’ brows furrowed as he tried to remember the room as they had left it last. “The cauldron’s an extra from Potions, so anyone could have taken it. The wormwood essence is only found in the Advanced Students’ Cupboard, so there’s no reason to think that we got in there. In fact, it should take suspicion off us, if anything. But... oh god, Peter couldn’t find his Defence homework last Wednesday when he got to class. Was he working on it there?”

James cast his own mind back to the Tuesday evening previous when they’d added the last of the ingredients under the darkness of the new moon. Peter and Remus had both brought their parchment and books along to work on when it wasn’t their turn to add the pods and stir steadily. And it was the very next day that Peter had been practically in tears when he got to class and couldn’t find the homework he’d sworn up and down that he’d actually completed for once in his bag. So had Professor Boyle, come to think of it, who regularly went to pieces the second even the slightest thing went wrong. James knew that Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers didn’t last long, but this one didn’t look like she was going to last the winter term.

“Maybe he forgot to write his name?” he suggested, always having to be reminded to scribble his own in the top corner just as he was handing his work in.

“Do you think McGonagall wouldn’t recognize Pete’s handwriting by now?” Sirius asked scornfully. “Or at least figure it out by all the mistakes?”

“Maybe he left it somewhere else?” James suggested without too much hope.

“We have to go check it out for ourselves,” said Sirius.

“You’re right.” James had been thinking that himself; it really was the only thing to do. This way, they might get a better idea of how much dirt McGonagall had on them and know what exactly they would have to come up with an explanation for to keep themselves out of trouble.

Getting out of Gryffindor Tower was a bit tricky, even with the Invisibility Cloak. The common room was busy and some of the fourth year boys were experimenting with Summoning Charms. For one tense moment, Sirius ducked the wrong way when a mug of pumpkin juice came too close to them, almost letting the Cloak slip right off. Tait and Diana were already gone, but enough people had heard the prefect’s rant to know that McGonagall was after their heads—and they would have a lot of explaining to do if they suddenly appeared out of the middle of nowhere. James’ dad had used the Cloak all through Hogwarts without a single incident—as did his dad before him and his dad before him. James didn’t want to be the one to break the streak, not when he was only just beginning his second year at Hogwarts.

Eventually, they made it out with only a few bruises, and once in the corridors, it became much easier to rush down to the first basement where Tukwila’s Terrible Tincture was tucked away in one of the disused classrooms.

Neither boy was expecting what they saw when they got there.

Sirius slipped his head out from under the cloak so that only his head bobbed around. “It’s all here.”

“Maybe she hasn’t taken it away yet.”

“Maybe it’s a trap,” said Sirius, sliding the rest of the way out of the Cloak. He walked around the room with his wand at the ready, although what he was expecting to do if confronted by McGonagall, James didn’t know. It wasn’t like they could attack a teacher.

“Maybe she thinks that if she brings us here and shows us, we’ll have to confess.” They wouldn’t, of course, even if they hadn’t been forewarned, but McGonagall was always trying new ways to keep them from getting into trouble.

“Are you sure she knows?” Sirius asked, once again voicing what James was wondering himself. “What did she say, exactly?”

“It wasn’t her, it was Tait. And he said McGonagall needed to see us immediately. He asked what we’d done this time, but of course no one in the common room knew because we hadn’t done anything yet.”

“But how did McGonagall know?” Sirius asked.

“Does it matter?” James asked, although he was dying of curiosity himself. “We’re still going to get in trouble. We haven’t done anything else lately; there’s no other reason why McGonagall would be angry.”

“Then you know what we have to do?”

James thought of a few things—like using the Invisibility Cloak to spy on McGonagall to see what had tipped her off, for one—but none of them seemed likely. “What?” he asked.

“We have to give her a reason to get us in trouble,” said Sirius, smirking slightly. “We’re not going to get the chance to use the Tincture again. Think about it. Even if we do convince her it isn’t ours, she’ll confiscate this batch. And if we try to brew another, she’ll just know who’s to blame. No, we have to use this and we have to use it now. We can’t let such a brilliant plan go to waste.”

It was a nice rallying speech, but largely unnecessary with neither Remus nor Peter there. James had been on board from the time the first word was out of Sirius’ mouth.

“It’s not as good as it should be,” he said. It was supposed to brew for another week and a half, until the full moon had risen and set, but even now they could use it. It wouldn’t be fully potent when it was still so fresh, but it should still leave a lingering stench that wouldn’t wash off for days. “We’ll have to use more of it—which means that we’ll only be able to use it once—”

Before James could remind him of the list of targets they’d made, Sirius broke in with his choice. “The Slytherins.”

“Tait’s being even more of a pillock than usual,” James argued, not able to forget the way he’d rifled through their room and tripped over his broomstick.

“And the Slytherins are berks all the time.” When he saw that James was going to argue, he explained further. “Tait’s already looking for us. We can hardly ignore a summons from McGonagall herself, even if it is only an idiot prefect passing the message along. We’ll get him back another time; it’s not worth it for this. The Slytherins won’t suspect a thing and we’re more likely to pull it off before they call for help.”

“It’s a Saturday,” said James. “They’ll be in their common room—or the library, or somewhere where we can’t get them.”

“They’ll all be together for dinner.”

James shook his head. “That’s hours away. Do you think we’ll be able to avoid McGonagall and the prefects until then? Besides, I don’t think we’ll be able to douse them during dinner, not with all the teachers and Dumbledore watching. Maybe if we had time to think of a way to get them all and do it without getting into trouble. But we don’t have time; we’ll have to go for someone easier.”

“But it can’t be random,” was Sirius’ condition. “We can’t waste this on some poor bloke whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Someone who deserves it.”

“Someone who deserves whatever’s coming to him.” Sirius quickly came to the same conclusion James had been circling around.

“There’s only one person who fits that description. Sirius, I think the answer is obvious—”

“Snape.” They both said it at almost the same second. Severus Snape, bane of their existence. James could think of no one better to test their variation of Tukwila’s Terrible Tincture on. Snape was always up to one thing or another and it was up to James and his friends to make sure the Slytherin didn’t get above himself.

“Where do you think he’d be?” James asked, mentally running through all the options. “The dungeons?” Professor Slughorn wasn’t holding one of his meetings this weekend, but Snape still went down to the dungeons on a regular basis, being the keen brown-noser that he was.

“Maybe the library.” Sirius was just as unimpressed with Snape’s study habits as James was.

“I don’t think we’ll avoid getting in trouble if he’s in the library,” added James. “There’s too many people in there. Someone’s bound to notice us and complain.”

“Who says I’m worried about getting into trouble?” asked Sirius superciliously. “We’re avoiding the teachers so that they won’t stop us, not because I’m afraid they’ll give me detention.”

James wasn’t afraid, either, and he bristled at the accusation. “You’re the one that suggested the dungeons. The whole reason we’re doing this today is because McGonagall’s on to us. We want to avoid her if we don’t want all our work to be a total waste. That’ll be harder to do if we go to the library.”

“The dungeons then. Well, if we’re going to do this, let’s do this.” Sirius didn’t apologize exactly, but James could tell that he meant it. Sirius didn’t back down from fights otherwise. “Quick, hold the beaker steady while I pour.”

It was a two-man job, filling up the beaker, since they were both forced to pinch their noses to keep the smell from overpowering them once Sirius took the lid off the cauldron. Sirius worked faster than normal, ladling the tincture, and James held his breath until he could cork it.

“Let’s go,” he said when they could breathe again.

Luck was on their side. As they approached the Potions classroom, James could hear voices within.

“Shh…” Sirius whispered into his ear, tugging his arm and leading him closer to the wall. Slowly, they edged up closer. The classroom door was opened just a crack, but that was enough to let them hear the people inside. James recognized a voice as Snape’s almost instantly.

Sirius did, too, quietly whispering, “Ready?” He wound up his arm, getting ready to launch the beaker of Tincture. It came free of the Invisibility Cloak but Sirius didn’t seem to notice.

“Wait!” James hissed back, stilling Sirius by grabbing his arm. His hand looked awkward, floating in mid-air, completely unconnected to the rest of his body. Sirius must have thought so as well, because he slipped the cloak off both of them. James quickly glanced up and down the corridor, just to double check that no one was around, before explaining his hesitance.

“If Snape’s talking, he’s not alone. What if that’s Slughorn in there?”

Sirius conceded the point, wincing at the thought of what would have happened if they’d attacked Snape with the Professor standing right there. At best, they’d be in detention for a month; at worst, they would hit Slughorn with the splatter; then they’d be lucky if they got off with detention for only a year.

“We should put the Cloak back on,” James said nervously.

“There’s no point. We’re not going to get into that room without them noticing us and we don’t want Snape—or Slughorn—to know about your Cloak, do we?” Sirius didn’t even look at James when he said this, too intent at staring at the door as if trying to see through it.

Although it made James nervous, Sirius had a point. He put the Cloak away and leaned in closer so that he could hear better.




Oblivious to what was going on outside the classroom, Snape continued to talk. “The book says you should always add the lacewing flies in first, but the author’s an idiot. It tempers the reaction of the starthistle, dulling the potency in the end.”

Snape was explaining the intricacies of some potion or another. James had to hold back a snort of laughter. That git was entirely too obsessed with showing off to Slughorn and anyone else who would pay attention, always putting the extra work into making his potions come out in just the right consistency and colour even when it didn’t make the potion work better. James had lost track of how many times Slughorn had held up Snape’s work as an example to the rest of the class.

“I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” The voice was feminine: definitely not Slughorn, who probably wouldn’t have argued back anyway, not when he could praise. “If it’s too potent, then it would be easier to overdose. There’s only so much stress a body can take.”

“That’s Evans,” Sirius said with some disdain, forgetting to keep his voice at a whisper. He had no use for the Gryffindor girl, nor anyone else who hung around with Slytherins. James didn’t think she was as bad as that, personally, even if she had the worst taste in friends imaginable. It was too bad she didn’t feel quite as magnanimous towards James, always glowering or shouting at him for the littlest things, like trying to show his house pride or prove just what a slimy git Snape was.

“Shh.”

The debate continued on in that vein for a few more minutes before James risked saying anything else.

“It doesn’t sound like Slughorn’s in there.” The Potions Master would have undoubtedly broken in by then, rarely satisfied with letting others do the talking when he could hear himself speak.

Sirius agreed with the assessment. “Shall we do this then?”

“On the count of three,” said James, but since they were both equally impatient, that was the only signal they needed to act.

James pushed open the door and then ducked out of the way so that Sirius would have a clear shot at Snape. Evans was standing close enough to be hit too, which was a shame since they shared classes together, but James couldn’t feel too sorry for the girl who chose Snape’s side. If they wanted to hit Snape, they had to move before he knew what was going on and that wouldn’t give her time to get out of the way. They would just have to figure out a charm to plug their noses.

As it was, there was enough time for Snape to recognize who had bust in through the door and the danger that represented, if the frown that started to mar his already ugly face was anything to go by. But by then it was too late: the potion was already flying through the air. Snape just started to move for his wand when the beaker crashed at his feet.

When he started sputtering and Evans started shrieking, James knew they had scored a direct hit, even if he couldn’t see the effects due to the sudden purple cloud that enveloped them both. They should have used those few confusing seconds as a head start, James realized afterwards, but the smell hit him then, and he broke into a coughing fit. It was a miracle he wasn’t sick.

James thought they’d have longer. Snape shouldn’t have recovered so quickly, but amidst the swearing and the shouting and the retching, his hand poked through the cloud of smoke, clenching his wand with determination.

“Where are you?” Snape demanded. He may not have been able to see, but James still didn’t relish going up against him. There were plenty of curses that only required knowing their general proximity, and Snape knew them all.

James could see the little extra noses popping up beneath his sleeves—it was an archaic variation on the Tincture that they’d only discovered by sheer luck, but the extra noses was what had convinced them they had to try it. James wondered if he should ask Snape if the extra noses made the smell worse—even Remus hadn’t been able to figure that out from the books they read.

When Snape’s head emerged a few seconds later, his right eye was almost swollen shut. One of the new noses, sprung from his cheekbone, had grown to a size almost as big and prominent as his regular one. Tears were dripping down his face, protection against the smell. It was even better than James had imagined, and it was worth giving Snape the extra time to catch them at it to see that image.

Sirius pulled himself together long enough to say, “Come on, let’s get out of here. The smell is killing me.”

“Yeah,” James agreed. “The Tincture was pretty rotten, too.”

They took off with another peal of laughter that only grew worse as Snape’s furious bellow followed them.

James and Sirius had the advantage of a head start and a better understanding of the castle layout than most students twice their age, but Snape kept on their tail pretty well, even after they ducked through a hidden staircase that James could have sworn hadn’t been used in the better part of a century before they’d found it a week earlier, the dust was so bad.

Two storeys up, the odds in their favour were drastically reduced when Sirius and James ran into a group of Slytherin boys. Neither had been expecting to see anyone in this corner of the castle, and they skittered to a stop in surprise. The suspicious act caught the Slytherins’ attention, and worse yet, allowed Snape to turn a corner and get them in his view (and in range of his stench).

“What?” Mulciber said stupidly, covering his mouth and nose.

James looked between the Slytherin gang, whose noses were wrinkling at the disgusting smell, and Snape. Turning to Sirius, he saw that his best mate was just as aware of their impending doom as he was. Suddenly, it didn’t seem as funny as it had a few minutes ago.

There were times when standing your ground was the only option, but being seriously outnumbered by a gang of Slytherins—in a tucked away corner of Hogwarts where no one was likely to stumble across them for hours, or even days, if things went wrong—was not one of those times. Just as Snape opened his mouth to condemn them, they shouted, together, with real panic in their voices this time, “Run!”

The Slytherins didn’t need much warning or excuse to give chase. They banded together quickly and kept close on their trail.

The flight from just Snape was nothing compared to this. James lost count of how many corners they took and the number of hexes they dodged and spells they cast in futile retaliation before the sounds of pursuit finally faded. The Slytherins were big, but they were way out of shape, and not nearly as motivated as Sirius or James.

Panting slightly, James was just about to suggest slowing down when they ran straight into one of Sirius’ cousins.

James had never learned how to keep the Black girls straight. He wasn’t even sure if this one was in Slytherin, or if the look of disdainfulness she had for Sirius was due to his general disarray and the fact that half his sleeve had been burned off by a well-aimed curse instead. James had been hit, too, and now tried to discreetly pick the feathers out of his mouth before she could turn her contempt on him.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, Sirius?” she sneered.

“Showing my house pride,” he said with a grin that would goad a person into retaliation, even if she wasn’t a Black with the same quick temper as Sirius. James tensed again, ready to fight or run as the case might be, but neither of them were ready for what she said next.

“That’s a fine thing to do when your uncle is dead.”

James almost dropped his wand, but neither Black spared him as much as a glance, too concentrated on each other.

“What?” Sirius demanded.

“Uncle Rastaban is dead.”

“What? When? How?” Sirius managed to croak out, looking as flabbergast as James felt. His eyes were wide and his face was splotchy, but that could have been leftover from either the chase or because they’d both spent the past twenty minutes trying not to be sick from the smell Snape was exuding.

She frowned, but otherwise didn’t seem to be too upset that she was breaking the news to him. “He’s dead,” she repeated. “This morning. The dragon pox took a bad turn—there was nothing they could do at St. Mungo’s. Didn’t Slughorn tell you? Oh—or McGonagall, I suppose.”

“I didn’t know,” Sirius said. He turned to James, whose stomach plummeted down to his feet. James had known—that McGonagall was looking for Sirius at least—and he’d convinced Sirius that they had to pull a prank instead of seeing what she wanted.

James should have known that McGonagall never sent someone else to get them into trouble.

“Well, now you do.” Her tone was brisk and she stared at Sirius like she was trying to figure him out. “Now go pack. We’re getting picked up in an hour and here you are, running around like a lunatic.”

With that order, she swept away, presumably back towards her own common room to pack herself.

“Sirius—” James stopped when he realized he wasn’t sure what he could say.

Sirius avoided looking at him when he answered, “I guess we should go back to our room. I need to pack.” His voice was strangely hollow, but at least he wasn’t crying. James wasn’t sure what he’d do if Sirius started to cry.

They started shuffling back towards Gryffindor Tower, and James wondered if he should say something. Sirius wasn’t speaking, either, and James wondered if his throat also felt like one of Snape’s extra noses was growing inside it.

After the shock, James was no longer hyper-sensitive about their surroundings, so when he heard McGonagall’s voice boom out, he jumped. He’d gotten rid of all the feathers, but there were still small purple boils breaking out over his arm, which James hurriedly hid behind his back. Duelling in the halls was frowned upon and he didn’t want to have to come up with an explanation.

“Black!” McGonagall sounded exasperated, but her voice lacked the anger that James was used to hearing after one of their pranks. She didn’t even seem to notice James or his suspicious behaviour. “There you are. I’ve been looking all over. Where have you been?”

Sirius licked his lips and looked over to James. This was usually when they tried to come up with an alibi, but James couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Before he could start babbling the first thing that sprung to mind, McGonagall just shook her head.

“That doesn’t matter. I’m afraid—” She cleared her throat awkwardly, which threw James even more. He had never seen Professor McGonagall look so off-balance. “Mr. Black, I need to talk to you. If you would just come to my office?” The hesitancy left her voice when she turned to James. “Potter, you should go back to the common room.”

McGonagall ushered Sirius away with a firm hand on his shoulder. Sirius kept turning around to look at James, but James wasn’t sure what he wanted. He stood stock-still for a couple more minutes, even after they’d turned the corner and were out of sight, before starting back to Gryffindor Tower.

When he reached the door of their dormitory, he saw a scroll crumpled behind it. In all the excitement, James had never sent that letter to his parents.

~*~


Rastaban Black’s death got mention on the front page of the Sunday Prophet the next morning and the retrospective write-up of his life took up much of the following pages.

He was bumped from the headlines by the disappearance of Meriel Hollingberry, a witch who worked at the Muggle Liason Office. From what he knew of the Blacks from Sirius and his own mum, James wondered how many of them would be more upset over the witch stealing away attention from Rastaban’s death than the possibility that something might have happened to her. He didn’t recognize the last name after all, which meant that Meriel Hollingberry couldn’t be from one of the old wizarding families.

“Are you reading that?” Peter asked when James continued to flip through the pages, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “Only you keep shaking it. If you hold it still, I can read the comic on the back.”

The only reason he and Peter shared a subscription was because of the Martin Miggs serial. James could have just stripped the outer page and let Peter read in peace, but James didn’t actually care to read about Rastaban Black anymore.

“You’re still eating,” James complained, ignoring the half-eaten toast that still lay on his own plate. “You can get it when I’m finished.”

Peter might have made a sound of protest, but it was muffled by the crinkle of the newspaper as James folded it back and set to finding out what newest mishaps the mad Muggle had gotten himself into this week.

Remus, however, wouldn’t let him read in peace. He was in his usual seat, across the table beside Peter. He seemed to be a lot more interested in the front page of the newspaper than the last.

“Did Sirius say how long he’d be gone?” he asked.

“No,” James said. He kept his eyes firmly trained on the comic even as they glazed over at the question.

“Did you know his uncle was sick?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Did Sirius—”

James cut him off. “Sirius didn’t say anything. I don’t know anything. I can’t tell you anything.”

It was more or less true. James didn’t really give Sirius the chance to say anything. After he’d been shooed away by McGonagall, James had slunk about the Owlery, not returning to Gryffindor Tower until he was sure enough time had passed for Sirius to be packed and maybe even gone home. He hadn’t explained that to Remus or Peter when he told them why Sirius wasn’t there, nor had he mentioned the way they’d found out and the part James had played in the misunderstanding. He wasn’t sure what they’d think—or even what he thought.

What Sirius thought, James couldn’t even begin to imagine. Sirius had sounded so weird when his cousin had told him the news, but Sirius hated his family, always fighting with his cousins when he ran into them in the hall, so James didn’t know why he felt so torn up over his uncle’s death. Deep down, he was afraid that Sirius was truly more upset with James for lying to him, however unintentional it was.

James thrust the paper at Peter, unread, knowing he wasn’t going to be able to concentrate on Martin’s misadventures right then.

“We should do something for when Sirius gets back,” he said because there had to be some way for James to make it up to him.

“What, like flowers?” Remus asked.

“Flowers?” James made a face, not sure why Remus would even mention them. They weren’t really Sirius’ kind of thing. James couldn’t think of a single way of working them into a prank, the only reason why Sirius might want anything to do with something so girly. “What do you mean, flowers?”

“Well, they’re traditional, aren’t they?” Remus sounded a little defensive. “When someone dies, you send flowers.”

James hadn’t known that. He didn’t actually know anyone who had died before. His grandparents had all been dead years before he was born. His father didn’t have any brothers or sisters and his mum barely talked to hers, except when she couldn’t avoid it. There was a chance she would be at Rastaban’s funeral, James realized. He’d never bothered figuring out how closely he and Sirius were related and he wasn’t entirely sure how Rastaban was related to the rest of the Black clan. There had been a brief sketch of the family tree in the article, but James had skipped over that part.

“I don’t think Sirius would like flowers,” he said, though he was a little less certain now. He might not appreciate them normally, but would he think worse of his friends if they didn’t send them now?

“I think James is right,” Peter said between mouthfuls of egg. He had the Martin Miggs comic in his hand, but he didn’t seem able to concentrate on it anymore than James had. “Sirius would hate flowers unless they, I don’t know, really cast sneezing spells on people who smelled them or something.”

“We’re trying to cheer him up, not make him sneeze! His uncle died, Peter. Have some sense!”

“I think he meant Sirius would appreciate using them on someone else,” Remus said mildly while Peter sputtered his protests.

“Nah, you’re right,” James said. “Sirius would hate flowers, even ones that might make someone sneeze. We should do something else for him, set up another prank for when he gets back.”

“Do you have something in mind?” Remus asked.

It had to be something big, James knew that much. Something that would cheer Sirius up when he got back from the funeral, make up for the mess James had made before he left.

“How about chocolates?” Peter suggested. “We can go down to Honeydukes and get him some chocolates. He’ll like those better than flowers, that’s for sure.”

“I think don’t think chocolates are for someone who’s grieving,” said Remus doubtfully.

“It would cheer me up,” Peter argued.

James shook his head. “We can get chocolates anytime. It’s not good enough for this. His uncle died. We need to do something big. Something… grand. Something brilliant.”

Both Remus and Peter looked as caught up in the moment as James was. Peter’s mouth was open slightly and he looked ready to sign up then and there. Remus didn’t look the least bit worried, his usual default expression whenever James or Sirius started getting excited or talking about something brilliant.

“What’s your plan?” he asked instead supportively.

It had a worse effect than his doubt ever caused. James deflated completely.

“I don’t know. Not yet. But I’ll think of something.”

He turned his attention back to his toast, chewing thoughtfully while he tried to plot. They had a couple days at least to come up with something suitably impressive to welcome Sirius back to Hogwarts and James wasn’t going to let his best mate down. Not again.

~*~


It took the rest of the day and a good portion of the next, but the perfect idea finally came to him in the middle of History of Magic.

“Oh!” he exclaimed out loud, sitting up straight in his desk and knocking over the bottle of ink, smearing the parchment he was supposed to be using for notes. He received a few dirty glares from his classmates, but probably only because he’d waken them from their dozing. Binns didn’t even take notice.

Peter did, passing him a hastily scrawled notes a few seconds later.

What’s the matter?

James tore off a corner of his parchment for the reply.

I just thought of the perfect thing for Sirius when he gets back.

He passed the note back to Peter, pointing at Remus as he did so. Remus was one of the few Gryffindors that conscientiously took notes during this class. Although he must have heard James’ outburst—no one who wasn’t already dead could have missed it—he was trying his best to ignore everything that was going on behind him and concentrate on the English Warlock Convention of 1102.

Peter, sitting in the desk a kitty-corner behind Remus, took James’ hint and leaned over to deliver the note. He wasn’t quite close enough to drop it on Remus’ desk without help and James watched with interest as he leaned further and further into the aisle. Just as it looked like Peter was going to have to give up or risk toppling out of his chair, one of the girls in the seat directly behind Remus took pity on him and plucked the note right out of his hand, passing it up. Remus had no choice but to take it, but still he tucked it under his parchment rather than read it like the conscientious student he was.

James took the time to wink at Ivonette, who was giggling silently over the scene before turning back to his quest to get Remus’ attention.

“Psst,” he said.

He waved. Remus noticed, but determinedly kept his eyes fixed towards the front of the classroom.

“Oi!” James tried. Most of his classmates were looking now, except for Evans, who still hadn’t forgiven James for the attack on the weekend (it didn’t help that there was one stubborn little nostril on her forearm that Madam Pomfrey hadn’t been able to get rid of) and was also determinedly looking straight ahead. Even Binns stopped and peered up. James folded his hands neatly on his desk before realizing he would probably look more innocent with a quill in his hand.

James waited until Binns cleared his throat (well, made a similar sound since the ghost professor didn't really have a throat or anything caught on it) and went back to the lecture, before deciding on a new course of action.

“Pete!” he whispered.

Peter was alarmed, quickly glancing up at Binns to make sure he hadn't noticed before turning back to James and mouthing “What?”

James pointed his chin towards Remus. “Get his attention, will you?”

Remus could hear all this; James knew by the way his face reddened slightly. Plus it wasn't just Ivonette who was giggling now. She had been joined by several of her friends and even a few of the guys had stifled a snort or two.

“How?” Peter still mouthed his question even though Binns hadn't taken notice of James speaking.

James rolled his eyes. Once again he wished that Sirius were back to help him with this. They made perfect partners in crime. Sirius would never have expected him to come up with every detail of a plan—he’d be put out if he couldn’t contribute to the effort. James had already come up with the hard part, thinking of the perfect way to welcome Sirius home, and Peter couldn’t even figure out how to get Remus’ attention in front of the most oblivious teacher.

He was saved from coming up with an answer when Calum Ferguson wadded up a small piece of parchment and threw it at Remus, bouncing it off his head. Calum was sitting on the other side of the room, the complete opposite from James and Peter, which is probably why Remus was startled enough to break his concentration and turn around to see where the wad had come from.

“Potter wants to talk,” Calum said with a small smirk.

Since Calum was on the Quidditch team with him and since the missile worked, James decided that he shouldn't retaliate. If there had been any Slytherins in the classroom, he might have been forced to, since no one threw things at his friends—even just bits of paper—and got away with it, but Calum was a pretty good bloke. They were both still reserve players, but it looked like all the practice the team captain was putting them through was working, since hitting Remus from the back of the room needed pretty good aim.

Unfortunately, Calum spoke a little too loudly, for Binns frowned and started looking around the classroom once again.

It was probably the most he’d paid attention to a classroom since before he died.

Either Binns really wasn't good at identifying troublemakers or the matching expressions of disinterest that were on all the Gryffindors' faces were what he usually saw when he took time to look at his class, because a few seconds later, Binns decided there was nothing amiss.

“This convention was especially important as it was the first time British wizards decided on a standard metal to use in cauldrons...” he droned on.

James decided to take a page from Calum’s book and started throwing bits of paper at Remus himself. Remus didn't turn around this time. The only sign that he noticed at all was that he shook his head every minute or two to dislodge the pieces that stuck there.




Meanwhile, Peter hadn't been able to come up with any idea on his own and had gone back to writing notes, passing them over to Ivonette who was only too happy to put them on Remus' desk. She even added her own postscripts on a couple, still giggling so much that James decided he would have to steal the notes so he could properly tease Remus about his new girlfriend later.

A couple of the other students seemed to want in on the fun. James wondered if maybe they were going too far, since it wouldn't do to let just anyone badger Remus and get away with it. He was considering calling the whole thing off when the bell rung at last, one of the few outside stimuli that Binns actually took note of.

Remus dabbed the remaining ink off his quill, sealing up the inkwell and packing it all into his bag before finally turning around to give James the sourest look he'd ever seen. It didn't improve any when James gave a very cheeky grin back.

Very deliberately, Remus finally deigned to take notice of the scraps of paper littering his desk, digging one out from the bottom of the mess. James could have sworn he picked it at random, but when he unfolded it, James recognized his own handwriting. It was his original message.

James waited to see what his response would be, but when Remus finished reading it, he folded it again neatly. He started to collect the rest of the notes, although he didn’t read any of them just yet, and calmly finished packing.

“You thought of something to cheer up Sirius?” he asked when James lost patience and went over himself. He’d stuffed everything into his own bag, not caring how crumbled or out of order his notes got. “That's what was so important that you had to interrupt class?”

“It's just History of Magic,” James said dismissively. “A firecracker could go off in here and Binns wouldn't be interrupted.”

“Yes, he would,” said Peter, who was also waiting impatiently for Remus. Most of the rest of the class had left, having lost interest in what James wanted when the bell rang. His antics had been more interesting than Binns’ lecture, but not enough to keep them watching during break. “Don't you remember last year when Sirius forgot about the wet-start fireworks he had in his bag and spilled ink on them, making them go off? Binns almost jumped!”

In fact, Binns had only asked Sirius if he had heard anything (calling him Phineas, which had sent Sirius growling even more than the wasted fireworks did), but Peter never knew how to exaggerate properly.

“It's still important,” Remus said, “even if you don't like the class. And the warlock conventions are bound to be on the exam—”

“How do you know that?” Peter demanded while James exclaimed, “Exams? Exams aren't until June. Why are you worrying about them now?”

“I know that because Binns practically said as much,” Remus said patiently, “and if we don't worry about them now then that means two sleepless weeks in June when suddenly there’s no time to put off revising any longer. Like last year. Which was miserable. It's better to keep on top of school work as it comes.”

“It's only History of Magic,” James repeated. It wasn't even interesting, not like Transfiguration or Charms. In those classes, if you paid attention and kept up, then you at least learned loads of new spells to use.

“Still—” Remus was ready to continue arguing, but James had had enough of that. He started to talk over him.

“Anyway, none of that matters. I thought of the perfect thing to do for Sirius when he gets back. It's guaranteed to cheer him up.”

“Yes, that's what your note said,” said Remus. “You realize that Sirius isn't going to be back for a couple days. It could have waited until after class, at the very least.”

“How do you know that?” James asked, ignoring Remus' continued attempts to make him feel guilty about the disruption. It was getting tiresome. “He didn't write you, did he?”

Remus frowned at James. “Write me? He's more likely to write you, isn't he?”

Normally that would be the case, but James hadn’t yet explained why Sirius might be avoiding him. “Then how did you know when he's getting back? Yesterday you didn't have a clue. You were asking me.”

“Yes, well his uncle died on Saturday, right? Funerals usually aren't for three days after. It can't be until tomorrow at the earliest. Besides which, even if Sirius came back right now, we hardly have time to plan and pull off your—whatever your idea is. We have class, remember?”

Everyone seemed to have a better idea of what happened when people died than James did. He wondered if maybe there was something in the library—A Wizard’s Guide to Grieving or something. As soon as he thought that, he felt disgusted with himself. The idea of turning to a book for answers was not James Potter’s way. Sirius, no doubt, would have had something to say about what a bad influence Remus was.

“The funeral isn't until Thursday,” Peter chimed in. “We have three more days.”

“Three days?” James said in disbelief. That’s almost the whole week. Why is it going to take so long?”

“It’s family,” Remus tried to explain. “You can’t rush that.”

“Still,” James complained. “A whole week. Where did you hear that, anyway, Peter?”

“It said so in the paper,” Peter happily answered.

“You read that?” asked James.

Peter misunderstood his disbelief, probably not too surprisingly considering the way Sirius would usually go on when Peter said something particularly stupid. “I can read,” he responded indignantly.

“No one's doubting that,” Remus said before James could react.

“It was just long,” said James. He hadn't gotten through half the article himself.

“In any case,” Remus said hurriedly before a fight could break out, ”we have several days left before he can come back. And we have a two foot essay due in Defence Against the Dark Arts on Wednesday. There’s still plenty of time for… What is your plan?

Sirius would never want to wait, not when there was something this good. James didn’t say this out loud.

“It better be good,” Peter grumbled. “I’m sick of getting caught. We’ve had detention three times already this year.”

“Do you even want to hear what the plan is?” James asked. Already his excitement was ricocheting down, now faced with his friends’ reluctance.

“Is there time before Charms starts?” Remus asked.

They still had two staircases and four corridors to go before they reached Flitwick’s classroom, but with the way things were going, Remus and Peter would continue to poke holes in James’ plan.

“It can wait,” he said.

The only thing James could be grateful for was that neither Remus nor Peter asked why, if it could wait, he had made such a fuss in History of Magic.

~*~


They didn't get detention. James wasn't sure that they could chalk that up to the extra few days they put into planning, though, since nothing else about his brilliant plot went right that night.

By the time Thursday rolled around, the idea had lost momentum. Even James was starting to doubt just how brilliant it truly was, not that he'd admit as much to Remus or Peter, who'd spent the three intervening days naysaying all his ideas.

They had been, at least, when they were actually thinking about the plan and not worrying about schoolwork (Remus) or grumbling that the Martin Miggs comic had been temporarily discontinued due to ongoing coverage of Meriel Hollingberry’s disappearance (Peter—James was annoyed, too, but he had better things to obsess over than something from the newspaper). Neither of them seemed particularly excited and James was pretty sure that if he hadn’t continued to rally them, they would have dropped the matter completely.

As it was, he was beginning to wish that he hadn't, even by the time that they first approached the ticklish pear. The Potters didn’t have a family history of prescience, so James couldn’t blame himself too badly for not recognizing this as a sign that he should have dropped the matter.

By the time that they were ejected from the kitchens with more force than James would have thought a house-elf capable of, that feeling had solidified and then some.

Remus picked himself up and dusted himself off with more dignity than James could muster at the moment. “I think that could have gone better,” he said. It was an understatement, but at least it was better than the “I told you so” James was expecting.

Peter, too, was too fretful to fully place the blame on James just yet. “They can't be serious, can they?” He wrung his hands, looking fearfully at the picture of the pear that served as the entrance to the kitchens.

James opened his mouth to point out that no, they couldn't be Sirius since Sirius was at his uncle's funeral, then closed it again. It probably wasn't a good idea to joke about people being at funerals and the play on words had grown old halfway through first year.

“I'm sure that they'll calm down,” he said instead, but even he could hear how uncertain he sounded. James cleared his throat and tried again. “They can't stay mad forever, I mean. And they do like to be helpful, after all. I'm sure they'll come around tomorrow. Or, er, the next day. Soon, at the very least. They can't stay mad forever.”

“They went spare,” Peter told him, not comforted by the platitudes. “House-elves! You said that this was to help Sirius! How are we supposed to help him if we make the house-elves go on strike!”

“They aren't really on strike,” corrected Remus. “A strike would be a school-wide thing. Or even a Gryffindor-wide thing.”

“It's a us-wide thing.” Peter wasn't too keen on semantics. “That's what really matters! We've pissed off the kitchen staff. What are we going to do without food?”

James cringed at that thought. Now that Peter had mentioned it, his stomach was starting to rumble. He'd only pecked at his dinner earlier, both out of excitement and because the house-elves had never before failed to load them up with as many treats as they could carry.

Remus wasn't as concerned. “They can't stop feeding us,” he reasoned. “They’re not going to make all of Gryffindor suffer because they’re afraid we’re going to trick them into taking our clothes.”

“We’re not going to trick anyone into taking our clothes!” Peter wailed. He had been saying similar things ever since he picked up on the house-elves’ problem with them, but James only wished he'd been as clear and coherent when they were in still the kitchens. Not that he or Remus had been much better, he had to admit, or else they might not be in this mess in the first place.

“Regardless—” Remus raised his voice just a little, to be heard over Peter, but he remembered that it was still after curfew and too much noise would summon Filch or Mrs. Norris in a hurry—“this just means we won’t be able to go into the kitchens. Meals will be served as usual—they’ll hardly fail to put food on the Gryffindor tables just because we happen to belong to that house. Not when there are so many other students that haven't, er, frightened them with a misunderstanding. Now let's go back to our room before a teacher hears us and we get into even more trouble. We'll think of something to do about... this in the morning.”

James wasn't sure what Remus thought they could do in the morning. So far their great plan had resulted in this mess—terrified house-elves who refused to come near them or their room because of a simple misunderstanding. How was James supposed to know that house-elves couldn't take a joke and would mistake James’ kidding around for threats of accidental freedom?

If only Sirius would come back. He knew how to deal with house-elves. None of this would ever have happened if he’d been around. At least when things went wrong when Sirius around, it tended to be because something

~*~


Dear Mum and Dad

How are you? I am well. School’s going fine. Don’t worry, I haven’t got into trouble all week.


After the opening volley, James paused and considered what to write next. He could ask about the house-elves—his mum had brought a house-elf with her when she and James’ dad married, but Abra had died when James was still a baby. His mum would probably know what to do or say to make the house-elves stop being so afraid of them that they wouldn’t even venture into the boys’ room.

But then he would have to admit what happened. He had just told them he hadn’t got in trouble and though James knew there was a difference between causing havoc and being given detention for it, he also knew that his parents didn’t think that difference counted.

He chewed on his quill absentminded, his mouth souring at the taste of feathers. There was a box of sugar quills somewhere in his trunk and he went to find them. His letter was still waiting when he sat back down with the sweet, but James still wasn’t sure what he could write next.

Sirius hasn’t been in school all week because his uncle died and he had to go to his funeral on Thursday, A lot of his family went too and none of them are back yet. There are lots of Slytherins missing, other houses too of course but mostly Slytherins so our double classes with them are really empty, but this morning Edenfield says that means we probably aren’t going to play them next week even though we’re supposed to but they haven’t had enough time to practice so the Slytherin captain is asking for postponement because of that which I guess they need because they’re not really good and even the extra practice wouldn’t let them win. But that means I don’t get to play in next week’s match because Ravenclaw is pretty good and Edenfield would rather I play against the weaker team to start, but I don’t mind much because I’d rather beat Slytherin than Ravenclaw even if Ravenclaw is the better team and beating them would prove what a good Chaser I am. Only now I don’t know when I’ll play at all. I still go to practice most days and next year I’ll be on the first string, so that’s all right.

James paused again to let the ink dry. He’d only found out about the possibility of a schedule switch at practice earlier that morning and he was still upset about it, even though the Gryffindor team captain told him that this was better, that it gave him more time to practice before he had to play a game for real. James didn’t need the extra practice, though, and he’d been looking forward to proving that to Edenfield and the rest of the school.

He didn’t bother to write that down. The letter was long enough now that his parents wouldn’t nag him.

James looked it over just to see if there was anything else that happened this week that he missed, but nothing big stood out. Things had been quiet without Sirius around, boring even. Remus and Peter just weren’t the same. But he couldn’t write that, not without sounding like he was complaining about his other friends, who were good enough most of the time, but they just weren’t Sirius.

Satisfied that there was nothing left to write, James signed his name and was just about to head up to the Owlery when the door opened.

“All right, Remus,” James said cheerfully, forgetting that only a few minutes earlier he had been ready to complain about his mate to his parents.

“James.” Remus stopped just inside the doorway. “What are you doing here? I mean, I thought you had Quidditch practice today?”

“This morning, yeah.” It wasn’t the greeting James expected and it had him frowning. “But it’s over now and I have nothing else to do all day so I thought I’d write my parents. What are you up to?”

“Homework,” Remus said quickly.

“That can wait,” said James. “I’m bored. Let’s play a game or something.”

“I can’t.” Remus shook his head. “I have to get this done.”

“It can’t be that important, whatever it is. We don’t have to hand anything in the week. Do we?”

Remus was generally better at keeping track of due dates, but James was pretty sure he was right about this. He’d had nothing better to do this last week than actually pay attention in class, so he was on top of things for once. They had to demonstrate lighting fires in Charms on Monday and they had a Potions test on Thursday, but there was nothing urgent.

“I have to see Professor Slughorn, actually,” said Remus.

“What, now?” The idea of actively seeking out a teacher on a weekend was antithetical to James’ whole way of thinking. While Remus was more studious, he was hardly that much of a brown-noser. James couldn’t believe he was trying for extra credit, and he was too smart to need the extra help for the test, but there wasn’t any other reason James could think of to explain why Remus needed to see Slughorn.

“Well, I was supposed to meet him on Thursday after dinner, but he was gone for the funeral, remember?” Remus said. He was squirming under James’ scrutiny, shifting his weight from his right foot to his left.

“Yeah, but it can wait until Monday, can’t it?” Most things could wait until Monday in James’ opinion, especially when it came to school.

“It’s about the test,” Remus said instead of answering directly.

“You already know how to brew Deflating Draughts,” James said. “You did it perfectly in class last week. What do you need to see him for?”

“I just have some questions,” Remus mumbled.

“They can wait,” James said. “Let’s find Peter and play a game of Gobstones. You can borrow Sirius’ set. He won’t mind.”

“Peter’s already playing chess with the team. I think they have a tournament this weekend or something, they’ve been at it for hours. He won’t want to be distracted. He’s the one who said you were at Quidditch practice.”

That explained Remus’ initial reaction when coming into the room. Peter tended to lose track of time when he played, chess being the one thing that kept him from succumbing to James’ attempts to save him from himself.

“We can just play the two of us.” Gobstones was better with a group, especially with the modified rules he and Sirius had thought up the year before, but two was better than one. “Or if not that, maybe Exploding Snap.” James didn’t care for the game much, but he knew Peter talked Remus into playing it occasionally, when James and Sirius were off together or in detention.

“I really can’t,” Remus said.

“Slughorn?” James moaned. “Really? Hey, this isn’t about the Slug Club, is it?” Remus wasn’t part of the esteemed group, but he had finished his Deflating Draught rather fast last week, almost beating Snape. Slughorn might have taken notice of that and asked Remus to see him, even if today wasn’t a regular gathering. Being asked to join the Club was a better excuse than having to talk to the professor about school, although James wasn’t sure why Remus would be trying to hide it. Slughorn could be a bore at times, but the Slug Club wasn’t half-bad.

“That isn’t it,” Remus mumbled.

“We need to find a way to get Slughorn to invite you.”

Now that James thought about it, it was a little weird that Remus hadn’t been joined already. Slughorn had snatched up James and Sirius almost as soon as they got off the train last year. Sirius had complained it was because of family connections and pure-blood snobbery, but James knew the real reason he tried to get out of meetings was because he didn’t want to see his cousins any more than he had to, especially not with a teacher around trying to get them to stop sniping at each other. Besides, the other Gryffindor in their year who was a member was from a Muggle family, so Slughorn couldn’t be obsessed blood purity. Remus might not shine in Potions like Evans did, but he was a dab hand at lots of other things.

“Maybe if we let him catch you casting your Tickling Charm. He’s usually pretty good with not giving detention if he’s suitably impressed, and Rictusempre is pretty impressive and it isn’t very hurtful, so it’s the perfect one to be caught casting on someone without Slughorn haven’t to feel guilty about not getting you in trouble. Or we can even say we were practicing duelling, if you’re still worried.”

“James—” Remus interrupted. James expected him to weigh in on the Slug Club, but instead of that, or anything else relevant, he mumbled: “I really have to go. I’m running late. Sorry.”

He left before James could point out that Slughorn, when he kept office hours, was pretty flexible about when students came in. It wasn’t until after that James realized Remus hadn’t dropped anything off or picked up any of his notes, leaving James to wonder why Remus had come to the room in the first place.

His Potions book was still sitting on his desk.

~*~


“All right, Pete,” James said in greeting as he sat down beside the only one of his roommates actually at dinner. It was now well over a week since Sirius had been taken out of school and there was still no definite word as to when he was going to be back. Most of the other Slytherins had been trickling back since the funeral, but there was still no definitive word as to when Sirius and the other Blacks would be back. Rumour had it they were being kept out until the next weekend, but James hadn’t been able to confirm it. Most of the people who would know were Slytherins and he was hardly about to ask them any favours especially since they were as likely to lie out of spite as not.

“Hiya, James,” Peter said. He had mostly forgiven James for the house-elf thing once Remus’ prediction about it not affecting their regular meals came true. Things were a little tense when they were in their dormitory, particularly since James didn’t have the knack for keeping fires going all night and they kept waking up with icicles forming from the canopies, but they didn’t talk about that much. James guessed that neither of them knew what to do to fix things with the house-elves anymore than he did.

“Remus not here yet?” James asked, helping himself to some potatoes and looking up and down the table for their other roommate. “Practice went late—thought I’d be the last one here for sure!”

“Remus?” Peter looked startled, like James was asking him a trick question. “He’s in the Hospital Wing, isn’t he?”

“What?” James exclaimed. “What happened?”

Peter had acted like he expected James to know, but James hadn’t heard any rumours. None of the older students on the team had mentioned anything, or asked after James’ classmate, but then they didn’t always pay attention to the fights in the lower forms. Remus hadn’t done anything to annoy anyone lately (other than the house-elves, but they weren’t about to attack a student no matter how angry they were) but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. There hadn’t been any retaliation from the prank against Snape and even if Remus hadn’t been involved, that wouldn’t stop a Slytherin. Or he could have easily just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Especially now, when so many Slytherins were trickling back into the school.

Just that afternoon, James had noticed Mulciber gossiping away with his gang in about something or other. James hadn’t heard what or thought of it much at the time, but there were a lot of significant pauses that hadn’t stopped even when Professor Slughorn tried hushing them.

There was no reason for them to target Remus, but then Slytherins hardly needed a reason to be nasty.

If they had caught Remus on his own…

“Well, nothing,” Peter said. James heart slowed and he stopped planning revenge. “Only, he wasn’t feeling well all day, was he?”

It was the first James had heard of it. Sure, his friend had looked a little peaky, slight circles under his eyes, but none of them had looked their best since the house-elves had gone on strike. James was really missing being able to sleep the whole night through without having to wake up and relight the fire.

“There is a cold going around,” James said to keep Peter from making the same accusations about the state of their dormitory. “Maybe we should all go down to see Madam Pomfrey, get some Pepper-Up Potion.” He wasn’t sure why he said that; the stuff always gave him the hiccups.

“I haven’t noticed anyone was ill,” Peter said. “Look, not a single head is smoking,” he added, insisting on being logical for once in his life.

The Pepper-Up Potion did have a very noticeable effect, one that was absent in the Great Hall, so James probably shouldn’t have lead with that. Deciding that it was a dangerous path in general, he switched gears.

“Maybe we should go visit him.”

“Who, Remus?” Peter asked as if the thought was outrageous.

“Yeah,” James said, frowning slightly. “He’s our mate, isn’t he? He might be bored.”

Peter was still looking at him weirdly, although James couldn’t figure out why. They usually went to see Remus when he was in the Hospital Wing, didn’t they? Well, often times. He was in there more often than a normal person, and sometimes James and Sirius got so caught up in one thing or another that he was convalescing in their rooms again before they could plan a proper visit with sweets and games and tales of victories against the Slytherins to cheer him up.

“Only, he just went there after class,” Peter said slowly. “He wouldn’t have time to get bored yet, would he?”

“The Hospital Wing is always boring,” said James, who had actually only been stuck in there once last year. Sirius had been caught in the attack too and was laid up in the bed beside him. Once Madam Pomfrey had sorted out their voices, things hadn’t been too bad.

But he didn’t want to tell Peter the real reason he was so insistent on this visit wasn’t that the Hospital Wing was boring, but rather that Hogwarts in general was. All James had done all week was go to class and go to practice, and even Quidditch hadn’t been enough to entertain him. Remus at least had the excuse that he’d been getting sick, not that James had known at the time, but Peter was just too happy that things were quiet for once to let himself be dragged into anything interesting.

“I think he brought his books,” said Peter.

James made a face. The only good thing about being sick was having a good excuse not to do your schoolwork, but trust Remus to mess up that up.

“Fine,” James sighed. “Maybe we can go see him before class tomorrow. If we get breakfast early, we should have a half hour before class.”

He pushed his roast chicken around his plate despondently. Whenever they had roast chicken, the house-elves always made mint humbugs for pudding. There were always leftovers in the kitchen.

Peter was pretty fond of mint humbugs too, so James had a nasty feeling that he was going to get a healthy dose of complaining tonight, without Remus there to temper the whinging over the lack of seconds.

The thought was almost enough to put him off his dinner. Stuffing in a mouthful, he looked around for distraction before Peter come to the same realization and start on it early. As the days went on and no teacher had even hinted at knowing what had happened in the kitchens, Peter had become emboldened, starting to complain not just in the privacy of the dormitory, but in places where they could be overheard, like the Great Hall.

The Slytherin table was still emptier than usual, which made the small groups clustered up and down the table even more noticeable, especially when just about every one of them had a lookout, furtively glancing over his or her shoulder to make sure no one was close enough to listen.

“They’re up to something,” James hissed.

“Who?” asked Peter. “What?”

“Look at them.” James decided against pointing since that was sure to catch their attention, settling for glowering in their general direction. Peter followed his gaze, confused.

“The Slytherins? What have they done? Why do you say that?” He was turning his head anxiously between the Slytherins and James, which was starting to get some unwanted attention.

“Don’t look,” James hissed. He lowered his own eyes to the table.

Luckily, Peter was used to having to follow orders quickly without asking why, though usually it was to avoid a teacher’s mischief-seeking eye. He turned back towards James, digging into his dinner, which would have seemed more natural if he’d started eating properly rather than poking around. “What’s wrong?” he asked, his voice quivering just a bit.

“I don’t know,” James was forced to admit. “But don’t you think they’ve been acting strangely lately?”

“They haven’t been around to act strange,” said Peter doubtfully. “It’s been real quiet ever since Sirius’ uncle died and they all went off to the funeral. Even now that most of them are back, I mean.”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” said James. “How often can we get through double Potions without one Slytherin or another acting like the gits that they are. But not a single thing has happened.”

“It’s been nice, hasn’t it?” Peter made it sound like more of a question than he probably meant it to be.

“They have to be planning something. Big.” It was generally the only reason he and Sirius stayed out of trouble for more than a few days at a time, as McGonagall often despaired, and the Slytherins in their year were bigger bastards than James had ever met. He snatched another glance at the table—Snape was still looking at him with narrowed eyes. It would be childish to stick out his tongue, but then again he would know for sure James was onto him if he let it pass, so James made a rude gesture after a quick glance at the teacher’s table to make sure no one was watching.

Peter coughed loudly in warning. One of the fifth year prefects was looking at them, but James didn’t care. He wasn’t one of the bad ones and probably wouldn’t do anything unless James did it again.

“We have to do something about this,” James declared.

“What do you mean?” asked Peter.

“We can’t just let the Slytherins get away with… whatever it is they’re planning. We have to strike back. We have to strike first.”

“But…” Peter trailed off before he could protest properly, but still James found himself waiting. Normally Remus or Sirius would jump in at this point—Remus to explain why Peter might protest or Sirius to egg James on regardless. Peter, too, seemed to be unsettled by this unusual turn of events, since he forged on after that first hesitation.

“Why?” he asked. “They haven’t done anything and maybe that’s better. Until Remus gets better, there’s only two of us. And almost all the Slytherins are back so there’d be… a lot of them.”

“Do you want them to think we’re afraid?” James asked, scandalized. “The two of us are better than twenty stupid Slytherins, even on a bad day.”

“Not afraid,” corrected Peter, although James could probably argue successfully on that point on Peter’s side, at least, “but there’s no sense starting a fight when they haven’t done anything. C’mon, James. Since Sirius has been gone I’ve almost been able to do all my schoolwork and get caught up in class.”

So had James, but that wasn’t a point he was putting in favour of Sirius’ absence, not be a long shot.

“Besides, they won’t know we’re afraid—I mean, they won’t even think we’re afraid, just because we’re not going out there and… and… provoking them over nothing.”

Provoking. That was a word McGonagall used. Often. James wondered if she’d be glad that at least one of her students was taking her words to heart.

“It’s not like they’re doing anything but talking.” Peter was really warming up now that he thought James was listening and agreeing with him. The words practically gushed out of his mouth and his tone was almost conversational, his near stutters and hesitations all but gone.

“But they’re Slytherins,” James said sullenly.

“So? They haven’t done anything to us. Lately,” he amended as if it mattered how recent an attack. It was crazy to only ever wait until the Slytherins attacked first, to always let them have the first shot. They weren’t like the Ravenclaws, after all, who were generally too busy thinking up new riddles and quoting facts at each other and only planned revenge when someone else had started it. All the Slytherins ever did was come up with new and better ways to be nasty. The only reason they’d been quiet lately was because so many of them were missing, but now that they were back, they had to be up to something, James just knew it.

He had a feeling that trying to convince Peter of that would be useless, so he said nothing, which Peter took as confirmation. He smiled a little too triumphantly, altogether too pleased to have gotten one up on James.

“Let’s just wait and see what happens. If they attack, then yeah, sure, we should do something back. If not… well, let’s just wait until Remus gets better and Sirius gets back. Then there’ll be more of us. Then we can do something.”

“Yeah,” James said faintly. He could hardly wait until Sirius got back. Then things would get better.

They could hardly get any worse.

~*~


By the time Sirius got back to Hogwarts, there was a fine layer of dust atop the lesser used areas of their room. Mostly it was just covered the headboards and piled away in the corners of the room, but since Sirius hadn’t been around, both his trunk and his desk had noticeably flecks of grey.

James didn’t think that maybe he should do something about it until Sirius was already in the room, staring down at the speckled pattern. Remus had taken to wiping down his areas with an old cloth, but when James had tried to brush it away, he’d only sneezed when all the motes went swirling through the air and up his nose.

“What is this?” Sirius asked stonily, completely ignoring James’ cheerful greeting.

“Er…” James stalled, trying to think of the best way to explain the mess. “The house-elves… umm… they’re kind of on strike.”

“What?” It was flat, almost not a question at all, which made James cringe even more. Yelling, he could understand. Shocked disbelief and grumbling would be a good, normal reaction, one that James had experienced himself until Remus had snapped at him to shut up, since it had been James’ idea that had led to the house-elves being so angry and frightened in the first place. It would be nice to have someone else to commiserate with, since neither Remus nor Peter had been up for the job.

Now it looked like Sirius wasn’t, either.

“The house-elves…” James hesitated, wondering how to put the best spin on this. It had been over a week and he still couldn’t think of an explanation that didn’t make him look like a fool. “They won’t come to our room anymore.”

“Why?” If Sirius had sounded more curious, James might have been able to get through the next part a little easier. Normally, his best mate would be jumping all over him for details—figuratively and literally, but Sirius sounded more demanding than anything else.

“We… we wanted to do something for you when you got back. A surprise. Needed the house-elves help. But when we went to the kitchens we said—well, I said something. Didn’t mean it, really, at least not that way, but the elves thought I was threatening to give them clothes. Which I guess they really don’t like. Umm… So they got really upset and were all but kicking us out of the kitchen and then I really put my foot in it. I kind of… sort of… didn’t say as much as I might have joked…

“I didn’t mean it, of course. I wouldn’t really do anything of the sort. But I might have implied that there’s usually loads of clothes lying around our room when they’re tidying and you never know what might have been transfigured to look like a stray sweets wrapper instead of a pair of dirty pants.

“Which, when you think of it, would be a great joke, don’t you think? Imagine Peter’s face if we told him the quill he was holding wasn’t really a quill. No, forget Peter, Snape. We’ve been stuck with him here, you know. Of all the Slytherins to stay behind, why he couldn’t be one to go to the funeral… I… don’t know.”

Sirius stayed quiet for the whole explanation, not even having the decency to stop James when it was apparent that he was really babbling and letting him walk right back into the funeral trap. James bit his lip, uncertain whether he should continue, or if he was supposed to say something about Sirius’ uncle now, or whether he should just pretend the entire thing had never happened.

“That’s… That’s just…” Sirius shook his head in disbelief. Some emotion had seeped back into his voice, replacing the awful monotone, but it wasn’t the improvement James was hoping for. He wasn’t used to words failing Sirius; the other boy always was quick to talk--or shout—or jinx—depending on the circumstance.

“House-elves just don’t go on strike!” Sirius said so vehemently that James flinched.

“I didn’t think they could, either,” James admitted shamefully. “I didn’t think it was that bad—I mean, the teacher’s didn’t even catch us, no one knows what happened at all, but, well, I guess you can see that they weren’t kidding.”

“They don’t!”

James hesitated. “No, I’ve never heard one make a joke, but it just seemed so unreal, that they’d stop cleaning—”

“No!” Sirius cut him off. “House-elves don’t just decide that they’re going to stop cleaning someone’s room.”

James knew he had been rambling, but he didn’t think he’d wandered around the point that badly that Sirius had missed it entirely. Still, he tried to tell him again. “No, they didn’t just decide. It probably is my fault. I mean—” he cleared his throat—”I’m to blame for frightening them like that. It’s sort of understandable, that they’d just… stop coming, isn’t it?”

“NO!” Sirius shouted.

“All right,” James said, a little taken aback by the emphasis of Sirius' denial.

“That's not what they do!” Sirius continued to shout. He kicked his bed, causing James to jump back a bit. It didn't do much except cause him to wince at the pain. It wasn’t enough, either, since the next thing Sirius did was shove his trunk. It had been resting on top his bed covers and now it spilled open, the robes and sweets he'd brought from home tumbling out and falling on the floor.

“Sirius...” James said hesitantly. He wanted to ask what was wrong but wasn't sure how to do it. Every time he opened his mouth these days, all he did was put his foot in it.

James didn't get the chance to figure it out, since Sirius ignored him, ignored the mess, and stomped out of their room pushing the door hard enough that James was surprised it didn’t come off its hinges. He had to hurry to keep up as they marched down Gryffindor Towers.

“We should probably get to class,” James ventured when they missed the turn out to the Herbology greenhouses. “Only it starts in a few minutes.”

He wasn't very surprised that Sirius ignored that—it would have warranted a derisive laugh at the best of times, the idea of hurrying to class—but their goal, when it became apparent, was enough to surprise him. About three corridors away from the kitchens, James realized that was where they were heading.

Sirius didn't so much tickle the pear as maul it, but the picture swung open anyway, probably in self-defence. It closed again almost immediately in protest and James had to stick his hand in to keep it from closing on him.

By the time James scrambled through the entrance, several of the house-elves were already gathered around Sirius, delighted to see him as ever. They always enjoyed it when they had visitors since it let them show of their hospitability. Two of them were already loading up a trolley with a selection of snacks—James recognized last night’s pudding, but there were also cookies, pumpkin tarts and jammie dodgers.

There were a couple of gasps and some hand-wringing when they caught sight of James, which James didn’t think was entirely fair, not when taking into account Sirius’ thunderous expression.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Sirius asked when the elves with the snack trolley pushed it to him.

“We’re sorry, sirs,” the house-elf on the left squeaked. In one corner, where elves were working at cleaning up the last of this morning’s breakfast, a murmur went up that he might prefer a proper English breakfast and a frying pan was washed and dried on the double.

“Sirius…” James tried again uncertainly, trying to ignore the looks of fright that the house-elves were giving him. “Maybe we should leave them alone.” He didn’t know what was going to happen but he had a feeling it wouldn’t be good.

“My room is a mess.” Sirius spoke clearly, enunciating every word properly. He hadn’t yet raised his voice, which worried James. It wasn’t like Sirius to lose his temper like this, so quietly.

“It’s my fault,” James tried again. “I didn’t mean to threaten them with clothes. I mean, I didn’t threaten them at all and I didn’t mean it to sound like I threatened them with clothes.”

“They deserve clothes!” Sirius roared. The house-elves had all stopped what they were doing and as one cowered at the words. Several burst out in tears. It was a pitiful sight, but one that didn’t affect Sirius at all.

James didn’t interrupt him this time as Sirius continued his rant.

“My room is covered in dust. There is no fire in my fireplace. Instead, it’s full of ashes and covered in soot. A fizzy drink spilled all over my friend’s desk and nobody cleaned it up. It was left there to become a sticky stain.” Peter had actually knocked over one of Remus’ potions and they hadn’t cleaned it up because it wouldn’t stop sending sparks up, but Sirius wasn’t to know that. “The beds are unmade and there are books all over the floor. I could trip and break my neck. I expect better of my room and I demand better of you.

“Just what do you think you are?” he demanded. “You’re house-elves! You clean. You don’t decide to skip a room because you don’t like someone. If you were my house-elves, I would give each and every one of you clothes right this very instant. I’d be ashamed to let anyone know I had ever even had a house-elf. I’d rather lie and let someone think I were too poor or common rather than let on that I had the likes of you in my employ.

“You’re afraid of finding clothes in our room? You should be. What you’ve done, missing a room on your cleaning rounds, it’s disgraceful. I’ll give you another chance. If you’re really lucky, if you do a good job, then you won’t find clothes there tomorrow morning. But this will be your only warning. You try anything like this ever again and it will be clothes for the lot of you. Do I make myself clear?”

The night of the incident, as James had taken to thinking of it, most of the house-elves had looked terrified with only a few of the very bravest daring to tell them to leave. James, Remus and Peter had only been too happy to get away from there after things had gone so drastically wrong. James had spent the ten days since almost mad with guilt. He’d never seen anything more pathetic as the house-elves crying over the idea of someone trying to trick them into picking up clothes.

They were even worse now. The crying was the least of it. Even though the noise grated on James ear, making him wish for a pair of earmuffs like the ones they used in Herbology when growing Mandrakes, it was nothing to the way most of the house-elves were now punishing themselves. The heavy pans that had been used to fry breakfast now were being used to smack themselves in the head. The oven doors were being used to crush hands. One of the house-elves had grabbed the poker from the great fireplace, but James didn’t dare turn that was to see what he did.

It was sickening to watch.

Sirius didn’t notice anything wrong, just marched back out to the portrait hole without as much as a backwards glance.

James thought about trying to say something to placate the house-elves, or just to get them to stop, but nothing came to mind. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth. After a few seconds when the cries only got louder, James could think of nothing to do but follow Sirius.

He had only just swung the pear closed when the voice rang out.

“Potter! Black! What are you doing?”

James should have expected Professor McGonagall to come across them. Everything else had been going so wrong, of course they’d be caught climbing out of the kitchen portrait. He just hoped that they could talk her out of going in there and talking to the house-elves. If she even caught a glance at them in their current state she would demand a good explanation. James didn’t think he would be able to think of one. He wasn’t sure there was a good explanation for what had just happened.

A quick look at Sirius showed that he was still glowering, so James hurried out an excuse before he could say anything and make things worse.

“Er, Professor McGonagall. Sirius just got back.”

“I know that, Potter,” McGonagall said with a touch of impatience. “And already you are skipping class. Honestly, I’d expect even you could go two hours back at Hogwarts without getting into trouble.”

“We’re not skipping,” said James, although he knew that if he looked at his watch he’d have to admit that they should have been in class fifteen minutes earlier. “Sirius didn’t get here in time for breakfast. He was hungry. We just thought we could stop by the kitchen and see if he could get a snack before class.”

Sirius would normally, at this point, jump in and embellish James’ story. It usually worked out in their favour, except for the times when he went a little too far with the details, stretching McGonagall’s disbelief past the breaking point.

He stop scowling long enough to even look at their teacher this time. James supposed he should be grateful, since Sirius was almost certain to make things worse—and not because he couldn’t resist bragging this time—but it was a little disconcerting.

“Er,” James said when it became obvious Sirius wasn’t going to speak, “we’ll go there right now. And, erm, sorry. Didn’t mean to skip class or anything.”

The closed look on McGonagall’s face didn’t give anything away until she said, “Next time, tell a teacher, don’t just run around by yourselves. Students aren’t supposed to be in the kitchens and I could have made sure Black got something to eat if he missed breakfast. Tell Professor Carrow to talk to me if she wonders why you’re late for class. And go straight there.”

“Thanks, Professor, sorry Professor.”

James grabbed Sirius’ sleeve and pulled him away before McGonagall could change her mind. Thankfully, Sirius let him lead the way without saying a single word. James kept stealing looks at his best mate, whose anger was still very apparent, but when it came to finding the words to ask him what he could do to make it better, James’ mouth dried.

When they got back to their room after dinner, James was not at all surprised to find it spotless, all except for the pile of clothes that had spilled out of Sirius’ trunk when he had slammed it down.

~*~


Every time Sirius cut into his eggs, his knife hit the plate with such force that it caused it to wobble a bit. The first time it had happened, James had looked up, ready to tease Sirius on his table manners, but as it happened again, and again, he realized there was something else at work here. James was trying to decide whether he should say anything when Remus, who was also watching the tableau with some concern, spoke up.

“Has your food, er, done something to offend you?” He kept his tone light, but James thought he couldn’t have picked worst words. The food was made by the house-elves, whom Sirius was still furious with. He muttered under his breath every time any of their belongings were the slightest bit out of place, even when it was Peter or James who’d just dropped them minutes earlier. James had taken to checking their room for stray pieces of clothes after Sirius left just to make sure he hadn’t followed through on his threat to get the house-elves unlucky enough to clean their rooms to free themselves accidentally.

“What?” Either Sirius wasn’t amused by the pseudo-joke or else he hadn’t been listening. James didn’t know his friend’s mood well enough to tell which one it was.

“You’ve been acting weird ever since you got back,” was Peter’s complaint. He cut to the thick of things, but it probably could have been done with more grace.

“We are sorry about your uncle,” said Remus, who had said similar platitudes several times in the past few days, none of which Sirius had even acknowledged. James was a little surprised when he responded this time.

“I’m not,” Sirius said. “For all I care my entire family could die and I wouldn’t be sorry.”

Remus tried to catch James’ eye, though what he thought James could do, James wasn’t sure. He had only proven himself marginally better than Peter at not saying the worst possible things when it came to Sirius and his grief.

“You, er, don’t mean that,” James tried. It came out awkwardly since he was pretty sure Sirius did mean it. He was always saying things like that about his family.

“Of course I do. They’re nothing but—” His description of his family had Remus and James both looking around to make sure no teacher was close enough to overhear, and Peter’s jaw drop open in either amazement or admiration.

“But they’re your family,” said Remus, who went home to visit his sickly mother on a regular basis even though it put him behind on his schoolwork every time. Neither he nor Peter had grown up hearing the rumours and whispers about the Blacks and other families so closely affiliated with dark magic as James had.

“And I never want to see any of them again. Ever.”

He said this with a particular steely glare at the Slytherin table where one of the Black girls was laughing especially triumphantly, tossing her dark hair over her shoulder in a rather flirty manner. The boys surrounding her were hanging on her every word. None of them seemed too torn up about Rastaban Black’s death, either, but James was willing to bet that it wasn’t for the same reason as Sirius. For one, they didn’t seem to feel his anger.

The rest of the boys looked at each other awkwardly, uncertain what to do or say now. Sirius went back to his breakfast with no less force attacking the food as he’d had before their talk. James wasn’t sure whether they were saved by the owls arriving with the daily mail or if they’d just put off the inevitable for a little while longer, but he was glad for the distraction nevertheless. Peter snatched the paper right out of James’ hand as James fed his owl bits of his toast.

Peter at least was certainly happy about the distraction, thumbing through the back pages of the newspaper rather than look at Sirius.

“Martin Miggs still isn’t back,” he moaned when he could find nothing but articles and advertisements. “Look, it’s another article about Meriel Hollingberry, only this time talking about her work with Muggles and her crusade for clearer laws regarding enchantments of Muggle objects. I mean, who cares? It’s been two weeks, I’m beginning to think that they aren’t going to bring back the comics.

“Have you heard about the disappearance of Meriel Hollingberry?” he asked Sirius politely after finishing his rant, possibly hoping that some juicy gossip would get Sirius’ mind off his family but ruining it with the next bit. “Everyone’s been talking about it while you were gone.”

“He knows that, Pete,” James said impatiently wishing Peter hadn’t reminded Sirius of his recent absence from school. “It’s in the Daily Prophet.”

“I know all about Hollingberry’s murder,” Sirius said darkly.

“Disappearance,” Remus corrected since he was the sort to actually read through the articles and retain the information. “The Magical Law Enforcement Squad suspect foul play but so far there’s been no evidence either way of what really happened.”

“It’s murder,” Sirius said with such conviction that James shivered.

Peter sounded just as awed. “What do you mean?”

“How do you know?” James asked.

“She was murdered, and I know because I know who did it.”

~*~


The letter from his parents surprised him.

Not that he’d received it, since James’ mother was twice as good at writing to him than he was at writing to her and his dad, but rather at the contents.

He read it again, hoping to make more sense out of the short message the third time.

James,

Honey, I don’t know what you’ve been hearing but don’t worry. There are a lot of rumours going around but things are not as bad as they seem. No matter what happens, you’re safe at Hogwarts. Dumbledore is a great wizard, always has been, always will be. He has done more to stop the advance of the Dark Arts than you can even imagine.

Remember that you’re a true Gryffindor and you will always be brave.

Love,

Mum and Dad


He certainly hadn’t told them about Sirius’ revelation—hadn’t even hinted at it. He’d written that Sirius was back, but he hadn’t said a thing about the bad moods or the outbursts or anything that Sirius told them in strictest confidence had happened at the funeral. But somehow, James’ parents seemed to know anyway.

His mum would have been at the funeral, James was sure of that now. She would have heard the same people Sirius did, would have been introduced to the same followers of this new Dark wizard.

That thought, that his mother would be so close to this, made James shiver even though the house-elves were keeping the room twice as toasty as it normally was this time of year. They were still trying to make amends, or to keep out of Sirius’ bad books, James didn’t know.

James read the letter one more time. His mum might have been trying to reassure him, but all the words did was make him feel worse.

It confirmed that it was real.

When Sirius had finished his story, Peter had blustered, sputtering out denials and questioning how Sirius could know something like that, ignoring or forgetting Sirius’ story of the gathering of wizards after his uncle’s funeral. It spoke to how frightened he was since he rarely vocally doubted Sirius at all.

Remus had questioned just how powerful this wizard could be. Grindelwald had terrorized the continent until he met with Dumbledore, and that had been years ago. Their Headmaster was even more powerful now; surely a new Dark wizard wasn’t going to try anything right under their headmaster’s nose.

James hadn’t said anything at all.

Even now he was still trying to wrap his head around the reason why Sirius had been acting so strangely. It hadn’t been anything to do with him, not with the way James had misinterpreted McGonagall’s summons leading them on a merry goose chase while Sirius’ uncle lay dead, nor with the way he’d cocked things up with the house-elves when he’d been trying to fix things and make them better for Sirius’ return. It had nothing to do with him at all.

Now that he knew that, James almost wished it was his fault, because that would be better than this.

You will always be brave, his mother had written. He was happy his mother could only write letters to him because if she saw him in person she would know just how scared he truly was.

~*~


Over the next few days James saw signs of worried students everywhere.

Looking back, he should have noticed earlier. There were more subscriptions of the Daily Prophet being delivered than James ever recalled seeing before, mostly by older students who would flip through their copies as furiously as Peter. The only difference was that they retained interest even after discovering that there were no comics.

James read through the Sunday’s edition, front to cover. It wasn’t something he had ever done before, and not something he would do again in a hurry between the articles about the elections in Germany and the piece on why the Ministry should outlaw the cultivation of Chinese Chomping Cabbage (James couldn’t figure out why anyone would care let alone write about it for half a page. Despite its name, it didn’t actually chomp on stray insects or fingers that wandered to close, which at least would have made it interesting).

The articles on Hollingberry were more informative. He hadn’t actually read through much more than the headlines before and only knew that she was a witch who worked at the Muggle Liaison Office at the Ministry who’d disappeared a little more than a month earlier. The reporters at the Prophet had uncovered what seemed to be her entire life’s story.

Her mother had been a Muggle who had died about the same time as she had disappeared, which is why the Muggle Law Enforcement Patrol thought the whole thing was suspicious. (They had talked to the Muggle “please men” who said Mrs. Hollingberry had died in something called a “car crash” but although the paper had done its best to describe what that meant, James still thought the entire thing sounded fishy.)

She'd been Head Girl at Hogwarts, attending school over a decade before James, so he doubted even the upper years would have known her. She lived with one of her friends from there, a Muggle-born witch who had stopped talking with the press within a week of the story breaking.

Meriel Hollingberry also wasn't the only witch or wizard to have disappeared under mysterious and suspicious circumstances in recent times. James supposed he shouldn't be surprised, since it tallied with what Sirius had said about a Dark Wizard who had been gaining power without anyone taking notice, but it still was jarring. They were all, without fail, Muggle-born or related to Muggles in some way, through their job or just living in a predominantly Muggle area of town.

James wondered if the people at the Daily Prophet had put that part together, or if listing their blood status was a simple matter of course, like the fact that every person who warranted mention in the paper also had their age listed beside their age.

He had been looking for confirmation, he knew that when he finished the paper, folding it up neatly even though he was only going to chuck it as soon as he got back to his room. Peter had all but started to boycott the Prophet when they stopped running the Martin Miggs cartoon even now that he knew why, Remus had already glanced through those articles that interested him and Sirius knew more about the case than the rest of them, it seemed.

The only thing left, it seemed, was decide what to do now.

~*~


Sunday dinner was usually something to look forward to. The house-elves always outdid themselves. Even during the worst of their anger—or rather what James had thought was the worst of their anger until he'd seen them with Sirius and realized that they did not get angry in the same way that wizards did—they had not once even considered skimping on the Gryffindor's feast, not even the section of the table where James and his mates usually sat.

Tonight was a more sombre affair. It wasn't just the second year Gryffindor boys, who seemed to be as disconcerted as James himself felt. Sirius was the only exception, having started to regain some of his former humour now that the secret wasn't his burden and his alone to bear—James just wished he could feel happier about being there to help out his friend.

It was the rest of the table as well. Lonnie Georges, the seventh year prefect, was Muggle-born. She always was rather soppy if James did say so himself, more likely to burst in tears when interrupted during her studies than take points like her fellow prefects. She was starting at everything these days, including when Harriet Dunnington, her best mate, dropped her spoon against the plate, setting it clattering. What she would do if someone pulled a wand, James hoped he wouldn't see. They were Gryffindors, as his mother had reminded him, and even if he felt he was letting the team down with his cowardice inside, at least he could still put on a brave face.

Hufflepuff seemed to be battering down. There were worried expressions all around, but there were also some determined ones. James wasn't sure what exactly they planned to do since this was Hufflepuff, but it probably beat his lack of plans.

Ravenclaw was still pouring over the newspaper, comparing articles. More than one student was taking notes, which by itself wasn't unusual (this was Ravenclaw after all) but usually they only did that when accompanied by heavy foreboding tomes from the library.

The only table who wasn't acting strangely was Slytherin. Instead, they seemed almost smug, with more smiles than normal adorning their faces and atypical, unpleasant laughter breaking out on a regular basis.

There was the general chatter as students filed in and started to serve their food onto their plates, but it died fairly quickly when Dumbledore stood and caught their attention.

“Thank you,” he said when everyone had quieted down. “I won’t keep you from your dinners for too long, but there is something that I must share with you first. Some of you have already heard some of this, but it is important that everyone knows the truth.”

Here, he did a visual sweep of the assembled students. It was a little shocking when his gaze paused for a brief second on James and his friends. Dumbledore also singled out several groups of Slytherins and some fifth-year Ravenclaws before he resumed speaking.

“We are under attack by a user of the Dark arts, a wizard calling himself Lord Voldemort.”

There were gasps at this pronouncement from all corners of the Great Hall, even those areas where James was sure the students already knew. His friends weren’t as noisy, although he did notice Remus’ brow furrow and Sirius sit up straighter and take more interest in Dumbledore’s speech.

“I don’t mean the people here at Hogwarts or those witches and wizards who already stand up against him in the world outside our school, but rather every single one of us, pure-blood or Muggle-born. There are those who would say that since he claims he is only trying to rid the world of Muggles and bring back the sanctity of the pure-blood lines that it doesn’t involve him. That isn’t true, even if you were to believe him. What he hopes to do will affect all of us.

“What we need to do is stand together, to stand against him. He will use fear and terror to try to keep people in line, but you must not let him succeed.

He sat down when he was finished, a little unpresumptuous considering the news he had just imparted on the student body.

James wasn’t the only one who was so shocked at the turn of events that he was barely able to eat any of his supper. He just hoped the house-elves wouldn’t take the amount of leftovers as an insult on their cooking and fret unnecessarily.

~*~


James was certain that Dumbledore would have been proud to know that his speech resulted in James’ sleepless state that night. He, Sirius, Peter and Remus hadn’t talked much after dinner, though it seemed that they were unique in that respect. The rest of the Great Hall broke out in furious whispers amongst themselves. There were a few panic attacks, mostly from those who had barely been aware there was such a thing as a Dark Lord let alone that there was one stalking through the countryside these days. They came mostly from James’ fellow second-years and the other grades around them, though James was interesting to note that not one of the panicked students came from Slytherin. The others who had been pulled from Hogwarts to attend Rastaban Black’s funeral had apparently wasted no time sharing all that they knew.

Now James could only toss and turn, unable to stop thinking about what Dumbledore had said, what Sirius had said, what his mother had said.

He punched his pillow, hoping that if he were more comfortable he might finally drop off to sleep.

“You still awake?” There was a sound of curtains drawing back and when James peaked out from his bed, he saw Sirius was as wide awake as he was.

“Can’t sleep,” said James rather redundantly.

“Me neither,” said Sirius. He sat at the edge of his bed, crossing his legs. James imitated the position, pulling up his blanket so that it draped around his shoulders. Even with the house-elves tendering properly to the fire once again, he still liked the extra warmth his blanket gave him.

He’d just gotten comfortable when he heard another set of curtain rings scratch against the rails.

“We should keep it down or we’ll wake Peter,” warned Remus. He didn’t say anything about waking him, leading James to believe he’d been as troubled with the night’s events as the others had.

“I’m already awake,” said Peter, also bereft of any sounds of sleepiness in his voice. He didn’t even yawn when he scrambled to join them. “Maybe we should go down to the kitchens and get some warm milk. That’s what our mum always did when I couldn’t sleep when I was little.”

“Er.” James hesitated. Sirius was less angry than he had been when he’d lost his temper with the house-elves, but he wasn’t he’d calmed down enough. Neither Remus nor Peter knew just how badly Sirius had lost his temper, James giving them a much abbreviated and partially made-up version to explain why the room was suddenly being cleaned again, and he wasn’t sure

“I have some Chocolate Frogs,” Sirius suggested, preventing James from having to make a decision.

“Brilliant!” Peter exclaimed, forgetting all about the kitchens as he dove for Sirius’ trunk. His sweets were always kept in the same place, which was regularly booby-trapped, not because Sirius didn’t trust his friends but because he found it funny when they fell for one of his tricks. Peter remembered to hand the Frogs to Sirius rather than start munching on them right away. Sirius threw a handful at Remus and another at James. James caught most of his, but a couple fell from his hands, scattering on the bed and falling onto the floor. He would have to remember to pick them up in the morning, but for now he was content with the ones he had caught.

Peter opened his right away and started munching on it before he even got back into his bed, yanking the covers out from the foot and bringing his pillow down so he could lie down and still look at the rest of his friends.

“Thanks,” Remus said before unwrapping his, giving the other boys pause and making James and Peter mumble their own thanks a few seconds later, though Peter’s was rather muffled due to the fact that his mouth was already full of chocolate.

James looked at his card before sticking the frog in his mouth. He had got Laverne de Montmorency. He didn’t think he had her already, but then she was only famous for inventing a great number of love potions and James couldn’t see what the big deal about that was.

It was a few long minutes where none of them did anything except chew before Sirius, the only one who hadn’t yet touched his chocolate, finally broke the silence.

“What do you suppose Dumbledore was doing, telling the school about… him?”

“What were you doing, telling us about the Dark Wizard?” Remus asked back. He hadn’t meant it negatively, but Sirius reacted badly anyway, screwing up his face in anger. James broke in before he could say anything, since the last thing they needed was to get into a fight right now and even now Sirius was spoiling for a fight, just as he had been ever since getting back to Hogwarts.

“I think Remus just meant Dumbledore wanted all of us to know, just like you wanted us to know when you told us.” It was a rather simplified version of the reason Sirius had told them—James suspected the truth lay closer to the fact that Sirius had lost his temper and let it slip more than it being a conscious decision, but Remus had apparently felt blessed to be let in on the secret.

“At least this means Dumbledore knows about this Voldemort fellow,” said Peter, flipping through the cards he’d got. “That’s good, isn’t it? I mean, he defeated Grindelwald and this new guy can’t be worse than him, can he?”

“Voldemort’s worse,” said Sirius flatly.

“We can’t know that,” Remus said quite reasonably, careful not to doubt Sirius outright. “It looks like they stand for the same sort of things—mastery over Muggles and that stuff.”

“You didn’t hear them talking,” said Sirius. “It’s all that shit they say about purity of blood, but more.

“Dumbledore said—Dumbledore seemed to think it wasn’t just the Muggles, either,” James said slowly. “Didn’t you hear him? He said Muggle-borns. I think he meant that Voldemort is going to go after witches and wizards, too. Only actively hurt them, not just because they’re getting in his way.”

Sirius looked at him blankly, not seeing what the problem was. “That’s what I said. To hear some of them talk, there’s no difference between Muggles, Muggle-borns and half-bloods. They’re all inferior to their thoughts.”

“Some of the people who’ve disappeared, they’re half-bloods,” Remus volunteered. “My mum went to school with Kelly Moffat. I think they dated at one point. Said it wasn’t like being with my dad, whose parents were both wizards, since Kelly’s dad was a Muggle-born, too, so they didn’t think anything of the fact that her parents were Muggles.”

“But we don’t know that this wizard is behind the disappearances, do we?” Peter was starting to sound a little more panicked again. His parents and his grandparents were all wizards, James remembered, but there was the occasional Muggle and Muggle-born beyond that. It was enough to be marked as a half-blood according to some of the more fervent believers in blood purity.

“Didn’t you listen to what Dumbledore said?” James asked.

“But he knows about this wizard. He can do something about him. He beat Grindelwald, after all, he can do it again, can’t he? Or he can tell the Minstry, let the Aurors deal with him.”

Sirius barked out laughter. “As if it were that simple,” he said derisively. “If the Ministry hasn’t figured it out by now it’s because they’re in denial or because they don’t care.”

“I do think it’s a little more serious than that,” said Remus, a little more gently. “Dumbledore wouldn’t have told us if it was a simple case of Muggle-baiting or something like that that the Ministry could deal with easily.”

“No,” said James, firmly. “He told us because we’re all going to figure it out sooner or later—probably sooner. I mean, think about it. How long have these disappearances been going on for? People are going to start asking questions. His supporters actively admitted what they were up to at Sirius’ uncle’s funeral. It’s not like they’re really trying to hide it anymore.”

Sirius snorted again, but James ignored that. He was pretty certain that it wasn’t truly a case of Voldemort’s supporters finally letting the Blacks in on the secret, but felt a little uneasy accusing Sirius’ family of being Voldemort supporters.

“So the real question is what do we do?” James asked, finally vocalizing the central question that had been gnawing at him since he first heard the name Voldemort from Sirius’ lips.

“Do?” Sirius asked. “What do you mean, do?”

“I don’t think there is anything we can do,” said Remus.

“These are grown wizards we’re talking about,” said Peter, his voice quavering a bit. He’d tucked his blanket in under body and was clutching his pillow pretty close to his chest. “We’re just kids, we can’t do anything to stop them.”

“Maybe not,” James admitted. “But that doesn’t mean we should just sit here and do nothing and… and… just be scared. Didn’t you hear what Dumbledore said? Fear is a weapon, one that Voldemort is going to try to use. Do we want him to use it on us?”

“But...” Peter protested, licking his lips. “Shouldn’t we be scared?”

“We’re Gryffindors,” Sirius said, unconsciously echoing James’ mother in her letter. “Gryffindor’s don’t get scared.”

“Gryffindors remain brave even when they are scared,” Remus corrected since it was pretty obvious all of them were a little terrified.

“Exactly,” said James. “We can’t let this Voldemort bully us into hiding away under our covers, too scared to even move.” He noticed Peter kick at his blankets surreptitiously so they loosened a bit. “So what do we do?”

“We can make the Slytherin House’s life a living hell,” Sirius suggested. “They’re the ones that go on about pure-blood and embracing the Dark Arts and all that bollocks.”

“Don’t we do that already?” Remus asked dryly. “We’re always after one of them or another, or retaliating because they’ve done something to us.”

Not lately, they hadn’t, but James refrained from pointing that out.

“Your big plan to show Voldemort up is to go on causing as much mischief as you can at Hogwarts?” Remus asked, choking on the words a bit.

“What’s wrong with that?” James asked defensively.

“Nothing,” said Sirius fiercely. “It’s a great idea.”

“But it’s what we would do regularly, anyway. Even if there wasn’t a Dark wizard out there,” said Remus.

“And isn’t that what Dumbledore told us to do?” Sirius demanded.

“If we start acting differently, if we start acting afraid, then hasn’t Voldemort already won?”

Remus tried one more time. “But doing what we always do—it’s not much of a plan, is it?”

James Potter had not had much luck with plans recently, but somehow he thought this one might be different. It would be very difficult indeed to mess up something this simple and maybe that was just what they needed.

Opening up the last of the Chocolate Frogs, the one he’d fished up from the floor, he popped it into his mouth.

“I think it’s a brilliant plan,” he said.

“The best we’ve got,” Peter said quickly, probably

“The best there is,” Sirius corrected, also smiling.

“We’re going to get into so much trouble,” Remus moaned, burying his head under his pillow at the thought of all that detention.

James didn’t have the heart to tell him that was the entire point.

~*~


Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry was not the same place now as it was when Minerva McGonagall graced its hallowed halls. Her time as a student had been far more carefree. Even in her upper years, when Grindelwald had begun his ascent to power, his influence was barely noticeable at the school since the worst of it had taken place in Europe, not Great Britain.

There had never been any of this fear spread across the school. Minerva wondered again at the wisdom of Albus informing the students of some of the facts that even the wizarding public was not yet fully aware, but he had been insistent that knowledge was a great weapon. As a devotee of education, Minerva could hardly argue with that.

It hadn’t done much to squash the rumours that were flying around the castle, though. If anything, it made them worse, as the students who hadn’t known tried to make sense of Dumbledore’s warnings and the students who had been already aware felt free to discuss the Dark Lord openly, weighing the likelihood of increased Muggle tortures and the use of the Unforgivables Curses. Minerva just wished she could do more than order them to change the subject when she overheard such conversations, but the students—mostly Slytherins from the old, pure-blood and prejudiced families that were fertile grounds for Voldemort’s recruitment—though emboldened by the recent announcements were still smart enough to cage the arguments as hypotheticals, never fully admitting their admiration or hope for involvement. There was little McGonagall could do as a teacher.

She had considered speaking to Horace directly though Albus had cautioned against that. The Slytherin Head of House still had his head firmly stuck in the sand about the whole thing and refused to see just how dangerous some of his students were.

He wasn’t the only one, either. Even amidst the rest of the panicked rumours, there were a few vocal deniers, claiming that nothing could be wrong, since their parents worked for the Ministry and would have told them otherwise, or because the Daily Prophet had not yet pieced everything together—though Minerva suspected it wouldn’t be much longer since some of the reporters were starting to ask the right questions.

Most, however, recognized the danger even if they didn’t realized the true extent of what was going to come.

Minerva wondered if she knew it herself.

Still, it was her duty to give these children the best education and the best childhood she could no matter what was going on outside in the Wizarding world, and that is what she planned to do.

With that steely determination, she marched towards the Transfiguration classroom where her second year Gryffindors were seated patiently at their desks. Minerva had a soft spot for this class, which was populated by a few more clever students than usual, although she had to admit that at times they were more frustrating as well since several of those said clever students spent more of their time trying to wreak the most havoc than get the most out of their education. Recently, they’d been quiet, shaken by what Sirius Black had undoubtedly shared with them about what happened at Rastaban Black’s funeral.

Minerva was almost liked the quiet, her enjoyment only tempered by the fact that it was coming at the expense of their personalities.

There was a low murmur coming from inside the classroom, which Minerva thought nothing of as she opened the door. Then her jaw dropped as she saw what was going on inside.

She had just enough time to think, fleetingly, that things were getting back to normal, Voldemort be damned, before she regained her senses.

“Black! Potter!” They whirled around, not having expected her to arrive so soon. She could see the guilt on their faces, though it was disguised as manic innocence. They weren’t the only ones with such expressions, either. “Lupin! Pettigrew!”

“Er, hi Professor,” said Black, innocently, as Potter flashed her a wide, cheeky smile.

“Just what is going on here?” Minerva demanded.

The boys exchanged looks with each other, then at the thing in the middle of the floor, then back at Minerva, who was resisting the urge to tap her foot in impatience.

As they started their explanation, which was just as unlikely and extravagant as Minerva had become accustomed to hearing from them, she realized that yes, things were back to normal for these four particular boys at least.
marauderbigbang: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] marauderbigbang at 09:42am on 12/09/2010
Title: Full Value of Joy
Author: Di/[profile] dogsunderfoot
Artists: [personal profile] chalada and [personal profile] epithalamium
Pairing(s): James/Lily, eventual Sirius/Remus (also inc. Remus/OC and mentions of Sirius/OCs)
Rating and Warnings: PG-13 for language, off-screen deaths, sexual innuendo, and adult situations
Summary: After personal tragedy strikes, Remus disappears from the lives of his friends for five years. When Sirius finally finds him, Remus is reluctant to re-establish their friendship. Is it because of his unspoken grief—or something else entirely?
Word Count: 38,200 (Give or take a few words)
Notes: A few liberties have been made with the timeline for the Marauders—and the year of Harry’s birth.
Thanks and love to the twin-of-my-soul, [personal profile] remuslives23 for her support and help with this monster.
Also: thanks and adoration to ‘my’ wonderful artists: [personal profile] chalada and [personal profile] epithalamium. Hugs to you both because you’re fabulous!
Thanks, too, to [profile] fallenmelody and to [personal profile] brighty18, the mods. May you each reap the harvests that you have sown!
Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all characters, places, objects, ideas, and related material are the property of JK Rowling and her various publishing entities. Neither the author, the artists, nor the [personal profile] marauderbigbang are in any way making a monetary profit from this posting.


*****


Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of joy you must have somebody to divide it with. ~Mark Twain

*****


The doorman smiled broadly, completely ignorant of the fact that his yellow, crooked teeth made him look rather sinister. His apple-round pink cheeks and twinkling blue eyes fortunately softened the effect to the point that most people didn’t even notice the menacing incisors.

"Good morning, Mr Black. How are you this fine morning?"

George’s slight exaggeration about the quality of the day was easy to overlook when his most piercing of whistles was able to call a cab to the kerb in something like ten seconds.

"Doing well, George. And you?"

"Never better, sir, never better."

"How’s the missus?"

"Her lumbago’s acting up a bit, but she’ll be right as rain in a day or two."

Sirius slid into the cab and grinned. "Tell her to feel better soon, George. Stay as dry as you can today."

"You’re a fine man to think of me," George replied. In a rather harsh tone, he said to the driver, "Move along, now. Sharp-like!"

"Where to?" the cabbie asked, as George slammed the door shut and retreated back under the awning.

Sirius gave the man an address that was around the corner and half a block from the building in which he worked. He’d recently discovered a small coffee shop that made the world’s best coffee and he didn’t feel alive until he’d had at least two cups of it. He could also pick up the daily newspapers and the occasional magazine there.

"What do you think Man U’s chances are?" the cabbie asked, breaking into Sirius’ not-quite-awake thoughts.

"Manchester?" Sirius repeated. "Fuck. They couldn’t find the goal if it were painted bright orange and had flags flying on the top of it."

The cabbie laughed and they had a spirited discussion throughout the traffic-packed streets about Man U’s newest goalie.

"Mark my words," the cabbie said as he finally nosed the cab toward the kerb in front of Sirius’ destination, "he’ll be sent packing in three months."

"They’ll be lucky if it’s only three months." Sirius exited the vehicle then leaned into the passenger side window to press some money into the cabbie’s waiting palm. "It was a pleasure."

The man took a glance at the pieces of paper, surprise evident in his eyes. "Blimey, sir!"

Sirius grinned and backed away. Years of internships at publishing companies that paid him with nothing but experience had led him to take jobs bartending and serving tables. Once he’d found his niche at Vernon-Gray Publishing, he’d worked his way up the ladder, using smiles and a few well-twisted daggers until he’d achieved his current position. He appreciated what he’d been through too much not to consider the others who made life more comfortable for him now.

Inside the small coffee shop, Sirius picked up the two newspapers he usually read, and was pleased to realise the newest issue of Writer’s Point of View was on the stand. As an editor in a large publishing firm, he enjoyed the writing process more than most. He’d once intended to become a newspaper reporter but, after only eight months of university courses, he’d discovered he’d rather tear stories apart and rebuild them than create them from scratch. That didn’t mean he didn’t like to read articles about writing and the author’s mindset. Truth was, sometimes he’d come across insightful items that would help him to deal with recalcitrant and moody writers that he dealt with on a daily basis.

"Mr Black, we’ve got some delightful pastries today," the pretty girl behind the counter told him.

"No, Sally, I think I’ll stick to my usual." Sirius grabbed two Snickers bars and tossed them onto the counter next to the periodicals and the white paper bag containing the two cups of coffee.

She shook her head, but gave him a flirtatious glance from beneath long lashes. "You should get yourself a girl to make you some bacon and eggs in the morning."

"Oh, I’m perfectly capable of doing that for myself," Sirius assured her. "What I need is for morning to come a few hours later than it does."

He winked at her, snatched up his items and headed to his office.

"Sirius, Barbara Wellington called. She said she doesn’t understand those revisions you recommended last week."

Sirius rolled his eyes, but kept walking. His assistant, Emmeline, kept pace, flipping through a note pad and shifting sticky notes from one place to another.

"And Flitwick called, saying he was going to be late, and would you mind telling Helen to start on the research for that book for Minerva—"

Sirius held up the bag with the coffee. "Em, coffee first, think later."

"I’ve already had a cup—"

"I haven’t."

"You’re twenty minutes late, Sirius, and your schedule is full, beginning with that meeting with Mr Hoskins in forty minutes! Ms Vernon has already been down here looking for you and you’re telling me you’re incapable of thinking until you have a bloody cup of coffee?"

Sirius opened the door to his office, turning to block her from entering. "Be a darling and find Helen for me, won’t you?"

The woman opened her mouth to protest, but Sirius grinned even wider and winked. "You’re an angel."

"You always bloody say that," she grumbled, her resolve suddenly collapsing under the weight of masculine charm and brilliant grey eyes.

"And I always bloody mean it," he maintained, gently pushing the door closed.

He sank gratefully into his plush leather chair, reaching for one of the cups of coffee and the magazine. Mr Hoskins was forty minutes away which meant forty more minutes of peaceful employment. After that, well...

He’d edited three books for the eminent jewel in the publishing house’s crown and had enjoyed working with the man. The author’s latest manuscript, however, was shit. Sirius had no easy fixes for it—short of burning it.

No, the meeting was not going to go well, and Sirius half-smiled as he thumbed through the Writer’s magazine, scanning through employment advertisements and wondering if he should start jotting down the names and addresses. He opened the first Snickers bar and started to munch contentedly.

He paused at an article entitled, "How to Get an Editor to Work With You—Not Against You". Snorting in disdain at some of the writer’s suggestions, he licked some chocolate from his finger and turned the page.

"Why Did They Stop Writing?" asked the letters at the top of the page.

Sirius’ eyes drifted over the photographs of authors who had written several best-selling stories and novels, and then had abruptly quit, for whatever reason. Most of the photos were taken directly from book jackets or were copies of publicity photos. There were a few candid shots showing the authors in their new professions.

Sirius read quickly through some of the captions, opening the second Snickers bar. "You’re better off teaching maths," he said to the photo of one man. "Your last book was the biggest bit of tripe I’d ever had the misfortune to read. Gorgeous tripe, but tripe none the less."

He took a drink of coffee and turned the next page. There were only two photographs on the page: one of a wrecked car surrounded by fire fighters; the other was of a tall, sandy-haired man carrying a plastic bag full of groceries through a parking lot. The photographer had caught him looking over his shoulder, so the man’s face could clearly be seen.

Sirius slowly lowered the Styrofoam cup and stared more intently at the picture. A strange, suffocating feeling stole through his chest, robbing him of breath and making him very cognisant of every beat of his heart. "Oh, God, Remus. What have you done to yourself?" he whispered, his voice breaking with emotion.

The man in the photo said nothing and Sirius let his finger lightly trace the man’s face. He was thinner than the last time that Sirius had seen him—and he’d never had much meat on his bones to begin. His hair was long and stringy and he had a moustache and several days’ growth of stubble that was just short of ‘beard’ status. Sirius hated it, if only because he could remember the man laughing once, saying, "Who wants a caterpillar on his face?"

It was his eyes, though, that made Sirius’ heart hurt. Even through the graininess of a telephoto lens, Sirius could see they were haunted, aching with loss. Sirius found himself counting on his fingers.

It’s been five years. It’s still as fresh to him as if it happened yesterday...

Sirius glanced again at the photo of the wrecked car and steeled himself to read the caption: "Wolfe’s wife and son were killed in this accident, prompting the best-selling author to withdraw into relative obscurity in a small town in America."

America? Sirius took a long drink of coffee and stared at a spot on the wall. He’d guessed France. Peter had guessed South Africa. James had only half-jokingly said, "He’s gone to some Buddhist temple in Tibet."

The door to his office suddenly swung open and Emmeline came in, already mid-sentence: "—on her way. She’s already done some of the research, so you should be pleased. What won’t please you, however, is that Mr Hoskins is here. He’s—" She stopped and stared at the dark-haired man. "Sirius, are you all right? You look, well, you don’t look good at all."

Sirius sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. "I’ll be fine, Em."

"Can I get you something? Something for a headache or something to settle your stomach?"

"No." Sirius managed to stretch his lips into a smile. "I’ll be fine. I just need a minute. Where’s Mr Hoskins?"

"He’s in the blue room. Are you sure I shouldn’t tell him you’re ill and—"

"I said, I’ll be fine. Just—go get the old boy a scotch and soda—"

"It’s not even ten yet!"

"Coffee, then! Damn it, Emmeline, just keep him occupied, please? And for God’s sake, don’t tell him I’m ill. The old bugger will smell blood and bring me down like a three-legged gazelle."

His assistant blinked rapidly several times. "As far as analogies go, that one was either bloody brilliant or the worst piece of shite I’ve ever heard."

"Consider it brilliant and be gone," Sirius ordered with a wave of his hand. Emmeline regarded him for another moment and then left, closing the door softly behind her.

Sirius leaned his elbows on the desk and pressed his face into still-shaky hands. "Fuck, Remus. I did not need to see this today."

Would tomorrow have been better? Why can’t one schedule shocking news? ‘Em, I need to schedule some time for dismay and sorrow at seeing how one of my best friends has ruined himself. Could you pencil that in around two?’ Fuck. I did not need this today. Why in the hell would Remus allow this?

He looked down at the picture, looking at the angle of Remus’ line of vision. He was definitely not looking at the camera; he seemed unaware of it altogether. And then realisation smacked Sirius in the face: He doesn’t know.

The editor shook his head disapprovingly. The magazine had no doubt been refused entrance into Remus’ world—with every bit as much finality as his former friends had. Unlike his friends, however, they’d chosen to disregard his grief and rejection and had gotten what they needed.

We gave up too easily. America. Bloody hell.

He gave himself five more minutes to pull himself together before making his way down the corridor to the room where Fred Hoskins was waiting.

Fred Hoskins had been a well-established author before he’d come to Vernon-Gray ten years before. Sirius had ‘inherited’ the honour of being his editor when another editor had retired. A more cantankerous, obnoxious man didn’t exist—but he wrote brilliant novels. Sirius could still remember the day that the Misses Gray and Vernon had come into his office and informed him that he had been given a ‘promotion’.

"You’re the best candidate to deal with him."

"You’ve got talent, Sirius, and more than that, you’ve got a way about you."

"With that silver tongue of yours, you’ll be able to get him to agree to changes, but still make him think the changes are his decision."

"You’re perfect for this."


Through trial-and-error, Sirius had finally discovered the perfect way to get the man to accept his changes. Most of the time, he was blatantly deceptive, offering back pages that had already been slightly edited and then telling the man that they would have to talk about edits to those. The man occasionally looked at the sentences and said he hadn’t thought he’d written it like that originally, but never pursued the issue, to Sirius’ relief.

Today, however, was going to be very different—and Sirius was of no mood to mollycoddle the man through it, though he’d have to try.

He plastered a smile on his face before he went through the door, greeting the man with an effusive, "Good morning, Fred!"

"You’ve kept me waiting," the silver-haired man snapped.

"Ah, yes, couldn’t be helped. Shall we get started?" Don’t expect me to apologise.

"I was ready to get started ten minutes ago."

So, the old badger was ready for a fight, was he? Oh, he’s come to the right bloody place, then.

Sirius took out the manuscript and put it on the table between them. "Before we talk about what you’re planning to write next, I have to share this with you." He forced a laugh. "You won’t believe what someone has done, Fred. Someone sent in the first three chapters of a book and used your name. Of course, once I struggled through the first chapter, I realised it couldn’t be yours, so I nearly chucked it in the bin. I saved it, though, thinking you might have a right good laugh out of it."

The man pulled himself up straighter, if it were possible, and stared at the bundle of paper in front of him. Even through the top sheet, he could see the red ink peeking through on the first page of the story underneath. "Young man—"

"Oh, I know, I know." Sirius held up a hand to stop him. "It’s not proper or nice, but I did think you might find it somewhat amusing that someone would even think of duplicating your style and talent."

He almost laughed at the man’s expression. The old man obviously didn’t know whether to be pleased at Sirius’ compliments or offended that Sirius had dismissed the new manuscript so offhandedly.

"You’re welcome to have a look at it, if you’d like," Sirius said, pushing the papers closer to the man.

Hoskins finally reached for it and started to flip through it, his eyes widening at Sirius’ comments and the red ink that bled from every page. He finally put it back down and folded his hands on top of it.

"Not much of a plot, eh?"

Sirius shrugged. "Well, the plot is not necessarily the problem. After all, how many bloody plots are there in the world? No, it’s the execution of it. No one would ever believe that a father would decide to turn his son in for murder just because he disapproves of the boy’s girlfriend. It’s not logical."

"But if the boy has caused problems for his father for years—"

"That’s not what it says, though," Sirius said. "If the son was that much trouble, there’d have been other brushes with the police, other times when he was ready to write him off. As it is, the author says on page six or seven that the son hadn’t given the father any problems until—"

"Maybe the father had been oblivious to the other things his son had done—"

"Then it needs to be said," Sirius insisted firmly. He finally leaned his elbows on the table and looked into the man’s dark brown eyes. "Fred, I’ve edited your last three books. Do you trust me?"

The writer’s eyebrows lowered and he answered slowly as if it hurt him to say, "You’ve done a good job for me, I’ll admit."

"Then trust me when I say that this manuscript doesn’t give enough. If you want to do something more emotional, then do it, but you’re going to have to give us the details. You have to make us understand why the father is angry. You have to take us step by step through it all. You have to make us feel the anger and the frustration and the confusion and the sadness. But more than that, you have to be willing to feel it if you want us to feel it. Are you ready to turn yourself inside out for the sake of this book?" He sat absolutely still, waiting for Hoskins to respond. Sirius’ authority had often been established by sitting motionless like this, letting an author decide how to respond to his straightforward honesty.

And then, suddenly, a memory from ten years before crept on velvet paws into his mind:

"You have to be willing to give more than this, Remus."

"I don’t understand—"

"You hold everything back. You hold your emotions back so much that no one knows what you’re feeling. You’re doing the same thing to your book! You have such a stranglehold on it, it can’t fucking breathe! Let the characters tell us what they’re feeling, not just what they’re thinking!"

Remus had walked out of their flat, obviously hurt and angry. When he’d come back, he’d sat down at the computer and started typing. His keystrokes were quick, sharp, and furious. After two hours, he’d come into Sirius’ bedroom and tossed twenty stapled papers at his friend and walked out. When Sirius returned the pages to Remus twenty minutes later, he had tears racing down his cheeks.

"God, Remus, if this is how you feel things, I don’t know how you get through one day."

Remus hadn’t looked up from his bowl of cereal and the crossword puzzle he’d been working. "That, Sirius, is why I hold things back so much."


Hoskins suddenly sighed and reached out to brush one hand across the top sheet of the manuscript. "You never thought someone else did it."

Sirius shook his head. "No. I was trying to give you a way to walk away from it."

"With my pride intact, eh?"

Sirius shrugged. "I thought if you were willing to fight me on it, it might be something worth fighting for."

The older man regarded his editor with something Sirius didn’t recognise. Then he picked up the manuscript and began flipping through the pages. "Do you think this is completely ridiculous? Fred Hoskins, writer of adventure and detective novels, taking on something like this?"

Sirius chuckled. "It’s a chance to prove that you’re a brilliant writer all told, not just a brilliant writer of adventure."

"But—?" the man pressed.

"I won’t let you take any shortcuts. I’ll demand that you give me everything."

The older man rose and tossed the sheaf of paper on the table. "Will you know how to do that without making it sound like a damn woman wrote it?"

Sirius smiled grimly, thinking of the photo in the magazine and a young 20-year-old man typing away furiously at God-awful hours of the morning. "I’ve done it before."

*


James had the door to his office open, anticipating a visit from a new client. As a result, he could clearly hear his secretary when she answered the phone.

"Good afternoon, Hennessey, Garber, & Jones. James Potter’s office."

There was a pause, and then Sophie giggled. "You’re going to get charged with harassment someday, Mr Black. You mark my words."

James rolled his eyes, almost fearful of whatever comment Sirius might have made to the woman. "Chances are, she’s right," he muttered.

"Mr Potter is in his office, would you like to speak to him? Just a moment, then."

James picked up the phone as soon as he saw the ‘hold’ button light up. A quick conversation with Sirius should put him in a slightly happier mood and make it easier to put his new client at ease. "Sirius! It’s been so long! Oh, wait. We saw you last night for dinner. Why can’t I get rid of you?"

Sirius chuckled. "It’s because you fed me last night. With food like that, you can’t possibly think I’m going to go away."

"I told Lily to put more saffron in the chicken."

"Cunt."

"Now what is it that happens if you eat saffron?" James asked slyly.

"My oesophagus will swell shut in a matter of minutes and I’ll turn a lovely shade of blue. Then I’ll fall face first into my plate and die, which might or might not ruin your dining pleasure."

"Hmm. I suppose how much pleasure I get out of it depends on how much of a git you’ve been, flirting with my wife."

"Would you rather I flirt with your daughter?"

"Sirius, she’s five."

"She’s already informed me she’s going to marry me."

"Only because she hasn’t had enough experience to know how much of a pouf you really are."

"Hey, for the right woman—"

"I suppose I should be glad you’re not flirting with my son, now that I think about it."

They chuckled and James could hear the creak of Sirius’ chair which meant that he was leaning back and propping his feet up on his desk.

"So, why are you calling, Padfoot?" The lawyer kicked his own feet up on his mahogany desk, narrowly avoiding kicking a stack of documents onto the floor. There was a deep sigh on the other end of the line. Worry scurried up James’ spine. He doesn’t sigh like that unless he’s genuinely upset about something. "Sirius?"

"He’s in America."

James inhaled sharply. There was only one person who could create that tone of regret and longing in Sirius’ words. Remus. It has to be Remus. Slowly he lowered his feet back down to the floor and leaned his elbows on his desktop."How did you find out?"

"There’s a story in a magazine, and some photographer got a picture of him."

James closed his eyes. A stupid photographer was able to do what we couldn’t: find him. "How does he look?"

Sirius’ reply was uncharacteristically subdued. "He looks like hell, James."

"Bring it over tonight, all right?"

"Six?"

James thought quickly. "Make it seven. Harry has football practice."

Sirius made a sound of assent. "Will you call Peter?"

"I will."

Sirius disconnected, but James stared at the receiver for a long moment.

America. Now we know where he is. How long until Sirius decides we need to do something about it?

*******


Sirius was leaning against the window sill, staring sightlessly outside, when Julia Gray came into his office and took a seat in Sirius’ leather chair.

"You’ve been terribly distracted today," she said without preamble.

He sighed and scratched at the back of his head. "Yes."

She rested her elbow on his desk and began to twirl a strand of her auburn hair around her finger. "You weren’t very nice to Marvin earlier."

Sirius snorted in disgust as he thought about the explosive confrontation he’d had with the children’s book division editor. "Marvin is never nice to me. I’m just finally returning the favour."

"Marvin isn’t nice to anyone," she pointed out. "Why is it just suddenly bothering you today?"

He turned his gaze back out the window. "Have you ever had one of those moments in which you suddenly realise you made a terrible, terrible mistake?"

"Haven’t we all?" She paused, both in speech and in the twisting of her hair for a moment before asking, "Has this anything to do with Mr Hoskins?"

"Fred?" Sirius glanced at her, smiled, and then looked away again. "No. This happened so many years ago that I don’t know if I can fix it."

He heard the sound of leather creaking as if she were settling herself into the chair more comfortably. "Would you like to talk about it?" she asked.

He considered telling her ‘no’, but the fact was that he liked his employers and was able to talk to them about anything. Julia Gray and Diana Vernon had taken a large risk hiring him over older and more experienced editors, and they let him know that they had never regretted it. Like older sisters, they teased him unmercifully about his looks, his sexual conquests—and the lack thereof—and anything else; but they respected his opinion and respected him. She deserved some sort of an explanation for his aberrant mood.

"When I was in secondary school," he began, "I met this bloke. We became friends—it was like we’d known each other since we were sprogs." His quiet chuckle was barely more than a puff of air. "It didn’t take me long to realise that he was destined for bigger and better things. We went to uni together. The professors didn’t seem to think he was anything special, but, God!" He shook his head. "He had a novel eating away inside him. He started telling me the plot one day while we ate cheese sandwiches between classes. After that, every day, he’d tell me a little more. It was fascinating: the characters were amazing and so believable, the plot was interesting and fun..."

Sirius closed his eyes. "Every time I eat a cheese sandwich, I remember sitting on concrete walls or in stairways, listening to him tell the next bit. After a while, it became obvious that it wasn’t just one novel, but a whole damned series. We sat down and plotted how he could expand some of his ideas into larger plotlines, not realising that it would all come to fruition."

"He got his book published? Is he someone I know?"

"Page thirty-seven," he said, without looking back. She was a smart woman; she’d figure it out.

After a moment, he heard the sound of pages being turned. "R. J. Wolfe?" Her tone was both shocked and inquiring.

"Remus," Sirius said softly. "Remus John Lupin, actually."

She was quiet for a moment, and he took the chance to look over at her. She was scanning the magazine article, continuously winding the strand of hair one way and then the other around her finger. He pushed himself away from the window and slipped into one of the plush wingchairs on the other side of the desk.

Slowly, her blue eyes rose to meet his. "I remember when Old Moon was published," she said thoughtfully. "I bought it to see if it was everything people were making it out to be."

"What did you think?" Sirius asked, his voice deceptively light.

She laughed. "I was insanely jealous and incredibly angry that we hadn’t gotten our hands on him first. And I mean that quite literally, because Di and I talked about how cute he was."

Sirius chuckled. "Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I was the one who told him to send it to Snell’s. I was doing an internship there at the time and had high hopes they’d hire me. I thought they might appreciate the editing I’d done on Old Moon."

"You—?"

"We were roommates. He’d type a chapter; I’d ‘fix’ it for him. I went through it two or three more times as a whole and then he sent it in. Most of what’s in the published book is what he originally submitted."

"That’s highly irregular," Julia commented.

"Of course. But he’s an incredible writer and I’m a bloody fantastic editor. We worked well together."

"Obviously. Was that in spite of your arrogance and confidence? Or because of it?" They both smiled and then she asked, "What happened after that?"

"Snell’s got him another editor and I didn’t have him waking me up at three in the morning to read something because he just wasn’t sure it was any good or not."

"Did you stay in touch?"

"Until Dora and Teddy died, yes." Sirius reached over and pulled the magazine closer to him. "Remus has always been—different. He had a tendency to push good things away because he believed he didn’t deserve them. Considering his childhood, I’m not surprised that he was as fucked up as he was. And he’d be the first to say so," he hurried to say, seeing Julia was getting ready to protest. She closed her mouth and rolled her eyes, gesturing for him to continue. He crossed one leg over the other, letting his ankle rest on his knee, and reached down to fiddle with the laces of his shoes. "Getting him to propose to Dora took many, many nights of drunken conversations that I’m sure neither one of us completely remember. After she got pregnant, he left her for a month, because he believed he’d be a lousy father and she’d be better off raising the baby without him."

Julia tilted her head to the side. "You know, that character, Jasper, in Old Moon—"

"Oh, that’s Remus, up and down. He’d never admit to it, though. Once Teddy was born, Remus took to fatherhood like a duck to water. He was happier than I’d ever known him."

"And then this?" She motioned toward the article.

"And then that. He shoved his friends aside after the funeral. He wouldn’t accept our calls, he wouldn’t return our e-mails, and he wouldn’t even answer the door if we drove to his place."

"Poor boy," she whispered.

"The ‘poor boy’ took off without telling us where he was going. Bastard. For a year, I searched for him, but couldn’t find him. I just found out today that he’s been living in America." Sirius flicked his finger at the page in front of him.

"So, the mistake you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation—?"

Sirius rubbed his chin with the backs of his fingers. "Jules, would you be terribly angry if I said I might need to take a small holiday?"

*******


Peter tried not to be self-conscious as his eyes tracked across the bright orange highlighted lines, but it was difficult to ignore Sirius’ piercing stare. Still, he made himself finish reading the bit about Remus and went back to the photos on page thirty-seven. Finally, he gently placed the magazine down on the table and looked at Sirius.

"Well?" Sirius demanded.

"Well, what?" Peter blinked at Sirius’ almost aggressive tone. "I need a minute to process this, Sirius."

"He looks like shit," Sirius moaned. "Look at him!"

"He looks as if he’s twenty years older than his actual age," James commented, taking a drink of ale.

"We should have tried harder," Sirius said forcefully. "He needed us then. He needs us now."

"That’s not what he said when he slammed the door in my face five years ago," James shot back with a hint of anger.

"He didn’t know what he was saying. We knew he was hurting—"

"You agreed that we should give him some time and some space," James argued.

"Don’t make us guilty of a crime we didn’t commit, Sirius," Peter said sharply, more than a little irritated with Sirius’ attitude. Of course, he’s never been rational when it’s come to Remus. "Had we known he was going to leave like he did, we would have tried harder."

Sirius acknowledged the truth of Peter’s comment with a nod, but it was clear from the scowl on his face that he didn’t like it. "We should have known. I should have realised. He was so wrapped up in Dora and Teddy—I should have known that he was going to do something desperate."

"Considering everything, it’s a bloody miracle he didn’t commit suicide," Peter said, voicing the worry that had filled every waking moment in the weeks following the accident until Remus disappeared.

James banged the bottle down on the table. "What he did wasn’t desperate, it was cowardly. Fucking hell, Sirius, how many times did he say we were his family? Who would have guessed that he would have taken off to parts unknown without telling us? That’s not the way that you treat family."

"Not unless you’re Remus and you have the horrible family that he does. I won’t even go into my family to offer further proof," Sirius sighed and sipped at his ale. "I’m going to the States."

James and Peter exchanged glances. "Do you think that’s a good idea?" James asked. "If he hasn’t made an attempt to get in touch with us in five years..." He let his sentence trail off for Sirius and Peter to complete with their own assumptions.

"Maybe he needs to know that we still care about him and we still miss him."

"Maybe he doesn’t give a damn," Peter said quietly.

"No. I refuse to believe that!" Sirius reached for the magazine and turned it so they could see Remus clearly. "Look at him! He’s miserable! The Remus we knew would never let himself get to this point!"

"That’s just it, though, isn’t it, Sirius?" Peter folded his hands tightly together until his knuckles whitened. "This isn’t the Remus we knew. He hasn’t been that Remus since Dora died."

*


Peter’s words took the wind out of Sirius’ sails, and the dark-haired man fell sullenly silent. He didn’t know what to say to convince them he was right. Truth be told, he wasn’t sure he was. He’d hoped that a long talk with James and Peter would have solidified things in his head, made a path of action clearer. Instead, he felt more confused.

He allowed Peter and James to turn the conversation away from Remus to the things that were important in their day-to-day lives now. They tried to draw him into their light-hearted teasing, but he was in no mood for it. He grimly nursed his beer, responding only when necessary, his mind trapped in never-ending circles about what he should do—and how soon he should do it.

"I have to go," Peter suddenly said. "I’ve got to finish getting ready for my meeting about the funding for my project."

"When is that?" James asked.

"Monday. I still have charts and graphs to prepare, and some last minute data to enter, though."

James walked Peter to the door, where they stood muttering quietly to one another before Peter left. Once he was gone, James came back to the table and sat down across from Sirius.

The editor recognised the look in James’ eyes: he was about to say something he knew Sirius would not agree with. The perverse side of Sirius decided to tackle the issue head on. "You don’t think I should go."

James was silent for a long minute. "I don’t know, Sirius. He obviously doesn’t miss us or care about getting in touch with us. Is it right for us to push our way into someplace where we’re clearly not wanted?"

"He might be afraid we’re angry with him—"

"He should be! I am as mad as hell with him!" James exploded. "And before you go on, let me remind you that I know this is what he does. After all, he spent half of that month away from Dora in our spare bedroom. He sabotages his own happiness, Sirius, and then he expects other people to beg, push, or jolly him into accepting the things that were his in the first place."

"You know why."

"That’s an excuse," James snapped. "I know he had a bloody awful childhood, but he’s got to grow up and start accepting things like an adult. He can’t keep running away from things. And running from happiness and friendship is—it’s ridiculous."

Sirius rubbed his thumb over the condensation on the bottle, concentrating on the small print on the label. "You have to admit, James, if you always seemed to lose the things that made you the happiest, it might make you a bit jaded. It might make you want to push the good things away because you’re afraid you’re going to lose them anyhow. It’s a way of taking control of your destiny, deciding to get rid of those things on your own terms instead of losing them to the will of God, or the Fates, or karma, or whatever else has determined that you shouldn’t have it anymore."

"You’ve always made excuses for him."

Sirius looked up at the slight tone of disgust in James’ voice. "What do you mean by that?"

"Exactly that." James put his elbows on the table and leaned toward Sirius. "If it were Peter who’d told you to fuck off and then flew off to America without telling you, would you be ready to fly across the pond to find him?"

Sirius felt every muscle in his body tighten. "If Peter looked that miserable, I would."

James continued to stare at Sirius silently.

"What? You think I wouldn’t?"

"You want to know what I really think, Sirius?"

Oh, God, no, I don’t. I already know—

"I think you’re still in love with him."

Sirius made a scoffing sound. "It was a long time ago, James."

"I’ve loved Lily for fifteen years. You haven’t dated anyone seriously in the last fifteen years. Not since we all became roommates."

"That’s not true. What about Andrew?"

"Andrew was your first gay crush. He was little more than an experiment. You recognised that fact two days after he broke up with you."

"What about Alice?"

"That wasn’t serious. You only wanted to marry her because you were lonely."

"That’s a fine fucking thing to say."

James’ gaze was steady as he replied softly, "But it’s true, and you know it."

Sirius felt the weight of truth pressing down on him, pushing the air out of his lungs, making spots dance in front of his eyes as if he were going to pass out. "I loved her."

"You loved the idea of her. Lily and I were married, Remus and Dora were married, Peter and Eleanor were engaged... You were a third wheel no matter where you looked, and you hated that."

He couldn’t deny it. It was true. It was very, very painful, but it was true.

"It’s always been Remus, Sirius. It’s always been about him. You gave him everything, and he let you do it."

Sirius’ eyebrows lowered dangerously. "Be careful, James."

The other man ran a hand over the back of his head. "Sirius, when you first went to uni, what were you planning to do with your life?"

"I was going to be a journalist, but—"

"What did Slughorn say about your writing?"

"He said I had real talent, but—"

"Why did you stop writing?"

"I realised I had a better talent for editing—"

"And whose work were you editing?"

Indignation and anger made Sirius’ silver eyes flash. "That’s unfair!"

James banged his hand on the table, making the bottles and the other man jump. "Answer the question, Sirius!"

"He never asked me to do it! We did it for each other, reading each other’s pieces and offering suggestions and such."

"He didn’t offer to stop writing for your sake, did he?"

Sirius’ hands clenched into fists. "It wasn’t like that! He had more to offer than I did, writing-wise. And I did realise that I liked editing better than writing. It was a better fit for me, rearranging things and helping to fix things to make them stronger and better! I’m good at what I do, damnit, and I’m not going to make any apologies for it!"

"He let you do it. He let you give up your dream for his."

Sirius shot to his feet, shoving the chair back with an ugly scraping sound across the tiled floor. "No. He never did that. I helped him achieve his dream, yes, but it wasn’t at a price that I wasn’t willing to pay!"

"Sirius, calm down—"

"Calm down? You bastard! How do you expect me to calm down?"

"I didn’t mean to upset you—"

"‘Didn’t mean—’ Well, what did you mean by all this, then?"

James sighed. "I don’t know," he admitted, his shoulders slumping.

Sirius looked beseechingly at his friend. "I thought you liked Remus."

"I do! Hell, Sirius, he was as much my brother as you are." James lowered his forehead to rest upon his forearms for a moment. When he raised his head again, he was frowning. "Look, when we were boys, your dream was to write. And you gave that up for him. Without regret, yes, and yes, I know he didn’t ask it of you. But..." He rubbed his hands over his face. "Sirius, did you two ever talk about how you felt about him?"

Sirius fell back down into his chair. "Once."

"What did he say?"

"What do you think he said? He wasn’t interested."

"I don’t want your heart broken if you find him and he’s still not interested," James blurted out.

Sirius ran his thumb over the corner of the magazine, flicking the pages. "James, I’ve missed him. I’ve missed his friendship. I’ve missed the four of us together. I don’t want anything more than that." His fingers stroked the slick paper. "Well, with the exception that I want him to look happy."

James reached across the table and touched Remus’ photo. His fingertips brushed Sirius’. "I want that, too."

"I’m going to America," Sirius stated softly.

James smiled sadly. "I didn’t doubt it for a minute."

*******


"Snell Publishing."

"Yes, this is Sirius Black, over at Vernon-Gray. Could you tell me who R. J. Wolfe’s agent is?"

"I’m sorry, sir, but I am not authorised to give out that information."

"Could you tell me who has that authority, then?"

*


"Cornelia Stewart’s office."

"Hello, my name is Sirius Black, from Vernon-Gray Publishing. Is Ms Stewart in?"

"She is in a meeting. Would you care to leave a message?"

*


"Cornelia Stewart’s office."

"Hello, it’s Sirius Black. Again."

"And, again, Mr Black, when Ms Stewart is available to talk to you, she will return your calls."

"What’s your name?"

"Pardon?"

"I asked your name. I’ve been through this sort of thing before, so I might as well know your name so that the next time I call because she’s deliberately ignoring me, I can just say, "Hey, whatever-your-name is, it’s me, Sirius. How’s the weather over there on the south side?"

*


"Sirius Black."

"Mr Black, this is Cornelia Stewart."

"Pardon me?"

"I said, this is Cornelia Stewart."

"Good God. You do exist."

"I hardly think that remark appropriate."

"It was certainly more appropriate than ‘I’ll have to come over there and give Angela a thorough snogging for convincing you to call me.’"

*


"Cornelia Stewart."

"May I just call you Cornelia?"

"Is this you again, Mr Black?"

"I am nothing if not persistent. Though, if I do say so myself, I am also extremely handsome."

"You are obviously extremely vain."

"Well, of course. Wouldn’t do to have the looks that I do and not be able to appreciate it."

"I’m still not giving you Mr Wolfe’s phone number."

"Isn’t there anything I can use as bribery?"

"I’ve always wanted a Jaguar."

"The car or the cat?"

*


"Sirius Bla—"

"Sirius Black, you are the most interesting man I’ve had to deal with."

"I hope that’s a good thing, Cornelia."

"The flowers were beautiful."

"Good. I certainly paid enough for them."

"I haven’t decided whether the little model car was a stroke of genius or a sign that you’re truly mad."

"It’s difficult to tell, sometimes."

"Hmm. Indeed."

"Am I interesting and genius enough to get R. J.’s phone number?"

"I’ll probably regret this, but... Do you have a pen and paper handy?"

*


"I’ve got his phone number, James."

"It only took you six days. I’m impressed."

"I am persistent, charming, and interesting."

"And a complete and utter git. What kind of sexual favours did you have to promise?"

"Would you like to come with me one night and find out?"

*******


He stared at the phone all morning, going over what Remus might say, what he himself would say—and wondering if he should call in the first place.

What’s the worst that could happen? He could tell me to leave him the hell alone and hang up on me.

It was early afternoon when he picked up the handset and, heart pounding frantically and loudly in his chest, punched the series of numbers that would enable him to call out of Britain and into some unknown area of the United States. Even though he’d expected it, the actual ringing of the phone startled him.

Oh, fuck. What do I say?

Two rings. Three. Four. A mechanical voice came on the line to ask him to leave his name and number. Sirius replaced the handset. This was difficult enough without leaving a message.

He tried four more times throughout the afternoon and was ready to ask the answering machine its name so he could ask it how things were across the ocean. The final time was right before he left for the day. He eyed the clock on the wall, thinking he should have considered the time difference before hitting the redial button.

One o’clock there. Where would he have been all morning? Working? If he has—

"Hello?"

All thought and breath went out of Sirius’ body. The voice was raspier, slightly deeper, but it was unmistakeably familiar.

"Hello?" the voice asked again.

"Moony."

Of all the things in the world that Sirius had thought of saying, reverting back to a nickname he hadn’t used in years hadn’t been one of them.

There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the phone and then a quiet, "Sirius?"

"Got it in one, mate."

"Fucking hell."

"Nice. And I was going to say it was good to finally hear your voice."

"How’d you get this number?"

"Finally got pushy with your agent. I had to threaten her with plagues of Biblical proportions before she finally gave it to me. If it makes you feel any better, there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth involved."

Remus decided that was all the witty banter he wanted. "What do you want, Sirius?"

"I wanted to talk to you. It’s been a while, you realise."

"Yes."

There was an awkward pause, and then Sirius blurted out the first thing he could think of. "I’ve missed you."

"Have you?"

Sirius picked up a red pencil and began to doodle across the top of the closest manuscript—which was intended for the trash. "Yes. James doesn’t appreciate pub crawls—or rather, he does, but Lily doesn’t—and Peter just isn’t any fun anymore, now that he’s on the brink of some amazing scientific discovery and is desperate to find funding."

He could have been wrong, but he thought there was a slight chuckle after his breathless diatribe. "So, you’ve missed me because you’ve been inconvenienced?"

"And lonely."

"There’s no... significant other?"

"Who would have me, really? I doubt I’ve improved since you left."

"Gotten worse, no doubt."

"Absolutely." Sirius took a deep breath and then said, "You left us, Moony. Without a word, without a note, without any warning."

There was a long sigh.

"Why did you do that?" Sirius pressed.

"I didn’t want you to stop me."

"Mission accomplished, then. Why didn’t you tell us where you were once you’d got settled?"

"Oh, God, Sirius."

"We were worried about you. We had no idea where you were. James said you were in so Buddhist temple in Tibet."

"I couldn’t stay there anymore, Sirius. I felt like the walls were caving in on me."

"And so you went to America without a word?"

"I went to France first."

"The point remains."

"Then I went to Italy for a couple of months," Remus continued, ignoring Sirius’ comment and the point he was trying to make. "Then I more or less meandered through India and Australia and somehow ended up here."

"Somehow."

He could almost imagine the shrug of Remus’ shoulders. "It’s peaceful here."

"So is Dartmoor."

"You know what I mean."

No memories, no ghosts of the past, no-one to ask questions or to offer condolences; yes, I do know what he means.

"No-one knows you as R. J. Wolfe, then?"

"I think there are a couple of people who suspect, but they’ve been very good about it."

Was it one of those people who clued the magazine as to Remus’ whereabouts? Sirius wasn’t ready to ask about the article he’d seen.

"How are you doing? Are you writing?"

"No."

That answer should have told Sirius everything he could want to know, if he were absolutely convinced Remus wasn’t lying. The answer was a little too quick to suit him. "Your publisher is no doubt pulling their hair out."

"They can go fuck themselves for all I care."

"So, what do you do there in the wilds of the American colonies?"

There was a long silence and then Remus said, "I survive, Padfoot. I survive."

And with that, he hung up.

*******


Sirius waited a week before calling again. This time, he only had to try twice before Remus answered.

"Hey, Moony."

There was a long silence, and then, "You aren’t going to leave me alone, are you?"

"I didn’t know you wanted me to."

"The fact that I haven’t called didn’t tip you off?"

Sirius could hear many emotions bleeding through Remus’ words, and none of them were good. "Remus—" Before he could go any further, the other man stopped him.

"Sirius, don’t call me."

It took Sirius a moment before he realised that Remus had again cut the phone call off short.

*******


"Why don’t you try, Prongs?"

"Why are you calling me that? I thought you’d gotten out of that habit."

Sirius shook his head. "I don’t know. For the same reason that I’ve been calling him ‘Moony’, I suppose."

"Am I ever going to get the story about why you call each other those ridiculous nicknames?" Lily asked, coming into the living room and handing each of them a bottle of ale.

Sirius stared at James. "You’ve never told her the story of ‘Prongs’?"

James groaned. "No, and you’re not going to, either. ‘Padfoot’ is because Sirius liked to creep up behind us and scare the shit out of us. Remus named him after he’d read a book about the Grim—you know, the legendary black dog that is a harbinger of doom?"

Lily considered Sirius for a moment. "It fits, sadly enough."

"‘Moony’ is because Remus has always been a daydreamer. He’d get caught by Sirius’ antics more than any of us. He found himself in a rather unfortunate position when he had his pants jerked down right in front of a girl that he’d been lusting over for a while."

"You didn’t!" Lily gasped, staring at Sirius. Then she rolled her eyes. "My apologies. I forgot who I was talking to."

"I thought I was doing him a favour. Considering his, er, everything, I thought she’d be impressed and go out with him." Sirius shrugged. "James named Peter ‘Wormtail’ because when Peter refused to dissect his first lab rat when the time came. Peter brought the rat home and caught all kinds of hell for it. We wanted to call him ‘Ratface’, because honestly, when you look at him the right way, he does have some ratty features: the pointy nose, the small, beady eyes..."

James grinned. "‘Wormtail’ seemed vaguely kinder."

"God help someone if you decided to nickname someone you didn’t like," Lily remarked. "Now, what about ‘Prongs’?"

"No. Never," James said, pointing to Sirius and shaking his head. "Swear to it. Now."

"Oh, come on, James, you can’t expect me to—"

"Swear!"

Sirius’ gaze went from Lily to James and back again. A wicked smile appeared right before he said quickly, "It’s because of you, Lily, and his obvious pleasure in seeing you one day in that white dress you used to have—that strapless thing with the little pink flowers."

"Oh, you are dead!" James yelled, jumping out of his chair and pulling his friend onto the floor for an impromptu wrestling match.

Twelve-year-old Harry came into the room to watch the two men. "Mum?"

Lily shook her head. "Don’t ask, sweetheart. Just—walk away while you can."

Five minutes later, after a lot of cursing, insults, and two accidental collisions with furniture, James and Sirius crawled back into their seats.

"We’re getting too old for this shit," Sirius said, panting slightly.

James rubbed the elbow that had banged into the coffee table leg. "I hate being thirty-four. I feel so old."

"Yeah," Sirius agreed softly.

They sipped at their ale for a moment, and then Sirius again brought up the original reason he’d come over. "Maybe he’d talk to you. You’ve always been more—sympathetic and grown-up. He’s always respected you."

"Bollocks. I listened to him and told him what I’d do and then he’d do whatever you told him to do."

"Still, if you called—"

"Sirius, he told you to fuck off the last time you called—"

"Not true."

"Sorry. He hung up as soon as he heard your voice the last time you called. He told you to fuck off the last two times before that. He doesn’t want to talk to us. That’s all there is to it."

"But if you’d just try—"

Lily walked into the room, the cordless phone in her hands. "What’s the phone number, Sirius?"

James’ forehead creased in alarm. "Lily—"

"He’s going to keep badgering you until you call, James. He’s not going to leave Remus alone until he sees that Remus is going to be completely pissed off that we’re calling now. Phone number, Sirius."

"He might have some choice words for you as well," Sirius pointed out, digging in his pocket for his wallet and the creased piece of paper that he’d kept in it.

"Not with me, he won’t," Lily said firmly, pressing the buttons rapidly and then raising the phone to her ear.

The men stared at her in trepidation as she held up one finger, then a second... She tensed visibly and her eyes went unfocused as if she were listening intently to something.

"I understand completely, Remus, I do, but this is Lily, not Sirius," she said finally. She waited to hear Remus’ reaction, then pointed a finger at Sirius and grimaced. "He’s been hounding James to call you. They’ve been fighting about it, actually."

A pause.

"The couch is going to live, fortunately, but I have my doubts about the coffee table."

She smiled and winked at James. "If I’m the one calling, who do you think won?"

"Why will he talk to her and not me?" Sirius whispered harshly to James.

"Because he likes her and doesn’t like you," James replied quietly.

"Prat."

"Git."

"Arse."

"Bastard."

Lily’s voice got a little louder. "They’re arguing over who the biggest idiot is, actually... You think so? Yes, I can understand that. If you were here, I wouldn’t have to deal with them both alone, you know. I have to grapple with my sanity every day because of them."

She turned slightly so they couldn’t see her face as Remus supposedly responded to her gentle admonishment. "I know, dearie, but—" Again, she fell silent, listening. Her face changed subtly, becoming softer and sadder. "Oh, God, Remus, you know we understand why you needed to get out of England, but can’t you understand that we love you and miss you? It’s been so difficult because we didn’t know if you were even alive, for God’s sake."

She suddenly turned and walked back into the kitchen, leaving Sirius and James staring at each other in disbelief.

"Did she just walk away from us so we couldn’t hear this conversation?" James asked rhetorically.

"I do believe she did, Prongs."

The two men scrambled from their chairs and darted into the kitchen. Lily was standing by the sink, staring out of the window above it, speaking quietly. "...himself. He doesn’t mean to hurt you. We don’t mean to hurt you. We just don’t want you to cut yourselves off from us completely. Why is that such a difficult thing to ask?"

She didn’t turn to look at James or Sirius while she listened to Remus’ reply. Sirius noticed that she reached for a hand towel she’d had laying on the counter and clenched her fingers tightly into it.

"Remus, I’m going to be blunt, and you can tell me exactly how you feel afterwards, but I have to say it. I know you think you’re protecting us and protecting yourself by keeping yourself away, but it’s absolutely the most selfish and cruel thing you can possibly do. Bad things will happen, no matter what. Even if you never talk to us again, Sirius could still get shot because he’s had a sordid affair with some woman’s husband, or I could put cyanide in James’ eggs one morning because I’m sick of his snoring. Peter’s lab rats could break out and infest him with all kinds of horrible diseases. But to deliberately hurt and cut people out of your life because you’re merely afraid you’re going to lose them is ridiculous. We could be helping you through everything instead of knowing you’re suffering alone. You haven’t given us the chance to be the friends we want to be."

Sirius caught his breath and thought James had done the same. Lily bowed her head and listened some more. Finally, she said, "Can we at least call you at Christmas?" There was a long moment and then she nodded. She must have remembered Remus couldn’t see her, because she hurriedly said, "Yes, I understand. We love you, Remus. Yes. I’ll tell him. All three of them. Take care of yourself, all right?"

She thumbed the ‘off’ button and turned toward the two men. "Done. Happy now?" And then she burst into tears.

*******


It was a month later that Sirius sat staring at the phone again, the neatly folded paper once again in his fingers as he debated what to do.

He’ll just have to bloody deal with it.

The phone rang twice and then there was a breathless, "’Lo?"

Sirius spoke quickly so he could get everything out before Remus could hang up, should he be so inclined. "Remus, I thought you should know that James’ mum died."

He waited a moment, but there was no click, no dial tone. It seemed as if Remus might still be on the other end of the line. He decided to check. "Are you still there?"

"What happened?" came the muffled response.

"Cancer. They caught it too late to do anything more than just give her painkillers for the past month."

"Oh, God. How’s James?"

"Bloody miserable."

There was a pause, then, "How are you?"

Sirius blinked tears from his eyes and chuckled bitterly. "Bloody miserable."

"I’m so sorry, Padfoot."

Sirius almost missed the softly spoken nickname, but by the time he realised what Remus had said, the other man was already saying, "She was a wonderful woman."

"More of a mother to me than my own," Sirius said, truthfully.

"Yes, I know."

There was more than just acknowledgement of Sirius’ relationship to James’ mother. It was empathetic agreement—and Sirius heard the remorse colouring the simple words. Still, he didn’t point out that James’ mum had been as devastated by Remus’ disappearance as they’d been. He also didn’t point out that Mrs Potter had considered Remus a third son. By the regret in Remus’ voice, however, Sirius thought that maybe Remus was thinking it. "Er, I have to go. I need to get some work done because I’m going to take the next couple of days off."

"Yes, of course."

An awkward silence fell between them, and then Remus said, "Thanks for calling, Sirius."

Anger flared for a moment, and Sirius—who couldn’t be said to be the most patient of men in the first place—spoke before thinking, "So, it’s all right if I call you to tell you that someone’s died, but it’s not all right to call you because we’re friends and I want you to know I’ve missed you?"

There was a sigh, and he could almost imagine Remus rubbing his temple with two long fingers. He himself rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger tiredly. "Don’t answer that, Remus. I don’t want to fight about this now."

"Will you want to fight about it later, then?"

"Most definitely." Sirius did smile a little at that. "Thanks for not hanging up on me."

"Don’t make this a habit," Remus warned.

"Don’t make what a habit?" Sirius asked, hearing resentment rise in his voice that Remus was again going to grumble about him calling.

Remus didn’t answer right away, but Sirius waited. "Don’t make a habit of calling me with bad news," the other man finally said. "It might be—nice—to hear some good news. Occasionally."

Sirius felt some of the muscles in his shoulders unknot, and he pumped his fist in the air. Yes! "When I have some, I’ll call again, then."

"Okay."

"Take care, Moony."

"Give James my condolences."

"Of course."

They hung up without another word, but Sirius sat back smiling. Remus might just forgive him yet.

*******


"Sirius Black?"

"Yes?"

"Cornelia Stewart."

"Ah, the lovely lady that was so helpful to me."

"Yes, well. I just rang your office, and they said you weren’t going to be in. I wondered if you could possibly stop in at my office today."

Sirius glanced at his watch and made a few quick calculations. "Can I ask why?"

"I have something here—something unusual that you might very much like."

*******


An hour later found him sitting in a rather uncomfortable wooden chair on the other side of Cornelia Stewart’s massive desk.

"Let me offer my condolences on the loss of Mrs Potter," the white-haired woman said.

Sirius felt his eyebrows lower in confusion. "How did—?"

"Before I explain, let me thank you also for doing something that I was beginning to fear was impossible."

"What was that?"

Her brown eyes shone brightly. "You got him to write again."

*******


Sirius waited until he was in his car before he finally opened the manila folder. On top was a simple handwritten cover sheet for a fax. Sirius ran one finger over the familiar half-print/half-script that formed the simple sentences:

To: Cornelia Stewart
For Sirius Black. His mum, Abigail Potter, died yesterday. He’ll know what to do with this. Please excuse the imposition.
RJL


Sirius closed his eyes to keep the tears from falling. ‘His mum, Abigail Potter’. As usual, Remus had taken a few words and made them emotional landmines. Swallowing hard to dislodge the lump in his throat, he opened his eyes, blinked a few times, and then moved the cover sheet aside.

The sight of Remus’ handwriting, so long lost to him, made the blood thump wildly through his veins. It was everything Remus was: not altogether organised, occasionally rushed, full of contradictions. An ‘s’ might be printed in one spot, but written in another, depending on how quickly Remus was thinking and writing, and how absolutely engrossed he was in what he was doing.

For all that, however, there were few mistakes or corrections.

He always claimed he thought better with a pencil and paper than with a computer.

His eyes scanned over the pages. By the end, his tears were falling unchecked. He’d wondered if Remus had known how devastated Mrs Potter was by his disappearance, and if he’d realised she’d considered him a third son. By the obviously heartfelt words, Sirius now had his answer.

When he read the letter to James twenty minutes later, the other man also cried—and agreed with Sirius that there was only one thing that they could do with what Remus had written.

*******


Sirius stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat. "Today, I received a letter that James thought I should read to all of you. It’s from a good friend of ours, one who is too far away to be here today. Otherwise, I have no doubt he would be."

He opened the manila folder, running his fingers lightly over the Remus’ handwriting.

I hope I do this justice, Remus, for your sake.

He cleared his throat again and began to read: "‘Dear James, Lily, Harry, Katie, and Sirius—
I wanted to tell you how very sorry I am at your loss, but I know how very small that word, ‘sorry’, is when thinking about how much you’ve lost. It is an inconsequential word, a word truly incapable of expressing the grief and sorrow that exists when someone so dear is taken from us. There can never be a word to adequately describe how I feel at knowing that the most graceful and gracious lady I’ve ever known is no longer here among us lesser mortals.

"‘I know there will be many people at the funeral service who will remember your mother for her beautiful gardens. There will never be redder roses or more vivid peonies anywhere than in your mum’s back garden. I never see lilac without thinking of how she made me trim that shrub at the corner of the house because only I was tall enough to reach the upper branches. The small pond in the centre of the garden was always a sanctuary against the chaos of a world gone mad.

"‘There will be others at the service who will remember the parties that she organised, and her bizarre predilection for unusual hats, which led to more than one joke about her being the ‘Mad Hatter’. Others will remember her devotion to her causes. The Historical Society will finally be able to name that wing of the local museum after your mother, now that she is not there to protest the idea.’" Sirius paused, half-smiling, as he allowed the few titters of laughter to die down. The next part would be difficult, however, and he steeled himself for the brutal words and the images that they would conjure.

"‘But I will remember your mother as the one woman who taught me that there is more to being a mother than alcohol-induced comas and alcohol-fueled rages. She taught me that a mother doesn’t need to be abusive or hurtful, doesn’t need to hit or swear. She taught me that a mother’s love doesn’t demand tears and apologies after bruises or broken bones. Through your mum, I discovered a new world: one of peace, warmth, and safety. I longed for her smiles of approval, felt sadness beneath her gazes of displeasure, and relished the gentle pat on my shoulder that meant she was proud of me.’"

Sirius’ voice cracked and he gripped the sides of the podium as he blinked several times to bring himself back under control. He had to get through this without crying. For Remus, if no one else.

"‘I never told her how I felt, and I regret that deeply. I hope she understood that my respect and love for her could be found in simple things like helping her trim lilac shrubs, and peeling potatoes, and painting that bloody bedroom three times until she was satisfied with the colour. I hope she understood that one of the only reasons why my name exists on the covers of books is because she once said to me: ‘You have a gift. Don’t waste it.’ I didn’t want to disappoint her.

"‘I wish she had been my mum, too, James. She was truly an amazing woman and I adored her.’" Sirius very carefully closed the folder and looked down at James. The other man smiled through his tears and nodded in approval.

Sirius cast a glance over the sniffling crowd, fully realising something that he’d only half-recognised up until then. You knew, Remus. Somehow, you knew that I’d want to say what Mrs Potter meant to me and you—and I’d never be able to find the words. It’s always been that way for us, and I miss that. Don’t you?

******


The lift doors opened, and Sirius’ step forward faltered when Emmeline suddenly appeared in front of him.

"The misses want to see you," she announced, looking both curious and concerned.

Sirius’ mind immediately began sifting through things he’d done, things he hadn’t done, and what could have gone wrong while he was out of the office for the past four days. None of the things he could imagine seemed drastic enough to be called to the offices of Julia and Diana. He nodded to Emmeline and pushed the button for the next floor.

Oh, God, it had better not be Fred Hoskins complaining that I didn’t return his phone call the other day. I told Emmeline to call and explain that I was attending Mrs Potter’s funeral and would call him today. The bastard is probably still upset that I said that last chapter was crap and is looking for a reason to get me fired.

He brooded on Fred Hoskins, his footfalls becoming firmer and louder as he walked. He was mumbling under his breath about arrogant authors and old fools by the time he pushed the door to Miss Diana’s office.

"...out of his contract," Di was saying, her eyes intent on her laptop’s monitor. "How much do you think it will cost us?"

I couldn’t have pissed him off so badly that he wants out of his contract! For God’s sake, isn’t he adult enough to handle a little criticism?

Julia was casually leafing through a publishing magazine. "I don’t know. Certainly a few thousand. Sirius said—" She caught sight of the man standing in the doorway and smiled broadly. "Speak of the devil."

Di looked up from the screen and stared at him for a moment before saying, "Nice tie."

Sirius glanced down, unable to remember which one he’d grabbed that morning. It wasn’t anything special, merely a mottled mass of reds and greys.

"What she means is, that suit looks amazing on you," Julia translated.

"It fits so nicely," Di drew the last word out, punctuating it with a feral grin.

"You are not allowed to think such things," Sirius said, shaking his finger at the brown-haired woman. "You’re married."

"Oh, I can think those things," Diana protested. "I just can’t do what I’m thinking I’d like to do."

"You realise I can have you two charged with sexual harassment," Sirius warned.

Julia and Diana exchanged glances and then burst into laughter.

"Sit down, Sirius, and let’s have a bit of a chat, shall we?" Julia said, motioning to the mate of the chair in which she was seated.

"How effing long does it take for an e-mail to cross the ocean?" Di muttered crossly, staring at the laptop once again.

"I told you, he probably didn’t even write a resignation letter yet. He wants to see what we know first," Julia admonished her friend lightly.

"I don’t know why in the world he wouldn’t think we’d fire his ass."

"Because he’s stupid, hon. Incredibly stupid."

Sirius waited patiently, sipping at his coffee from the shop around the corner. While it seemed like something interesting was happening, he knew they wouldn’t tell him unless they thought it was necessary.

"Sirius, are you still thinking that you need a small holiday?" Julia asked suddenly.

He sighed. "Not at this moment, I don’t think."

Her eyes were full of sympathy. "Mr Wolfe, er, Lupin still doesn’t want to talk to you?"

Sirius sighed. "He has finally agreed to let me call him occasionally. It only took three months and Mrs Potter’s death to get that far. If I announce I’m coming to visit, it might send him into the wilds of Canada or to Timbuktu or something."

Diana sat back in her chair, chewing on the inside of her cheek thoughtfully. "How would he react if you said you had to discuss a business proposition with him?"

Sirius’ eyebrows rose slightly. "What kind of business proposition?"

"We want him," she replied bluntly. She looked toward Julia and a wicked smile appeared. "In more ways than one, actually..."

"Two hot boys under one roof may be too much for us to handle," Julia said, her expression mirroring Di’s. "But we’ll take our chances."

"You know him, you’ve worked with him, and, regardless of what was happened in the past five years, I’d be willing to wager he trusts you and your work." Something on the computer screen caught Di’s eye, making her pause. She slid her finger over the touchpad, muttering, "Finally!"

Julia picked up the thread of her business partner’s thought. "How happy has he been at Snell’s?"

Sirius shrugged. "He never complained to me."

"Do you think we could convince him to sign with us? Is there a specific set of conditions or something that we could use to lure him over here?"

"I really don’t know." Sirius exhaled loudly. "You’d have to talk to him—or talk to Snell’s. He hasn’t written anything for five years. They may be willing to release him since he hasn’t done anything recently."

"I wonder how much pressure they’ve put on the poor boy?" Di wondered, turning her laptop around and pushing it toward Julia.

Sirius waited until Julia read whatever it was on the monitor. She started twisting a strand of hair around her finger as she did.

It must be serious.

"What a fucking lie!" she suddenly exclaimed.

"My thought exactly," Diana agreed. "Sirius?" She waited until his grey eyes met hers and then said, "Congratulations. You’ve been promoted. We’ll discuss your salary and all that crap later, but for now, we need you to get on a plane to the States."

Sirius slowly straightened, blinking rapidly in shock. He’d known the partners to do some mad and maddening things at times, but this was rather unprecedented. "What are you talking about? What kind of promotion? And why am I going to the States?"

Julia rolled her eyes as if it should be all self-evident. "To sign Lupin, of course. And to settle the mess in our Philadelphia office."

"What mess?"

"Bloody stupid Lucius Malfoy has decided he wants to start his own publishing company and he’s trying to take some of our best American authors with him. It says in his contract that he’s not allowed to start his own company or poach our authors should he leave us, but he’s trying to do it behind a screen of someone else’s name," Di explained quickly. "He fucking denies all of it, the ratfink bastard."

Sirius stifled a chuckle at the transplanted American’s epithet. "And what am I to do, exactly?"

"Punch him in the nose," Di suggested.

"Kick him in the balls," Julia countered.

"I like that better," Di conceded, with an appreciative nod. "We don’t care. Just get him to understand that he can leave— with our blessings at that—but if he tries to take anyone with him, we’ll sue him for everything he owns, including those incredibly pretentious Italian loafers he likes."

Sirius smiled. He’d met Lucius Malfoy several times and had never liked him. This could be rather fun.

"We’re not going to tell him you’re coming," Julia warned.

"So, be prepared for anything," Di said. "Knife in the back, poison in the coffee..."

"We’ll have a letter for you to hand deliver to him that explains you have our authorisation to deal with him as you see fit."

"And if he so much as twitches without your permission after you hand that letter to him, fire his stupid ass."

Sirius couldn’t hold back his laughter any longer. After a moment, Julia and Diana joined him.

"God, I love working for you two," Sirius finally said. "What is the official title of my new position? I should know that before I go kick Lucius in the balls."

The two women stared at each other, uncharacteristically speechless.

"I have no idea what you’d call it here," Di mused. "I guess you’re our Chief of Operations?"

"Some kind of Executive Operating Officer?" Julia shrugged.

"We’ll have to call someone and get your official title, I suppose." A mischievous gleam appeared in Diana’s eye. "How about ‘Di and Julia’s Boy Toy’?"

"‘Di and Julia’s Muscle’?"

"‘Editing God’?"

"‘Operations God’?"

Di shrugged. "We’ll work it out."

"Just get your gorgeous arse on a plane and get moving," Julia said firmly.

*******


The taxicab’s tyres squealed as it pulled away, leaving Sirius standing outside the building that housed the Philadelphia branch of Vernon-Gray Publishing.

Sirius had been to the Philadelphia office three or four times, sent to help with some kind of editing problem, or because Julia and Di needed a confidential manuscript or document delivered in person. He’d been treated nicely enough, but dismissed as soon as his mission had been accomplished. This time, he strode into the main lobby with his most expensive wool suit and black cashmere topcoat. He looked every inch an executive, and he felt a guilty pleasure at the looks he was already getting.

He went to the reception desk that served all the businesses that shared the building and leaned on it, winking at the matronly woman who seemed unable to do anything but stare at him. "Sweetheart, could you please tell me if Lucius Malfoy of Vernon-Gray is in yet?"

"Uh, yes, he just arrived a few minutes ago."

"Perfect." Sirius straightened. "Have a wonderful day, won’t you?"

"Thank you," she responded weakly, seeming confused. "You, too."

He smirked at her. "Oh, I most definitely will."

The lift doors opened on the ninth floor, and Sirius strode into the reception area for Vernon-Gray Publishing. The two receptionists looked up, their jaws dropping slackly.

Damn, I look good.

"Ladies," he said. "I’m here to see Lucius Malfoy."

The older one looked down quickly at the appointment book. "Your name?"

"Sirius Black, but my name won’t be there," he replied. "You might want to pencil me in for the rest of the day, however."

*


Lucius Malfoy slowly folded the letter and put it back into the envelope. "Well, congratulations on your promotion, Black."

"Thank you." Sirius sipped at his coffee and shuddered. "Good God, Malfoy, this is the worst coffee I’ve had in months."

"Well, thank you for coming all the way from London to let me know that," Lucius said, tilting his head slightly, inviting Sirius to tell him exactly why he was there.

Sirius reached across the desk and spun Malfoy’s phone around and hit the button to call the man’s administrative assistant.

"Yes, Mr Malfoy?"

"Actually, this is Mr Black. Do you think you could do a favour for me and find me an actual cup of coffee?"

"I thought I—"

"Stacey—your name is Stacey, right?—Stacey, I like my coffee so strong that a spoon can stand upright in it. Do you think you could find something like that for me?"

"I’ll see what I can do, Mr Black."

"You’re an angel."

Sirius pressed the button again, but sat staring at the phone thoughtfully.

"Is there a problem, Black?"

"Well, there might be a small one. See, Julia and Diana are a little concerned about some rumours they’ve heard recently."

"Oh? What kind of rumours?"

"The ‘he’s planning on starting his own publishing company and stealing away some of Vernon-Gray’s best authors’ kind of rumours."

"Oh, really? I hadn’t heard that," Malfoy said calmly, smiling slightly.

"Really? Well, what a relief." Sirius put the coffee mug on the desk, giving it a little extra push to make it slide away from him. "I was absolutely shocked when the girls told me."

The Executive Editor of the Philadelphia branch sat back in his chair and picked up a sleek, silver pen. "I admit to being absolutely shocked as well."

"I can tell."

Malfoy tapped the pen against his lower lip. "It’s horrible how rumours get started."

"How do you suppose those rumours got started?"

"God knows."

"Yes, I’m sure He does. And I’m here to find the origins of those vicious, terrible, little stories." With a smirk, Sirius reached into the inner pocket of his suit jacket. "Let’s ring Alastor Moody, shall we? He’s one of the authors they say you’re taking to the new publishing company. Let’s see what he knows about it, shall we? How do I get an outside line?"

Malfoy’s smile diminished slightly and his eyes were much harder than a few minutes ago. "Moody is very temperamental. Disturbing him with this rumour might lead him to believe that our company is troubled and in danger of collapsing from the inside."

"Really?" Sirius held up the receiver. "Do I press here, where it says, ‘Line 1’?"

The blond man frowned. "Yes, but I warn you that if Moody takes this call badly, I will be ringing London directly afterward."

Sirius nodded and commenced with pushing the digits according to the paper he’d unfolded and laid on the desk. He saw Malfoy trying to read the other names on the paper beneath Moody’s, so he deliberately turned the paper upside down.

The frown became a glare, but Sirius smiled. "The phone is ringing. Ah, here we are. Yes, Mr Moody, this is Sirius Black. I work at Vernon-Gray Publishing... No, there’s no problem, really, just a small matter of some clarification... Good. Mr Malfoy wanted me to ask you if you had given any more thought to his proposition about signing on with his new publishing company."

Across the desk, Malfoy stiffened, and his eyes narrowed. "This is totally inexcusable," he said. "You are completely misrepresenting yourself."

Sirius held a finger to his lips and then pointed to Malfoy. "Sorry about that, Mr Moody. You were saying? Yes, he most assuredly did listen to your concern that his company might not be able to compete with the percentages you’ve already been granted. Your fame and your talent precede you, however, and I’m sure your book sales will be just as wonderful with his new company... Well, yes, I do work for Vernon-Gray, but Mr Malfoy’s new company is so incredibly interesting." He drew the last word out, his grey eyes intent on Lucius’ cold blue ones. "I tell you what, Mr Moody. How about if I have someone get in touch with you in the next couple of days to help you make a decision? Splendid. I look forward to working with you."

Sirius disconnected, but his finger hovered over the button that would give him access to the outside line. "Who do I try next, Malfoy? Cornelius Fudge? Marlene MacKinnon? Or should I just call Tom Riddle right now and ask him about the company he’s setting up right now—and how, after the loyalty clause in your contract expires, he plans to sell it to you for an absurd amount of money?"

"You have no proof," Malfoy snarled, tossing the silver pen down on the desk.

"I’ve got all the bloody proof I need," Sirius said, picking up the pen and tucking it into his shirt pocket. "Consider your arse fired."



*******


It took two days to sort through the editors and their qualifications and personalities to find the right person to take Lucius Malfoy’s place. Actually, it took Sirius only three hours to decide he had the right person. The rest of the time was spent interviewing those who felt they had a justifiable reason for having the job and for soothing ruffled feathers when they realised Sirius had made his choice.

Sirius also used the time to do some investigating. Two mornings after installing Kingsley Shacklebolt as the head of the Philadelphia branch, Sirius stepped on a plane bound for Pittsburgh.

*


"Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?" James queried.

Sirius exhaled loudly. "What else can I do, James? You know if tell him I’m coming, he’ll run away again. Or hide."

"It feels too much like ambushing him."

"Well, yes, that’s because it is. I have to give him these books from your mum. I don’t want to leave them on his front stoop without an explanation, especially considering how expensive they are."

"That’s assuming he has a front stoop. He might be living in a cave for all we know."

"Considering the countryside I’ve seen on the way here from the airport, I think it likely."

"Is it really that horrible?"

"No, it isn’t," Sirius admitted. "Actually, what I’ve seen is very pretty. My hotel room is quite comfortable, too. Nothing crawling between the sheets but me tonight."

James made a few sexual innuendoes that Sirius responded to with even more filthy ones and then they said their goodbyes.

Lost in thought, Sirius absently flipped his cell phone closed and open again several times. He would only have one chance, and he had to strike the right chord.

The answering machine took his call, and he took a deep breath before saying lightly, "Remus, I’m in Pittsburgh. Well, not technically in Pittsburgh—I’m at a hotel not too far from the airport. I’d like to see you, and I have something for you from James’ mum. Before you tell me to shove off, let me warn you that I have your address in my hand. Yes, I do. I have ways of getting information, you understand." He paused to give an evil laugh. "I also have my laptop and internet access, so I can get directions to your place with just a few taps of my fingers. So, here are your options: By what the desk manager said, you can have your arse here in two hours. Now, I know you could be busy right now, so I won’t expect you here in exactly two hours from this moment. However, if you haven’t graced me with your presence by dinnertime, I’m renting a car and coming to find you. I will warn you that I still drive as fast and as badly as I ever have. Do you think I can remember to drive on the right-handed side of the road all the way down to your place? The time is one o’clock, Moony. The countdown has begun."

*


Sirius glanced at the clock before thumbing his cell phone open. It had been almost two hours since he’d called Remus.

"Sirius Black."

"For God’s sake, Sirius, stay. There is no need to endanger innocent people. Where exactly are you?"

Triumphantly, Sirius gave Remus the name of the hotel and his room number, and then settled back to wait.

*


As a knock went, it was surprisingly common. It wasn’t timid, as if Remus didn’t really want Sirius to hear it, and it wasn’t demanding, as if Remus were trying to beat the door down and kick his arse for his arrogance. It was just a knock: three quick, sharp taps with bony knuckles against a hollow steel door.

And yet, it made Sirius’ heart stop.

He went to the door and opened it eagerly. The tall figure standing in the hallway was so familiar, yet so alien. He was the same height and had the same thin build that Sirius could remember; but the beard and the long hair pulled back into a tail that hung just slightly below slumped shoulders made Remus seem like someone new. It wasn’t until he looked into the familiar blue of Remus’ eyes, however, that the grin Sirius had been wearing disappeared. He could see the pain he’d seen in the magazine photograph, but the knowledge that he was seeing the ache firsthand made tears suddenly spring to his own eyes.

"God, Remus." He flung himself forward, wrapping his arms around Remus’ shoulders, oblivious to the tension in Remus’ frame at first. "I’ve missed you."

Remus clumsily patted him on the back. "You’re a bloody fool, then."

Sirius pulled back, now feeling the taut muscles and the vague, desperate tugs that Remus was making against his embrace. "Come in, Moony. Check out my lodgings."

Remus followed Sirius into the room, his eyes dutifully scanning the room. "As far as hotel rooms go, I’d say it’s a nice one."

"Soft drink?" Sirius offered. "Or, even better, how about dinner?"

Remus smiled lopsidedly. "You’re as bottomless a pit as ever, aren’t you?"

"It should be nice to know that some things don’t change. I thought dinner might give us the perfect opportunity to catch up."

"So, really, you’ve only called me up here because you want me to chauffeur you to places to eat."

Sirius shrugged. "Someone has to do it. Why not you? I can pay you for your trouble." He smirked. "I’ve got a corporate credit card."

"Whatever possessed your boss to give you that?"

"Whatever it was that possessed them to give me a promotion and a raise."

"They do realise you’re insane." It was more statement than question.

"That’s what they love about me. Well, that and the fact that I fill out a suit rather well."

Remus snorted in amusement. "Have a preference? Steak? Seafood? Italian?"

"I’m so hungry, it all sounds good."

The brown-haired man pulled his keys from his pocket. "Let’s go, then."

He led Sirius down to the car park and wordlessly pointed to a blue SUV.

"I wouldn’t have picked this vehicle for you," Sirius said as he clambered into the passenger side.

Remus peered at him, tilting his head slightly. "Why? What’s wrong with it?"

"You were the one wondering how many books you’d have to sell in order to get an Aston-Martin."

At first, Remus said nothing, easing the Jeep out of its parking spot and then onto the road that ran in front of the hotel. "An Aston-Martin would never be able to get up my road in the mud or the snow. Actually, to call it a road is a compliment. It’s nothing but ruts with gravel."

"You live that far away from civilisation?"

"No," Remus said curtly. His jaw clenched for a moment and then he softened his tone. "It’s a poor area. There isn’t much money for paving every backwoods road. They barely have enough money to keep the existing roads in decent repair."

Sirius didn’t bother to hide the long look he gave his friend. It had been five years since he’d had to read Remus’ subtle gestures and expressions, but he remembered enough to realise what he was seeing. "You’re really pissed off that I called you."

"Well, fuck, Sirius! What did you expect?" Remus exploded, slapping the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. "It’s so bloody typical: you call, and you expect everyone to drop everything to come and attend to your every whim."

Sirius reared back as much as the seat would allow. "That’s not—"

"So, ‘I’ll give you two hours to get your arse here, or I’ll drive in a terrible manner to invade your house and home’ doesn’t sound vaguely familiar?"

"If you were so angry about it, why didn’t you just tell me to bugger off?"

"You bloody threatened to come anyhow! Besides, I know the way you are. You’ve found my phone number, my address, and yes, I have no doubt you’d have found directions on the internet, if you’d had to. You’d probably gone out and bought a bloody GPS system if you’d thought it would help."

"If you were going to be this angry, you should have told me to stay away," Sirius said. "I wanted to see you, but not enough that I want to spend a couple of hours being yelled and cursed at."

Remus again fell silent as he manoeuvred the Jeep through a busy intersection and then eased into the other lane.

"The truth is, Remus, you wanted to see me every bit as much as I wanted to see you," Sirius continued softly, somehow intuiting exactly what was bothering his reclusive friend. "You’re angry because of that. You don’t want to be happy to see me, because then you’ll have to rethink what you’re doing, hiding out in the middle of nowhere."

He deliberately looked out the window so he couldn’t see the anger flare even higher. A minute passed, then a second. Sirius shifted slightly in his seat, only partially cognisant of the stores and restaurants that they were passing. Was Remus so busy driving that he couldn’t yell at him?

The car stopped and he looked up to see the light was red. He took the moment to ask, "Should I get out and walk back to the hotel now?"

"No."

The muscle in Remus’ jaw was taut, but he was rubbing his temple with his index and middle fingers as he did when he was thinking things through—or when he was troubled and was looking for words. Sirius didn’t say anything more. Long forgotten memories were now pushing their way to the surface: recollections of Remus flaring angrily, hotly—and then becoming quiet and introspective while he considered if the charge against him had validity. It was then that he would fully accept the criticism or calmly offer justification why the other person was incorrect in their thoughts or words.

It’s probably better not to ask him anything now, considering the traffic and all the intersections and lanes and everything... and he’s only got one hand on the steering wheel.

The Jeep swung in toward a restaurant and came to an abrupt stop. Sirius’ fingers fumbled for the door handle, but halted when Remus suddenly said quietly, "You’re right."

Sirius blinked. It was rare for Remus to so quickly admit to something so emotionally charged, and he wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. "I am?"

"Not completely," Remus said, looking straight ahead. "I am... glad to see you and I didn’t think I would be. Or should be."

Sirius smiled triumphantly.

"That doesn’t mean I’m going to question why I’m here," Remus warned him. "I have my reasons and I’d not be here if I hadn’t thought everything out completely. Don’t expect me to feel guilty about any of it." And with those words, he shoved the door open and exited the vehicle.

*


"So I sat there—in his leather chair, mind you—watching him pack up his personal things. I was quite helpful, too, reminding him that the stapler and the pens were company property. He appreciated my help."

Remus took a drink of his beer and tilted his head slightly to the side. "And you know he appreciated your help because he said..." He let his voice trail off, waiting for Sirius to finish the sentence.

"Well, because he said so." Sirius raised the tone of his voice until he sounded uncannily like Malfoy’s, "‘You’ve been so very helpful, Black.’"

Remus smiled and peered at the label on the bottle. "I’ve heard Lucius Malfoy is a bit of a bastard."

"‘A bit of a bastard’? My dear Moony, that’s a complete and utter lie. He’s a great heaping bastard."

The brown-haired man chuckled and Sirius grinned at the fact that he’d made Remus laugh. It had been difficult, working through appetizers and salads before Remus seemed relaxed enough for them to have an actual conversation. He was finally starting to see more of the Remus he’d known, even if it was a more subdued and sadder version.

"Now, I’ve been talking about me for the past forty-five minutes. What about you?"

Remus shrugged. "There’s nothing to tell."

"What do you do with yourself all day?"

"A little of this, a little of that." Remus seemed to consider something very carefully before saying, "I’ve been helping my neighbour with his business recently."

"What line of business is that?"

Again, Remus hesitated before answering. "I’ve been writing some articles for his newspaper."

Shock washed through Sirius. Remus had flat-out lied to him on the phone, denying he’d been writing. He hadn’t thought Remus was writing at all; neither had Remus’ agent. Still, he should have realised that Remus couldn’t stop writing completely. It was too deep in the man’s soul. In fact, he would have said that Remus bled ink. "What kind of articles?"

"Mostly fluff pieces. The quilters from such-and-such church are having an auction to raise money for some organisation or another; those sorts of things."

Sirius was very careful to make sure he was smiling when he asked, "Do they realise that it’s R. J. Wolfe writing these pieces?"

"My neighbour knows. He owns the house I’m renting, and I had to provide all kinds of information before he let me rent the place. He’s been very supportive—and circumspect."

A strange little stab of jealousy went through Sirius, and he heard James’ voice as clearly as if the other man were sitting beside him: "What were you planning to do with your life? He let you give up your dream for his..." "Do you like writing for a newspaper?"

Remus frowned. "It’s... writing. It gives me something to do; gives me a way to fill up some time."

"Your agent didn’t think you were writing anything."

"I’m not writing anything that she would find important or worthwhile," Remus said sharply. "Not unless she wanted to go to the spaghetti dinner for the seven-year-old girl who has leukaemia. Are you done?" He reached for the check, but Sirius was quicker.

"I told you I’d pay."

Remus capitulated readily enough. Sirius wondered if he were thinking that a free dinner was the least that Sirius could do for demanding his presence in such a way.

As they walked through the restaurant, a man approached them. "Excuse me, are you R. J. Wolfe?"

Remus shook his head, "No, sorry."

"You certainly look like him."

"Poor guy, if he looks like me," Remus commented. Sirius suddenly realised that Remus’ Blackpool accent had disappeared, leaving a broad southwest Pennsylvanian drawl.

"It’s almost unbelievable how much you look like him," the other man insisted yet again.

"Who is R. J. Wolfe anyhow?" Remus asked. Sirius had seen him do this often: pretending to be ignorant of R. J. Wolfe’s identity was often the most certain way to get people to leave them alone.

The man’s eyebrows rose. "You’ve never heard of R. J. Wolfe? The author of Old Moon? Wonderful book. One of the best I’ve ever read."

Remus shook his head, turning away and starting for the door. "I guess I’ll have to look it up sometime. I’m not much of a reader."

"I’d kinda forgotten about him until I saw that article in that magazine last month," the man mused, following them.

Remus turned slowly. "What article?" In his shock, the British accent had seeped back into his words, but the other man didn’t seem to notice.

"Oh, about authors who’ve given up writing for one reason or another. God, are you sure you’re not him? You look exactly like that picture of him: same hair, same beard..."

Remus’ eyes widened and Sirius saw the beginnings of anxiety and confusion stir in his friend’s blue eyes. "Hey, sorry about this, but we’re going to be late," he said, concentrating on one of his favourite American actors and trying to deliver the line as he thought the actor might have. He gave the stranger a friendly smile and wave and shoved Remus none-too-gently at the door.

Outside, Remus turned to look at him. "You don’t seem surprised. What article was he referring to?"

"Just as he said, it was an article about authors who haven’t written anything recently, telling what they’ve been doing."

"And I’m in it?"

Sirius took a deep breath. "Among nineteen others, yes."

"What magazine was it?"

"It’s Writer’s Point of View in Britain. They have an American counterpart, though I can’t remember the name of it right offhand. The story was probably in it, too."

Remus muttered a curse under his breath. It wasn’t until they were in the Jeep and on the way back to the hotel that he finally asked, "How terrible was it?"

Sirius fidgeted with his seatbelt. "Could have been worse."

"He said there was a picture..."

"There was."

"I don’t remember a photographer—"

"That’s because they took it with a telephoto lens. It’s rather obvious you didn’t know they were taking it."

"Bastards," Remus mumbled. His fingers tightened on the steering wheel and Sirius wondered fleetingly if the vehicle wasn’t moving just a tad faster.

"You should be thankful they took five years to find you," Sirius commented, keeping his tone as light as he could.

"How did they find me, though? And why would they want to?" Remus sounded bewildered.

"God, Remus, you wrote not just one, but three critically acclaimed books, and then, for reasons unbeknownst to most people, you disappeared. People can’t help but wonder what happened."

"And they can’t just leave me alone? If I wanted that kind of attention, I’d still be writing the bloody books." The muscle in his jaw twitched. "Did the article tell everyone where I was? Should I be expecting the entire bleeding world to come beating on my door?"

"If they haven’t by now, they’re not going to," Sirius said dismissively. "The article I saw was published five months ago."

Remus shot him a look. "You called me five months ago."

"Fine, Remus, I’ll confess. I saw the bloody article with the bloody picture and I was worried about you. That’s when I badgered your agent into giving me your number."

"Shit," Remus whispered. "Fucking hell."

An uncomfortable silence fell between them. Again, Remus rubbed his temples; Sirius massaged the back of his own neck, feeling the tension settle there. He couldn’t think of what to say. He didn’t know Remus well enough anymore to know what would pacify him or what would set him off further.

It wasn’t until Remus had pulled up in front of the hotel that he finally looked at Sirius and asked sharply, "What was it in the article that made you decide to track me down? You had five years, Sirius, that you could have tried to find me—"

"No, stop right there," Sirius said, resentment exploding within his heart. "I tried to find you. I flew to France to try to find you, but you’d left the day before. For months, I asked your editor for any news, and he just kept telling me he didn’t know anything either, that you had left general directions for depositing your checks and that you would phone them for messages. Then I tried to talk to your agent, but he said he didn’t have the first idea where you’d gone. When he retired, that’s when things changed, and they got stricter about confidentiality. I didn’t know what else to do to find you. I didn’t even know where to begin to look."

He slammed his head back against the headrest. "Damnit, Remus, you wanted to disappear, and you did. I was trying to respect your need to get away, to be free of—whatever it was that you needed to be free of. I hated not knowing where you were. I hated every birthday and every Christmas that passed because you weren’t there. I wanted to see you and be with you and talk to you and..." He stopped and looked over at the other man who was staring at him with widened eyes.

Before he could stop himself, Sirius reached over and gently framed Remus’ face between his hands. "I wanted to know you were all right. I wanted to talk to you and know that you were finding some kind of happiness again." His thumb gently traced Remus’ bearded jaw. "When I saw that picture in the magazine, I knew that you hadn’t."

Remus gently pulled away. "Don’t, Sirius. Please."

"Don’t touch you at all? Don’t tell you what I’m thinking? Don’t yell at you for being so bloody maddening as to disappear from our lives for five years?" His voice softened. "Or don’t yell at you for disappearing from my life for five years?"

Remus looked out the driver’s side window, without saying anything.

Sirius sighed. "I’m sorry. I don’t..." He shook his head, unable to verbalise the feelings of fear and worry—and want—that were swirling through him. "I don’t want to fuck this up. I don’t want you to disappear again."

Still, there was silence.

"Remus, talk to me. Say something. Even if it’s to tell me to keep my bloody hands away from you."

Finally—finally—Remus turned to Sirius and gave a weak smile. "It must have been one hell of a terrible photo."

*


They sat in Sirius’ hotel room as Remus read the article. Sirius held his breath when Remus turned the page, revealing the photos of himself and of the car accident. Strangely enough, Remus didn’t react until he’d finished the entire story.

"I feel like I’m a disappointment," Remus finally said. He went back to the first page and pointed to an author who had decided to become a social worker. "I haven’t been nearly as self-sacrificing."

Sirius smiled. "I’ll bet you bought a ticket to that spaghetti dinner for the girl with cancer."

Remus grinned. "Of course. And sent an anonymous donation as well."

*******


When Sirius awoke, it took him a moment to remember where he was.

Too many hotel rooms in the past week.

His next thought made him look quickly over to his left, to the other bed in the room.

He’s still here!

A thrill of excitement went through Sirius. It had taken all of his persuasive skills to get Remus to agree to spend the night there. After Remus read the article, they’d ended up at the hotel’s bar where, to Sirius’ relief, they seemed to find the familiar and comfortable conversational strides that they’d had years before. As a result, they stayed later than either of them had intended. Remus had agreed, albeit reluctantly, that it was too late and he’d had too much to drink to drive the hour and a half back to his house.

All the same, Sirius had half-expected the other man to leave during the night. The fact that Remus was there, huddled beneath the stiff sheets and thin blankets, told Sirius that Remus might not want to be alone after all.

Sirius stayed where he was, studying the small bit of Remus’ face that he could see. It was all too easy for him to imagine waking up in the same bed as Remus, and he inhaled deeply as he felt the stirrings in his belly and lower that told him that he was still very much attracted to his friend.

Mustn’t touch. Mustn’t think about it. Mustn’t think about how I want to shove my tongue—

Remus’ eyes fluttered opened. He caught sight of Sirius and frowned slightly. "Padfoot?" His voice was deep and raspy from sleeping—and went straight to Sirius’ groin, making certain parts of his anatomy twitch uncomfortably.

"Hey, Moony." Sirius sat up and willed his erection to subside enough that Remus wouldn’t notice.

"What time is it?" Even as he asked, Remus was raising his left arm to look blearily at his watch.

"Time for breakfast!" Sirius announced. "I’m starved."

"You’re always starved," Remus groaned, burying his head beneath the pillow.

"Oh, come on, Moony." In one fluid movement, Sirius got out of bed and ripped the pillow away from Remus’ light grip.

"Shit, Padfoot!" Remus made a grab at the pillow and failed miserably.

"I’m for a shower, if you don’t mind," Sirius said smugly. "And then breakfast, all right?"

Remus sighed and crossed his arms over his face. "I can’t drive home on an empty stomach, I suppose."

"Aren’t you going to drive me around and show me the sights? I’ve heard that the view coming into Pittsburgh through some kind of tunnel is something to behold."

"God, Sirius, you can’t seriously be thinking that I’d want to spend the day with you in Pittsburgh?"

"Aren’t there museums? Some kind of quaint shops or something? I have to get something for Harry and Katie."

Remus didn’t respond right away, and Sirius was concerned that maybe his friend had fallen back asleep. "Oy, Remus!" he yelled, tossing the pillow back at Remus’ head.

"Bastard!" Remus shot from the bed, pillow in hand, and smacked Sirius with it. "I was thinking!"

"Pillow fight!" crowed Sirius, reaching for a weapon of his own.

After a few hard thumps and a few near-misses of breakable items, the two men collapsed breathlessly onto Remus’ bed.

"It’s been so long since we’ve done that," Sirius said, chuckling softly.

"At least ten years," Remus estimated, staring up at the ceiling.

Sirius’ eyes slid along his friend’s profile, taking in details that he’d missed for so long: the light eyelashes, the slightly too long nose, the lips that quirked up to one side when Remus was amused...

Remus suddenly turned his head and their eyes met.

James was right. I am still in love with him. What kind of idiot am I?

"Sirius..." There was a wary and apprehensive light in Remus’ eyes as if he might suspect what Sirius was thinking.

"That’s me, and you’re Remus. Now that we have that straight..." Does he know his eyes made me more breathless than the stupid pillow fight? Thank God he slept in his jeans last night, or I’d be embarrassing myself mightily right now.

Remus sat up quickly and reached for his shoes. "I need a cigarette."

"You smoke?"

Remus gave him a puzzled stare. "I always have."

"I thought you quit—" Sirius choked before saying, "—when Teddy was born."

Tension suddenly filled the air between the two men.

"I started again," Remus said sharply, rising and making his way to the door, pausing only to grab his button-down shirt from the chair where he’d thrown it the night before. "I’ll be outside when you’re ready to go."

Sirius smacked himself in the forehead and cursed repeatedly under his breath as the door slammed shut behind his friend.

*


"I’m really sorry," Sirius said later as they were driving to whatever restaurant that Remus was taking them for breakfast. Those were the first words they’d spoken since Sirius had got into the Jeep.

Remus shot him a quick glance.

"What? Can’t I apologise for being thoughtless?"

Long fingers wrapped themselves even tighter around the steering wheel. "It’s that you so very rarely do."

Sirius winced as Remus swung into the left-handed lane to pass another car. "I don’t know how in the hell you got accustomed to driving like this," he remarked instead of taking on Remus’ comment. "This would give me a heart attack trying to drive like this."

"You’d get used to it quicker than I did," Remus said after a moment. Before Sirius could think of something else to say, Remus asked, "Do you still have Esmerelda?"

Sirius smiled broadly at the thought of his classic motorcycle. "You don’t think I’d get rid of my best girl?"

"How many citations have you gotten in the last five years?" came the sly question.

"Just one." Sirius couldn’t help chuckling. "Would have been two, but I was going too fast to be caught."

He thought Remus was coughing—and then he realised that the man was actually trying to choke back laughter.

With that, the tension between them eased once again, but Sirius kept his comments and questions to those about their surroundings and the buildings they were passing.

They were nearly to the restaurant when Sirius’ cell phone rang.

"Sirius Black here."

"Sirius! Diana."

"Di! My lady, my love!"

"Have you seen that gorgeous thing yet?"

"I see him every time I look in the mirror."

"Oh, good one! That will count toward your Christmas bonus."

"I get a bonus this year?"

"Depending on your answer to my question."

"The answer is: I have, but I don’t have an answer yet."

"Have you at least asked him? Is he considering it?"

"Well..."

Diana sighed. "All right, I’ll give you another day or two. By the way, Kingsley’s already called this morning to say that he’s re-signed that Lockhart guy. I hate those bloody books of Lockhart’s, but they do sell."

"You’ll love him and his bloody books when you and your hubby are in a gondola in Venice next summer."

"Hmm. Yes. Anyhow, give us a call once you’ve talked to Remus."

Sirius assured her he would and then disconnected.

"Is everything all right?" Remus asked.

"Wonderful," Sirius said with a grin. "One of my bosses calling to check on me."

"I’m amazed they let you out of their sight."

"I’m very reliable, you know."

Sirius guessed that Remus’ doubtful stare would have been a lot longer if he hadn’t been driving.

*


Sirius waited until they were almost finished eating before asking, "Are you happy with your publisher?"

Remus tilted his head to one side. "I wouldn’t think they’re overly happy with me, waiting for another book."

Sirius popped the last bit of toast in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "Can I ask you something horribly personal that might make you never want to talk to me again?"

"Sirius, you used to ask me two horribly personal questions on a daily basis. I’m still talking to you now, aren’t I?"

Considering we haven’t talked in five years, I’m worried the rules might have changed.

"Is there no book because you just haven’t gotten around to putting it down on paper? Or has your muse buggered off for parts unknown?"

The silence that greeted Sirius’ question was more introspective than angry, so he waited for the answer.

"I don’t know," Remus finally said. "I think—"

"You think what?"

Remus reached for another piece of toast and opened a small packet of grape jelly. "Do you remember at the end of the third book, I had Sara and Jasper unsure of their relationship? But Sara was pressuring Jasper into a commitment he didn’t want?"

"Yes. They were supposed to get married in the fourth book," Sirius said, amazed at how much of the story he could recall.

"I think—" Again Remus cut himself off.

"What? You don’t mean to tell me that after all that you’ve put poor Sara through, that Jasper wouldn’t marry her?"

Remus kept his eyes on his plate as he said, "I think Jasper might be in love with someone else."

Sirius’ eyes widened. "Really? Who? You don’t have any other strong female characters other than Sara and Bridget, who’s married to Colin. You don’t have him falling in love with that strange girl with the scarves, do you?"

Remus glanced up at him and then away just as quickly. "Sybill. Her name is Sybill, and no, he’s not in love with her. You know curiosity killed the cat."

"Then we can be thankful I have a more dog-like nature. Come on. Tell me who Jasper loves, then, if not Sara."

Remus shook his head. "I’m still working it out. But if I’m right, then it upsets almost everything in the fifth book."

Sirius thought quickly, trying to remember what specifically Remus had outlined as happening in the fifth book. "And you’re not going to tell me?"

Again, Remus shook his head. "Not until I’m sure it’s the way it is."

Sirius sensed the finality in Remus’ words. He knew there’d be no point in trying to get an answer out of the other man at that point. It also seemed like the wrong time to bring up Diana and Julia’s offer, so Sirius changed the subject altogether. "What are we doing today?"

"‘We’?" Remus repeated. "I have an interview today—"

Shock exploded through Sirius. "You’re giving an interview?"

"No. I’m writing a piece for the paper about a man who restored an old Victorian home into a bed-and-breakfast. I’m supposed to meet him this afternoon."

Sirius stifled a burp and took another drink of coffee, considering his next move. "I get to come along, right?"

"No, you don’t get to come along. The place is not far from where I live."

"Aren’t you going to take me to see your place? I shared my lodgings with you. Shouldn’t you return the favour?"

Remus blinked slowly at him, as if he couldn’t believe Sirius had suggested such a thing. "Sirius—"

"Come on, Remus. It’ll give me something to tell James and Peter when I go back. I won’t be much trouble. And I’ll rent a car to bring me back to the airport when you get sick of me."

Remus was already shaking his head. "I live out in the middle of nowhere—"

"Do you have a second bedroom? A couch? I’ve slept in worse places. You were with me sometimes when I have. Just for a night or two. Come on, Remus," he wheedled. "It’ll be like old times. We’ve still got a lot to get caught up on."

"You’d be bored out of your mind."

"No, I wouldn’t! And I’ll be as good as gold." He could see the indecision in Remus’ eyes, even if the jaw was stubbornly set. "I don’t have anywhere that I need to be, and—let’s face it, Moony—you’ve missed me dreadfully." He batted his eyelashes at Remus, who didn’t seem to know whether to be horrified or amused.

The waitress suddenly appeared at their table. "Can I do anything else for you boys?"

"As a matter of fact, you can," Sirius said with an ingratiating grin. "Convince him to take this poor, miserable, homeless Englishman in for a couple of days."

The woman ogled Sirius shamelessly and then said, "If he doesn’t want you, I’ll kick my husband out and take you in for a night or two."

Sirius spread his hands out slightly, as if to say, "See?" and sat back in his chair, giving Remus a subtle wink.

Remus stared at him for a moment before shaking his head, obviously realising he had lost. "You pay for breakfast, then. And you’re buying groceries—I know what it costs to feed you."

*


"How in the hell did you convince him of that?" James’ voice rose in pitch from his disbelief.

"I have my ways, Prongs."

"You’ve drugged him."

"I used my charm." Sirius glanced behind him to see if Remus was coming out of the toilets.

"Again, I say you’ve drugged him. He’s always been immune to your charm."

"No one is immune to the Sirius Black charm: old ladies, children, literary hermits..."

A soft voice in the background interrupted the comment that James was about to make. "Lily says to behave yourself and not scare him away."

"What in the world would---hey, he’s coming. I’ll talk to you later."

*


"The two rivers form the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. That’s why they call it ‘Three Rivers’." Remus took one hand from the steering wheel to sketch the rivers in the air.

"The man who was sitting next to me on the plane said Pittsburgh has more bridges than Venice. Is that true?"

Remus thought about it for a moment. "If it doesn’t, it’s very close."

"Do you think when you bring me back to the airport, we can take a detour so I can see it?"

Remus’ eyebrows rose. "I thought you were going to rent a car to drive back."

Sirius splayed a hand across his chest. "Honestly, Remus, would you trust me with a car on these roads?"

Remus rubbed his chin with the side of his finger. "No, I suppose not."

"Will you take me to Pittsburgh, then?"

Remus cast an amused glance at him then reached for a battered leather-encased notebook tucked between his seat and the centre console. He tossed it onto Sirius’ lap. "Find the last page with my writing on it and you’ll find a phone number for a man named Bob. Call and see if I can change the interview to tomorrow."

*******


Sirius and Remus spent the day touring Pittsburgh. Knowing how much Sirius liked Pop Art, Remus took him to the Andy Warhol Museum before taking him to something Remus called the Strip District (which had nothing to do with disrobing and dancing women) for one of the best sandwiches Sirius had ever tasted. While in that area, they investigated several small shops that provided Sirius with enough cheap souvenirs to make the Potter children—and James—happy.

"God, this has been a wonderful day," Sirius sighed as they drove south that evening.

"You’re like a child," Remus said with a smile.

"Have you forgotten how often Lily accuses me of that very thing?"

Remus chuckled. "No, I haven’t."

"Then why do you seem surprised?"

Remus looked out the driver’s side window before answering, "I didn’t realise how much I’d missed it."

*


As they continued on, Sirius began reminding Remus of things and people they both knew in London and how they’d fared in the past five years. They were near their destination before Sirius mentioned James’ mother.

"She’s left the estate to James, of course, but he doesn’t know what to do with it," Sirius said. "It’s so old and draughty, and too far out of town for him to travel each day."

"It’s too bad he just can’t magically pop from one spot to another," Remus mused. "The grounds are incredible, and the kids would love growing up there."

"Like we did, eh, Moony?" Sirius grinned impishly. "Can you imagine Lily’s reaction if Harry jumped out of the hayloft like James always did? Or if Katie ate as many of those little green apples as you did that time?"

"The ones that made me sick for two days?" Remus shook his head. "I don’t think I’ve ever been so sick in my life."

"I don’t suppose James, Peter, and I helped, bringing you chocolates and crisps to cheer you."

"Not at all." Remus smiled, but there was a softness to it that was quite incongruous with the topic of their conversation. It was explained a moment later when he said, "Mrs Potter called my foster mother and told her to just let me stay there. She sat by the bed for hours, watching me."

"She did the same thing for me when I first ate saffron and had my first allergic reaction to it."

"She was a very soothing person, and a very kind one."

"She was," Sirius agreed. He cleared his throat. "Your letter was perfect, by the way."

Relief was evident in Remus’ eyes. "I had to say something."

"You know there was a reason why she left you that three-volume first edition set of Great Expectations, don’t you?"

"Besides the fact that James wouldn’t know what to do with them, and you’d want to mark them up with red ink?" Remus’ smile was forced.

"She had a long talk with James and me about you right before she died."

Remus massaged his temple with his fingers. "I’m sure I disappointed her greatly."

"No. You didn’t. She was more worried about you than disappointed."

"Did she see that article?"

"She did. She wanted you to know that she was very proud of you and what you accomplished. You exceeded every expectation that anyone ever had for you. That’s why she left those books to you."

Remus said nothing.

"She told me to keep calling you and not let you push me—us—away again."

Remus shot a glance in his direction. "Did she really?"

"She did. And Remus—"

"What?"

"I’m not going to disappoint the woman that was the closest thing to a real mum that we both had." Sirius left the question, "Are you?" unspoken, but Remus could apparently feel the words hanging heavily in the air between them.

He whispered, "No."

*


"It’s just around this bend. It’s not much," Remus said in warning as the Jeep slithered down the gravel road.

A grey squirrel scampered across the gravel and then sat beside the road, flicking its tail at their intrusion.

"What other kinds of creatures do you have out here?" Sirius asked, starting to imagine the worst.

"The typical woodland animals: deer, raccoons, opossum, chipmunks—"

"Bears?"

Remus shot him an amused glance. "You ain’t afraid of a little ol’ bear, are you, Sirius?" The Pennsylvanian accent was back and Sirius laughed.

"Should I be?"

"I’ve not seen one," Remus said. "They do come through occasionally, though. This is it."

The house was a cedar-shingled bungalow with a black roof and dark green trim around the windows and door. A deep porch ran the entire length of the house, and nothing but trees could be seen in any direction. Sirius’ initial impression was of peace—and sanctuary.

"Don’t you get bored out here?" he wondered aloud.

"Bored?" Remus brought the vehicle to a stop and looked around, smiling. "No."

A big, black dog suddenly came bounding out of the woods, tongue lolling and tail waving furiously.

"There’s my boy!" Remus pushed the door open and knelt to accept the armful of wiggling canine.

"My God, Remus, he looks like a Grim!" Sirius commented in awe. "He’s yours?"

Remus finished stroking the silky ears and then stood up. "He just showed up one night two years ago. He comes and goes."

The dog trotted over to Sirius and began sniffling at him, trying to figure out if the dark-haired man was friend or foe. "What’s his name?"

Remus scratched at the back of his neck and looked up at the treetops as he replied almost too quickly for Sirius to understand, "Padfoot."

"You named the dog after me?"

"No, I named the dog after a legendary creature. The fact that you happen to have that nickname is mere coincidence." Blue eyes finally met grey and Sirius saw laughter in the sapphire depths.

"You did name the bloody dog after me!"

Remus laughed—an actual, full-throated chuckle—"Well, it seemed appropriate. And you weren’t here to complain."

The dog, having concluded that Sirius must have been a long-lost relative, suddenly reared up on his hind legs and braced his paws on the man’s chest so he could lick Sirius’ cheek. Then, with a happy yip, he ran back to Remus, pausing only to let Remus ruffle the fur on his head before disappearing among the trees.

"I’ll probably get rabies now," Sirius muttered as he followed Remus into the cabin.

Remus’ chuckle told him he’d been heard.

*


They spent the evening drinking cold beer and reminiscing. At first, Sirius made a conscious effort to avoid saying anything that might alarm Remus. As the night progressed, however, he lost the need to guard his tongue. Their conversation became less stilted, and laughter rang freely throughout the small house.

It was late when Sirius finally yawned one too many times and Remus suggested they go to bed. He led the way to the back of the small house where the two bedrooms were and pointed to the room on the right.

"Thank you for allowing me to stay," Sirius said, pulling Remus in for a quick hug. He noticed that Remus was not nearly as stiff and uncomfortable as he’d been when they’d first embraced the day before.

"Thank you for forcing me to let you stay," Remus replied with a lopsided smile.



*******


"It’s a beautiful place," Remus said to the owner of the bed-and-breakfast.

The man preened. "Thank you. I’m quite proud of how it turned out, especially since I had no experience in carpentry or decorating when I started."

"Can’t say that now, can you?" Sirius teased.

Bob laughed. "No, not at all. And I’ll never take on another project like this again, I tell you."

Remus stopped to make another note in his tablet while Sirius drifted toward the small bar the man had installed in what had once been a parlour. Bob followed him.

"How about some Guinness?"

Sirius turned, his interest piqued. "You have Guinness?"

"I do. It’s a personal favourite of mine, so I keep some for myself. Not many of my visitors care for it, but seeing as you’re from the other side of the pond..." He opened the small refrigerator under the counter and glanced back at Remus, who was slowly making his way across the room, admiring the hand-carved mouldings around the perimeter of the ceiling. "How about your partner?"

Sirius glanced over his shoulder. "Partner?"

"Aren’t you two... involved?" Bob’s confident manner wavered slightly.

"Involved?" Remus’ voice was sharp, his glare telling. "We’re friends, nothing more."

"Oh."

Sirius could tell that Bob was thinking quickly, trying to cover his mistake in a way that wouldn’t make him look worse than he already did—and ruin the article that Remus was supposed to be writing. "Look, it’s all right," Sirius said quickly. "People make that mistake all the time." He laughed. "We have a friend, James, and when we were in school, people were constantly trying to link all three of us together. God, if we’d actually done what people thought we did, I’d need physical rehabilitation for the rest of my life."

Bob chuckled dutifully, though he cast a doubtful glance at Remus. The writer’s expression was dark, almost angry.

"The man’s got Guinness, Moony." Sirius said. "Bob?"

Bob was all too ready to hand two bottles across the bar to Sirius, who then held one out to Remus.

"It was a mistake," Sirius said softly.

For a few seconds, Remus merely stared at the bottle. Just when Sirius was about to order him to take the bloody Guinness and stop acting like an arse, Remus accepted the bottle, nodding hesitantly. Sirius and Bob each found themselves breathing a little more freely as he twisted off the cap and began to drink. He said little then, focussing his attention on his notes while Sirius and Bob talked of more random topics. After about five minutes, Remus plunked his empty bottle down on the bar, interrupting them. "I think I have everything I need to write a decent article. If I have any questions, I’ll call, if that’s all right."

Bob nodded and rushed to say, "Absolutely, no problem. I’m sure whatever you write will be just fine, though."

After that, it was as if Remus couldn’t get out of the place fast enough. Sirius had just barely settled his backside onto the seat before Remus was backing out of the driveway. Sirius did wait, however, until they were a mile or two down the road before asking, "What in the hell was that about back there?"

"It was a mistake, right?" Remus replied harshly. "That’s what you said."

"As many times as we were accused of being lovers, you’re suddenly taking offense now?"

Remus said nothing.

"We went to a gay club once and had a laugh pretending to be partners."

There was no comment.

"Remus, talk to me."

The muscle in Remus’ jaw was so tight that Sirius found himself wondering if the bone would snap. Still, the man didn’t say a word.

Sirius stared out the side window, a very ugly realisation forming inside his head. "It’s me, isn’t it? It’s what we—what I said to you that night."

Remus didn’t confirm or deny it, but a quick glance revealed a crimson flush stealing across his cheekbones.

"I thought we were over that," Sirius said softly. "I thought it didn’t matter to you."

"Would you just fucking shut up?" Remus exploded. "It didn’t. It doesn’t. It’s just—"

"What? Fucking hell, Remus, we were fine for years after I told you—after that night. Why does it bother you now that someone might think we’re lovers?"

"It just does, all right?" Remus growled. "Now, shut the fuck up before I pull over and make you walk back to Pittsburgh."

Sirius closed his eyes. Note to self: telling Remus that I’m still in love with him might not be the best thing to do right now.

***


"Lily? Where’s James?"

"Sirius! How are you? How’s Remus? How are things?"

"Fine. Where’s James?"

"Oh, I’m sorry, he’s gone pub crawling with some mates from work."

"Shit."

"What’s happened?"

"Remember how Remus would take off and wander around the city when he was upset?"

"Oh, God, Sirius, what have you done?"

"I’ve turned one of my best friends into a paranoid homophobe."

*******


When Sirius heard the noise on the front porch, he wasn’t sure whether he should panic or not. It could have been Remus—but it could have been a bear, for all he knew. When whatever it was scratched on the door, it solidified two things in Sirius’ head: firstly, it wasn’t Remus, because he’d have just come in; and secondly, that it wasn’t a bear, because the scratch wouldn’t have been nearly that gentle.

Heart in his mouth, and feeling more than a tad foolish that he was so frightened—Stop acting like a bloody five-year-old girl, Black!—he went to the door and opened it a crack.

A black snout pushed itself in through the gap with a soft "Woof."

"Padfoot!" Sirius gasped, feeling his heart return to its proper place in his chest. He opened the door all the way to allow the dog entrance, peering out into the encroaching darkness. "Didn’t see Moony out there, did you?"

The dog wagged its tail, but didn’t seem bothered to tell Sirius any details.

Sirius stood by the door, debating his next course of action. The empty feeling in his stomach made up his mind. "How about some dinner, Padfoot?"

*


Remus came into the house an hour later to find Sirius on the couch with a big black dog lying beside him.

"I made dinner," Sirius said, keeping his eyes on the television. His fingers didn’t stop stroking the furry head that was resting on his leg.

Remus felt the other man’s tension, knew that Sirius was teetering between concern and anger.

Like when we were younger. He never could understand that sometimes I just can’t deal with things by facing them.

Still, the man had come from London to see him. He wanted Remus’ friendship. He didn’t deserve Remus’ cowardice.

Stupid git. He should have stayed with James and Peter. They’re so much better for him. What can I offer him? I’m too damaged. I’m too much of everything that he doesn’t deserve.

And that was the problem. So much had happened, so many things touched off by one simple declaration seven years ago—and Remus didn’t know how to deal with the confusion and the guilt that he carried within him.

It was so much easier when he didn’t know where I was.

Without a word—because he didn’t know what to say—he walked into the kitchen. Sirius had always been a better cook than Remus, to the point that they’d finally agreed that Sirius would cook and Remus would clean up. Remus couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips when he realised that the dishes were stacked up neatly by the sink for him to wash.

And we fall right back to where and what we were.

He turned the water on to fill the sink and began to roll up his sleeves.

"Remus."

He hadn’t heard Sirius come into the room. Padfoot, indeed. "What, Sirius?"

"If I’d known coming here would hurt you so badly, I wouldn’t have come."

He glanced behind him and saw sincerity and apprehension written in every line of Sirius’ face.

He’s always been so easy to read. How did I not see the obvious?

"It’s all right. It’s not your fault, Sirius. It’s—me."

Sirius laughed, but it was bitter. "Well, yes, it is you. It’s not me who hid for five years. It’s not me who took an innocent remark and made it into an insult. It’s not me who then ran away from you to avoid talking about it. God, Remus, you never had a problem with my sexual orientation before, and we lived together for years."

He fell silent, looking shocked that he’d blurted out so much. A hurt expression suddenly appeared in his grey eyes. "Is this—what I am—going to ruin our friendship? Or did I ruin it when I told you I loved you?"

Regret and sadness flooded through Remus. He had never wanted to hurt Sirius. Granted, he’d realised that Sirius would be upset and sorry when Remus had left, but he’d known that Sirius would soon be too busy with his editing work—and boyfriends—to notice Remus’ absence.

Here he was, though, pleading for explanations, and there was a look in his eye that reminded Remus of the night that Sirius had turned his life upside down with one slightly tipsy, yet still entirely too sober, declaration.

He deserves an explanation. If anyone does, it’s Sirius.

They’d been friends for years. No one else had so equally shared the joys and sorrows in Remus’ life as Sirius.

Sirius had been one of the few who’d offered a comforting, solid presence when Remus had been bounced from one foster family to another. He’d been the one to realise that Remus was being physically abused by his fourth foster father—and had consistently provided lies and alibis, and then brought Remus to sanctuary at the Potters’ when things went wrong and blood had flowed. While Remus’ friends had visited him in hospital, it had been mainly Sirius who’d cheered him through rehabilitation sessions, seeing the tears and frustration and anger.

Sirius had spent as many hours over Remus’ first book as Remus himself had. Sirius had pushed him to write and rewrite until nearly every word was perfect. Sirius had commiserated with him over every rejection letter. Sirius had been the one to buy the bottle of champagne—and it wasn’t the cheap stuff—when Old Moon was accepted by the publisher.

He’s seen me at my absolute worst and he’s never given up on me. He’s always allowed me my triumphs without begrudging me any of them. I’ve tried to push him away. I’ve tried to forget about him—but he’s here.

There was nothing for it. They were going to have the conversation that Remus had pushed away for years. Sirius would now know the main reason why Remus had left England.

Am I ready for this? Is he?

*


Sirius saw Remus’ shoulders slump in resignation. "Can we—go sit down?"

The defeated look in the blue eyes stabbed into Sirius’ heart with the efficiency of a stiletto. "Should we have a bottle of wine for this?" he asked, referring to a habit they’d had when they were younger of only allowing a serious discussion or argument to last until the last sip of wine had been taken.

Remus gave a lopsided smile. "Might need two for this one." He moved toward a cabinet while motioning for Sirius to return to the living room.

Padfoot, the dog, had taken over the entire couch, but reluctantly shifted to one end when Sirius poked him.

"He’s not always so compliant," Remus commented, emerging from the kitchen with a bottle of wine and two glasses in his hands.

"He and I have an understanding," Sirius said. "I give him hamburger, he gives me part of the couch."

"Sounds reasonable, I suppose." Remus poured the wine and placed the bottle on the coffee table.

"We’re reasonable blokes," Sirius maintained, sipping at the wine.

Remus gave him a sceptical glance, but said nothing in response. Instead, he asked, "Do you remember about two months after Dora and I got married, that she suddenly—changed?"

"She couldn’t stand to look at me," Sirius said flatly. "I never could figure out what made her angry. You told me you didn’t know either."

Remus inhaled deeply. "I lied."

"Well, what bug crawled up her arse, then?"

Remus took a gulp of wine and, determinedly not looking at Sirius, replied, "I told her about what happened—about what you said the week before the wedding."

"Fuck, Remus!" Sirius groaned, slapping his free hand over his eyes in dismay.

"I wasn’t going to, but, there were... extenuating circumstances."

"‘Extenuating...’ You’re fucking kidding me. What kind of ‘extenuating circumstances’ would entail you having to tell your wife that a man—your best friend, no less—had come on to you a week before your wedding?"

Remus leaned forward so his forearms rested on his thighs. "She was jealous of our friendship. I didn’t realise how much until one night after we’d been to a party—some banquet thrown by Snell’s. She’d worn a gown that left nothing to the imagination and, well, the car ride home had been very interesting. But, I had thought of something I wanted to tell you, and when we got home, instead of heading upstairs with her, I told her I was going to call you." He glanced over at Sirius and smiled lopsidedly. "I’d been drinking and knew I’d forget to tell you whatever it was—God, I don’t remember what it was, now."

Sirius laughed. "I remember. You wanted to tell me that the bastard that they’d hired instead of me was leaving to go to America."

Remus shook his head. "How you remember that... Anyhow, I called you, and went upstairs to find that she’d locked me out of the bedroom. We had a fight and she claimed I loved you more than her." He took a drink of wine as if he were fortifying himself for the next bit. "I told her that you’d been with me for years, that you’d been there for me through good times and bad times—and that you weren’t jealous of her."

Sirius reached over to scratch Padfoot behind the ears. "I’m going to guess that didn’t go over well."

"No. And one thing led to another, and she accused us of being lovers. I told her we weren’t, but you’d offered and—" he took a deep breath before continuing, "—maybe I should have accepted because you kissed a whole hell of a lot better."

Sirius’ eyes bugged out of their sockets. "Holy shit! You said that to your wife?"

"And got hell for it, too."

"Well, no shit!"

"It took me a lot of grovelling and apologies before she started to talk to me again. That’s when we went off to Paris."

"I wondered why she seemed so smug about that trip," Sirius reflected. "She seemed so full of herself that you were taking her—and made a point of telling me not to call."

"I’m sorry, Sirius. I know I shouldn’t have told her. I know things were awful."

"They did get better when she found out she was pregnant with Teddy," Sirius pointed out.

"You started dating Alice then, and that helped, too," Remus said. "Dora didn’t feel so threatened, I guess."

"Well, hell, what did she think I was going to do? Steal her husband away?"

"I think that’s exactly what she thought."

Sirius grunted. "She was an idiot."

"No, she wasn’t. She was..." Remus shrugged. "She just wanted someone to love her completely and totally. You and I have always been close, and we’ve always had the kind of friendship that people envy. She was afraid I’d choose you over her."

"But, the fact that you married her should have showed her that you’d chosen her over me."

"It should have, but she was angry and upset. She was frightened. Then, when Alice left you..."

Sirius winced. "Dora and Alice were close. Did Alice tell Dora why she left me? That I’d admitted I didn’t love her because I still cared about you?"

Remus drained the glass of wine. "Yes."

"Oh, fuck."

"Dora told me that if I even thought about spending any more time with you than I already did, she’d divorce me and tell every newspaper that would listen that I was having it on with you. She told me there’d be no way any court would allow me to have Teddy when I was guilty of having a homosexual affair with my best friend."

"But you weren’t."

"No, but one doesn’t need to be guilty to be crucified in the press."

Sirius had to acknowledge the truthfulness of that. Still... "You didn’t tell me you knew why Alice had left me."

"I figured you’d tell me if you needed to. Besides, I thought you were embarrassed about it, or you were afraid it might drive a wedge in our friendship."

It was Sirius’ turn to empty his glass. "It didn’t, though. I didn’t know you knew the truth of it all."

Remus shrugged.

"So, knowing that I still cared about you—three years after I’d confessed as much to you—how could you leave without a word after Dora and Teddy died? Considering our friendship, I deserved an answer to why you wouldn’t talk to me."

Remus poured another glass of wine for himself and then filled Sirius’ as well. "I’d hoped you wouldn’t ask me that."

"Well, I have, and you have to answer the question."

"I told you that we’d argued before Dora took off that night."

"Yes."

Remus laced his fingers tightly together around his glass and, looking into its contents, whispered, "We’d argued about you again."

Sirius opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again, not knowing what to say.

"My publisher called and said that a movie studio had contacted them about the rights to Old Moon."

"You never—"

"I know. I told Dora, and then I made the biggest mistake I could have made." Remus swallowed hard and placed his glass on the coffee table. His hand was shaking. "I told Dora I was going to call you, and she started screaming at me."

"Didn’t she want me to know at all?"

"She wanted me to celebrate with her, to go out and have dinner and champagne... I told her we would, as soon as I told you."

"That story was as much mine as yours," Sirius protested. "She knew that."

"I thought she did. God, Sirius; the things we said to one another. I called her a manipulative bitch who couldn’t stand to see me happy. She called me an unsatisfied queer who was incapable of satisfying her in any way, shape, or form. We threw more insults back and forth until she finally told me she was taking Teddy and going to her mother’s. She said I could decide if I wanted my family back or if I wanted—you."

There was enough of a hesitation that Sirius knew that Remus had edited what Dora had really said. He ignored it, though, to make the obvious conclusion so that Remus wouldn’t have to. "And that’s when she left—and then crashed."

Remus nodded, covering his face with his hands.

"Bloody hell, Moony," Sirius breathed. "No wonder you got upset about Bob’s assumption."

"I don’t suppose it really matters," Remus said, his hands muffling his voice. "It’s not like I’m married now. I am—able to choose to be in whatever kind of relationship I want to be, whether it’s with a woman or a man—or Padfoot."

The dog raised his head and cocked it to the side, staring at the man who lowered his hands to smile weakly at the animal.

"Whenever I would see you, Sirius, it would bring her words right back to me," Remus went on. "I know it wasn’t fair to you, but I couldn’t help but think that, if you’d just stopped—caring about me, or had fought for Alice a little harder, maybe..."

"Maybe there’d have been no reason for Dora to be jealous," Sirius finished. "And maybe she wouldn’t have crashed."

"And I’d still have Teddy," Remus whispered, tears welling in his eyes.

Sirius couldn’t have stopped himself if he’d wanted to. He lurched out of his seat and onto the couch that Remus was sitting on, throwing his arms around his friend’s neck. "I’m sorry, Moony. I’m so sorry," he whimpered.

His touch shattered the last bit of Remus’ restraint. The grieving man began to sob loudly, his body shaking almost violently. Sirius said nothing, if only because he knew nothing he could say would help. After a moment, he felt Remus’ arms tentatively encircle him and he shifted slightly closer. It was, in some ways, what he’d been wanting for years. His hope had been that Remus would be in his arms for a more selfish—and romantic—reason. If Remus could find solace in Sirius’ tight embrace, though, that was enough.

After a few minutes, the big black dog on the couch jumped down and came over to them, whining. His nose swiped across Sirius’ cheek, making the dark-haired man yelp at the suddenness and wetness of it. "Gah, Padfoot!"

The dog, sensing a slight weakness, shoved his head beneath Sirius’ arms and pushed himself further into their embrace until his nose hit Remus’ chin.

Sobs turned to chuckles as the dog lapped at Remus’ damp and salty cheek. "Padfoot!" Remus’ arms shifted to wrap around the dog, and Sirius felt cold at the loss of the other man’s arms around him.

"What about me?" Sirius whined. "Would it help if I licked you, too?"

Remus wiped his red, splotchy eyes with his sleeve and chuckled. "No, I can’t say it would."

"Well, there’s gratitude for you," Sirius muttered.

Remus unexpectedly hooked one hand behind Sirius’ head and pulled him close. For just a split second, Sirius thought Remus intended to kiss him. Instead, the writer pressed his forehead to Sirius’. "You’ve already done more for me than I ever thought you could," he said softly. "You didn’t give up on me, even when that’s what I wanted."

"I won’t ever give up on you," Sirius promised.

The corner of Remus’ lips rose slightly, the beginning of a lopsided smile. "Persistent bugger, aren’t you?"

"You know I am, and you love me for it."

Sirius felt a jolt go through Remus’ body at his casual comment. Before the dark-haired man could apologise for his offhanded remark, though, Remus smiled and let his hand slip down to Sirius’ shoulder. "It’s only one of many reasons why I do. Did you eat already?" And with that, Remus was pushing himself away and getting to his feet.

"There are hamburgers in the fridge. I already ate, but I could eat again," Sirius said absently, watching the other man head into the kitchen, Padfoot at his heels. He could hear Remus saying something about the hamburgers, but his mind was replaying Remus’ response to his comment.

‘One of many reasons why I do.’ What did he mean by that? What the hell, Remus?

*******


The next morning, Sirius stumbled bleary-eyed into the kitchen to find Remus at the table, typing furiously on his laptop, his notebook open on the table beside him. "Hey."

Remus grunted something in reply, his eyes not leaving the screen.

Sirius grinned at the man’s concentration. This brings back memories.

As he made himself a cup of instant coffee, he glanced over at the table. The omnipresent cup for tea was within Remus’ reach, but there was no sign he’d eaten anything. Shaking his head, Sirius set to work.

Twenty minutes later, a plate of bacon and eggs appeared as if by magic beneath Remus’ nose, and he reared back, startled.

"Now, you can’t tell me you didn’t know I was cooking breakfast," Sirius admonished him, catching the look of surprise on his friend’s face.

"I was concentrating," Remus said in his defence, taking the plate in his hands.

Sirius laughed softly and sat down with his own plate of food. "This instant coffee is shite," he announced. "You need to buy a coffee maker."

Remus tilted his head to one side. "I don’t drink coffee, though."

"I do."

The brown-haired man took a bite from a piece of bacon while regarding Sirius thoughtfully. "Are you planning on coming here more often to make it worth my while buying such a thing?"

"If you buy a coffee maker, I just might."

Grey and blue eyes met, but didn’t shy away from one another. "It’s a long way to come for a cup of coffee."

"True," Sirius conceded. "Maybe I’ll have to get myself transferred to the Philadelphia office."

"You just got an incredible promotion. I doubt your bosses—however wonderful they are—would allow it."

"I only got the position for two reasons."

"Your charm and your looks, yes, I know," Remus said, rolling his eyes.

"No, no, really. There were reasons. The first was because they wanted someone to kick Malfoy in the balls."

Remus’ eyebrows rose. "Oh, really? You didn’t tell me you were so violent in ousting him."

"Tempted to, yes, but I refrained."

"Noble of you."

"Yes, well. The other reason, though, we still have to discuss."

"Oh? Careless of you to just agree to something without discussing it fully."

"No, no. You and I have to discuss the other reason."

Remus picked up another piece of bacon and shoved it into his mouth. "Sounds ominous."

"Jules and Di want to publish your books."

"I’m under contract with Snell’s."

"I know that, but contracts can be broken or bought out."

"I haven’t written anything in five years. There’s no guarantee I’m going to write anything in the next five." The answer was very casually given, which meant Remus was hiding something.

Sirius pointed to the laptop with his fork. "Liar."

"Writing for the newspaper doesn’t count."

"Do you mean to tell me that if I searched the files on that computer that there would be nothing there but newspaper articles?" Sirius kept his eyes on Remus as he asked. He was satisfied to see Remus stop chewing for just the tiniest of moments. "Come on, Remus. You might have temporarily lain the series aside, but I know you. I know you have other ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that you have another novel already typed up, ready to go."

Remus pushed some eggs around his plate with his fork, deliberately not looking at Sirius. "Even if I did have something—and I’m not saying I do," he added firmly, "it wouldn’t be ready."

"Let me read it, then," Sirius offered.

Remus raised his head quickly. "I said I don’t—"

"You can’t give me that shit. I know you."

Remus sighed and returned his attention to his food. "God, you’re a stubborn, hard-headed bastard."

"I prefer persistent bugger," Sirius countered with a smile.

The blue eyes met his again. "I’ll just bet you do. Here, then." Remus turned the laptop around so that Sirius could see the screen. "Tell me what you think of this."

"Don’t they have an editor at that paper of yours?" Sirius asked, nevertheless punching the keys necessary to bring the beginning of the article into view.

"They do. But it would be a good thing to see if we still work well together, don’t you think? Before I even think about ringing Snell’s and give them a chance of relieving themselves of my non-productive self."

Sirius shot a grin at his friend and then began to read.

*


"If we play our cards right," Remus said sotto voce, "we could get a fabulous meal tonight."

Sirius allowed his friend to hold the door to the newspaper office for him. "Lay on, Macduff."

"God, that would make you Macbeth," Remus muttered, letting the door close. "Shall I expect a dagger in my ribs?"

A slight man with thinning red hair looked up from his desk as Remus led the way across the reception area. "Remus!"

"Hello, Arthur. I’ve got that thing written about the new bed-and-breakfast."

Relief spread across the man’s features. "Thank God! I was just now trying to find something online worth filling up a page. Percy!"

Almost immediately, a younger version of the man emerged from the back room. Sirius was surprised to see a wary expression in Percy’s eyes when he saw Remus standing there.

"Arthur, this is a friend of mine, Sirius Black. He’s an editor at Vernon-Gray Publishing. He’s already gone over the article, and trust me when I say there won’t be anything else you can do to my piece to make it any better."

Sirius and Arthur exchanged a handshake and some pleasantries.

"This is my son, Percy," Arthur said, motioning to the young man. "He’s majoring in journalism at the local university. He helps me out during the summer and on his breaks."

"Percy’s the third of Arthur’s children," Remus added. "He’s got seven children altogether."

"Seven!" Sirius yelped. "Good God, man!"

"Only four live at home full time, now," the man said. "Bill, my eldest, works for a museum—the Acquisitions Department. Charlie is a cowboy in South Dakota—"

"A cowboy?" Sirius repeated.

"An honest-to-God cowboy," Remus said.

"Then there’s Percy, and then the twins, Fred and George. Then there’s Ron, and last is our only girl, Ginny." Arthur paused to hand the envelope with Remus’ story in it to his son. "That will go on the front page of that last section. Set it up, won’t you?"

"You’re a reality show waiting to happen," Sirius commented.

Arthur laughed. "My wife loves watching those shows. I’ve told her not to get any ideas for any more, though. Seven is all I can handle." He glanced from Sirius to Remus, then back again. "Are you here for business or pleasure, Mr Black?"

"Call me Sirius, please." Sirius smiled. "I had some business with our office in Philadelphia, but Remus and I have been friends for years. I thought I’d visit him and see what’s keeping him here."

Remus interrupted whatever Arthur was going to say. "I was thinking about taking him to Hazlett’s Inn tonight for a home-cooked meal."

"Hazlett’s?" Arthur started to shake his head despairingly. "Remus, have I taught you nothing? The only good home-cooked meal is one cooked at home."

"Well, I doubt Sirius would like the consistency of my mashed potatoes," Remus said with a grin.

"Wait," Arthur said. "Just wait right there." He picked up the phone and, after some fumbling with the buttons and a long pause, said, "Molly? Do you have enough for two more tonight?"

"Arthur, we couldn’t—" Remus began.

The newspaperman waved him off. "Remus is here, and he has a visitor from England. He says he wants his friend to have a home-cooked meal before he leaves. Just a minute." Arthur started rooting around on his desk for a piece of paper and a pen. "Okay, potatoes. Yes, milk, and... Got it. Around six, would you say?"

A few minutes later, Sirius climbed into the Jeep and looked at the slyly grinning Remus. "You are a piece of work, you know that? A more manipulative bastard does not exist."

"You can thank me later," Remus said.

*******


"That was incredible," Sirius said, placing his fork carefully down on the now-empty plate.

Molly Weasley smiled, her round cheeks pinking at the praise. "Oh, Mr Black, it was nothing."

"I told you to call me Sirius; and trust me, this was the best meal I’ve had in months."

"Considering how he cooks, Molly, he’s telling the truth," Remus remarked.

"Would you like another piece of pie, dear?" Molly asked, seeing Remus’ empty plate.

"No, I’ve had plenty, thank you."

"Remus—"

"No, Molly, really. And no lectures about how I need fattening up."

The woman might have intended to do that very thing, but was distracted by Ron’s sudden exclamation at the theft of his piece of pie by one of the twins.

"Did Percy tell you his good news, Remus?" Arthur asked, speaking loudly to be heard over the sound of his wife scolding the errant son. "He won a competition for a piece he wrote. All the journalism students in their sophomore and junior years were encouraged to compete, and his story was chosen as the winner."

"Well done!" Remus’ smile was warm as he looked across the table at Percy. "What was the topic of your winning story?"

Sirius wondered if he was the only one who could see that Percy looked decidedly uncomfortable as Remus addressed him. "It wasn’t much, really. I didn’t think it had much of a chance."

"He wrote about how the budget in the English Department had been cut back in favour of funding for athletics," Arthur answered. "I was thinking about putting it in the paper, but I was afraid it might be seen as favouritism."

"Dad, you can’t publish it," Percy protested. "It was nothing."

"It’s impressive," Remus commented. "And it’s not favouritism if it’s good writing. What kind of prize did you get?"

"He got one thousand dollars," Molly replied in awe. "I can scarcely believe that one little story of his would be worth so much."

Percy fidgeted in his seat. "Dad, Mom, really, it’s not a big deal."

The twin that hadn’t stolen the pie said scornfully, "Everything is a big deal to you, Percy. I don’t know why you don’t want Dad to splatter it all over the front page."

"Stop harassing your brother," Molly chastised the twin. "He’s just being humble."

"It’s really not that good," Percy mumbled, his face nearly as red as his hair.

"It must be good, if you won," Remus insisted. "You’ve earned it."

"A thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at," Arthur chimed in.

Sirius sat back, letting his hand rest on the back of Remus’ chair. "Honestly, mate, be proud of what you’ve done."

Percy swallowed hard, and looked down at his plate. "Yes, I should be proud of what I’ve done."

"Then it’s settled," Molly said, standing and starting to reach for empty plates. "Ginny, help me clear..."

In the ensuing ruckus—the twins and Ron trying to vanish upstairs to keep from getting recruited into doing dishes and Arthur inviting Remus and Sirius out onto the patio for a longer conversation—Sirius was the only one who caught Percy’s glance at Remus. It was filled with regret and Sirius couldn’t help but wonder what it could mean.

It wasn’t until they were preparing to leave when someone said something, causing Remus to turn his head quickly to look over his shoulder at something. There was something in the angle that made Sirius remember the photo in the magazine and he frowned. He wouldn’t be here right now with a plate of leftover roast in his hands, arguing with the twins over the meaning of the word ‘football’ if it hadn’t been for the article. Still, he wondered again who it was who’d photographed Remus for the magazine against his friend’s knowledge.

I suppose I have to thank them for helping me find Remus, though I’m sure that wasn’t their intention. They probably got a few dollars for letting the author or the editors of that article know where Remus was. I hope it was worth it to them. In this town, a couple of hundred dollars would be much appreciated.

Sudden realisation flooded through Sirius’ mind.

Of course, they might have got as much as a thousand dollars...

"Where’s Percy?" he asked the twins. "I’d like to say good-bye to him."

"Percy? Why waste your time on him?" Fred scoffed.

"He’s probably practicing his acceptance speech for his Pulitzer Prize," George joked.

There was chaos for a while as the twins and Ron called for Percy’s presence as loudly as possible. It wasn’t until Molly got involved, yelling, "Go see what your brothers want before I toss you out the window to them!" that Percy finally emerged, shamefacedly, from the house.

"I wanted to congratulate you again on winning that competition," Sirius said.

"Thanks," Percy muttered, taking Sirius’ outstretched hand and shaking it half-heartedly.

"It really is a wonderful thing." Remus was smiling at the boy, but his forehead was slightly creased with concern over Percy’s lack of enthusiasm. "I look forward to reading it."

"It’s too bad your father didn’t run your story instead of Remus’," Sirius said. "Remus wouldn’t have minded waiting a week or two for his story to be printed. Not if it was in the interest of a young, up-and-coming journalist like yourself."

Percy swallowed hard. "I’m sure my dad made the right decision. Mr Lupin’s story is incredible, really."

"Well, of course, it is," Sirius snarled. "But you’d know why it’s so good, wouldn’t you?"

Percy’s face blanched and his eyes widened behind the lenses of his glasses.

"Remus writes as well as a New York Times best-selling author, doesn’t he?" Beside him, Sirius felt Remus’ sudden tension, but he didn’t dare look at his friend. "Maybe you should have written something fictional; something about a writer who has disappeared from the literary world and just shows up in a small town one day."

"Sirius—" Remus hissed in warning.

Sirius waved him off. "I’m just taking the piss, Moony. I’m sure Percy’s article is wonderfully written. After all, he won a competition with it, right?" His voice continued to get harsher, angrier. "It’s not like he got paid a thousand dollars for revealing the whereabouts of a person trying desperately to live a life of privacy and peace."

"How did you—?" Percy’s voice shook.

"I’ve got a reasonable amount of intelligence and a suspicious nature, you lying little shit" Sirius snapped. "There are very few journalists out there that wouldn’t give their left nut for a story. And then you realised the answer to the ‘Great Disappearance of R. J. Wolfe’ was right under your nose..."

"Christ!" Remus spat.

"What are you accusing my son of doing?" Arthur demanded.

"...Large family, eager to be respected and noticed, all you needed was one photo to one magazine."Sirius stepped closer to Percy, who fell back another step to keep his distance from the man. "To hell with his right to privacy. So fucking what if other journalists came out of the woodwork to question him or hound him to death with what he’s been doing or what he’s writing? You’re a fucking Judas Iscariot—for one thousand American dollars."

"What did you do, Percy?" Arthur asked quietly, sounding like he dreaded the answer.

"He sold Remus out," Sirius answered curtly. "And I’ll tell you one thing, little man—" His finger tapped Percy’s chest. "If that photo hadn’t helped me to find Remus, I’d have put my fist in your face repeatedly by now for what you’ve done."

"Sirius, don’t."

The dark-haired man turned toward his friend. "This is the bastard who either took the picture or told them where to find you, Remus."

"I understand that, but—don’t." Remus put his hand on Sirius’ shoulder and squeezed it tightly, almost painfully. "Arthur, I—I just don’t know what to say. This is—"

"We’ll talk tomorrow," Arthur said, his eyes focussed on Percy’s bowed head. "I’m so sorry, Remus. I didn’t know."

"Yes, well..." Remus let the sentence trail off. "Thank Molly for the dinner. Come on, Sirius."

The ride home was quiet. Sirius tried once to talk about what had happened ("He had no right—") but Remus interrupted him in a strangely gentle tone. "It’s over, Sirius. Let it go."

The editor’s calm could only be maintained for so long, however. As Remus fumbled with the key to the front door, Sirius burst out with, "How can you be so calm about this?"

"Because I’m not so sure I’m angry about it."

"Remus, they took your picture without your knowledge and published it. You could have had all kinds of media whores around here—"

"But I don’t," Remus said firmly, pushing the door open.

"But—"

"Sirius, you’re here. You wouldn’t be if not for that horrible photo."

"I know, but—"

Remus wheeled around and Sirius suddenly realised how close they were, and he felt himself breathless at the proximity of the bright blue eyes. "I didn’t know how much I missed you until this happened. If the price I had to pay for that knowledge is one God-awful photo in a magazine..." Remus paused, and then, to Sirius’ wonder and amazement, he placed his hand on Sirius’ shoulder and softly stroked the side of Sirius’ neck with his thumb. "It seems a small price to pay."

For one of the few times in his life, Sirius was speechless. His jaw opened to say something, but when no words were forthcoming, he clamped it shut again.

A smile tugged at Remus’ lips. "The sight of seeing you like this, with nothing to say seems to be a bonus in all this." He abruptly turned and, grabbing the plate of leftover roast from Sirius’ hand, retreated into the kitchen.

***


"What in the hell is he playing at?"

There was a sigh. "I’m sure I don’t know, Sirius."

"He’s throwing out these signals—does he even know what he’s doing to me? I ended up wanking—"

"Oh, I do not want to hear any more of that!" James groaned.

"What am I supposed to think, though, Prongs?"

"Why don’t you just ask him?"

"And have him kick me out of the house and shut himself off from us again? Oh, yeah, that’s a brilliant idea."

"Could you sound any more sarcastic? Wait until you’re ready to get on the plane, then."

"I’ll end up causing a scene at the airport."

"I’m sure people who work at the airport will have seen stranger things."

***


Lily was staring at James with such disbelief that he found himself fidgeting. "What?"

"Your best friend asks you for your opinion and your advice and the only thing you can tell him is to ask Remus about it at the airport?"

"What else was I supposed to say? I don’t know what’s going on in Remus’ head any more than Sirius does."

Lily rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to the carrots she’d been slivering for the salad.

"You don’t know either," James said accusingly. "So don’t pretend that you do."

His wife sighed and laid the knife down with such deliberation that he found himself wondering if she’d been thinking of throwing it at him. "James. When Sirius was having his Great Sexual Identity Crisis of 1985, who was the first person to accept Sirius immediately without reservations?"

"Remus, but he said it was only because he figured Sirius’ clothes sense might come in handy."

"When Sirius broke up with Awful Andrew, who sat with him for two nights running while he cried his eyes out?"

"Remus, but that was only because Sirius kept him awake. He didn’t have much choice."

"When Sirius went to gay clubs, who went with him the most often?"

"Well, now you’re just starting to make Remus sound like a door mat, because Sirius dragged him along unwillingly."

"When Alice handed her engagement ring back to Sirius, where did Sirius go?"

"He went to Remus and Dora’s. Lily—"

"And when Dora said she was tossing Sirius out after one day, what happened?"

James sighed. "She and Remus got into that bloody awful row and Remus threatened to move back in with Sirius. Are you certain you’re not the attorney in this family?"

"What happened when Sirius told Remus he loved him?" Lily pressed.

"According to Sirius, Remus said that it was piss-poor timing, considering it was a week before Remus and Dora’s wedding."

"Wait. Sirius told him that a week before the wedding?"

"He was drunk—"

"Could his timing have been any worse?"

"It could have been the night before the wedding." James stopped to wait for the eye roll that Lily obligingly gave. "He said he was desperate."

"He was an arse. Still, Remus didn’t punch him in the mouth for saying it, did he?"

"Nooo..."

"There you have it, then."

"There I have what, exactly?"

"James, the man not only didn’t blacken Sirius’ eye for coming on to him, he said Sirius had piss-poor timing. He’s supported and encouraged Sirius to the point that he was willing to risk his own marriage for the dolt, and Sirius doesn’t know how Remus feels? And you don’t see it either?" Lily stared at James expectantly. "Are you two really that stupid?"

James blinked. "You’re not saying—"

"Do you mean to tell me that you’d never noticed how Remus looked at him?" Lily asked softly. "Good Lord, James!"

"Lily, Remus isn’t gay!"

"No, I’d call it bisexual."

"He’s never dated another man in his life!"

"As far as you know, he hasn’t," Lily said snidely.

"I would’ve known—Sirius would’ve known if he had."

Lily put her hands on her hips. "Is it possible Remus never dated another man because he was waiting for one particular man to notice him?"

"You mean—" James’ mouth worked silently for a moment, trying to find the words to complete the sentence. "Are you saying—?"

"I’m saying what I’m saying. It’s up to Sirius to get his head out of his arse before it’s too late."

***


Sirius tapped at the door. "Come on, Remus! I still need to get a shower, and we’re going to be late to the airport!"

"One more minute," came the voice from behind the door. "No, wait!"

The door was suddenly jerked open and Sirius took an involuntarily step backward in surprise. He took a step forward again in wonderment, his body responding almost immediately to what his eyes were taking in. "You shaved."

Oh, fuck, he looks good. And no shirt. Does he know what he’s doing to me? Does he care? Oh, God. Don’t touch, Black. Don’t embarrass yourself—

Remus self-consciously rubbed at the side of his jaw. "I thought it might be time. Here." He held out a pair of scissors, and reached back to the tail of wet hair that was gathered at the nape of his neck. "You can make sure it’s straight." He stepped back into the bathroom, not waiting to see if Sirius was following.

Sirius, however, had no intention of not following. "Remus, I’m not a barber."

"You used to trim my hair all the time. Before." The last word was added belatedly, implying many things that neither of them wanted to talk about.

"But that was just a quick trim. This is something else entirely," Sirius protested.

"How difficult can it be? Cut it off here then neaten up the ends."

The dark-haired man raised his hand to touch the back of his own hair, which was almost to his own shoulders.

Remus saw the motion and smirked, though he said nothing. He lowered the seat on the toilet and sat down, turning slightly. "Do it quickly and it won’t hurt as badly, right?"

"Are you sure?" Sirius asked, opening and closing the scissors with a snap.

Remus had a faraway look in his eye as he replied, "It’s time."

Sirius reached forward and gently stroked the sandy brown tail once, then again. "But are you sure?"

The blue eyes cleared and danced with laughter. "Padfoot, would I have handed you something sharp and potentially dangerous if I weren’t?"

"Point taken." Sirius eyed up the hair, trying to judge where best to make the cut.

This is so terribly wrong, asking me to do this. ‘How do I make myself look better for you, Sirius?’ God, Remus, do you know what I want to do to you right now?

It took only one sharp, decisive cut, and Sirius carefully placed the length of hair in Remus’ hands, along with the elastic band that had held it together.

"It’s longer than I thought."

Sirius bit his tongue to keep from making a rather inappropriate sexual innuendo. Instead, he let his fingers slide through the shortened strands, finger-combing them into place. The hours of watching Remus bent over a tablet, scribbling furiously, made it possible to remember exactly how the light brown hair had curled ever so slightly at the nape of his neck, how it had been angled over and around his ears. Relieved of weight and length, the damp locks were already trying to twist into gentle waves.


Taking a deep breath, Sirius tried a bit of humour to steady himself. "If I fuck this up, I want your promise that you won’t hack me to pieces with these scissors and bury all the parts out in the woods somewhere."

"No, not a chance of that," Remus said with a crooked smile. "Padfoot the dog would dig you up and bring you back, piece by piece. I was barely ready to see you whole. To see you in bloody, chewed bits might be too much for me to deal with."

They chuckled, and Sirius thought it had calmed his nerves. It was very quickly obvious, though, that he’d made a dreadful mistake. His fingertips were constantly brushing the soft skin of Remus’ neck and shoulders. His nose was filled with the smell of Remus’ aftershave lotion—something spicy and musky that heightened Sirius’ awareness of the other man. Then there was just the sheer proximity of the rangy body, lightly muscled and beaded with water droplets...

Does he see my hand shaking? Can he hear my heart pounding inside my chest? Can’t he smell how aroused I am?

When he attempted to trim the hair coming down over the other man’s forehead into a manageable fringe, the sight of the bright blue eyes gazing trustingly up at him made things twist painfully inside Sirius. "I’m afraid I’ll mess up the rest," he said hoarsely, holding the scissors by the blades so that Remus could grasp the handles. "I’ve made you look like a hedgehog with alopecia."

Remus smiled. "You wouldn’t do that." His voice was soft and full of confidence.

His assurance shot through every nerve in Sirius’ body, making him tingle as if he’d been shocked.

He knows. He knows I still want him. Do I acknowledge it? Should I let him speak first? What in the hell do I do?

Before Sirius could decide what he should say, Remus stood up, pressing himself against Sirius ever-so-slightly. The dark-haired man barely contained a whimper at the slide of Remus’ denim jeans over his thickening erection, which was just barely covered by cotton pyjamas and a silk dressing gown.

"Remus—" He swallowed hard, unable to interpret the expression on Remus’ newly shaven face. If he didn’t know any better, he’d swear—

"You’d best get your shower," Remus interrupted, brushing pieces of hair from his shoulders and arms, and pushing past Sirius. "Do you want me to clean this up now or later?"

Sirius must have said ‘Later’, because Remus nodded and left. The moment the door closed, though, Sirius began smacking himself repeatedly in the forehead with heel of his hand, muttering, "Idiot!" with every hit.

*


"Have you got your tickets? What about your passport?"

"Yes, Mum, I’ve got it all right here." Sirius patted his briefcase and grinned impudently at Remus.

"We had to turn around and go back for your tickets. I think I’m entitled to ask these questions as often as I deem necessary."

They both chuckled then Sirius asked, "What will I do in New York without you to nursemaid me?"

"You’ll end up in a bar at the airport, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and miss your flight altogether."

"Aren’t you sorry you aren’t going with me?"

Remus just shook his head in amusement. "You’d best get moving. They’re going to call your flight fairly soon, and you still have to get over to the terminal and try to convince them you’re not a terrorist."

"Moony! I’m hurt to the quick."

Their smiles slowly faded as they stood there staring at one another.

"Come home, Remus," Sirius said impulsively. "We miss you."

Remus looked down at his boots. "I’m not done here, yet."

"Come for a visit, then. You haven’t seen Katie since she was three. Harry would like to get to know you again."

"I don’t—not yet. Soon, though. That’s the best I can do."

"You’ll have to come over anyhow, so that you can get out of that contract with Snell’s," Sirius said, only half-jokingly.

"There are lawyers and agents to do that sort of thing. What with email and faxes and all, I could be in the Australian outback and get everything accomplished."

"Di and Jules want to meet you, though."

"Maybe. Let me think about it. I don’t even know if I’m going to finish that bloody series."

"Why wouldn’t you?" Sirius demanded, bewildered. "You’ve had the thing written in your head for years. It’s just a matter of getting the thing down on paper."

"It’s—changed. I’ve changed," Remus said with a shrug. "We’re none of us the same."

"Don’t tell me that Jasper’s new love interest has the whole series in that much of an uproar," Sirius joked.

Remus stiffened. "What makes you say that?"

Sensing he’d said something wrong, Sirius tried to sound as unconcerned as possible. "It was just a comment. You’d told me that Jasper and Sara weren’t going to get together after all, and it would change the entire fifth book. That was the only change you’d mentioned, but it seems like a big one."

Remus drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Sorry. I just don’t know what I’m doing with it. It might be a shit idea. Give me some time. It’ll take me a while to recover from your visit anyhow."

"You’re a git." Sirius stepped forward and threw his arm around Remus’ neck, bringing him into a tight embrace. "Take care of yourself, Moony." It took a moment, but his friend finally put his arms around Sirius just as firmly.

"Don’t give the flight attendants a difficult time."

Sirius felt goose bumps form from the soft, warm breath on the back of his neck. "Me?" He reluctantly disentangled himself. "I’m the epitome of the perfect traveller."

"I scoff," Remus said with a lopsided smile.

"I am offended."

"Get out of here, you dog." And shocking Sirius to the core, Remus tugged him back into a one-armed embrace and kissed him quickly on the top of his head. "Email me when you get home so I know they didn’t toss you out over the Atlantic." And with that, Remus pulled away and shoved Sirius in the direction the editor needed to go.

Sirius turned to say something—he still wasn’t quite sure what—but it was too late. Remus was already walking away, his hands jammed in his jeans pockets.

Oh, no. No confusion about any of this.

***


Re: Tossing out over the Atlantic
From: Sirius Black
To: R. J. Lupin

Didn’t happen, though I did think of tossing one off.
Thanks for everything. I had a great time.
Sirius

*


Re: Re: Tossing out over the Atlantic
From: R. J. Lupin
To: Sirius Black

It’s amazing they didn’t toss you out—but even more of a miracle that you didn’t indulge yourself. Does the ‘Mile High Club’ not mean anything to you?
Padfoot the dog misses you. He’s looking for more hamburger.
It was good to see you.
Remus

*


Re: Mile High Club
From: Sirius Black
To: R. J. Lupin

The Mile High Club is over-rated. Those tiny lavatories are bad enough, but you know they’re not soundproofed?
S.

*


Re: Soundproofing in airplane restrooms
From: R. J. Lupin
To: Sirius Black

Or should the topic line be ‘Lack of soundproofing?’
At any rate, I do not want to know how you know that.
R.

***


"And you didn’t call me to tell me what Lily said?" Sirius exploded, his disbelief making his tone raise an octave and then some.

James shrugged. "I thought you’d be able to read him well enough to know if he was still interested or not."

"James," Sirius said firmly, "did you or did you not get a phone call from me asking you if you had any idea of what Remus Lupin’s behaviour meant?"

"Sirius," James shot back in the same manner, "you’ve never had a problem determining if a bloke is interested in you. It should be rather more obvious because it’s Remus."

"But it’s not!" Sirius exclaimed. "Damn it, Prongs, if I never noticed he was interested before, how in the hell would I know he is now?"

James sank back in his chair. "I don’t know. I wanted to call you. I had the bloody phone in my hand. But then I started to worry that I might make things even more awkward if I told you what Lily said— and Remus really didn’t feel that way."

Sirius considered his best friend’s words carefully. "You’re right," he finally said with a sigh. "It might have made things worse if I started looking for signs that weren’t there. But it still would have been good to know, because then maybe I could have asked him."

James expression was clearly sceptical. "Would you really have asked?"

"Probably not," Sirius admitted. "It makes me feel better to think that I might have, though."

"So, what’s your next move?"

Sirius ran his fingers through his hair and then folded his hands together on the table. "I have absolutely no idea."

***


Re: Pie
From: Sirius Black
To: R. J. Lupin

Moony,
I’m starved and I keep thinking about Molly Weasley’s apple pie. How does one ship an apple pie from the States to the UK?
Me

*

Re: Pie
From: R. J. Lupin
To: Sirius Black

Padfoot
How does one ship an apple pie across the Atlantic Ocean? One doesn’t. You’ll just have to beg Molly to make one the next time you visit.
I bought a coffee maker, by the way.
Me also

***


Re: Re: Bored
From: Sirius Black
To: R. J. Lupin

I’m bored, Moony. If you were here, I’d drag you out pub-crawling. Or just for fun, we could go hit one of those gay clubs like we used to. Remember that one we went to that had the fabulous DJ who thought we really were a couple? It was closed after a series of health and fire code violations a year after you left. As if we didn’t realise there were problems after one visit. Wires really shouldn’t be sticking out of the walls, and I still shudder to think of what that was in my drink that made it look like that. Thanks for stopping me from drinking it.
I’d kiss you for it, but seeing as you aren’t here...
Padfoot

*


Re: Re: Re: Bored
From: R. J. Lupin
To: Sirius Black

We’re too old for pub crawls and clubbing. We’re at the point where we should have found one pub where we have ‘our’ table, and the bartender knows ‘our’ drinks, and the waitress knows ‘our’ favourite food.
For the record, you kissed me that night for stopping you from drinking that... concoction. On the lips with tongue.
Moony

*


Re: Re: Re: Re: Bored
From: Sirius Black
To: R. J. Lupin

And you liked it, too.

*


Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Bored
From: R. J. Lupin
To: Sirius Black

You didn’t hear me complain, did you? Wish you’d used a breath mint first, though.

***


Re: Business Proposition
From: Sirius Black
To: R. J. Lupin

Dear Mr Lupin,
By now, you should have received the packet which was sent to you from yours truly. To verify, it was a packet containing the terms concerning our interest in publishing your next novel. I understand that you have a long and successful relationship with Snell’s Publishing, but I would like to reiterate that Vernon-Gray Publishing employs one of the best, if not the best editor in the UK. Certainly, he is one of the best looking and most charming.
Feel free to contact us with any questions you might have.
Sincerely,
Sirius Black

P.S. How’s that for formality? Come on, Moony. You’ve been sitting on the damn contracts for a month now. Have you even contacted your agent? Or Snell’s? You’ve got to give me a bone here, otherwise, the girls are going to put me on a plane and send me back to you. And honestly, you don’t want to know what they want me to do to you to convince you to sign with them—I mean us.
Of course, I’d get to try that coffee maker. And maybe Molly would make that pie again. That does it. I’m calling the airline this afternoon.
Me

*


Re: Re: Business Proposition
From: R. J. Lupin
To: Sirius Black

Dear Mr Black,
Remember that patience is a virtue.
Yours truly,
R. J. Lupin

Padfoot,
I can only type so quickly, you stupid bugger. How long do you think it takes to type an entire book?
You’re one of the best looking and charming editors? Where is ‘self-important’ or ‘arrogant’ or ‘conceited’ in that list of attributes?
Those threats from the ladies about what you’re going to do to me: do they involve violence or sex?
Me back

*


Re: Re: Re: Business Proposition
From: Sirius Black
To: R. J. Lupin

You had half of that book written already, and I know it.
You’re hoping it’s sex, aren’t you?

*


Re: Re: Re: Re: Business Proposition
From: R. J. Lupin
To: Sirius Black

Egotistical arse.
You just think you know it.
Violence, sex... There’s pain both ways, and who knows? I might be able to get off on the violence just as well as the sex.

*


Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Business Propostion
From: Sirius Black
To: R. J. Lupin

I think you scare me.

*


Re: Scaring you
From: R. J. Lupin
To: Sirius Black

Such was my intention. Now leave me alone so I can get some bloody work done. If you want the fucking book, you have to let me finish the damn thing!

***


Re: Book Proposal
From: R. J. Lupin
To: Sirius Black

Mr Black,
Three weeks ago, you expressed an interest in publishing my next book. I have recently submitted an outline and sample chapters of my latest work to my current publisher, but it was not found to be of interest to them. I have fulfilled my contractual obligations to them by offering it to them first. Now that they have rejected it outright, I wondered if you’d be interested in it. It is the fourth in a series that I started several years ago. The first three books were well-received, but the direction of the fourth book might be considered a bit controversial. If you are still interested, I can send you a general outline, the first two chapters, and the most controversial chapter. I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,
R. J. Lupin

P.S. Remember I told you about the change in Jasper’s love life? The people at Snell’s are completely pissed off at me for it. They’re more than happy to part with me for a fee, and I’m more than happy to pay. I wonder if ‘your’ Di and Julia will be interested in this. I think it might bother a lot of people—especially those who thought Jasper and Sara were right for one another. I think Jasper is happier now, not having to deny things he’s been feeling all along.

*


Re: Re: Book Proposal
From: Sirius Black
To: R. J. Lupin

Mr Lupin,
We are very much interested in your book. Please send whatever you have prepared and we will look it over. Vernon-Gray Publishing is no stranger to publishing books with controversial content. Perhaps you’ll remember the firestorm over the book, My Stepdaughter’s Boyfriend?
Knowing the content and quality of your work as I do, I feel confident that whatever controversial content you refer to is not of a gratuitous nature, but is truly what is demanded of it by the characters in the book.
I look forward to reading it.
Yours,
Sirius Black

P.S. What in the hell have you done to Jasper? Would you just bloody tell me who he falls in love with? Come on, Moony! Tell me what I need to prepare the girls for!

*


Re: Re: Re: Book Proposal
From: R. J. Lupin
To: Sirius Black

I’ve attached the outline and the chapters. You can print them off instead of me mailing the lot to you. It’ll save me from being aggravated by you during that time in which they’re in the postal service’s hands.

I hope you like it, Padfoot.

***


Sirius downloaded the attachments and stared at the general outline for a moment. Remus had been overcautious—Or he’s being sneakily evasive!—in choosing wording that didn’t link Jasper with any particular name in a romantic way.

Bloody Jasper seems to be hanging out with his best mate, Terry, more than with any birds that I can see... Why are there four chapters in which Terry is trying to come to grips with Jasper’s new crush? It’s not Terry’s sister, what’s-her-name, is it? I thought Jasper thought of her as a sister, too...

For a moment, Sirius debated printing everything out before reading it, but the black words across the screen were too enticing.

He skimmed through the first two chapters, realising they were a summary of things that had happened in the first three books. The third chapter Remus sent, however, was actually the tenth chapter of the book. Sirius glanced at the outline.

"Chapter Ten: Jasper reconciles himself to his past and decides where his affections lie."

"I know he’s sitting at his laptop laughing his arse off at me at this very minute," Sirius mumbled, clicking on the file.

Jasper and Sara’s breakup was as messy and emotional as any that Sirius had ever read—and had experienced. He winced as he recognised words that Remus had said that Dora had thrown at him.

This had to hurt to write. It hurts to read it. Why would he do this to himself?

Sara’s accusations that Jasper had another lover surprised Sirius a bit, until he realised that it was the same thing both Andrew and Alice had said to Sirius when they broke up with him. Andrew’s exact wording was echoed by Sara: "Even when you’re with me, you’re not really here! Who is she?"

He had known the answer to Andrew’s question, though at that point, he’d preferred to ignore what his heart had been telling him. He didn’t want to admit he’d been missing and craving the time spent with Remus. He hadn’t wanted to acknowledge that Remus had been the one his heart had been aching for. He had confessed it to Alice, who said it was obvious to anyone who knew the two.

So, who does Jasper want? Who has his heart been aching for? With his heart pounding, Sirius went on.

"I’m not all too sure you’ll understand," Jasper said, deliberately looking away from her, letting his eyes take note of the wallpaper peeling away from the wall between the two windows. "It’s not another woman, Sara."
"Oh, don’t give me that shite! There’s no doubt there’s someone else, and I deserve to know who the bitch is!"
There was no way to soften the blow.
"It’s Terry."
She stared at him disbelievingly. "What do you mean, ‘It’s Terry’? Is he making you break up with me?"
"No, Sara." Jasper laughed bitterly. "He doesn’t even know I was going to have this discussion with you. It’s Terry that I love."
"Jasper—"
He couldn’t stop now if he wanted to. "It’s Terry. It’s always been Terry, but I’ve been trying to deny it for years. You loved me, though, and I thought maybe you could help me forget about him."


"It’s Terry? Jasper’s in love with Terry?"

Sirius shot to his feet, pushing his chair away from the desk. His mind was racing, his thoughts filled with voices from his past.

James: "It’s always been Remus, Sirius. It’s always been about him."

Alice: "I can’t compete with Remus. The two of you are too close and have shared too much..."

Lily: "The man looked at you like you were ice cream on a hot day, and you never noticed?"

The conversation he’d had with Remus a week before Remus’ wedding:

"I love you, Remus."

"You’re drunk."

"No, I’m not. Well, maybe a little. But it’s true. I love you."

"God, Sirius!"

"Don’t be mad—"

"I’m not, but—I’m getting married in a
week! What in the hell makes you think I want to hear this now? Fuck, you’ve got piss-poor timing!"

Sirius pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. It wasn’t, "You’re out of your mind." Lily was right. He should have hit me for coming on to him. Instead, he growled at me for bringing it up a week before the wedding.

He could hear himself telling Julia that Jasper was Remus, and somewhere from deep in his mind, he recalled a comment of Peter’s: "You know, Sirius, Terry is an awful lot like you..."

And only two months ago: "...You love me for it."

"It’s only one of many reasons why I do."


He sighed and turned slightly so he could see the laptop’s screen. The question is, do I take this chapter as a sign that Remus is interested in me? Or is he only being faithful to the character? Do I accept all the teasing, all the comments as flirting? Do I dare? Do I dare to think and to dream that Remus loves me?

There were still more words that Sirius hadn’t yet read. He forced himself to sit down and quell his inner turmoil enough to finish the chapter.

When he finished, he continued to idly scroll down the page, not really expecting to see anything, but hoping that maybe there’d be some note from Remus. He was surprised but encouraged to see three lines of dark blue lettering at the bottom of the page.

Sirius, Art sometimes imitates life. I daresay Jasper is a happier man by following his heart. I hope that I might say the same about myself. Yours, as always, Remus.

Sirius cupped one hand over his mouth. His breath was hot and harsh on his skin.

I can have this. He wants this. I want this.

A smile slowly began to spread across his face. We can have this together.

With one hand, he flipped back to the book’s outline; with the other, he picked up the phone and punched some numbers.

"Hey, Di? I have three chapters of Remus’ book. Do you want me to just email them to you? Or do want actual papers in your hand?"

*


An hour later, Julia slowly flipped the last page over and looked up at Diana. "Are you thinking what I’m thinking?"

Di smiled. "The people at Snell’s are idiots for not publishing this book?"

"Well, that is true, but that’s not the obvious thing."

"Jasper is Remus, right?"

"That’s what Sirius said."

"It’s pretty obvious that Terry is Sirius."

"Right down to the—" Julia quickly leafed through the chapters in front of her, "—need to eat candy bars for breakfast."

Di laughed. "And let’s not forget the ‘bark-like laugh’."

"Could the man be any more obvious?"

"The question is: has Sirius recognised it?"

The phone buzzed and Julia nodded toward it. "My guess is that our Executive Editor wants to return to America."

"If he doesn’t, he’s an idiot," stated Diana.

*


James’ voice on the answering machine was irritated, almost angry. "Remus, I just got a phone call from Sirius. He’s getting ready to board a bloody jet in New York! He wanted to surprise you, the git. He said the plane should be arriving in Pittsburgh sometime after nine. Here’s the flight number—" He rattled off a series of numbers. "I told him there was no guarantee you’d get there in time to meet his flight. He said he’d wait..."

There was a little more to the rambling message about how Sirius hadn’t told anyone where he was going, and how James was convinced he was no better than a fifteen-year-old child, and God help Remus. "He’s your problem now," James concluded. "I leave him in your hands. Oh, and Lily sends her love."

Remus glanced up at the clock and nodded to himself. He had plenty of time to get to the airport. And then the realisation sank in: Sirius was coming.

But to tell me he knows what I was really saying? Or just to finalise the details of a book contract?

Remus replayed the message to get the flight number and then sprinted to take a shower.

*


"Do you have business in Pittsburgh?" Sirius asked the woman next to him.

"I do. I’m a professor of medieval studies at Yale University. I’m going to meet with some colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh. What about yourself?"

Sirius grinned. "I’ve been given a second chance at something I didn’t think was possible."

*


"Fucking road construction," Remus muttered, slapping the steering wheel in frustration.

He glanced down at the clock and groaned. He’d moved only half a mile in ten minutes.

"Come on!"

Apparently, the rainclouds thought he was talking to them because it was then that lightning flashed across the sky and the first drops of rain began to fall.

*


The flight attendants were smiling as they advised everyone to buckle their seatbelts. By the bucking of the airplane, Sirius wasn’t that surprised.

"Do you think we’re close to the airport?" the woman next to him asked.

Sirius glanced at his watch and made a quick calculation. "Only half an hour to go, I’d think."

"Oh, good," she replied. "I hate flying in weather like this."

*


Remus parked as quickly as he could and, heart thumping madly, made his way through the building to the Baggage Claim. The weather had slowed the delayed the flight’s arrival by about fifteen minutes, so Remus decided to grab a cup of tea while he waited.

*


The new expected time of arrival came and went, and there was no change in the status of the flight. Five minutes late turned to ten, and then to fifteen. Remus was watching another fifteen minutes later when the arrival time suddenly vanished and the word ‘Delayed’ appeared.

A frisson of terror went through Remus, and he shuddered.

With a sick feeling in his stomach, Remus made his way to the counter. He tried not to notice that the people working there looked worried.

"Excuse me, could you tell me what’s going on?" he asked a woman quietly.

She gave him a false smile. "The flight has been delayed, sir."

"I can see that," he said, trying not to snarl at her. "Is there a problem?"

Another man shouldered his way past Remus. "My daughter’s on that plane, and I want some answers. What’s happening?"

Within minutes, nearly everyone who’d been waiting for the flight was clustered around the desk, angrily demanding details. A man in an airline blazer emerged from a door to the left. "Folks, if you could come this way—"

Remus suddenly felt light-headed and closed his eyes. The man had the same expression that was on the face of the police officer who’d come to tell of the crash—and Dora and Teddy’s deaths.

A gentle hand on his arm made him open his eyes to see a blonde woman who’d also been waiting for the flight from New York.

"Are you all right?" she asked softly.

"Deja vu," he whispered. "It’s happening all over again."

*


James fumbled for the phone next to the bed, cursing as he knocked his glasses on the floor.

"Potter," he grumbled into the receiver.

"James."

The tone brought him to immediate awareness. "Remus?"

"James—" The writer sounded stunned.

"What’s happened, Moony?"

"James—" There was a gasping sound as if Remus was trying to catch his breath—or as if he were crying.

"What’s wrong?" Lily asked quietly, rolling over to look at her husband.

He shook his head. "Remus, are you okay? Is Sirius with you?"

"Oh, fuck, James!"

Lily pressed her ear close to her husband’s.

"Remus, say it quickly. Get it out. What’s happened?"

"Sirius—" Remus took a deep breath and then, very calmly, almost frighteningly so, said, "The plane went down. They said there are survivors, but they don’t have a list yet."

Lily pulled away quickly, her hands covering her mouth in shock and dismay.

James looked at the clock next to the phone base and made a quick calculation. "It’s midnight there, yes?"

There was a pause and then a sigh. "Yeah."

James covered the receiver with his hand. "Sirius’ plane was supposed to be there a little after nine."

Lily looked at the clock. "It’s been three hours and Remus still doesn’t know anything?"

"Remus, what have they said?"

"Not much. Something happened to the electrical systems, they think. They went down in a field—" Remus stopped and James could hear him breathing rapidly.

"Mate, take a deep breath for me, will you?"

"What?"

"Take a deep breath."

"If I do, it hurts."

James pressed his fingers into the corners of his eyes. He could hear Remus’ panic in the nearly childish tone. "Listen, Moony. I’m coming. All right? I’ll be on the first flight I can catch."

Lily waved her hands rapidly. "The Grant trial starts today!" she mouthed.

Before he could say anything, Remus said hesitantly, "No. Not yet." James could almost feel the sluggishness of Remus’ thoughts. "There’s no point. Wait until I hear something."

"Are you sure?" James asked gently, thinking of colleagues who could take over for him if he did take off for America.

"I might not hear anything until you’re in the air, and," Remus laughed curtly, bitterly, "you know Sirius. He could damn well turn out to be perfectly fine. There wouldn’t be any reason for you to come." He took another gasping breath. "I just had to—tell you."

"If you need me, call," James insisted. "We’ll be waiting."

Lily grabbed the phone. "Remus, listen, sweetheart. Whatever happens, do not give up. Hear me? Sirius will be fine. You have to believe that. Go get a drink—a shot of whiskey might be a good idea. If not, get some tea and concentrate on breathing deeply and staying calm. Do you understand?"

"Yeah."

"Now, do as I tell you. All right?"

"Okay, Lily."

James snatched the phone back. "Call us the minute you hear anything—or when you just need us. We’re here for you, Remus."

"Thanks, Prongs." He sounded vague, but at least he didn’t sound quite as panicked as he had earlier.

James could hear someone talking loudly in the background.

"Gotta go," Remus said suddenly—and he disconnected.

James placed the phone gently back into its base.

Lily threw herself at him, "Oh, James! This can’t possibly be happening to him again! And he’s all alone—"

"I could get Gideon Prewett to take the trial for me. He’s put as much work into it as I have. I could probably be there by noon his time—"

"You can’t miss that trial," Lily asserted. "Your partnership rides on that trial, and you know it."

"Then, we just sit and wait," James sighed. He pounded the mattress with his fist. "I hate waiting!"

"I do have an idea," she said thoughtfully.

*


Remus stepped up to the table. "Sirius Black," he said hoarsely.

The man sitting at the table flipped back to the first page and ran his finger down the list of names.

"Black. Black, Norma. Black, Sirius. Here we go—"

Remus heard the man’s words, but it was as if he were underwater. They didn’t seem to make sense at first. "Could you repeat that?"

The blonde woman from before suddenly appeared at his elbow. "He made it, honey. He’s in the hospital, but he’s made it."

*


"Remus?" He could have slept through the whisper, but he couldn’t ignore the light shaking of his shoulder. He could also no longer ignore the fact that the plastic of the couch in the hospital waiting room was undeniably hard and uncomfortable. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes.

The red hair and green eyes of Lily Potter were unmistakeable.

"Lily?" With a stifled groan at the stiffness in his muscles, he sat up. "What are you doing here?"

"I’m here for you and Sirius," she said, still in a whisper.

Without a word, he threw his arms around her neck, pulling her down on the couch beside him.

"James had that all-important trial starting today or he would be here," Lily said, stroking the back of his head. "I thought you wouldn’t mind some company though."

"You have no idea how wonderful it is that you’re here," he breathed in her ear.

She just held him for a few minutes, feeling his tension ease. "How is he?"

Remus shook his head. "He has some broken bones. They’ll have to operate soon and pin his leg back together. He banged his head, though, and that’s preventing them from doing the operation now. They haven’t said as much, but I can tell they’re worried about his head injury."

"Can we see him?"

Remus glanced at the clock. "They told me to come back at six o’clock. They were going to make him a bit more presentable, and there’s a chance they’ll be moving him into another room."

"You look knackered. Have you gotten any sleep at all?"

"A little, now and again. All rather involuntary," he admitted.

"Have you eaten anything today?" Lily quickly and accurately interpreted the sheepish expression on the man’s face. "Let’s go, then. I know I could do with a bite."

A short time later, they found themselves at a small table in the corner of the cafeteria.

Lily took a bite of mashed potatoes and grimaced. "Have you talked to him?" she asked, reaching for the salt.

"What with his head injury and the drugs, he’s only been awake once or twice. The couple of things he did say didn’t make much sense," Remus said. He paused to take a bite of chicken. "He looked at me and seemed to know who I was."

Lily smiled and reached out to touch his arm. "I think Sirius would know you before anybody else."

Remus froze, mid-chew, feeling a flutter of nervousness. He wasn’t sure what James and Lily knew, but Sirius had never been able to keep his mouth shut about anything. There was a good chance he’d told them about the new chapter—and there was an even better chance that the Potters knew why Sirius had been coming to see him. "Why do you say that?" he asked cautiously.

"Remus, don’t be absurd," Lily chided him. "Are you really so daft that you think we don’t know how you two feel about each other?"

The writer ducked his head, lowering his eyes to his plate. "I really don’t know how he feels."

Lily rolled her eyes. "Don’t be ridiculous."

Remus took a sip of his soft drink and regarded her with wary blue eyes. He could see warmth and acceptance in Lily’s expression, but he didn’t know if James or Peter felt the same. If he asked, then there would be no going back. He’d be acknowledging his feelings, and to do that would be to concede a thousand mistakes. It was one of the most difficult things he could do, and his heart was pounding loudly as he drew in a breath to speak. "Lily—"

She smiled at him invitingly.

"Lily—" He couldn’t seem to say the words that his heart was forming.

"Tell me, Remus."

He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, Lily was still smiling at him. "I’ve wanted him for a very long time," he finally admitted softly, his voice cracking the tiniest bit. With his confession, his heart seemed to swell in his chest, preventing him from breathing properly. I’ve done it. I’ve said it, and I can’t take it back. He forced himself to inhale, and felt his heart return to normal.

"Why didn’t you ever tell him?" Lily asked.

He shook his head and picked up his fork to absently push the kernels of corn around his plate. "He didn’t seem interested in me, and I wasn’t going to destroy the friendship we had by bringing it up."

"He did," Lily pointed out.

"It was too late by then," Remus said with a sigh. "I couldn’t leave Dora practically standing at the altar. She didn’t deserve that." Again, his heart filled his chest, leaving him short of breath. "I did a horrible thing, Lily. I treated her so badly."

"No, you didn’t," Lily contradicted him firmly. "You were very good to her. You loved her."

"Not enough, though," he said, tossing down the fork. "I thought that by marrying her, by focussing on her, I could forget about Sirius. I was too cowardly to try to start something with him, and too cowardly to end things with her. Then when Teddy was born—" Pain stabbed through him, as it always did when he thought of his son. "I thought it would be all right, you know? It was the perfect life—writing books that were making money, a beautiful wife, an adorable child, a new house—and I thought it would make me happy."

Lily reached out and squeezed his arm reassuringly.

"She knew where my heart was, though," he continued. "Things started to fall apart—hell, they started falling apart within the first six months that we were married. She realised how I felt about him, and nothing I did could change how I felt—or that she knew."

Lily moaned in sympathy and reached for him, wrapping her arms around him so that his head rested on her shoulder. "You didn’t give up on her and your relationship, Remus. You did the best you could."

"If I’d have just tried harder—" He broke off, unwilling to say the rest.

She pulled away from him, but her hands tightened on his shoulders. "What if you had tried harder? Dora wouldn’t have tried to leave you? She wouldn’t have died? You were fighting a losing battle." She stroked the hair above his left ear lightly. "Sweetheart, there was nothing you could have done. She could have sat down and talked things out with you, logically and calmly. She chose to leave while she was angry."

Remus sucked in a sharp breath. "How—?"

"You know that Sirius can’t keep a secret to save his life," Lily said with a small smile. "When he came home from America, he sat down and told us everything."

"Shit," Remus muttered, thinking back to the things he’d told Sirius during his visit.

"It’s a good thing, Remus. We finally understood why you left. It all made sense. You were an idiot, but it all made sense." She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek to take the sting out of her words. "You’ve got a second chance at love, now, Remus."

Remus shuddered and gently pulled away from her, seeing confusion cross her face. "But, Lily, do I deserve it?"

Her jaw dropped, and she stared at him disbelievingly. "How can you possibly say that?"

He struggled to find words, and the thought, You’re a bloody author; you should be able to speak somewhat intelligently, went through his head. "I had Dora, and that ended so badly—"

"That was not your fault."

"I should have—"

"And maybe I should have had oatmeal for breakfast instead of eggs and bacon," Lily snapped. "Remus, what’s in the past is in the past. You can’t change it. You can only go forward."

He blinked at her, and started to massage his temple with two fingers.

"Stop over-thinking it and just accept it," Lily said firmly. "For Sirius’ sake, if not for your own. Sirius deserves a chance at love and a relationship that can last. God knows enough people have walked out on him because of his feelings for you. He deserves to have you and love you and have that love in return."

"You make it sound so easy," Remus mumbled, feeling slightly numb.

"It’s as easy as you want to make it." Lily sat back and picked her fork back up. "And don’t you dare fuck it up because you feel guilty. If you weren’t supposed to have this chance, would Sirius have lived through a plane crash that’s going to keep him in the States for a few weeks until he recovers enough to travel?"

Remus stared at her wide-eyed for a moment before chuckling. "So, the crash was God’s way of saying, ‘Here you go, Lupin. Have at him’?"

Lily grinned. "Why not? At any rate, I’m glad you have to deal with him and not us. He’s likely to drive you crazy. Don’t you remember what he’s like when he’s sick?"

Remus frowned. "I’m flying back to England with you, I think."

They laughed and returned to their meals for a few minutes. A persistent thought circling Remus’ brain made him clear his throat to catch Lily’s attention. "Is James—okay—with this? And Peter?"

Lily rolled her eyes. "They’re sick of dealing with him, too. They’re tired of hearing all about his unrequited love. So, requite it, already."

"There’s no such word as ‘requite’."

"Then why does ‘unrequited’ exist?"

Remus chuckled. "God, you sound like James. Now I see what fifteen years of being with someone will do to you."

Lily slapped him on the arm. "In fifteen years, it’ll be you saying idiotic things that we would normally expect from Sirius."

"You think we’ll—?"

"I know," she said resolutely.

***


The machines beeped and hissed as they constantly monitored Sirius’ vital signs and helped his broken body maintain a state of equilibrium.

The dark-haired man had occasionally awakened in the past day and a half, but never for long and never with any kind of comprehension. Lily could tell by the dark circles beneath Remus’ eyes and the tightness of the skin over his cheekbones that the waiting was starting to wear him down. All the same, he refused to leave the room for any extended period of time. He’d even slept in the chair beside Sirius’ bed at night, instead of doing as Lily did: staying at the hotel one block away.

Lily checked her watch and added five hours to account for the time difference to London. "Remus? Would you like something to drink?" she asked, opening her wallet and pulling out some dollar bills. "I thought I’d go call the kids and stop at the vending machines."

The author barely glanced away from the unconscious man. "That would be nice," he said softly.

She stood up and edged around the bottom of the bed toward the door. "I’ll be right—"

"Lily, he’s waking up again."

Remus’ harsh whisper made her stop in her tracks, but as much as Lily wanted to go to Sirius’ side, she didn’t. Her eyes went to Remus, and her breath caught in her throat. The man’s face was taut with concern, but there was so much love in the blue eyes...

Sirius’ eyelashes fluttered open, and he slowly turned his head toward the man anxiously leaning toward him. There was immediate recognition once Sirius’ gaze sharpened.

"Remus." The whisper was barely heard.

"Sirius." Remus’ voice broke on the last syllable.

The injured man’s lips curved into a gentle smile. "You’re here."

"Where else would I be?"

Lily swallowed hard, feeling tears rise in her eyes. Remus’ tone was tender, every word a caress.

"Was comin’... to see you."

"About my book?"

Sirius laboriously raised his hand to touch Remus’ cheek with his fingertips. "No. Wanted t’ say... love you."

Remus took Sirius’ hand between both of his.

Lily covered her mouth with her hands, ignoring the fact that one hand still clutched the dollar bills. Say it, Remus. Say it!

And then he did: "I love you, too, Sirius."

She watched as Remus leaned over and pressed his lips to Sirius’ forehead.

They were oblivious to her departure.

********


Sirius carefully eased his way through the throng of shoppers, occasionally glancing down at the pastries that were precariously balanced on the tops of the two Styrofoam cups. He got more than one angry glance and heard more than one person mutter, "He doesn’t think he’s getting to the front before us, does he?"

I’m already ahead of you all, so whinge all you’d like. He couldn’t help the smirk that spread itself across his face.

"Excuse us, love," Sirius said to another woman who was clutching a book so tightly it seemed her fingernails were making dents in the cover.

She gave him the once-over then curled her lip in disdain. "Who are you? I’ve been waiting in line for an hour, and—"

"I’m Jasper’s Terry," Sirius said with a grin and a wink. While she stood there debating exactly what he meant, he slipped past her.

Fortunately, the book shop owner had been watching for him and managed to convince the people at the front of the queue to let him pass without incident. Sirius slid the pastry onto the table next to Remus’ left elbow and placed one of the cups next to it.

"Tea, three sugars, a bit of cream," he announced, "and something unbelievably sweet and sticky."

Remus glanced up from the book he’d been signing and gave Sirius a quick smile. "You have no idea how much I love you right now."

Sirius waited until the woman in front of them was gone and the next person was shuffling forward before bending down and whispering, "Maybe you can prove it to me later. I can think of something sweet and sticky..."

The left side of Remus’ lips started to rise, but he merely reached for the book that the next person was handing to him, asking, "What name would you like on here?"

"Michael. And can I say, Mr Wolfe, that Bright Moon was very inspirational to me."

Sirius hid a smile by taking a sip of his coffee. Whenever a man claimed Remus’ fourth book had been ‘very inspirational’, it typically meant it had convinced him to come out of the closet. Remus hadn’t intended for his book to become such a catalyst, but it had, especially when he finally made his relationship with Sirius known in an article for Writer’s Point of View a year ago. The irony that it was the magazine that had led Sirius to find Remus again was not lost on either of the two men.

"I hope you found someone special," Remus commented, finishing his signature with a flourish.

"I did," the young man on the other side of the table replied, almost shyly.

Remus handed the book back to him with a smile. "Good luck, then."

Sirius settled back in the folding chair next to Remus. "Good news: you’ve only got fifty more books to sign."

"Then we can go home."

Sirius heard the longing tone. It had been a long three months, making appearances at bookstores, libraries, and universities throughout the UK, promoting the seventh book of the ‘Moon’ series. "Two months of peace and quiet before we’re off again," Sirius reminded him.

"Why did I agree to let them make movies out of these books?" Remus grumbled, reaching for the next book.

"To get more money to keep me in the style to which I’ve become accustomed," Sirius teased.

The author said nothing, though the corner of his mouth twitched as if he wanted to smile, but wasn’t going to give Sirius the satisfaction. Sirius sat back and watched his lover interacting with his adoring readers. He was unfailingly patient—more than Sirius was. By the time the line had dwindled to eight people (by Sirius’ count), Sirius was fidgeting and making no attempt to hide the fact that he was ready to leave.

He sighed mightily, and Remus cast a stern look his way.

The girl who was in front of Remus bit her lip with uncertainty at the dark-haired man’s sign of impatience, but then recognition lit up her eyes. "You’re Sirius."

Both Remus and Sirius looked up in surprise.

"Do we know each other?" Sirius asked cautiously.

The girl blushed. "I read the article in Writer’s Point of View. I thought you two looked—cute—together."

Sirius leaned over and draped his arm over Remus’ shoulder. "Cute? We’re bloody adorable." He grinned at the sudden profusion of cameras and camera phones, knowing that Remus’ grin would be forced.

"Would you mind signing my book, too?" the girl asked, pushing it in Sirius’ direction.

The two men looked at each other. Sirius could see the gleam of amusement in Remus’ blue eyes and knew that the only thing that could be seen on his face was confusion.

He turned his eyes back to the girl. "Me?"

"If you don’t mind, Mr Wolfe..." she said hurriedly.

"I don’t mind at all," Remus said, holding the pen out to Sirius.

"I think you’re one of the most romantic couples I’ve ever read about," the girl opined.

"Only because you don’t have to deal with his snoring," Remus muttered.

"Or his cooking," Sirius shot back, grinning. Their eyes met and under the table, Remus’ hand fell on Sirius’ knee, squeezing lightly. Trying to disregard the sudden rush of lust through his veins, the editor signed his name, not caring if some of his letters intertwined with those in Remus’ name. After all, the two of them were quite often intertwined themselves...

He closed the book, his eyes rising to meet Remus’. "You realise we have to stay together now. Otherwise, she’ll have to tear my name out of here, and it would be a shame to do that to a defenceless book."

Remus chuckled. "Together for life, if only for the book’s sake, then."

They grinned at each other, knowing they probably looked like fools, but not caring.

"Mr Wolfe, is it true you won’t be writing another ’Moon’ book?" the girl asked, interrupting their moment.

Remus straightened and handed the book back to her. "No. Seven of them are enough. It’s time to move in another direction, I think."

Sirius smiled, thinking of the eleven files on Remus’ laptop filled with the chapters of his next book.

"But what about Terry and Jasper? Will they be all right?"

Remus’ eyebrows rose slightly, and he turned his head to look at Sirius. "I think Terry’s the best thing that ever happened to Jasper. He helps Jasper to not take things too seriously. They laugh and find joy in one another. Terry’s the light that Jasper needs when life is dark. I don’t think Jasper’s going to allow Terry to go any time soon. What did you think, Sirius?"

Sirius rested his forearm on Remus’ shoulder, leaning in closer so that their noses were almost touching, and Remus couldn’t help but see how confident he was in his reply. "I know that Jasper is Terry’s rock. He’s dependable and strong but above all, he reminds Terry that life has to have substance, or it’s nothing more than smoke and mirrors. There will be tears and sorrow in life, and Terry knows he would never want to go through those dark times without the solidity that Jasper brings to him. No, I don’t think Terry and Jasper could do without each other."

"You know that’s how Terry feels, do you?" Remus whispered.

Sirius nodded once. "Absolutely."

Unexpectedly, Remus leaned in closer to brush a light kiss on Sirius’ lips, something he rarely did in public. Then he looked back up at the girl, who was watching them with an awestruck expression. "I think Terry and Jasper will be fine," he said, his blue eyes dancing with joy.
marauderbigbang: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] marauderbigbang at 09:40am on 12/09/2010
Title: Substitute
Author: [personal profile] starstruck1986
Artists: [profile] stubbel and [personal profile] tortugax
Pairing(s): Remus/Severus, secondary Remus/Sirius, James/Lily, imagined Lily/Severus.
Rating and Warnings: NC-17, coarse language, slash, angst, mentions of torture, minor character death, a slightly dark!Severus.
Summary: Two men lost in memories they cannot fight find the perfect substitute in each other, but even their solace is tainted.
Word Count:~20,825
Notes: With huge thanks to my betas, S and K -your handholding made my first big bang so much easier!
Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all characters, places, objects, ideas, and related material are the property of JK Rowling and her various publishing entities. Neither the author, the artists, nor the [personal profile] marauderbigbangare in any way making a monetary profit from this posting.


Substitute

With the wind rattling the windowpanes, and the rain sloshing them with a continual pattering rhythm, darkness crept into every corner of the tiny bedroom. Remus found himself even breathing quietly, flicking his eyes between the minute rise and fall of his own chest and the rumble of the weather beyond the curtains.

He swallowed, letting the absurdity of the situation sweep him up. Remus was worried by his own nudity, as he lay in sheets which, considering their hurried actions the night before, could have done with a strong soak in the wash. They smelt foreign, though not unwelcoming. He looked at the yellowing ceiling and wondered if he should say something.

Lying next to him was the most unlikely bedfellow he could ever have imagined. Long, painfully thin, his hair as lank as ever and as dark as night, was Severus Snape, who seemed to be existing in the same shroud of quietness that Remus himself had adopted. Together they lay in silence, though Remus didn't know if Severus was paying any attention at all to the harsh weather beyond the confines of the house like he was, simply for something to think about.

As it happened, Severus was. He had grown up in the North and was used to the rough weather, though it never stopped him from appreciating it. He turned his head on the pillow and looked out at the lashing rain. Next to him he heard the steady and peaceful drawing of breath from Remus, who somehow knew to be quiet, knew to keep his words to himself and not to ruin the subdued little bubble they had become submerged in.

Severus' fingers had begun to ache from their knotted position. Although Remus had made that move, the one of reaching across the mattress and picking up his hand, it made Severus uncomfortable; yet, the inclination to free up his bones, to wriggle life back into them, was absent.

He knew this was largely due to the fact that his inclination to do anything -or more succinctly everything- had deserted him. Lying there holding hands with a werewolf was far more satisfactory than the thought of moving his arm to prevent the contact. With a slight sniff, Severus wondered when he had become so idle. The pressure on his hand was tight and constant, and not for the first time he questioned quite what the wizard lying next to him was taking from their company.

Shifting slightly, Severus felt an ache rippling along his hamstrings from the new and challenging exercise they had been subjected to the evening before. It took a deep breath to force himself to peruse the memories, to see Remus' red face again, drum up the sexual moans and calls of his name which had filled his bedroom as they'd simply fucked out the tension which thrummed through both of their bodies.

Severus was at odds, however, to decide on the reason as to quite why his bed was still occupied. Dawn had come and gone with very little in the way of revelation, bringing nothing new except the aches in his body from his first experience of sleeping with a member of the same sex. Fighting hard to keep a blush from his face, Severus swallowed on his dry throat and turned his attention back to the rain.

Remus watched the shift of his head and the oily crease of his hair on the pillow. Not for the first time since six the evening before, a question regarding Severus' personal hygiene was on the tip of his tongue. Biting down hard on the wet muscle, Remus forced it away. His scars were horrific enough and Severus had barely even looked twice at them, and the least Remus felt he could do was neglect to mention the physical traits of the wizard that he found displeasing in return.

The night before was a disconcerting blur to him, and as he sifted through the memories he found himself unable to recount the moments between leaving the pub and arriving back at the place which Severus had called Spinner's End. He remembered the sex -of course he remembered that- but falling asleep was a similar whir in his mind of colour and quiet. Overriding everything was an increasingly curious tide of questions, which threatened to burst out of him. As far as he knew, Severus was straight, and therefore to have his advances not only accepted, but acted upon, had surprised him. Lying in the man's bed, in total silence, did not seem like the opportune moment to ask, however.

Still staring at the window, Severus wondered if it would be polite to request that the werewolf leave. He had things to be getting on with, books to study and household duties to attend to. He was not yet used to living alone, his mother only having been dead for five months. The thought of her sent a harsh pang through his gut which he immediately chased away. The curtains suddenly caught his eye and a snarl sprung to his lips.

The bedroom had been his since he was old enough for an adult-sized bed. He had always loathed the curtains.




August 31st, 1971

The house was too quiet as Severus placed another of his new textbooks on the bottom of his brand new trunk. He tried not to think about the argument their expense had caused, or the angry crashes that followed. Softly he smoothed his fingers over the top of one of them, letting the pads trail over the gilt lettering. He had already read it from cover to cover. He placed it next to the others and reached for the clothes his mother had left out for him.

His stomach gave a nervous wobble as he thumbed the plain black robe, as of yet without house insignia, though his mother had made several comments about Slytherin, and her expectations. Licking his lips, Severus considered the houses again. Other than Slytherin, his only real option seemed to be Ravenclaw, where his intelligence might, for the first time in his life, allow him to shine.

Hufflepuff is for people who only have their loyalty and Gryffindor... not brave enough for Gryffindor.

Blinking the thoughts away, he carefully folded the spare robe and set it down as though it was gold on top of his books. Knowing how odd he must look, Severus bent over the wooden box and shoved his face into it: the scents of freshly crafted wood, new books and new clothes wafted up to him, causing a smile to blossom onto his face. It was all new, and it was all his, and what was more, his father couldn't sell it, because the money had come from Severus' grandparents for his schooling.

Reaching for the selection of freshly washed pants, Severus laid them meticulously on top of the robes, knowing that nobody would care if his trunk was perfect or a mess, other than himself. Severus had quickly learnt that if anybody was going to care about him, it would have to be himself.

Or Lily.

The thought of her sent his smile wider as warmth flared in his belly. She would probably be packing her trunk at that moment, just like him, and Severus, though he was only eleven, felt the call of destiny just beyond the window. Glancing up he saw the horrible curtains, drab and heavy with dust.

It made him consider the rest of the room, which he tried not to do very often as it only made him hate it just that little bit more. The walls were bare, painted a horrible brown colour, which his mother had thought a good idea on moving in. The carpet was thin and overall there was nothing in the room he would be sorry to say goodbye to.

In fact, if he could have -and he had asked- he would have made his mother take him down to London on that very day, rather than travelling on the morning of the train by Floo to the city, and then travelling across it. The thought of missing the train made him anxious.

He couldn't miss it; he couldn't miss his one and only chance to escape the tiny, badly decorated room, and the barely larger, even more poorly decorated house.

A door suddenly slammed below him and he jumped, looking wildly around at all of the things he still had spread out on the bed, yet to be packed. He had hoped to complete his packing before his father returned home, so that he might not ruin any of his precious new belongings.

Hastily, Severus threw everything he could on top of the perfectly packed trunk, and slammed the lid shut. There were feet thudding clumsily along the hallway below him, and they fell in time to his thudding heart. Looking at his wand on the dresser, Severus wished he could lock the trunk with it to protect his possessions. He also wished he could lock the bedroom door, to protect himself.




A shiver ran through Severus' body as he jerked out of the memory. As hard as he could, he fought to keep the recollections of that last night at home locked up in his mind, to not leave them out any longer for perusal when another shared his bed. He shivered hard again, and that time, as though it knew it was being remembered, his right arm gave a low throb. Hissing slightly, he jumped when he looked up and met Remus' eye.

One light eyebrow rose slightly, as if asking him what was wrong. Severus shook his head, unwilling to speak and offer any insight into why he was shuddering in a pleasantly warm bed. Remus didn't ask again, and instead looked back up at the ceiling.

Remus kept quiet, acknowledging the fact that Severus appeared to be every bit as secretive in his adult life as he had been at Hogwarts. Their hands were still knotted together between their bodies and Remus couldn't help the light squeeze he gave the slender bones wrapped with his own. There was no response from Severus. Further unable to help his quick glance to the right, Remus looked at the pale, narrow face staring blankly at the walls. Dark eyes were impenetrable, meaning that they were so very unlike the first time he had ever seen them.



September 1st, 1971

“Gryffindor!”

Remus was too nervous to feel comforted by the hat's proclamation, but he was happy that his fingers had stopped shaking as he set the old, patched fate-decider down on the stool he'd vacated, and took his first steps to the right, to his future. However, the first real inklings of pleasure crept into his veins as he thought how his Dad would be pleased at his acceptance into Gryffindor, the house he himself had been in whilst at Hogwarts.

Making his way quietly to the table, Remus saw a dark-haired boy shift up for him, and a pretty girl with long red hair on the opposite side to them smiled.

“Hello,” the boy said, almost nervously. “I'm Sirius. Who are you?”

His blunt phrasing startled Remus, but he recovered himself to answer with his name and a light smile. He looked over the wood to the girl and opened his lips to ask, but she beat him to it.

“I'm Lily,” she held out her hand politely. “It's nice to meet you.”

“Pettigrew, Peter!” the elderly Deputy Head's voice called shrilly over the assembled students, and Remus watched thoughtfully as a plump, blond boy stepped forward and placed the hat on his head.
“Hufflepuff,” Sirius predicted quietly from behind him.

Remus ignored him, and caught the green eyes of Lily, who appeared to be doing the same. From the look on her face, it didn't appear that she thought much of the regal boy, who sat there straight-backed and glossy haired, looking bored with everything.

“Gryffindor!” the hat cried. Remus met his hands together politely, resisting the urge to turn and see whether Sirius had a surprised look on his face.

Suddenly, the hall felt very large and very busy, and Remus shrunk in the middle of them. The hat called forward its next sortee and he focussed on regulating his breathing. The people that surrounded him, from the haughty boy sitting next to him on the bench to the older, scarier looking Slytherins a few tables over, were people -peers, even- that he would have to conceal his secret from. Dumbledore had impressed upon him the importance of his care, and though he was party to some of the measures that had made his attendance at Hogwarts possible, Remus felt he had only scraped the surface of the strings pulled to allow him to sit there in the hallowed hall, and feel uncontrollably small.

“Potter, James,” the deputy continued. A boy with madly messy black hair strolled forward, a lazy grin on his lips to match the low ride of his glasses on his straight nose. Remus immediately felt a pang of jealousy in his gut and frowned slightly. The hat barely even touched James Potter's head before he was decided as Gryffindor, and the smug smile widened as he removed it and headed for their table.

“Hello again, then,” James raised his eyebrows in Sirius' direction. “What's your mum going to say about you being here, then?”
“I don't care,” Sirius shrugged nonchalantly, smoothing his fingertips over the polished wood in a way which told Remus that, actually, Sirius cared very much about his mother's reaction.
“And you are?” James suddenly demanded of him, and Remus stuttered over his own breath.
“Remus,” he murmured shyly.
“Where are you from?” James tilted his head. “I don't recognise your accent.”
“Oh... sort of... Gloucestershire way... you wouldn't know it...”
“That's why you sound all farmer, then,” James laughed.

Remus went red. He had never really questioned his accent before.

“I think you sound lovely,” Lily said loudly, causing all four of the boys to look at her, and unlike Remus, she did not blush at their attention. “I'm from near Manchester and I love it when boys sound like where they're from.”

James, who Remus thought sounded generically British, immediately looked put out.

“Snape, Severus,” the voice rang out, and Remus noticed how Lily's head jerked up so sharply that she must have hurt her neck. He noticed that her fingers curled into tight fists and the forefinger and middle fingers of each were crossed, as if wishing on something.
“Slytherin's welcome to him, creepy git,” James said, none too quietly, and Lily threw him a murderous look.

Remus turned to watch on the stage at the boy who had divided their table so quickly. He saw nothing special -in fact, Severus Snape looked to be ridiculously thin and pale, with badly cut shoulder-length hair. His face was torn up in concentration as the hat clearly spoke to him within his mind.

“Slytherin!”
“Oh, no,” Lily's words were an almost silent breath, but Remus heard them, and he turned back to her to see her sad face.
“Are you friends?” he asked perceptively. “Did you want to be in the same house?”

Lily didn't answer him, choosing instead to try and make eye contact with the new Slytherin as he made his way from the stage. A floating candle caught Severus Snape's face and Remus still found nothing remarkable, except perhaps his eyes. They were impossibly black, cold looking, Remus thought, but at that moment there was no denying the emotion behind them. They fixed on the girl with the long, red plait hanging over her shoulder, and gave the boy a look of desperation.

In a flash, however, the emotion vanished, and narrow shoulders broadened as much as they possibly could; the boy continued on his way to meet his new housemates. Lily slumped in her seat, looking miserable, and Remus watched her throughout the rest of the sorting, and dinner, where she never managed to look any happier.




Remus found himself absently smiling at the recollection of his first night at Hogwarts. Everything had seemed so large, so impressive. It all glittered and shone, including Sirius' hair, and was perfect. Remus knew that he hadn't thought Sirius so then, but he couldn't have predicted then that the boy would become his lover.

Licking his lips, he wondered how they had ever ended up together. That first night, Sirius had acted so pompously with James as they had all undressed for the first night of the next seven years together, Remus was considering asking to be re-sorted and choosing, when the hat offered again, to go into Ravenclaw.

They were nothing like the reserved man in the bed next to him. Not for the first time, Remus' face grew hot thinking of the obscenity that would be flying from Sirius' mouth if he could see the pair of them. As ever, the flames were doused by the big wall of truth which reared in front of him, a wall that looked suspiciously like the outer wall of Azkaban, as he had always imagined it.

An inventive mind had always been a part of Remus' curse, to some extent. He saw the wall again as he lay there, dark with slimy moss and the stone beaten by the harsh salty air of the North Sea. The thought of the man he loved, behind it, feeding the Dementors, made him shudder. It only drove him to be further at odds with himself; he loathed the thought of Sirius alone, depressed, maybe even mad -who knew? And yet, the man, his lover, his everything, had supposedly murdered twelve muggles and decimated Peter to nothing.

Remus had given up trying to guess the truth. He was intelligent enough to know that it would only hurt him when he found it. All he could do was to wait, and to hope, even if it seemed hard to come by.

During his musing, Remus did not notice that he was under surveillance. Severus watched him with an interested expression, but it was not for any great wondering what the werewolf might be thinking about. No, Severus watched because the distant facial features, the slight fogginess of the man's eyes, reminded him of Lily. It reminded him of how she looked when he talked, when she wasn't really listening, and her mind was instead far away. But Lily was never rude enough to say as much -and thus the look gave her away when she wanted to listen, and wanted to think at the same time.




November, 1973

Severus idly watched as Lily's quill flew across the page. Her eyes were down-turned to her parchment, yet they were not focussed. Wetting his lips, Severus turned a page in his book for good measure, to at least give the outward appearance of working.

It was unlike him to slack, and he knew it, but that day, with the weather so miserable outside the window, and Lily so radiant in front of it, had him uneasy. Her hair was for once loose, falling in an auburn wave over her shoulders, and the feather of her quill caught on it as she feverishly wrote. Severus had already completed the History of Magic essay but she had refused to let him help her.


“Sev?” her voice startled him, and his first thought was to look busy.
“Mm?”
“Why are you staring at me?”
“I'm not,” he inwardly cursed the blush rising in his cheeks.

She stared at him, a smile curving up her lips, and her eyebrows rose in question. “Looks like you are.”
“I'm not,” he protested.
“It's... if you are, then that's alright,” she blushed herself then, dropping her eyes and taking up her essay again.

Severus fought for breath in the dry air of the library. Suddenly the books were his enemy, sapping the moisture from the oxygen he needed to keep his composure, and he hated them.

“But it puts me off a bit,” she continued, and her tongue, pink and glistening, darted out to sit in the corner of her mouth. He had seen her make the move so many times that he had grown used to thinking nothing of it; but that day it sent tingles down into the pit of his belly. “You're being weird today,” she laughed suddenly, throwing down her quill. “What's the matter?”

“Nothing,” Severus blinked quickly and looked down at his parchment. “I... I'm fine.”
“Then why are you staring and being all... clingy?”
“I'm not,” he looked at her in horror. “I'm sorry.”
“There's nothing to be sorry about,” she shook her head. “It's just unusual for you... you're Sev, and you're all strong and.... you.”

“Does that... do you want me to stop? Because I will,” Severus looked at her, worried, scared rigid that she might tell him that she didn't want to be friends any more, that she was going to take up with Potter and his group of fools.
“No,” she huffed, exasperated. “Sev...”

He barely held in his gasp as her hand found his right knee beneath the library table. It was gentle and warm, seeping through the fabric of his baggy robe -an overly large robe that Severus suddenly found himself extraordinarily glad of as he felt his body respond to her touch. He was only thirteen, but he knew what it meant, and he knew he enjoyed what happened when his cock stiffened. It twitched in his pants, and all of a sudden he was so caught up in the sensation of it throbbing between his legs and her hand on his knee, that he completely forgot that she had been speaking to him.

“You know that you're my best friend,” she smiled warmly, jerking him out of the happy stupor he'd fallen in to. It threatened to rise again when she reached up and picked some fluff from his shoulder, and the back of her hand brushed against his jawline. “And always will be.”

His sexual tension slipped away and Severus managed a smile for her on hearing the words which he craved to hear the most. The withdrawal of her hand was a far greater loss than it ever should have been, and Severus grew dark inside, wondering how long it would be before 'friend' was not enough, and 'love' became what he craved to hear.

Lily sighed and put away her essay, before pulling out what looked to be the notes she'd taken during their lessons. She set down a fresh piece of parchment and set to copying them out.

“What are you doing?” Severus frowned, unable to see her logic in needing two sets of notes. “There are spells for that, you know?”
“Oh, I know, but I'm not very good at them yet, and these are for Remus.”
“Lupin?” Severus clarified, jealousy eviscerating any remnants of randy ambience still floating in his body. “Why can't his friends take his notes when he's off faking being sick?”
“He's not faking, Sev,” she frowned. “He's really ill. And he's nice, so don't be mean, alright?”

Severus didn't want to argue with her, but he folded his arms over his chest. “I can't see why Potter and Black can't do it, I mean, it's not like he's your responsibility.”
“Would you trust anything those idiots had written down?” Lily laughed. “Do you really blame Remus for asking someone else?”
“No,” Severus had to concede, and picked up his wand. “Stop, Lils.”

She obeyed and withdrew her hand, and Severus pointed his wand at the parchment. It immediately filled with an exact copy of Lily's neat script, and he continued until everything had been copied. Her face, when he looked up at it, was openly awed, and her smile warped into a beam as she met his eye.

“You're a genius,” she threw her hands up. “My clever, wonderful best friend.”

Her words lit him up inside, and, as he opened his Herbology textbook, Severus felt better than he had all week.




A crack of thunder outside made Severus jerk humiliatingly in the bed, and he didn't miss the slight snort of laughter Remus let out. Taking a deep breath, he tried to shake off the feeling of Lily's hand touching his leg, which was maddeningly still present in the skin and bone.

The more he considered it, the stronger it grew, and it quickly became unbearable, that phantom touch which he would never, ever feel again. Desperate, Severus threw his leg out to the side so that it crashed hard into Remus', and though it was all wrong, his skin touching scratchy hair and too much muscle and none of the smoothness he desired, the phantom touch was no longer phantom. Remus was warm, and that was enough.

Remus bit into his lip as the touch jostled him, and he felt the hairs of Severus' leg mingle with his own. Light would mingle with dark, as it had done once before, and his throat thickened. Sirius had long legs, and the knees were not knobbly, only strong, like his thighs. His feet were always hot; warm enough to heat Remus when he was frozen.

Seized by confusion, Remus didn't know what Severus expected of him, whether he wanted more touch. The other wizard's movement had stirred the sheets, and Remus smelt Severus then. The mixture of tea and herbs settled oddly in his nostrils. It made his stomach lurch as it drove away the memory he so carefully clung to -of Sirius, and his scent.




March, 1974

Sitting on his bed, watching James play-wrestle Peter around the dormitory, Remus grinned and, all over again, couldn't believe his luck. The boys whom he had disliked at first, who played rough and teased and endlessly jibed, had become his friends, and Remus had never had friends before. The secret keeping part had gone awry, and it shamed him to admit it.

A crackle of excess horror travelled down his spine and he wondered why they had all not run screaming. There was, sometimes, in the glint of his watery eyes, something which told Remus that Peter of the three of them trusted him the least. But James and Sirius, as roguish and over-confident as they were, had sat with serious faces and listened, probably for the first time in their lives, and then they had stayed.

It was perfect. Sirius had even begun sneaking out to him on the morning after the full moon to check he had transformed back properly. The four of them formed a 'merry band of trouble', as one of their teachers had put it, and Remus had never felt more included, or more appreciated, in his entire life. Peter squawked for mercy and James crowed triumphantly, and Remus laughed at their resultant tussle.

However, they both jumped when the dormitory door burst open and hit the wall with a resounding bang. Sirius' face was a mask of thunder, and his eyes were flashing dangerously in the candlelight.

“What now?” James picked himself up off the floor.
“Oh, who do you think?” Sirius snarled, reaching up to loosen the neck of his robes, half-strangling himself in the process.
“Maybe Prince Regulus?” Peter offered, though he stayed well away from Sirius and his infamous Black temper.
“Who fucking else?!” Sirius erupted, lobbing his bag onto his bed and kicking the base for good measure. “Bloody Slytherin knob can't keep his nose in his own business long enough to let me live my life!”

The three boys sat in silence, waiting for Sirius to continue his tirade. Remus watched the harsh rise and fall of his chest and wondered if the others saw the true distress in his expression.

“I mean she's... I'll get another howler in the morning, all because he saw me talking to someone with Muggle blood... I mean... come on! It's not...” frustrated, Sirius broke off and closed his eyes, and then began to tear at his school robes desperately, as though they were a painful burden.

Remus couldn't take his eyes from the slim frame that appeared, covered in olive-toned skin to offset glossy black hair perfectly.

“I hate them,” Sirius threw contemptuously from the depths of his t-shirt, which was borrowed from Remus due to the fact that Walburga Black had never allowed her sons to dress in Muggle clothing for longer than necessary. It was old, and slightly holey along one seam, but Sirius worked it like he worked everything else, even though the muscles of his arms cut into the tight sleeves. Long legs were hastily stuffed into brown corduroys and then Sirius reached up and scrubbed at his hair.

When his hands pulled away, Remus thought he saw moisture in Sirius' grey eyes.

“Stop whinging,” James said finally, throwing himself on his bed. “I know he's a brat but he's your little brother. Aren't they supposed to be?”
“You haven't got a clue,” Sirius whirled to face him. “None of you. None of you know what it's like to have someone reporting your every little move back home to Mummy.”

His voice choked slightly on the last word, and, alarmed, Remus sat up straight, prepared to talk it through with him rationally. However, he was too late, and the dorm door clattered shut again as Sirius left.

“Well done,” Remus muttered sarcastically, as he eased off the bed to follow when James made no effort to move.
“He's such a bloody queen,” James protested.

Remus didn't wait to hear the rest of it as he headed for the stairs. He didn't have to go far.

Sirius was only two revolutions below on the twisting staircase, and Remus came to a halt as he took in the painful sight. The tall boy had his head bowed and his face in his hands, and there was definite sniffling. Sirius Black, so regal, so proud and strong, was crying.

“Sirius?” Remus asked softly, trying not to startle him into running again.

His friend turned, and peeked through his fingers. Remus saw wet, reddened skin, and was immediately struck by the beauty in Sirius' face. Following that revelation, he was also hit by the absurdity of his thought -boys didn't find other boys beautiful.

“I'm fine,” Sirius lied, sniffing hard and wiping his face. “Please don't...”
“Tell the others?” Remus stepped down the last two stairs separating them. “I'm too good at keeping secrets for my own good.”
“We still found you out,” Sirius whispered, and Remus blushed.
“True.”

Moving without really considering his actions, Remus reached and put his arms around Sirius' torso, happily sliding into comforting mode. It surprised him when Sirius did not push him away, and seemed to relish the offer.

Holding him close felt far more pleasurable than Remus had thought it might -not that he had ever thought about it before- and the smell of Sirius' skin and hair rose into his nostrils. There was a rich aroma of coffee, like the scent that wafted from the staff table at breakfast, and something sweeter. Not daring to sniff harder lest Sirius notice his interest, Remus contented himself with the coffee. Sirius was warm against him and some of the wetness on his face transferred onto Remus' neck. He wondered why he enjoyed it.




The coffee was rife in his nose and Remus shuddered. It was both unavoidable and unnoticeable, and he felt Severus' dark eyes on him in question. Trying to bridge the tension, Remus dragged his hand out from beneath the warm duvet and pinched at the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes. The move did nothing, and it certainly didn't drive Sirius' mouthwatering aroma out of his senses, although he did feel better sheltered beneath the shadow of his hand.

Severus watched him silently, wondering what had flickered through the man's mind to make him hide. He knew that Remus was hiding, purely because Severus had spent so much time hiding himself. He let out a tiny sigh and watched it lift the fine hairs which trailed down onto Remus' shoulder. The hair was longer than he had ever known it at Hogwarts. It rather suited the werewolf, he decided. But the pale skin, which was littered with vicious scratches, did not suit. It was enough to make any man wince. Severus merely looked away. Lily had always cared for Remus, they had been firm friends. The thought that, perhaps, her gentle hands might have healed those scratches immediately after they were inflicted made him nauseous. Lily had never touched his bare skin beyond his hands.

He was madly envious.




July, 1976

Severus sighed and closed the book, running his thumb along the spine. The leather encased pages were banned within the walls of the Hogwarts library. It had probably never even so much as graced a shelf. The copy was his own, passed down from his Mother's father. It was falling apart, and the pages were spotted with age and use. It was the book which enabled him to beat Potter and Black in every Potions lesson. Looking around on the bed, his other favourites were spread out. It was so boring and lonely without Lily to see every day that he had taken to reading his old books again, the books about Dark Magic, books his teachers would cringe to see him read.

A satisfied sneer twisted his lips and Severus fell back on the bed with one hand cradling the base of his skull. The ceiling of his room was yellowed and old, not repainted from when his parents had been given the house by the council. The bed beneath his back was uncomfortable, but at least he wasn't too tall for it just yet. Idly he reached down and scratched at his stomach, eyes trailing to the clock. It had been three hours since he'd last been out, lingering in the places he thought Lily might be.

Severus didn't care that hanging around to see her made him look sad. That, as a sixteen-year-old boy he had better things to do, such as wanking, just like the rest of the boys in his year. But he didn't care about that, not when the person he wanted to wank about had told him she was done with him. Swallowing on a hot throat, Severus got to his feet and anxiously paced up and down in front of the window.

Outside the weather was glaringly hot, bouncing off the pavements and stinging dark eyes like his. But the lure of finding her, and perhaps making her talk to him, was too strong; it had him reaching for the battered old trainers which were too small for him.

***
You could use that hex to turn him inside out... Severus mused, mooching along the riverbed and kicking sticks out of his way as he thought of horrific things to do to James Potter.

Break his leg with a tripping jinx.

Severus paused, raking his foot over something in the dirt. What came into view was a freshly deceased mouse, and grotesquely interested, he crouched to look at it. It had clearly been caught and killed by a bird and then dropped from the trees. Its death had been in vain when the bird hadn't even thought to find it again to eat. Glancing around for any sign of life, Severus put his hands to the earth and scooped out a shallow grave, and he nudged the mouse's dead, sad little body into it before covering it again.

Does imagining doing those things to him make you any better than Dad?

His own mind betrayed him and Severus got abruptly to his feet, brushing the earth from his fingers and scowling down at the impromptu grave. His mother had acquired several painful looking trails over her skin in his absence. Severus wondered what she had done to deserve them that time -it was never anything much. Spine rigid, he set off along the riverbank, staring moodily at the gently flowing water.

Shame it isn't deep enough to drown him in.

He was sure that boys of his age weren't meant to make glib comments about drowning their fathers, like the ones he thought and even fantasised about daily, at least during the holidays when he was faced with the man on a continual basis. At Hogwarts they faded, only spiking with a tense and tellingly non-descriptive letter from his mother, which were few and far between.

Without Lily to keep him occupied, the thoughts had been thicker, faster, and realer -he could almost see the bloated shape of his father's face in the water, the dark hair he had inherited swirling around his drenched face.

A shudder ricocheted down his spine and Severus stopped, shaking his limbs slightly to force out the ill-feeling which had swept him. Only then did he catch sight of the red hair and pensive expression which, for all he knew, might have been on him since burying the mouse.

“Lily,” he breathed, taking an eager step forward. It sparked life in his chest that she did not take a step back from him. “Please talk to me?”
“What's there to talk about?” she shrugged, turning away, and Severus couldn't help it; he leapt forward and laid his hand on her shoulder. The skin of his palm burned with a fervent desire he was sure hadn't been there the last time he'd touched Lily Evans.
“I can't be apart from you,” he pleaded. “I can't, Lils, I need you...”
“Well you should have thought of that-”
“Whilst I was dangling upside down showing everyone my drawers... and...” he knew he flushed then, and another shudder passed through his body remembering the terrifying moment he'd felt the breeze on his cock, and understood quite what James Potter had done to him. “Everything on show?”

With his shudder came something new, which Severus hadn't previously felt in his self-pity. It was anger, prickling through his veins and out of his skin.

“What would you have done?” he asked finally. “If they'd done that to you?”
“I wouldn't have lashed out at somebody who tried to help me,” she folded her arms over her beautifully developing chest. Severus couldn't help the way that his eyes dipped down to it for a second before he spoke again.
“But I... it was them... and you know what he does to me, Lily, he drives me mad.”
“Because you're pathetic enough to let him!” she cried. “Severus, this isn't just about that... you've chosen your friends and I can't... feel the same way about you knowing that you want to know that kind of person.”
“What kind of person?” Severus challenged, his hackles rising further.
“You know,” Lily lowered her voice. “You know what they're going to do after school and I think... I think you will too, Severus, and I don't want you to.”

He stared at her, his mouth immediately parching, and didn't know what to say. He had spent so long looking for her, for them only to have a conversation that they struggled through several times before.

“I can't help what house I was sorted into,” he said finally. “They're my house mates... and I have to be with them in the evening whether I like it or not.”
“Do you like them?” Lily challenged.
“Not all of them,” Severus answered carefully. “Some of them are bigger idiots than Potter and Black.”
“But the ones you like are just evil,” she laughed.
“Why are you doing this?!” His voice rose with frustration, and he kicked hard at the ground, sending a shower of dirt over the white canvas shoes Lily was wearing.

The anger built inside of him until Severus felt something which scared him. It was not often that he was scared. He had grown up with a monster and was used to dealing with other monsters, but fear, when it gripped him, gripped him tight.

And so, when his hand started to twitch, the bones bending with longing to reach up and strike the girl he adored around the face for her lack of understanding, Severus felt sick. He took a huge gulp of air and found it only made his problem worse.

“Severus?” Lily's voice finally softened with concern, but at that moment he was too traumatised to listen.

Without another word he turned and ran back along the riverbed, his feet slipping when he got too close to the water. There were no worried shouts of his name behind him, no nothing, just silence, and he thought he would vomit if he had to be outside in the fresh air for one second longer. He didn't bother to stop and wipe his shoes on the mat as he barrelled through the back door, which would probably earn him a few blows with his father's belt later that evening, but all he needed was to get to the sanctity of his room. Slamming the door shut, Severus launched himself at the bed, where his face hit one of his beloved books, and he moaned as he slumped into the mattress.

As much as he hated his bedroom, and its awful décor, it was still his safe haven. The haven Tobias Snape rarely entered, and where his mother only kissed him goodnight at the door. Lily had never been inside it. His fingers twitched again and he bit into the blanket on top of the mattress, afraid of the fact that his father had passed on more than just a gene relating to his hair.




Without knowingly moving, Severus rolled onto his side and shifted into Remus' body. The heat was grounding and he needed to feel the other man beside him, no matter how alien the idea was. He tentatively lifted an arm and placed it over the man's belly, simply to touch and not be alone. Remus glanced at him but said nothing, which surprised Severus when he remembered all the times that Remus had tried to talk to him in their youth.

Remus licked his lips nervously and considered the feel of Severus wrapping around him. The heat was lovely and comforting, but he loathed the nervousness in the onyx eyes and pale countenance. Severus' face screamed fear of rejection, that, after everything they had done the night before, the bodily fluids that they had shared and words they had panted at one another, Remus would push him away and leave. To combat the tension slightly, Remus worked his arm around Severus' shoulders and placed his hand tentatively in the small of the man's back, where he felt the bumps of his spine. Now that he was the one fearing rejection, Remus closed his eyes. His lips tightened. Rejection had always scared him.




July, 1976

No matter how many times he told himself sternly to stop, Remus couldn't help but feel put out that Sirius had run away from home straight to James, rather than himself. He wondered if it was because his parents weren't well off, or because they didn't have a big house in which to accommodate him, or anything like the type that Sirius was used to. He hadn't voiced his discomfort, but it was very real, throbbing in his chest every time he saw them together.

It didn't help that something else was constantly throbbing, too. His mother had suggested inviting his friends over for a few days, despite their cramped little house. Remus had agreed to keep her happy, knowing that in reality she just wanted assurance that her little boy wasn't lonely at school, but had good friends who looked after him when she could not. The summer heat was fierce, with the news reporting droughts, hosepipe bans and dangerous warmth every day. As such, none of them were wearing very much, and the sight of Sirius' toned chest was sending his cock into overdrive. Remus had been forced to duck into the bathroom, the airing cupboard, the shed at short notice, to hide anywhere just to relieve his discomfort.

His attraction to Sirius had been growing with intense speed for over a year. True to form, Remus had kept his secret. He hadn't uttered a word, never shown any inclination towards men, which he had known since he was fifteen that he had. James and Sirius had been with them for two days -Peter was away on holiday with his family- and Remus wondered if his dick might actually fall off with exhaustion.

Snorting at the very idea, he made his way down to the kitchen to hunt out breakfast.
“Morning,” his father grunted from behind the paper. “Your mother's beside herself. It finally rained on the day of her garden party. Look out of the window, Remus.”

Remus did and saw an azure sky and scorching sun. “Oh dear.”
“Mmhmm, best make yourself scarce, last I heard she was thinking of holding a second one.”
“We'll head for the hills then,” Remus rolled his eyes and set some toast to brown under the grill. “Dad... do you think I might be able to have a bath today?”
“No!” his father dropped the paper, a mildly frantic look coming over his face.
“But it rained yesterday...”
“If the water company are snooping around the pipes, Remus, they'll see ours are wetter and then we'll get it in the neck for over-using during a drought. We're wizards but we have to fit in!”
“But I actually stink,” Remus lifted up an arm as if to prove it.
“Well, we all stink.”
“Shame, I felt so special,” he rolled his eyes.
“Go swimming with your friends, that'll make you smell a bit better.”
“Or I could just have a bath,” Remus muttered, yanking the toast off the grill and scraping as minimal butter as he could over the crunchy surface.

He heard his father's sigh behind him and didn't look at him.

“Remus, you couldn't feed a sparrow with what you've just made yourself for breakfast. We aren't that... poor,” his father struggled to get the word out.
“It's fine,” Remus lied. “Too much butter makes me ill anyway, so...”

He had to turn and look at his father to exit the kitchen, and when he did he hated the look of sadness he saw on the older wizard's face. It was just habit to him to use as little of everything as possible to save money. He hated the burden his illness put on his parents, who both worked hard for their earnings and had to use it to help him every month. The least he felt he could do was to try and be economical with the food.

“You're a growing lad,” his father muttered bitterly, then got up and left the kitchen, shaking his head.

Remus watched his retreating back and lost all appetite for the toast in his hand. He took a bite of it and a shower of crumbs sprayed over his bare top half. He trod them into the floor and headed back to his bedroom, wondering if another wash of his armpits in the sink would do without causing him to kill everyone when he needed a stretch.

His father was being overly pedantic. Wizards could produce water, and Remus was ninety-nine point nine percent sure that the water board were not sticking their heads down stinking waste pipes in the middle of a drought summer. But he only knew that the fastidiousness was down to his curse. They couldn't move, they didn't have the money, and so their Muggle neighbours couldn't be alerted to his and his father's abilities. Alongside that, his father was terrified of upsetting the Ministry in case it put Remus himself in jeopardy. There had only been another call for his death the year before from a health expert.

Shuddering, Remus passed the bathroom and then stopped dead. He could hear gushing, running water through the door. Gingerly he reached out for the handle and depressed it. The sight that met his eyes made him gape. Sirius was kneeling in the bath, completely naked, using his wand to shower water over his sweaty body.

“Sirius,” Remus breathed, closing the door and leaning against it. “My Dad's going to do his nut.”
“Your Dad will never know,” Sirius looked up at him, with the usual patented Black smile for I-can-do-anything-I-want.

Remus looked at the huddled form of Sirius' body, and how there was not one imperfection on his olive skin. It made him insanely jealous, considering the myriad of scars and scratches littering Remus' own flesh. He knew that if his fantasies ever came true, he would never match up to Sirius' staggering appeal.

“Get in,” Sirius whispered.
“What?” Remus jumped, sure he had heard wrong.
“Get your bloody clothes off and get in before your mad Dad finds us,” Sirius lifted his eyebrows. “Seriously, Remus, he's cracked, I swear.”
“You don't have to tell me that,” Remus was already kicking off his pyjama bottoms. “I've lived with him for seventeen years.”

Sirius had to work hard to keep his laugh low, and it turned into more of an adorable snort.

“Um.”
“Just take your pants off,” Sirius rolled his eyes.

Remus froze, unsure of what to do.

“Moony, I swear to Godric, get in the bloody bath!” Sirius cried, and they both jumped when his voice echoed off the tiles. “And if we're caught you can just say that it was all my fault and then you won't get bollocked, will you?”

Remus stepped into the bath, which was cool beneath his bare feet, all too aware of his swinging cock and balls. He quickly hid them from view as he folded down into the bottom of the tub. The first sweep of tepid water was heaven. The second was even better. Soon he was drenched and Sirius was sending water over him in rolling motions. When everything was clean, Remus looked up.

The motion clocked together two noses, one of which was his and the other Sirius'. They both groaned in pain and shifted, but that did something even worse. Remus suddenly wished he'd remained downstairs as their lips, wet and slippery from the water they had decadently poured over their faces, met. Sirius tasted sweet enough against his mouth and his blood began to pound through his veins. Blood flooded south to his groin and Remus wanted to die. There had never been a worse time to be naked.

But when Sirius' lips parted, mouthing against him, and a tongue folded out to tickle the crease of his closed counterparts, Remus went wide-eyed. A gentle smirk curved up Sirius' busy mouth, and Remus was frozen.

“Is one of you using an Aguamenti in there?!” a thump came on the bathroom door, and they both jumped guiltily apart.




Remus' throat had parched and he flung his lips open to gasp at the air, but it only stuck to the insides of his cheeks and furred his tongue, making the discomfort worse. Remembering his first ever kiss with Sirius Black had been a mistake. He had told himself he wouldn't remember it, and yet, there it had jumped into his subconscious with no more provocation than Severus cuddling desperately into his side. Remus let out a ragged breath, craving a drink. Yet he found that he could not muster the energy to ask Severus for one. For the first time since he had woken, Remus felt the need to return to his own empty flat, where he could gulp and gulp until the taste was gone from his mouth and the randy blood had drained from his cock.

His distress, however, seemed to go unnoticed by Severus, who remained by his side, staring dead ahead at the doorway, as though frightened of who might charge through it. Remus took a chance in lifting his hand and threading into dark strands of black. It was greasy to the touch, but he didn't care. He caressed Severus' scalp and held it tenderly. When there was no response, he began to worry.




January, 1978

Severus idled slowly along the corridor, ignoring the pain in his arm caused by the books clutched beneath it. He had spent the night in the library and not only did his hand ache from writing ten scrolls of research for his NEWT Potions coursework, he was slightly cross-eyed from squinting in the candlelight.

He wasn't sure why he was putting off heading back to the dormitory and giving up for the night. Bed beckoned like a favoured lover, into which he wanted to sink and touch, enjoy and fall asleep with. His feet, however, simply would not lead him down to the dungeons, and Severus didn't know why. He had been growing increasingly restless, if he was honest, with no real reason for his anxiety. He found himself unable to sleep, unable to talk to anybody. He had submersed himself in his homework and his spell development.

Shame you can't find anybody mad enough to let you try out Sectumsempra on them... Severus was particularly proud of the cutting spell that he had cornered. He'd tested it out on several old pillows and ignored the questions of his dorm mates when they asked why the floor was covered in feathers.

If he could have picked his test subject, Severus would have had a choice of two. He sneered at the flagstones as he walked, the candles in their ornate brackets lighting his way with shadowy flickers.

A loud giggle up ahead set him on edge. He knew that giggle -it was Lily's. He had heard it thousands of times in their childhood, because Lily was a giggler, and he would have known it anywhere. He had the good fortune to find a suit of armour to duck behind as the voices became louder.

“I know about Muggle things,” James Potter's voice was coy and persuading. “I know about that David Bowie bloke you like... and the Bay City Rollers.”
“How do you know about me liking the Bay City Rollers?” Lily laughed.

The breathlessness in her tone sent nausea creeping into Severus' belly.

“I saw the picture in your bag,” James' voice was smug.
“You went through my things?” Lily's tone took on a dangerous note and Severus hoped that Potter was about to see himself hexed.
“No... Mary did,” he answered. “I asked her what music you liked and she found out for me...”
“Oh. So... you went to all that trouble just to find out what I liked?” she asked hopefully.
“For you,” he answered with a simper.

Severus wished there was a receptacle big enough for the large amount of vomit brewing in his body. He stood and listened as Potter muttered something to the girl they both seemed to want, and heard her laugh again. It was no longer the pitying, unkind laugh that he had sometimes heard Lily use in Potter's direction. It was a laugh of happiness, a laugh of excitement -in short, one Severus had not heard her use in years, and especially not in his direction.

Wrapping one arm around his gut, Severus tried desperately to hold himself together and only just managed as he heard approaching footsteps. He thought they might pass him by, but when the suit of armour suddenly clunked and moved against his back, he went rigid with disgust.

“James, we can't kiss here,” Lily protested half-heartedly. “We're the Head Boy and Girl... this'll look a bit...”
“It'll look like two people who love each other kissing in a corridor.”

Severus wondered when love had come into the equation.

“Love? It's a bit soon for all that, James... I don't...”
“I've loved you since I was eleven,” he said earnestly. “Everything I ever did I did to try and impress you... and I feel such a dickhead for knowing I didn't have to do anything... I just had to be...” he trailed off. Severus thought he might die.

However, the feeling was nothing compared to what slammed into him only seconds later. The sound of wet kisses and gentle moans filtered around the suit to him. They were kissing and he was listening. Moving numbly, Severus propped his books in the alcove and slipped to sitting on the floor. When the smooching stepped up a notch he went as far as to cover his ears with his hands and shove his face into his knees.

You'll take what Lucius is offering.

The decision made his lips tremble. He had been putting off the blond for weeks. Now he had made his decision he already regretted it.

***
“Snape,” Avery got to his feet. “Slughorn was looking for you earlier, something about a message from home. I said I'd send you as soon as I found you.”

Severus froze, wondering if there was the possibility that his day could get any worse.

Please let it be him. Let it be him.

He knew there was only one real reason why there would be a message from home. As sure as he knew the sun would rise the next morning, Severus knew that either his mother or his father was dead. He knew which he would prefer it to be, as well. Nodding his thanks to his class mate, who sat back down and even looked at him with a vague expression of worry, Severus headed back to the entrance of the Slytherin common room and walked slowly, with his feet dragging, up through the castle to Professor Slughorn's office. Hope and despair mingled in his bloodstream, pulling him in every which direction, and Severus didn't know what to think or do.

He finally reached the office and knocked once, entering when beckoned. He knew from the look on Slughorn's face that he had been right.

“Which one?” he asked dully, and a moment of surprise lifted the older man's brows.
“Sit down, Severus, please.”
“No, I'm fine. Which one of them is dead?” he asked bluntly, stepping closer to the fire only to keep the shivers pawing at him away.
“Your father.”

Whereas his Head of House had looked surprised at his readiness before, Severus thought that perhaps the flash of relief in his eyes was not a shock to Horace Slughorn. He had never admitted anything, never admitted what he went through when his father was in a rage or even just a light temper. He had never let on about the abuse of his mother, of the many instruments his father used to try and keep them, and their 'freakish' magic, in check.

Severus swallowed and looked down at the carpet. “Does my mother need me at home to help arrange the funeral?”
“Severus, sit down, and I'll get you a drink. This must be a...”
“Shock?” he laughed mirthlessly. “No. It's not. And I'm not upset, either. All I want to know is when my mother wants me to go home.”
“She has requested you travel by Floo tomorrow.”
“So she's already unblocked it then,” Severus snorted, his head tipping back causing the greasy ends of his hair to tickle his neck. Slughorn frowned. “I'll go tomorrow,” he nodded.

Severus immediately departed the office and made his way back to the common room, but once there he headed straight for his dorm. He slipped out of his clothes, a human ghost in the pitch black of the room, and passed between the velvet green hangings of his four-poster. There he curled into a ball beneath the blankets, and with trembling lips, smiled.




Severus swallowed, closing his eyes and unable to deny the relief that the memory still brought him, years later. It was the only day, he knew, that Merlin had ever seen fit to answer his prayers. Up until then Severus had doubted the existence of justice, the existence of anything good in his life -until the sensation of freedom had spread through him as he lay in that four-poster. He had been alone then, and he had remained curled into a ball unable to shed a single tear for his father. He remembered that at one point it had struck him that he hadn't even asked how it had happened; he remembered hoping that his mother had finally grown a spine and murdered the old monster.

To that day, having never found out the truth, Severus still found himself hoping that she had, too. He nudged his face further into the skin of Remus' chest and smelt him, smelt freshness from the man's clothes and musky sex from the night before.

As nice as it was to smell another human being, an experience which Severus had very little of, it was a bitter reminder that, no matter how free he had felt on the night of his father's death, he had never been free. It was likely that his actions would never see him be it in the future, either. In continual servitude, it seemed, for a mistakes and sins Severus deeply regretted. His regret was a constant thorn in his side, stabbing him, torturing him, twisting his guts and snatching sleep away when he needed it the most.

Panic began to rise in his chest, panic at lying in bed with another man, panic for his ruined life, and Severus didn't know what to do. He would burn in torment before he let Remus witness the sorry state of his mind. He did the only plausible thing; he heaved his body to rest on top of the werewolf, and kissed him. But when their lips met, no tension left his body, and he pressed harder to try and force it away.

When he realised why his attempt failed, it alarmed him. Remus Lupin was far away, and though his mouth moved in gentle compliance, he was not there. He was not kissing Severus Snape in return. The blankness in his eyes, much to Severus' surprise, hurt.




Easter Holidays, 1978

“Sirius, shut the window,” Remus sighed, shivering in what was only a light breeze.

His last Moon had been a bad one, his inner wolf riled by the stress of their upcoming exams, and, though Remus had not admitted it, the fear of what would happen when school finished. After all, he had his non-existent future to consider. He couldn't get a job due to his curse, and the work Dumbledore was offering him had made his mother cry and his father grow tight-lipped and pale. Remus understood their worry; they had spent hundreds of galleons and an equal amount of time trying to keep him alive and safe. His intention to join the Order seemed to undermine that. Sirius didn't understand his reluctance to hurt them.

If he tells me they don't rule my life one more time...

Remus sighed and rubbed at his eyes, which were tired from all the hardcore reading he'd been doing, trying to catch up on the revision he'd missed during his recovery. Sirius closed the window with a bang and sauntered towards his bed, a smoking cigarette still in his fingers, and flopped over the end of the mattress. Remus couldn't help but appreciate the defined swell of his bottom in the Muggle jeans that Sirius was wearing, those which were finally his own and not borrowed -he had bought them with the money his Uncle Alphard had left him.

“See something pretty?” Sirius arched a dark eyebrow and grinned.
“If I answer in the positive your head won't fit through the door,” Remus made a face and chucked the book he held to one side. “I can't do it any more,” he groaned. “No more reading. No more revision. My head's going to explode.”
“And that would make me sad,” the brunet pouted, and rose to his knees, leaning over for a kiss.

Remus flushed, as he always flushed when Sirius instigated a kiss, and willingly opened his mouth to it. They were alone, having the run of the dormitory for the entire Easter break, which was surprising. Remus knew that Sirius was worried about James, whose father was ill and not looking positive. Peter had decided to go home, too, and Frank was on holiday with his family in the Lake District. It left them very alone, and very randy, and taking advantage of every single minute without company in their dormitory when Remus' health allowed.

“You know, I know a good way to make it better,” Sirius grinned lustily, reaching up to take a final drag from the stick between his fingers, which he then stubbed out on one of the posts of Remus' bed, and tossed into the heater in the middle of the circular room.

His hands immediately transferred to Remus' shoulders, and they pushed him backwards until his head landed on his pillows. With enviously deft grace, Sirius straddled his hips and ground down. Remus didn't bother to fight back his groan. They knew each other inside and out and Sirius knew exactly what he was doing by summoning a school tie from the end of James' bed and grabbing Remus' hands.

“Don't tell him we used his tie,” Sirius winked, hooking it through the headboard of the bed and then securing Remus' wrists within the fabric. “He might just lose it.”

Remus grinned widely and arched his spine, eager for more touch. They hadn't been exactly discrete within the walls of their dormitory about what was going on between them. After the third morning of James finding Sirius in Remus' bed, it had been rather hard to hide. They trusted their friends not to divulge the grisly details to the entire school, though they tried to keep a lid on their affection in front of them.

“He'd never forgive us,” Sirius kissed down Remus' throat, sucking lightly as he reached the hollow between his collarbones.

The wicked lips lifted away then, taking flight over his t-shirt, and not until nimble fingers had unbuttoned his trousers did they reappear, brushing light kisses over his belly. Sirius moaned happily and ducked south to nose at the bulge in Remus' briefs. Holding his breath, Remus waited, feeling the strain in his tired arms and finding it delicious. As much as he was afraid of leaving Hogwarts, he also couldn't wait for the freedom it would afford them. They planned to move in together, not that they had told anybody as much, but the plan was in action. Sirius was already eagerly scanning the property section of The Prophet with his breakfast, nudging the paper across the wood for Remus to look at when he found a possible rental.

Remus loved that Sirius wanted to live with him. He loved that Sirius cared enough to tease him and whip him into a panting frenzy, as he was currently doing. Remus just loved Sirius, if he was honest, but he hadn't said that and neither had the eldest Black heir.

“Shit!” he cried, as wet heat clamped around his cock. He curled his fingers at the air, wanting something to grab onto. To torture him, his mind imagined the silk of Sirius' hair sliding through his digits, which made him moan harder. Sirius laughed around his shaft, hot and rumbling, and Remus shuddered. He wouldn't last long at all.

Looking down the plane of his stomach, Remus jolted again when he looked straight into laughing grey eyes. Sirius was staring at him, red, wicked lips stretched wide around his girth, whilst his tongue unleashed merry heaven on the erection twitching against it.

“Why do you do this,” Remus whimpered. “You know I can't... last... unngh...”

A harder suck stole his breath away and fingers caressed his sac. Remus knew his time was limited to only seconds.

“I'm going to... c-come,” he choked, feeling his climax peak in his belly, pulling hard and gushing far too quickly through his penis. He moaned at the loss, hating the way Sirius could make him lose control so easily, and poured into the waiting mouth.

Sirius sucked until he was dry and then released him, pressing a gentle kiss to the tip before sitting up and wiping his mouth bluntly. “Well, there's lunch,” he winked, as he loosened the tie binding Remus to the bed.

Remus summoned energy he didn't have, drawing on reserves he should have been keeping for his exams, and jumped onto his knees, ready to pounce and return the favour, to make Sirius whimper and beg and shudder to a finish. It surprised him, perhaps more than anything about what had transpired between them in the past year, that he even could.

Sirius, however, clearly had other ideas, and when the tight arms wrapped around Remus' torso, so too did a little thrill. Sirius was a terrible flirt, Sirius seemed to have a high enough sperm production to start selling it -but Sirius was also something that Remus had never expected, only hoped: protective, loving and determined to save Remus from himself. They fell back against the pillows again and Remus didn't fight as the strong arms pulled him close. He put his face to the young wizard's throat and inhaled, coffee overpowered both his sense of smell and taste. Gentle fingers, he realised, were caressing his hair.

“Mm, nice,” he murmured, and tilted his head up to look into Sirius' face. “But unlike you to turn down a suck...”
“I know, I'm wondering if I'm ill,” Sirius rolled his eyes. “No. You're too... big shadows under your eyes. I don't want them any bigger.”
“You can't worry about me all the time,” Remus chewed the inside of his cheek.

He was thrilled that they were doing it, that they were together. How it had happened, he couldn't really remember, but the day in the bath stuck out in his mind and how, the night before James and Sirius had been due to return back to the Potters', Sirius had crept into his room and touched him until he came, sticky and mewling, into his hand. Remus had gasped it out, recovered, and repaid the favour.

Everything since was a beautiful blur, which he didn't want to examine too closely in case he discovered it had never happened.

Yet, that happiness didn't mean he wasn't riddled with fear that Sirius would decide to toss him away, like he had the multitude of girls in previous years. Sirius had a reputation. Sirius was the eldest Black heir even if he had been disowned and run away from home. Remus knew he would be a risk for the man to take. They had even discussed it, but it had not been enough to allay his fears.

“Stop thinking about it,” Sirius murmured into his ear suddenly. “I know you are.”
“I'm not,” Remus shook his head defiantly. “I'm just... if you were me, you'd think about it.”
“Ah, so you are thinking about it then?” Sirius grinned smugly. “I can read you like a book, Moony.”

There was no point in denying the truth, Remus knew, so he remained quiet.

“Has anybody ever actually left you?” Sirius asked quietly. “I mean... you're so afraid, Remus... that people will leave you when they know... has anybody before?”
“No,” he answered truthfully. “But my Mum and Dad always told me that people might... and when you're little, and you want friends... they weren't trying to scare me, Sirius, they were just preparing me.”
“You say that a lot about them,” Sirius' tone implied exactly what he thought of Remus' explanation. “I just think that you worry so much about things you don't need to. Why would I leave you, if I haven't already done it?”
“Because... when... if we live together-”
“When,” Sirius corrected firmly.
“When,” Remus went along with it for argument's sake, “When we live together... it'll just be you... you dealing with the aches and pains, with the transformation, healing me afterwards... it will be you living with the fact that I can be nothing but a continual drain on your resources. I won't be able to have a good enough job... If I can get Muggle work it'll never last long because they won't accept my illness absences every month...”
“You're going to work for the Order, like me,” Sirius pointed out. “And Dumbledore has said that he can pay us when we're doing that... not that he should have to. And anyway, I've got loads of money left from Uncle Alfie, so... it won't be a problem for ages. Stop worrying.”

Remus thought that was rather like telling James not to preen his hair, or Peter to stop chewing his quills -both pointless wastes of breath, because both things would happen forever.

“You don't think I'm going to do it, do you?” Sirius whispered. “You don't think I've got the balls to move you in with me?”

Remus didn't want to answer, because he knew that what he had to say would hurt them both.

“Well, you should probably know,” Sirius went on, his tone turning that subtle shade of obnoxious which set Remus' teeth on edge, “This weekend just gone, when I went down to London... I secured us a flat.”
“You've what?” Remus asked incredulously, sitting up properly to look into Sirius' face. “Where?”
“Nice part of Muggle London. It's a bit... crappy,” he made an embarrassed face. “But we can manage the rent... I had to put a retainer down to get him to keep it for us until school finishes, but he's going to paint it and stuff, put new carpets in. And then it'll be all ours, as soon as we're done here. There's even a parking space outside for the bike.”

Speechless, Remus sat and gaped at him whilst an easy, arrogant smile spread over Sirius' lips.

“You should have more faith in me,” Sirius challenged. “When it comes to you, Remus, I'll never go back on my word, and you should remember that, because I love you.”
“Oh,” Remus breathed, the word plunging into his chest and heating up his lungs until further inhalation seemed impossible. “I...”
“I know you won't be able to contribute much,” Sirius shrugged. “It won't be a problem, alright? I'm going to get a job as well as my Order work, and we'll live off beans on toast if we have to.”
“Yeah, right,” Remus laughed. “Mr-I-Need-Two-Types-Of-Sausage-For-Breakfast.”

Sirius actually looked hurt and Remus felt guilty as he looked at him.

“Just because we had different upbringings,” Sirius said quietly, “Doesn't mean I can't knuckle down and get on with it, Remus, and I will for you.”
“I love you too,” Remus blurted stiffly, and they both froze, looking at one another.

Remus blinked once, twice and leant forward for a kiss. Sirius granted him it and they sat together, joined at the lip but barely kissing.

“Be a house werewolf if you want,” Sirius shattered the romantic moment suddenly. “As long as you're alright at putting the kettle on and making a good stew. Oh, and you're potty trained, of course.”
“Git,” Remus growled, and grabbed him in a rougher snog, unable to hide the massive grin on his face.




“You aren't here, are you?”

Severus' voice dragged Remus from the mire and he jumped tellingly at being caught in the act. Another man had been kissing him and he had been thinking about Sirius. Remus had already known he was lost, but that really sealed the bargain for him. There was a warm, reasonably attractive body on top of his, and he could only remained lodged in the past. His body was reacting for him -his groin was subtly throbbing and he was hard, but the heat didn't reach his heart.

Dark eyes narrowed and he looked up at Severus. “No,” he admitted quietly. “But then I don't really think you are, either, are you Severus?”

The man said nothing in reply, he merely stared back. He was so open hovering there, with his pale throat bared, screaming out to be bitten, and his nipples pink and so willing to be pinched. Severus was desperate, and naked, and right there and yet Remus could barely feel his body weight pressing him into the mattress.

Severus could see the confusion in Remus' eyes, but didn't offer any words to soothe it away; he found himself incapable of offering comfort, especially when he himself was wading through the same. Ignoring how his fingers shook, he traced the curve of the werewolf's shoulder, letting them settle on the side of his neck. Beneath the flesh he felt a strong pulse beating, pushing life through his body even though Remus could have been dead beneath him, he was so very still.

Idly Severus wondered whether Remus had ever really desired him, or whether, like he had felt, the call of a sexual union was just too tempting to pass up, no matter who was on the other end. Severus hadn't been with another man before, despite the advances of some of the pushier Death Eaters. The closest he'd come was Lucius Malfoy's fingertips scraping through his pubic hair in a dark alleyway. That was all it had taken to have Severus running, breath gusting out of his mouth as he fought back the sick.

That had been before Lily's death, before the truth came up to slam into his face like a brick wall, to make him realise that he could never have her and that he should have realised that long before her death. Severus knew his face twisted in disgust, disgust at himself, mostly. To chase it away he dropped his head and captured Remus' lips in a punishing kiss. He rammed his eyes shut and temptation pulled at him, as it had pulled so many times during the drunken blur of the evening before, to imagine it was her. He had never really kissed anybody else, he imagined it would be easy to take out Remus' kind, soft face and replace it with her emerald eyes and fiery hair.

As the taste of man slicked over his tongue, Severus knew once again he had been a fool. There were prickles against his chin, making the kiss far too masculine. The smell at his nostrils was too thick to belong to a woman. Remus pervaded his senses, even with his eyes closed.

It made absolutely no sense to him, Severus found, as he rolled his hips, that his cock was hard. He had never wanted a man before, but as Remus' fingertips coursed up his back, maybe it was that he wanted the touch and nothing else. He gasped slightly against the man's mouth and Remus turned his chin away, looking up with a worried expression.

“Where are you, Severus?” he whispered.




March, 1980

Severus hated that he had jumped into the alleyway and hidden. Seeing her, however, with her hair flowing and her belly round, made him feel nauseous. There had been something in the back of his mind which had told him that getting out of bed that morning would have been a disaster -and standing there, hiding, Severus knew why. He swallowed slightly and peered out into the sunshine, happy in his dark little corner.

As if she knew, as if she was torturing him on purpose, Lily had stopped to browse in the window of the Quidditch shop opposite the way.

No doubt thinking of buying something for the foul cunt who put that thing in her belly.

Severus felt his own lip twist with malice as he looked at her. Lily had always been so slight in frame that to see her carrying more weight --to see her carrying her baby-- upset him for reasons he knew were associated to the man who had provided the necessary sperm to put it there.

She's having his child. Why can't you let go?

He was tired of questioning himself. He was tired of being afraid to walk out in public in case he was confronted with her, and on a mission be unable to scurry home and howl it out to his pillow. He would die before admitted quite how frequently that happened, even without seeing her. Clenching his fingers into fists, Severus leant back against the wall, unable to tear his eyes away. Her hair was even longer, thick right to the ends. Her skin positively glowed. She looked happy.

Severus knew what kind of man it made him that the very sight made him utterly miserable. The last he had heard they were married and she had taken his worthless little name which he thought so grand, and now she was carrying his child. Being bitter would solve nothing, it didn't even particularly make him feel better. But Severus was beyond it, beyond questioning his rationality.

He had accepted that, when it came to Lily Evans, as she would always be to him, he had none. Not one scrap of sense remained in his head for her. If it did then he wouldn't have still been in love. He wouldn't have still been touching himself to the thought of her, imagining her softness around him and hearing her pleasured cries in his head as he brought himself to orgasm.

A shiver ran down his spine as the repulsion set in. He had never thought it possible to dislike himself more than he had at Hogwarts, but leaving the castle and its protective stone walls had done nothing for him. Lily was flourishing with Potter, and apparently the gay lovebirds of Black and Lupin were happy too.

It felt, as it had so often in his youth, like Severus was standing outside a glass bubble, and nobody would let him in.

“Mawkish little fool,” he muttered softly to himself, and then he gasped.

As if she had heard him, as though her ears were trained to the delicate cadence of his voice, Lily's head snapped up, her eyes narrowing in the direction of the dark alleyway in which he stood. Severus instinctively retreated further into it, hoping the darkness would swallow him up and Lily wouldn't be stupid enough to investigate.

They were on different sides. She was his enemy. If it got out that he had been alone with her, when he could have easily have killed her or stolen her for ransom, then he would pay with his blood. That was the way the sick organisation he had willingly walked into worked. He had seen grown men sob and did not intend to be joining them, at least in public, at any point in the near future.

Severus held his breath and saw her take a step across the cobbles. She was still listening, he knew, for another breath, a rustle, a heartbeat. She was good at her job. He saw her fingers reach for her wand and Severus prepared to disapparate, but someone saved him at the last moment.

“Lily!” he recognised the werewolf's voice, light and happy. “What are you doing out? Shouldn't you be at home... resting and stuff?”
“Shut up,” her face burst into a grin as she enveloped him in a hug. Severus watched with jealousy emanating out of every pore he possessed. Lily swayed Remus from side to side. “And how are you? Everything alright? How're you feeling after the winter?”

She was off, with question after question, which Lupin patiently answered. Severus knew he should leave but he couldn't, not when her facial expressions kept him so entranced. The caring poured from her eyes, and Severus felt a fool for acknowledging that he would have given anything she wanted for her to just look at him like that again. It had been years. He missed those eyes more than anything else.

“You'll have to come over for dinner at some point,” Lily was saying, her happy voice carrying all the way into the darkness. “James misses you both like mad... but you're so holed up being all lovey-dovey it's hard to keep up with you.”
“We aren't,” Lupin blushed, obviously lying.
“I hear wedding bells,” Lily teased. “Have you got time for lunch?”
“Actually... about that wedding bells thing,” Lupin lowered his voice -Severus loathed that he leant forward to try and catch the end of the sentence.

Whatever it was, it was enough to evoke a delighted squeal out of the pregnant woman with red hair, and made her throw her arms around Remus' neck.

“Well now you have to have lunch with me,” she grabbed his arm and laced her arm through it. “You never told us... I'm going to have you over a barrel, Remus Lupin, if you don't tell me right now-”
“Sirius might have something to say about any barrels.”

It was the last thing Severus heard before Lupin was frogmarched out of sight by Lily. He was left standing cold and alone in the alleyway, the conversation thrumming through his head.

He would pass on that the werewolf and the Black mutt were bonded. It would probably be enough to provoke Bellatrix, Lucius and Narcissa into an entertaining enough rage to prevent the Dark Lord from going ahead with the planned revel for that evening. Severus' guts squirmed as he thought of it. He hated the revels and the needless pain they caused for the Muggle victims. He hated, if it he was honest, it all.




“You and Black,” Severus breathed, looking down into Remus' eyes. “You were bonded, weren't you?”

Remus' jaw loosened and his eyes widened, as he tried to speak no words came out. Severus patiently waited, wondering how he had ever forgotten that news. The ensuing ire from Black's family had been as satisfying as he had predicted.

“I... didn't know that was common knowledge,” Remus breathed into Severus' face, coating the skin with warm, worried air.
“It isn't,” Severus shook his head. “But... there are things I've heard...” his eyes flicked, unstoppably, to the dark, ugly tattoo carved into his arm. Severus shivered as Remus' eyes followed his gaze.
“Why did you do it?” Remus whispered. “Why did you join?”
“That is none of your business,” Severus hissed, lowering his face so that their lips were a millimetre apart. “I have secrets. You would do well to respect that.”
“I will if you respect mine,” Remus choked, his eyes filling with moisture.




Early October, 1981

“Oh, God!” Remus cried, throwing himself out of his armchair and into Sirius' arms. “Where have you been? You were due home fucking hours ago, Sirius!”

He began to assault his partner's face with peppered kisses, feeling coarse stubble beneath his lips and not caring as it abraded his skin. He held Sirius' face tight between his hands and finally landed on the man's lips. He thrust his tongue into the mouth he'd missed for a whole month and moaned. “Oh God.”

Sirius broke the kiss and leant back. “You missed me, eh?”
“Every time you walk out the door I convince myself you're never walking back through it again,” Remus choked. “Do you know what it's like waiting here to see if you're dead, if they've got you?”
“Stop being a woman,” Sirius said gruffly, and shrugged out of his jacket, flinging it over the back of the armchair that Remus had just vacated. “I'm fine, and I'm here, aren't I?”
“But where have you been?”

Sirius' guilty look -a look which Remus had rarely seen since their departure from Hogwarts- suddenly flashed, and he stiffened. “Have you been in the pub?”
“One drink,” Sirius shrugged. “I needed a little... what is it your Mum always says? Dutch Courage?”
“For what?” Remus frowned.
“To come back here and tell you that Dumbledore's given me another mission and that I have to leave tomorrow?”

Remus felt the anger, true and unusual, bubbling in his gut. He couldn't bear another five weeks or however many more alone in their poky, dingy little flat. The sun only shone in it when Sirius was there, making the generic wallpaper look cheerful and the grey carpet less depressing.

“Remus, please, let's just sit down and have a cuddle, eh?” Sirius pleaded. “I know you're angry, but this is for your own good. The werewolves aren't going to join our side. You did the best you could. But they injured you and you have to recover before you can do anything else.”
“Fuck off,” Remus hurled moodily over his shoulder as he limped to their bedroom, leg stiff and unforgiving, and slammed the door shut behind him.

***
“I can't believe we only have tonight together and you're wasting it sulking!” Sirius bellowed through the door. “I mean, what the fuck is wrong with you, Remus? Can't you save your little strop until tomorrow night when I'm gone?”

Remus wrenched the door open so hard that it hit the wall with a bang. “Stop talking.”
“No, you're being a wanker,” Sirius stamped his foot. Remus nearly laughed.

They both stopped and looked at one another. Sirius' hair was on end for all the times he had run his fingers through it with frustration, and his skin lacked its usual lustre.

“This is stupid,” the dark-haired man muttered. “You're stupid, and the war is stupid, and I just want to pick you up,” he grabbed Remus about the waist and hoisted him off the floor, testimony to how light Remus had become in his recovery, “And throw you on the bed.”

Remus bounced as Sirius did exactly that, and a second later his body had been covered. There were hot kisses, probing touches. Remus laid still and let Sirius work. His muscles ached and he shivered happily as Sirius tugged slightly on his pyjama bottoms.

“I missed you,” Sirius breathed, his eyes closed. “Missed you so fucking much.”
“You didn't write,” Remus murmured. “Why not?”
“I'm... I was asked not to,” Sirius' voice wavered on the first word and Remus blinked. Sirius had no reason to lie to him.

Something had changed.

“What's happened?” he asked stiffly. “What's going on? Does this have to do with James and Lily just disappearing, and only sending letters?”

Sirius stared at him for a moment, where his eyes narrowed just for a second, and then were normal again. “Remus, don't worry about it. Nothing's wrong, we're fine, and James and Lily and Harry are fine.”
“You hope,” Remus scoffed.
“If we don't hope we have nothing,” Sirius muttered bleakly, and then he sighed and flopped onto his back.

Remus felt fingers scrabbling for his own and they met on the blanket, clinging tightly to each other.

“I just get so worried that one day you won't come back,” Remus said again. “The thought of... after all this time... being without you...”
“Shut up, Moony,” Sirius said firmly. “We've had this discussion a thousand times. Let it go.”

Hurt, Remus did as requested, but his mind ached with the suppressed worry.

“Love you,” Sirius rolled onto his side and kissed Remus' ear. “A lot.”
“Oh, well, nothing to worry about then,” Remus joked, and tilted his chin down, taking his forehead close to Sirius' lips. It was kissed, just as he'd wanted it to be. He glanced up and saw the fearful expression on Sirius' face.

“Why won't you tell me what's going on?” Remus asked quietly.
“Because I'm too afraid, Remus, that you'll tell me you already know...”

Sirius climbed off the bed and exited the bedroom, leaving Remus alone and completely confused on their bed.




“Oh, God,” Remus groaned. “I don't... how could he... mmph.”

He couldn't think any more, Remus found. He couldn't think about Sirius and what that cryptic little line had meant. That night he had been terrified that Sirius thought he was a spy, but in light of the recent actions he assumed that Sirius thought Remus suspected him of passing information to the other side. Shuddering, hard, Remus locked his limbs around Severus' body, which was thin to the point of malnourishment. He met every kiss with new-found ferocity, unable to hold back after abandoning coherent thought.

“Severus,” he gasped, mouthing against the wizard who was plundering his mouth. “This is... you...”

Finding Severus slumped over the bar of the Leaky Cauldron the night before had been both a surprise and a blessing. Remus had needed company before he found it in an illegal whore, or became one himself for the money, and there Severus had been. It hadn't been hard to deduce that the Slytherin had never been with a man before -his kisses were too stiff and formal, but Remus had loosened him up in no time.

That Severus was a fast learner was something that Remus had always known, and was glad of at that moment. The kisses punishing his lips were hard and relentless, and he knew they would be sore by the time that they were finished. He yanked the man down so that they flat against one another, skin-on-skin and cock-on-cock. Both of them groaned.

What had brought them together, Remus wasn't sure. Was it simply fate that had led him to the lonely pub in which he had found the man, or coincidence? Was it their miserable histories which had brought them together, leaving them entwined and the only two survivors in a long line of destruction? Was it inevitable, Remus wondered, that they might end up sharing bedsheets, kisses and much, much more?

“Yes!” he bucked his hips wildly, as Severus rolled his own. “Oh... Jesus... Severus... please don't....”
“Don't what?” the question was loud as both of them stilled.
“Don't change your mind,” Remus panted. “I need this. I can't sit here and think about the past any more. I need a present. I need something to stop me from looking back and wondering what I missed, why I was so... blind...”

Onyx eyes widened slightly and Severus' lips tightened into a line. But then his resolve shattered, his face relaxed, and they met in another kiss, yet it was totally different.

It was searching for a solace, Remus found, as he tickled the roof of Severus' mouth with his tongue. It was a solace that they probably wouldn't find, but they could search, and if together made it easier then he would put aside his reservations and simply do it.

Severus didn't even grunt as he was rolled onto his back and flattened.

“You taste so good,” Remus muttered against his lips, capturing them between his own and sucking, probably painfully, on the silken flesh.

Running his lips downwards, over Severus' chin, over his windpipe and over his breastbone, Remus was burning. Every inch of him was desperate to meet alternative flesh, to feel and grab and bruise, to feel more than what had become normality. There was no complaint as he harshly sealed his lips around one nipple, lapping it into a peaked state. When he gave up and suckled instead, he actually felt Severus' body arch off the mattress beneath him.

Severus thought the whole sensation divine. Remus knew how to play his body and whilst he resented the implication of being played at all, he couldn't deny that it felt like nothing he'd ever felt before. Attention switched to the other nipple and he hissed that time, rising up all over again, unable to control his bodily reactions to the werewolf's ministrations. It had been that way the night before, all grunts and moans he couldn't remember forming, clutches in which he could not recall instructing his muscles to tighten.

Sex was far too spontaneous for a man obsessed with control like himself, it seemed.

Remus' weight was heavy on top of him, despite his slender stature, and Severus quickly found himself fighting for breath. He was at a loss as to why the tightness in his lungs made everything better, making nearly every touch stronger and more intense; his enjoyment was even more unclear.

“Gods, please...”

What was he asking? Severus had no idea, but Remus unlatched from his nipple and sucked down his chest, dipping a talented tongue into his navel, which it began to fuck. Squirming, Severus found himself pinned to the bed, something else he couldn't find the inclination to protest about, and so he lay there, wincing and hissing as Remus tongue fucked his belly button. It was damp and absurd, unlike anything he had ever felt before, and it caused his erection to throb like never before, too.

“If you don't...” his threat was empty, but still successfully loud. Remus heard, laughed over the dampness he had created, and continued on his path. Severus held his breath with his head spinning, waiting for the first lick or the first caress which would steal him away from reality again.

When it happened, he loathed the way his knees fell open and his toes curled with the pleasure. Remus licked a blunt path over his shaft and Severus keened to it, invoking the move over and over until the werewolf between his thighs let out a breath of exhaustion and had to pull up to rest his jaw. They looked at one another in the interim, and while both had found the other tragically absent from their affair thus far, their faces now told a very different story.

Remus' chocolate brown eyes were burning. Severus' were narrowed with pained concentration as he attempted to keep a hold on his climax. He nearly failed as Remus leant over him and whispered in his ear.

“What do you want from me, Severus? What do you want me to do to you?”

Hot hands coursed up the sides of his rib cage, but Severus would have shuddered without the added tickling sensation. Remus' words were plenty enough. “I want you to fuck me hard enough to make me forget it all.”
“And you're fine with the fact that... that all we are to one another are substitutes?” Remus whispered with his warm breath curling all around the shell of Severus' ear and trickling into the canal. “It's just sex?”
Just sex is something I've been looking for nearly all my life,” Severus muttered lowly, glowering, daring Remus to make a pitying face, to make a comment which implied how very awful that was.

Severus didn't need to be told just how awful that fact was -he already knew and would likely never forget it. He gently arched one eyebrow, as if to ask Remus his final question. He was no fool and wouldn't repeat it again, because he had drawn a line.

Drawing lines was the one thing Severus was apparently good at. When he had first got the idea to truly defect, he had acted within the hour. When his father had died, there were no tears and no remorse for lost time or lost bodies. There was only cold, hard steel. Emotion was for later, when he was alone and nobody heard the pain.

Severus wondered if Remus was the same, but he highly doubted it.

“You miss him,” Severus tested the water, lifting his chin to return the wispy favour that the wizard had paid him. “You want to be fucking him, don't you? Or was it the other way around?”
“Don't,” Remus ground out, pain flaring to life again in his eyes. “Don't you dare mention him, Severus.”
“You can't bury it forever,” Severus pointed out.

“Like you can hide your repressed love for a girl who never loved you back?” Remus hissed, pulling up with a twisted grimace on his face.
“You dare-”
“I do,” he said simply. “I'm not going to lie here and take you taunting me. I've lost my soulmate.”
“I don't believe in soulmates,” Severus laughed.
“Only because you've never found one, and if you did, you were stupid enough to chase her away!”

Severus stared, heart pounding excruciatingly in his chest. Words wouldn't flow through his parched mouth. Remus looked down at him with a nervous swallow. There was regret in his expression, but no apology.

“Get out,” Severus said, and the numbness of his own voice did not surprise him. “Get out and don't talk about what you will never understand.”
“If you do the same,” Remus didn't move from the bed. Weakly, Severus gave him a shove, but it only caused the werewolf to lie back down again. “You want me,” Remus nosed against his jawline. “You want me because this is new, and it's sex, and there's nothing for you to lose here. You only have everything to gain and you don't care that I really won't get anything from this.”
“You will,” Severus threaded his fingers into greying hair against his better judgement. “Fuck it, Remus. You'll get something.”
“Worthwhile?”
“You sound like him,” Severus faltered. “You were never like this at school... you always wanted to be my friend...”
“Well, I'm not a fool,” Remus shrugged, carrying the bony arm closer to Severus' mouth; he kissed it. “A man gets rejected enough times he'll just give up.”

The words struck a horrible resonance through Severus. Everybody had given up on him. Everyone. Even the sweet, caring boy he had once known who was now a man on top of him. He froze, not knowing that his gaze had clouded over, that he was staring with slack-mouthed horror.

“You never wanted me to care for you,” Remus pointed out. “You never wanted my help, my friendship... you were horrible to me... do you want it now, Severus?”

His conscience nodded for him. Severus immediately hated it.

“Thank God,” Remus shook his head. “I've... oh...”

They sank into a kiss, which was clumsy and full of groans too deep to be graceful. Severus tugged on the hair he held and enjoyed Remus' squirm of pain. He shouldn't have, but he did. He wrapped his legs around the man's waist and held him with his thighs, keeping him tightly between them without hope of escape. When Severus rolled his hips it was a thrill to realise that he held all the power in their exchange. Remus bucked against him, grinding their cocks together. It was a while before Severus realised the skin had grown slippery, that one or the other, possibly both of them, had begun leaking with anticipation of what was to come.

It made him feel dirty, like he wanted to scourgify his own skin simply to make it stop. But with the next hot kiss from Remus, the revulsion was gone, replaced only with lust.

“Let me fuck you,” Remus begged, his eyes clamped tightly shut. “Let me show you how good this can be...”

Severus dropped his legs and his hips ached badly as feeling rushed back into the bones.

“On your knees.”

Remus was halfway to spelling him open before Severus could properly arrange himself as instructed. The spell roiled and pushed and probed and oiled his rectum, making him gasp and jerk awkwardly as he arranged himself on his hands and knees, facing the headboard. Remus' hands ghosted the globes of his buttocks and squeezed. Severus moaned in surprise as a fingertip traced over his entrance, which he hadn't expected on account of the spell. As it wormed into his body he bit hard into his lip, the intrusion foreign but entrancing at the same time. Remus stroked him internally, skilled in a way which hardened Severus' cock, and it added a beautiful sense of intimacy to their mating. The spell had been too clinical, he decided, but Remus' physical ministrations soothed him and made him shiver. When the digit slid out, he found he missed it.

Seconds later a dripping head circled his entrance; Severus steeled himself, fisting his fingers into the bedsheets and gritting his teeth. Alcohol had dulled the pain of the evening before, but he had no such luxury that morning. Remus pushed in and they both cried out.

The pain, he knew, was enhanced by his hangover, creeping up his spine, setting flame to bone and skin, stinging around his entrance and into his body. Severus couldn't help the tiny whimper which escaped, and another afterwards, and another, and another, until they were no longer whimpers but full blown cries for it to stop, cries for more, and cries for Remus to do anything other than the slow, maddening entrance he was currently performing.

“Shh,” Remus whispered suddenly, his arms coiling around Severus' torso, bringing more heat, which he felt was the last thing he needed.

The kisses that peppered his shoulders, however, were another matter. They brought softness and a tender care to chase away the discomfort. Severus lost himself in them, enjoying the wet sucks Remus laid upon his skin. They ran up his neck and between his shoulder blades, maddeningly pressing until he thought he might moan at their beauty.

“Now,” Severus hissed, and thrust back. The resulting pressure made him see stars and ache to his very core, but the pain was nothing and everything all at once. It was new pain, and it was good pain. It made the only items in his consciousness Remus Lupin, the bed he clung to, and the ache.

Remus didn't wait for an invitation to start thrusting, he simply moved, with a delirious little groan. It was undignified and animalistic, the way they began to rut with one another, the masculine sounds from their mouths nowhere near beautiful. Severus knew it could be beautiful, but he wasn't sure that was what he needed, and he didn't presume to think for Remus, either. Beautiful had gone between the man and his lover. Severus was simply his whore.

It didn't hurt to think of himself that way, he found. Remus was as much Severus' whore as he was Remus', a one-time fuck to take away reality. There was nothing else to be said about it.

Thus it was easy to give himself over. Severus felt his orgasm swelling hard in the pit of his belly, a storm which he couldn't find the inclination to stop. It left everything it touched alive -his guts, his cock, his thighs; when Remus' fingers wrapped around his shaft, Severus didn't hold on. He let go, clenching his eyes shut, dropping his jaw to cry out as he came hard over the bed linen. Remus was not far behind him. Narrow hips ground against his body, almost knocking him flat to the bed, but Severus managed to retain his hold. Remus moaned throatily into the air and bucked once. At the first wave of heat in his backside, Severus' stomach clenched, and nausea replaced the pleasant hum of his orgasm.

The thin man in his arms had arched his back like a cat when he'd come, Remus observed. The total devastation of the body he held caused him to thrust deeper, harder and listen to the sounds coming out of Severus' mouth. That was what finished him off, eventually, as he stuffed his face into the man's spine and poured into the tightest arse he had ever had. The floor and bed were shaking, he thought, as he pulsed through the aftershocks.

Or was that them, trembling so hard that they obscured their own vision?

Feeling nauseous, Remus closed his eyes, pressing a dry, soft kiss to Severus' back.

“Get off,” the whisper was broken. “Get out.”
“Severus-”
“Go!” the voice rose, but was still too cracked to be strong. Remus froze, softening quickly within the wizard's body, wondering what had changed so quickly between them that he was immediately unwelcome.
“Did I hurt you?” he asked in horror.
“No more than I wanted you to.”

The cryptic answer sent a chill down Remus' spine.

“Get dressed, get out. I will contact you when I want to see you again.”

The cold voice was becoming more practised, but Remus didn't believe it. They had shared a bed all night long, cuddled, kissed, taunted one another and finally fucked again. To be asked to leave so abruptly confused him.

“I don't want you here,” Severus said. “Get off me.”

Remus withdrew with a final soft touch to the man's back. He extricated himself from the tangled bedsheets and began to throw on his clothes, which stank of smoke and alcohol from their long evening in the pub. He ignored it, buttoning his unfavoured body away, unable to tear his eyes from Severus lying flat on the bed, his face hidden from sight.

Opening his mouth to say goodbye, even to thank Severus for the night they had shared, for the distraction if nothing else, Remus stopped himself. Instead he turned for the bedroom door, and was halfway down the stairs before he heard it. It was a rough sound, a sound which might have cracked his heart if it hadn't already been irreparably damaged.

It wasn't an ordinary sob, but one of a too-tortured soul, one which might crack itself before too long, if, again, the damage had not already been done.

But Remus did not stop, he kept walking; with shaking fingers he unlatched the front door, looking around at the dingy hallway he had paid little attention to as they had entered the house the night before. It was miserable, just like the man he had left sobbing in bed.

Remus had never thought he would be a person to stand by and watch suffering such as that. But Severus had sent him away, left him to his own suffering, and Remus found, sickeningly, that he had nothing else left to give to someone else who would only hurt him.




Epilogue


1st November, 1993

“I do not believe a single person inside this castle would have helped Black enter it,” said Dumbledore, and his tone made it so clear that the subject was closed that Snape didn't reply. “I must go down to the Dementors,” said Dumbledore. “I said I would inform them when our search was complete.”

Severus had to work hard to keep the sarcasm out of his expression. Percy Weasley stood in front of them both, a boy hoping to be included in a man's discussion purely because of the badge on his robes, and Severus was too tired to act any longer. Dumbledore walked away, his robes billowing around his feet as he quietly left the hall, and Weasley too strolled away, heading back to his own sleeping bag.

Potter was on the floor at his feet in a sleeping bag, clearly not asleep, with the youngest Weasley boy and the Granger know-it-all equally engrossed in their conversation. Resentment prickled through him then; he fought his will not to look down and scowl at the little earwigging whelp, and managing it, Severus walked away.

He slipped out of the Great Hall, and headed to his quarters.

***
The whiskey could have been swill as he poured it down his throat, but it was actually a fine malt. Severus had thought twice about wasting it on himself when he was clearly in no mood to appreciate it, nor did he believe that getting drunk was a safe idea when the school had been so easily breached.

But again he topped up the glass and lifted it to his lips, knocking the straight liquid back and enjoying the burn in his throat.

He drank his way through a quarter of the bottle before he stopped again. Severus looked at the fire, which was gathering strength, crackling merrily in the grate where he had angrily thrown the flames. He roughly slammed the tumbler down and threw his fingers up in his hair to rake through the lankness, feeling grease beneath his touch -grease which had made him the subject of ridicule throughout his thirteen years of teaching.

“You've always been a subject of ridicule, wherever you've been,” he muttered angrily to himself, his eyes catching sight of himself in the spotted old mirror above the fireplace. “Always. Nobody has ever taken me seriously, except perhaps Albus, and he knows me far too well, my grudges, idiosyncrasies... he can play me like his Stradivarius and enjoy it, the old swine.”

He was sneering at himself and began to pace up and down as he muttered. He snatched up the glass again and sipped broodingly from it.

Despite all the very good reasons there were for him not to fall into inebriation, Severus could only see the one thing which kept the glass lifting to his lips. He drank because regardless of whether Remus Lupin was at that moment aiding Sirius Black into Hogwarts, there was only one inevitable outcome that Severus could find.

Remus would have his lover back, and would never again have need of a substitute.




Christmas 1984

Severus looked at him across the table, at the coat that he had watched grow increasingly shabby over the two years they had been meeting together. The cuffs were fraying, the fabric a sorry shade of grey which made Remus look even paler than he actually was.

He didn't have to stop using his money. Severus had no sympathy. He had been poor and found he couldn't comprehend a man who had access to galleons and refused to use them because of the attached sentiment.

What on earth is attached sentiment when you're starving hungry?

Apparently a lot to him.

Severus set down his drained wine glass and swallowed. “No more.”
“I knew you were going to say that,” Remus replied blankly, with a slight shake of his head. “I knew you'd stop it soon.”
“I don't need it any more,” Severus lied. “I've moved on.”
“Got yourself a partner, then? Male or female?” Remus called his bluff.
“Moving on doesn't have to mean to somebody else's bed. But enough is enough. We can't carry on like this.”
“Why not?”

There was a gentle pleading Severus had not hoped to hear, because he was not convinced he was strong enough to resist it.

“I can't,” he answered simply, loathing the way his voice croaked. Yet that emotion was inevitable where Remus was concerned.

For two years they had meet up when the mood took them, and though Severus told himself often enough that it meant nothing, he was fooling himself. The fact that it now meant something, and his heart had recognised it and begun to thrum whenever Remus walked into a room meant that he had to end it.

Severus found himself on the precipice again, another person he could love, who might just love him back and yet circumstance dictated that he could not have it, that he could not be happy.

Circumstances you made for yourself... his mind pointed out, and Severus shook his head to clear it.

“I guess it was inevitable, really... I've been half expecting it,” Remus sighed, curling his hands into his armpits seeing as he had no money to buy himself a drink, and had refused Severus' offer, as ever.
“More inevitable than you know.” Severus couldn't ruin another life as he had Lily's. He had too much at stake in the years to come, there would be too much to lose. Remus had already lost enough.

“You'll be alright?” Remus looked up at him with narrowed eyes.
“I always am,” Severus said tightly, and rose to his feet. He had never taken his coat off, but put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a wad of Muggle money that he was in half a mind to give.

He placed it softly down on the table in front of Remus. “I don't want to hear how you don't want it,” he muttered in a low voice. “Just take it. And if our paths never cross again, then that will be fine by me, do you understand?”
“Why do you have to chase everyone away from you?” Remus' chair scraped back over the wooden floor of the pub. “Why can't you just let somebody love you, Severus?”
“Because nobody can,” he laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and stepped away.

It felt, like Severus had known it would, like he had paid his whore. Shivers crept through his skin and made him nauseous as he pushed into cold December wind and headed for the apparition point.




His fingers curled around the newspaper, upon which Sirius Black's face yelled in a silent scream. Severus glared at it, so hard that his temples began to ache with the strain. The cheap parchment creased beneath his grip and he scrunched it up, hearing satisfying rips; he imagined them creeping into the printed face of a man he had always loathed.

It had been fine when, he realised, he and Remus stood on equal footing. They had both lost, and had come together to eliminate the tension, drink together and in a few embarrassing memories which stiffened his cock and made him shudder, they had made love. Those slow, soul torching times when they melted together so closely that it was impossible to tell where Severus Snape ended and Remus Lupin began, because they were a single unit, haunted him. If he tried hard enough he could still drum up the scent of the man's chocolate-grey hair. It had been nothing when they were at school, almost mousey and certainly unmentionable. But that scent overpowered him every time he considered it, and as such, Remus overpowered him.

Having the wizard at Hogwarts was torture. It was lucky that he could thinly veil his madness beneath a shift of childhood enmity; Dumbledore certainly believed that the tension between them was born of their own days shuffling through the draughty school corridors.

It was not. Remus was pleasant, battered, pretty and warm, as he had always been, and Severus was as cold and hurt as he had ever been, but the sexual intermission of their companionship was gone. Remus had not knocked on his door, and Severus had not knocked on his.

He had spent two months thus far occupying his hands when the urge took him, when the urge took him to take Remus to whatever quiet space he could find and re-ignite something which he had so willingly murdered years before.

It was there, a subtle burn flickering in the pit of his belly. Lily was dead and he still loved her. Remus was alive, and Severus loved him, though he would never breathe a word of it to a soul.

The paper stamped on the flame; it sputtered and died at the mention of Black's freedom. Severus viciously screwed the paper up into a tighter ball and flung it into the fire. Orange engulfed it, he kept his eyes on the cream as it began to blacken, as it turned to ashes and was cremated into dust.

He could find no satisfaction in the sight, however, because the man himself still existed. The man himself was trying desperately to get into the castle, and whether that was to reach Harry Potter or Remus, Severus didn't care.

Sirius Black's return meant one thing, and that was that Remus would get his happy ending, and Severus would not. It should not have been a competition, but it was.

And if ruining it meant that Severus won then he was more than willing to give it his best effort. Remus might hurt, but they had both hurt enough that a little more would not kill the man.




June, 1994

“Get out, and don't come back.”

Severus' hiss was threatening, but Remus didn't flinch. The man had announced his secret, which Remus had worked tirelessly to keep from his pupils, at breakfast, as though he were telling them of a Hogsmeade visit or a change in the Gobstones club schedule.

It hurt more than Remus could have imagined.

“Do you hear me?” Severus asked, his eyes a storm of emotion.
“I heard you,” Remus breathed, looking down at the floor.
“And when you run back to him,” Severus took a step closer, his fingers very obviously shaking. “I hope you feel guilty about everything we did together, when you believed that he was the guilty one, that the love of your bloody life, your soulmate, had betrayed you.”
“Why do you have to be this way?” Remus whispered. “I know you're upset, Severus, this is...”
“I am nothing of the sort.”

Cold indifference made Remus wince, but he still knew better. Severus had opened up to him, warm and almost softly, during the two years that they had been in regular contact. He knew the wizard better than Severus would ever admit.

“She wouldn't want you to be like this,” he laid down his last card, willing to fight.

It instantaneously worked: Severus' spine straightened and the skin of his face paled.

“Don't you dare-”
“Well don't you dare, either,” Remus said simply, and turned on his heel, wishing something -anything- akin to satisfaction would pump through his veins.

All he felt was tired, far too tired for the likes of the war which was heading their way. He didn't understand Severus. He didn't understand Dumbledore's reasoning. He didn't understand anything.

Remus shook his head bitterly, slamming his hand against the stone entrance of an alcove that he and Sirius had once kissed in as teenagers. Leaving the castle again would break his heart; he had hoped to stay and watch Harry grow up, to get to know his friends and try to protect them.

Severus had put paid to that for him.

And to fucking Sirius again, too.

It would never be the same, Remus knew. Nothing would be the same. He had had plenty of years to deal with the fact, and yet he still hadn't.

“And probably never will,” he muttered unhappily beneath his breath, before unlocking his office door with his wand to face the saddening task of packing up his life, yet again.

-fin-




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marauderbigbang: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] marauderbigbang at 09:38am on 12/09/2010
Title: Short of a Dark Lord

Author: [profile] lenaf007

Artists: [profile] littlewolfstar, [profile] niccc

Pairing/Characters: James, Sirius, Remus, Peter, Severus, Regulus, Lucius, Narcissa

Genre: Humor/Action/AU for non-canon student ages.

Ratings and Warnings: PG for Cursing and Violence.

Summary: The school is dressing up for the Hogwarts Halloween party, and Sirius has a great idea on how to pull a frightening prank on his classmates. With the help of James, Remus, and Peter he just might make it happen. Unfortunately, Lucius is planning on proposing to Narcissa at the dance so the Slytherins are on the lookout for potential party crashers. Will the Marauders successfully prank the whole school? Will Lucius successfully propose to Narcissa? Will Severus and Regulus ever get along?

Word Count: 22,081

Notes: Special thanks goes out to [profile] mistress_kabuki for being the ever-faithful beta reader. Without her, this piece would never have been so polished. =)

Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all characters, places, objects, ideas, and related material are the property of JK Rowling and her various publishing entities. Neither the author, the artists, nor the [personal profile] marauderbigbang are in any way making a monetary profit from this posting.

Chapter 1: A Dangerous Game

The warm glow of the firelight flickered off the brilliant ruby and golden furniture of the Gryffindor common room. Outside the sun was just beginning to touch the topmost limbs of the Forbidden Forest, turning the trees a fiery orange as the last few minutes of the day came to a close. Pacing back and forth, a tall, lanky boy with large round-rimmed glasses looked nervously at his watch. He raked a hand through his mussed hair and shot an annoyed look up at the boys’ quarters again before resuming his pacing. It’d been going on for a good half hour, and Remus thought he could see the trail of matted carpet under James’ feet.

“Um, maybe he got stuck?” an anxious little boy squeaked from the couch on the other side of the room. His wide eyes followed the taller boy nervously, his brow furrowed with worry. As James had gotten progressively angrier, Peter had moved farther away from him as though preparing for an explosion

James glared at him. “I’ve never known him to take this long to get ready.”

“Well, it is entirely possible,” Remus cleared his throat. “I mean you remember what he wore last year. It took the two of us to help him get out of it, the damn thing was so tight.”

“Yes, but he said it’d be different this time.” Peter frowned.

“Where the hell is he?” James ruffled his hair in exasperation, “I swear if he takes five more minutes I’m going to drag him out here even if he’s in nothing but his skivvies!” He looked down at his watch again, grunting in agitation when he realized they were already half an hour late.

Remus gave a heavy sigh, deciding that it was probably best to let them sort this out on their own. If he’d learned anything over the past few years, it was that Sirius and James had bad enough fights without anyone getting in the middle. He leaned down again to a mirror on the table, trying to figure out exactly how large his incisors should be.

Peter’s eyes darted swiftly between the two boys; he never could stand it when any of them fought, but Sirius and James were always the worst. “You know how Sirius is,” he laughed nervously. “He always likes to make an entrance.”

James resumed his pacing, more vigorously this time as though he thought that moving faster would make Sirius do the same. The sun had slipped almost halfway down the horizon. The sky was becoming much darker, and a few stars were slowly appearing in the twilight. Remus smiled proudly as he fixed the final tooth. In a way he was rather glad to have had the extra time to get ready. A vampire had to have two fangs after all and they had to be proportional. He heard James start muttering on the other side of the room, and rolled his eyes in annoyance. Peter shifted uncomfortably, his eyes darting up to the closed and silent door to their shared bedroom.

“Well, Peter, you certainly look great.” Remus smiled. “Your mane’s a bit tremendous though.” He flicked his wand and reduced the size of his lion mane down to where it wouldn’t impede eating. “There you go.”

“Thanks, Remus. You know I actually wasn’t dressing up for Gryffindor. That’s the funny part. Really I’m the Cowardly –“

“Thanks a lot, Sirius!” James roared up the stairway, causing them both to jump. “The entire year, this is all I asked for out of you: just to help me out so I could see Lily at the dance.” He pointed an accusatory finger at the sinister bedroom door. “For all I know, Lily could be dancing with Snivellus right now!”

“Honestly, James.” Remus sighed stretching out on one of the loveseats, “He wouldn’t listen to you even if he did hear you. Best save your breath.”

“Remus is right, James. We could always head out and let him catch up with us?”

“No, that’s not part of the deal! He said he’d get me a kiss with Lily tonight!”

Remus tried to choke back a chuckle, “And you bought that?”

“Well—I didn’t—I thought my own friend wouldn’t outright lie to me!”

Remus sighed, clasping his hands. This simply wasn’t a battle he could win.

“It’s alright, really James,” Peter hopped up. “Want me to check up on him?”

James sighed, placing a hand on his forehead and flopping down onto the couch. “I don’t give a damn, just make it quick.” Peter nodded happily and hurried up the steps to the boys rooms.

“Calm down, James,” Remus turned to look at his friend. “Tell me, how do they look?” He opened his mouth in a toothy lopsided grin.

James snickered, “They look fine, Moony. But honestly I think you’d be better off going as a werewolf.” James smiled as Remus’ grin melted into a glare almost reminiscent of Snape. “You’d hardly have to change much!”

“Well, at least I’m dressing up as something frightening for the All Hallow’s Ball. What are you supposed to be, Prongs? A waiter?”

“Haha – I’m glad you asked that, Moony! Glad indeed!” James stood up, coming to attention before bowing deeply, swinging his feathered hat out with flourish. “I am the famed Lancelot, my dear friend.” He came up from the bow, a red rose clutched in his opposite hand. “And with this getup Lily won’t be able to resist me!”

“Lancelot? Seriously?” Remus smiled, “Wasn’t he a bit of a prick, James?”

“Nonsense! He was one of the greatest minds of his time! Greater even than King Arthur – hence he gets the lady, if you get what I mean?”

Remus laughed, “Whatever you say…” Remus’ voice broke off as the fireplace started to dim down to an ember, the light slowly leaving the room. “… Prongs?”

James flicked out his wand, his eyes narrowed. “This has got to be the Slytherins doing! But how did they get past the Fat Lady?”

Remus was also on his feet, his wand at the ready as he backed toward the wall. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement behind James. “Jamie, watch out!”

James turned to look in Remus’ direction when a pale, clammy hand landed upon his shoulder with such force that it caused him to jump. The whisper was close enough that he could feel the breath on the back of his neck.

“Fear me, you fools!” The voice was raspy and thin, “For I am – the Dark Lord!”

James spun around at the sound, letting out a squeal of panic. Before him stood the tall, dark-haired man dressed in long, silky black robes. His eyes were a bright red and his pale skin glowed in the firelight.


“V-v-v-” Peter sputtered helplessly from his perch atop the stairway. Remus gasped, holding his wand shakily in front of him. James swallowed, his eyes narrowed as he took a tentative step forward.

“Sirius…?” He paused to keep his voice steady. “Is that you?”

The tall dark figure started to shake, the cloth of the black cloak rippling in waves. Then his penetrating gaze looked away as the hissing of laughter slowly melted into the familiar howls of Sirius Black. “You guys should’ve seen the look on your faces!” Sirius cawed.

James looked like a disheveled bird, his hair perking up in all directions. His eyes were fixed on his friend through thick round glasses in adamant adoration. “Sirius! That is absolutely the best Halloween costume I’ve ever seen!” He rushed over, picking up the long tendrils of cloth in amazement. “How the hell did you get the shadows to cling to it so well?”

Sirius wiped away a tear, “Aw no big deal, just borrowed it from my mom. She’ll never miss it anyway; it’s been locked up in one of those giant cabinets of hers. Took me weeks to break the charm on it! Don’t know why the heck she wanted to keep a thing like this around anyway, it’s so damn ugly!” James dragged Sirius over to the fireplace, flicking his wand to bring the flames to life again to examine the cloak closer. The firelight flicked across his hands, but the cloak seemed to soak up the light around it. Even when he placed the cloak as close to the flames as he could, he still couldn’t see where the cloth ended and the shadows began.

“Must be from when Grindelwald was around…”

“Yea, must be.” Sirius pulled the hood back over his head, drenching his face in shadow again. “So, who’s ready to frighten some hapless first years?”

Peter crept forward slowly, poking his head through the stairway banister nervously. “So you’re – you’re not – You Know Who??” His lower lip trembled, his eyes wide in disbelief. Sirius shook his head as laughter swept through him again. This time James joined in too, a large, toothy grin plastered on his face. His eyes were wide, and although he was looking at Sirius, he wasn’t seeing him as much as the possibilities at hand.

Lupin studied them both with obvious annoyance, watching James in particular with growing suspicion. “I’m sure there is some Hogwarts decree that prevents you from impersonating a Dark Lord…”

“Ha! Just you try and name it, Moony. If it’s not on the books, it doesn’t count now, does it?” Sirius smirked, “You think Dumbledore would really have the balls to make one?”

“Well, he might after tonight!”

“Aw, come on, Moony. I’m just going to the dance, not running around killing muggles or anything.”

“Still, the professors won’t like it.” Remus looked him up and down, studying him. “I’d be surprised if they let you stay there ten minutes dressed like that.”

Sirius blinked, looking down at his robes and wondering if Remus had a point. Even if Dumbledore wasn’t out the dance, there would definitely be professors lurking about. Filch too would definitely be patrolling the halls.

“No sweat, Padfoot.” James grinned, pushing his glasses up as his devious mind churned. “Leave it to me and I’ll make sure you’re able to get in. Wouldn’t want you to waste an outfit like that!”

“You think we can, Jamie?”

“Of course we can! Come on, have I ever let you down?”

“Well I’m not getting involved with it,” Remus sat down on the loveseat again. “We’ll just end up getting detention with Slughorn again and I’m not about to sit around for two weekends trying to figure out ways to clean silver teapots again. That was bad enough the first time.”

“But Moony, don’t you want to see the look on their faces when they see the Dark Lord step onto the dance floor?” Sirius started dancing in place, his swirling black cape mingling with his moves making him appear almost like a moving shadow.

“Well, there’s no way that Snape would ever try to jinx you with that on, Sirius.” Peter chipped in, “In fact, you might have the Slytherins following your every word!”

Sirius’ grin widened at the thought of it, his red eyes gleaming in the firelight. “Oh man, you really think so?”

James flung an arm around Sirius’ shoulders and started leading him to the doorway. “Just leave it to me, Sirius. If you want to be the Dark Lord for a day, who the hell am I to stop you?” Peter ran after them, and after a moment Remus sighed and got to his feet, following them out. Somehow he knew this was going to lead to trouble. And if it did, he wanted to be there to at least try to keep things under control. After all, if anyone could turn a dance into a prank to be remembered, it was James Potter and Sirius Black.



Chapter 2: In Matters of Love

The dance had been quite boring from the start. Severus had made sure he’d arrived promptly at ten before the hour to make sure he was here to escort Lily to a table. He had to make sure he arrived before that blasted Potter showed up, ruining everything like he was always so fond of doing. His finger made lazy circles as Severus stirred his watered down drink.

Across the room all the chipper little partners had already made their way onto the dance floor of the Great Hall. In the distance he could see Lucius and Narcissa slowly making their way around the dance floor, beaming at each other and practically gleaming in the softly lit room. The ceiling above was filled with evening stars, and the edges were filled with the vague rosy hue of sunset. It might have been beautiful if Snape cared to notice it.

At the moment he felt very much the fool. She’d wanted to meet in the lobby just as the dance began, and so he’d waited around, nervously fidgeting for nearly half an hour. At that point he’d decided to get a table and just be patient. He’d been certain she would sweep in, give some excuse for not being on time, and then start searching the crowds for Potter…

He sighed. That was half an hour ago. It was obvious he’d been stood up, but while there was still even the smallest chance she’d appear, he had to hope she would.

Next year his friends Lucius and Narcissa would be gone, off to get married and produce children probably. They seemed the type. That would mean Severus would be stuck here. Alone. With a scornful Lily and that bastard Potter. Could life possibly get any more miserable?

“That glass looks all used up,” The smooth, silky voice of Regulus sounded from beside him. Severus looked up, surprised that he’d been so wrapped up in his own thoughts again to not notice someone sit down next to him. “Allow me,” Regulus flicked his wand and Snape’s cup refilled itself. Severus smirked; it was always the little things at Hogwarts that threw him off. Magic hastily cast without a care. It was his third year at the school and he was still getting used to it. Growing up with his Muggle father who was so fearful of magic made the casual atmosphere at Hogwarts a bit difficult to grasp.

Regulus nodded up at Lucius and Narcissa in the distance. “Can you believe those two? They’ve been up there nearly an hour now. You’d think their feet would get tired at some point.” The black-haired boy leaned back in the chair next to Snape, placing a foot up on the table and propping his chair back. A familiar sheepish smile fell across his face – apparently that was a Black family tradition. Sometimes the two brothers looked far too similar for Severus’ tastes. Indeed, Regulus was only a first year and was quite pleased to make his presence known wherever he went.

“I take it you haven’t moved from this spot, eh?” Regulus’ dark eyes watched him carefully. Severus’ silence prompted Regulus to continue, his knowing eyes narrowed. “You’re waiting for that Evans girl. Hmph. You know she stood you up. Honestly, she’s a Gryffindor. What did you expect?”

Severus sighed. As much as he’d like to get angry at Regulus’ comments, he had to agree with him. “Regulus...” He trailed off. It would do no good to try to explain anything to the boy. He wouldn’t understand anyway. “Did you have something to tell me?”

Regulus blinked for a moment before rocking himself back and forth on the two chair legs. He looked suddenly uncomfortable. “Um… I just thought I’d see how you were doing. You looked like you could use some cheering up.” He looked up to the confused expression on Severus’ face. “And a fresh drink, of course.” The sheepish smile came back again, and Severus rolled his eyes.

Severus stared again across the dance floor, “I take it you’ve heard about Lucius’ plan?”

“Nope, not a bit of it.” Regulus took a long swig from his drink. “Anything I need to know about?”

“Mmm, possibly.” Severus placed the tips of his fingers together. “Lucius plans to propose to Narcissa at some point during the Ball.”

Regulus grinned. “Oh seriously? Hey, go Malfoy! Always moving up, isn’t he? He doesn’t just graduate, he has to catch my cute little cousin too. She’s one lucky girl!” He smiled over at the tall blonde appreciatively.

Severus gave him a sidelong glance before focusing on stirring his now filled cup again. Regulus just stared at him, rocking back and forth on his chair legs. The squeaking noise was driving him nuts, and he could feel the boy’s eyes on him. What was he playing at? “For Merlin’s sake, Regulus – what is it?”

Regulus froze in mid squeak, his eyes wide. “I was… um… wondering what your outfit was.” His face was flushed as Severus’ gaze pierced through him.

“Zorro.” Severus muttered.

Silence.

“Um, what? I didn’t catch that.”

Severus sighed. “Zor-ro.”

“What’s a Zor-ro?”

“Dresses in black? Wears a mask? Kills people with a sword? Battles injustice? Zorro?”

Regulus paused for a moment, putting a finger to his nose. “Nope, never heard of him. Is he muggle or something?”

“Dammit, Regulus!” Severus spat, “Can’t you go bug Rodolphus or Bellatrix or something?”

“Um sure, I could do that…” he flashed another pompous smile at Severus. “But then I wouldn’t be hanging around you, now would I?”

Severus turned to glare at the annoying first-year, when he noticed Lucius and Narcissa heading their way. Lucius’ pointed green hat was tilted a bit on top of his golden hair which was pulled back into a ponytail. His forest green tights fit with a leather tunic hardened his fair features, making him look like he could hold his own in a fist fight. He scoffed, knowing better. For all of Lucius’ talk and veiled threats, he relied on Severus to back up his wishes. And after all the things Lucius had done for him over the years, how could he refuse? Not only had he accepted him even with his partially muggle heritage, he’d even accompanied him home a couple of times. Granted the visits didn’t go particularly well but still, not even Lily would visit and she lived just down the street.

And then there was Narcissa, Lucius’ pride and joy as of late. How Severus envied their happiness! She was beside her boyfriend, her arm looped with his. Narcissa was wearing a sleek baby blue medieval dress that looked surprisingly authentic to Severus’ keen eyes. He had to wonder if this was some ancient treasure passed down in the Black family. Then he shook his head. This was Narcissa. He truly doubted she’d waste the time to hunt something like that down. She leaned in and kissed Lucius’cheek before heading off in the direction of the lavatories.

Regulus nodded, a smirk pulling at his lips. “You’re a brave man, Lucius.”

Lucius pulled up a chair, raising a slim eyebrow. “Pardon me?”

Regulus glanced downwards at Lucius’ legs, his smile widening. “Those tights.” He hissed through his teeth. “Brave man…”

Lucius grinned, “Yes, well. The things you’ll do for love – eh, Severus?” He chuckled, but then his smile melted into something akin to understanding as he glanced at his brooding friend. Severus averted his eyes.

“You really are pining for the girl, aren’t you?”

Severus clenched his jaw. Why was everyone so interested in his love life suddenly?

Regulus started rocking his chair again. “Heh, that’s exactly what I told him. He needs to just get over it. I mean honestly, there are other people out there…”

Lucius gave Regulus a bemused expression before turning his attention back to Severus. “Come now, Severus, you could at least try to be a little happy. I mean honestly, just because the girl’s an idiot doesn’t mean you should wallow in your depression.” He gestured towards him in frustration. “I mean goodness, Severus, look at your outfit: All black again? Surely your wardrobe has some color in it, at least for a festive occasion.”

Severus gritted his teeth. “It’s part of the costume…”

“Yes, of course it is.” Lucius turned his gaze back to Regulus. “And you must be…”


Regulus pulled on the Black smile again, dropping his other leg onto the table with a thud. Severus now noticed that it was in fact a peg leg. He blinked in fascination. How did a first year know how to do that? Hell, he didn’t even know, and he’d read the textbooks inside and out!

“Aye be a pirate, matey!” He put his elbows out to the side, as though that instantly gave him a pirate appearance, his white poet’s shirt bunching in the arms. “An’ I be-a searchin’ for some grub!”

Lucius looked unimpressed. “Yes, well that’s very… quaint, Regulus.”

“Fabulous piece of work on that leg, Regulus.” Severus leaned over it, dragging his fingers over the wood. He didn’t notice the blush that came over the boy’s face.

“It’s, um, useful when trying to look like a cripple.” He gave a sheepish grin.

Severus raised an eyebrow. “Your mother taught this to you, didn’t she?” Regulus nodded, pulling his peg leg off the table. “You’ll have to teach it to me then. That could be an invaluable spell!”

Severus was as close to giddy as he could get. Lucius found it a bit unnerving. “Did you notice Narcissa? She’s my Maid Mariam.”

Severus snorted. “You two are coordinating your outfits and you’re not even engaged yet, Lucius. Eager for that ball and chain, are you?”

“Ball and chain? What are you talking about?”

“I mean you’re trying to shackle yourself to her and you’re still a year away from graduating! Don’t you think you’re being a little hasty?”

“Hardly.” He soothed. “I mean, just look at her.”

Lucius motioned across the other side of the Hall. Huddled in a small group, Bellatrix and Narcissa were chattering and laughing, loud enough that Bella’s howls of laughter could be heard even from this distance. Rodolphus, who was arm in arm with Bella, looked more like a caged animal than a boyfriend.

“Oh dear, it looks like the Black sisters have captured poor Rodolphus.” Lucius drawled. “Looks like I’ll need to rescue him.” He stood to leave, but then turned again to Severus, his voice lowering. “I take it you have informed him of my intentions this evening?”

Severus nodded shortly. “Yes of course, Lucius.”

“And?”

“And we’ll be keeping an eye out for the Marauders,” Severus turned to elbow the pirate. “Won’t we, Regulus?”

Regalus flung his arms out to his sides to keep from falling backwards. “Whoa--! What?” He blinked in confusion between the two boys, he’d been far too engrossed in watching the dance.

“The engagement?”

Regulus blinked. “Yeah, what about it?”

“The Marauders?” Severus growled.

“Oh yeah! We’ll watch out for them, no worries! There’s no way they can crash this party.”

Lucius nodded in satisfaction. He locked eyes with Severus shortly before heading over to the Black sisters.

Severus stretched his arms into the air, his shoulders popping from brooding for too long – if that were possible. “Finally, some excitement.”

“What do you mean?” Regulus took a long sip of his drink.

Severus stood and stealthily pulled his wand out of his pocket. “Come along. It’s time to get to work.”

“Work?”

“Yes. The Marauders are certainly up to something. I haven’t seen them all evening, have you?” Regulus was clearly just as hard-headed as his older brother.

“Um no, but…”

“Then come along. This requires further investigating. Surely you’ll appreciate a good duel. Especially when you’re brother’s the target.”

Regulus sighed, standing up slowly. “Yeah, yeah. I’m coming. Sheesh, we can’t even enjoy the party.”

Severus clutched the smooth wood of his wand. After sitting around waiting for his wretched Lily to appear, a fight was just the thing to get him interested. This party might not be so dull after all.




Chapter 3: Preparations

Peter was very good at being a rat, or at least he liked to think so. He was very good at sneaking around corners, sniffing out danger, and scoping out rooms. He was always the scout for the Marauders, and save for a few close encounters with some mouse traps, he loved his work. Sneaking was one of the few things he excelled at, and he scurried so quickly from shadow to shadow that he was barely seen. Perhaps he wasn’t quite as invisible as James could be in his cloak, but since he wasn’t limited by size, his skills were far more flexible. Moving with rodent quickness, he reached the edge of the Grand Staircase, and peeked a whiskered nose over to see what he could find. Beneath him flights of stairs swung back and forth like a lazy, unorganized windmill, and try as he might he simply couldn’t make out any signs of life. Then, just as he was about to give the Marauders the all-clear, he spotted movement. It was hard to make out between the weaving and wobbling of the staircase railings, but he would recognize that patch of mangy brown fur anywhere.

That fur belonged to Mrs. Norris, one of the surliest cats Peter had ever encountered. He’d been chased by her so much his first few months of being an animagus that he’d started having nightmares about it. He backed up from the stairway as quickly as possible, his tiny claws scratching at the stone floor. It took him a moment to catch his breath. Then he headed back to inform the others.

The three were down the hall closer to the portrait for the Fat Lady, staying in the shadows for fear of being seen. “Okay, okay, how does this one look?” Sirius whispered to the others, then opened his red eyes wide, sticking his nose into the air and glaring down at them.

“That one’s definitely creepy,” Remus admitted. “But I really don’t want to make them piss themselves when you show up…”

“You really think they’d be scared of that?” James laughed, “He looks like an Azkaban mugshot! You know how those arrogant pricks pose as they’re sent off.”

“Hey Jamie, if anyone’s an arrogant prick here, you’d be it!” Sirius laughed.

“Guys, guys, we can’t go that way,” Peter whispered as he came back to his human form. “Filch is down there patrolling around the entrance to the Great Hall!”

“Damn…” James sighed, his mind going to work. “Then we’ll have to find another way.”

“You know, I didn’t really think they’d let us through the front entrance, did you?” Sirius laughed.

“If Filch is patrolling then that must mean the professors are at the dance,” Remus said.

Sirius sighed, “You know this would be a lot easier if we had the map…” His red glowing eyes fell on Peter. “Too bad Mr. Wormy here lost it!”

Peter gulped then inched closer to James. “Don’t start this again,” James sighed, putting two fingers to his forehead in frustration. “Does it really matter who lost it? As far as I’m concerned, we can do just fine without it!”

“But – how do you lose something like that! It’s not like it’s a term paper or something, that thing took us months to-”

“Keep your voices down,” Remus shushed, slipping down the Charms hallway ahead of them. “We can take the Charms portrait shortcut to get there. It’ll be faster and they might not be expecting it.”

“Might not?” Peter moaned.

“Pete’s right.” Sirius took up the rear, keeping his voice low. “We don’t know that for sure, guys. And I really don’t want this outfit wasted in detention.”

James stopped and turned around, his glasses gleaming in the candlelight. “Look, I’m the one who can’t afford to let this night be ruined. Let me handle the details of getting us to the dance, agreed?”

Peter smiled, nodding enthusiastically.

Sirius crossed his arms. “Alright, Jamie. But you better make good on that promise!”

James turned back to the front of the line, “Remus?”

Remus glared at the entire group, his fangs poking out slightly from behind his frown. “I still think this is a horrible idea, but I’m not too keen on going to detention with Filch. I’m seeing this as the lesser of two evils.”

“You mean two punishments, right?” James put an arm around his friend as they made their way down the hallway. “Moony, you’re awesome. Have I told you that recently?” Remus merely rolled his eyes.

A few moments later, they came to a halt a few paces before the Charms door which was slightly ajar. The four exchanged looks for a moment; Peter crouched down to start transforming, but James placed a hand on his shoulder and shook his head. Then with a smile plastered on his face and a tip of his feathery hat, he elbowed the door to Charms class wide open.

“Professor Flitwick?” He called out. “Are you in here?”

Remus let out a groan. He had no clue whatsoever as to what James’ plan was here. If he could make a guess, he was trying to make as big an ass of himself as possible. Was this his idea of being stealthy? He looked over his shoulder to see Sirius looked about as shocked as he was. He mouthed at Remus, “What is he doing?!”

Remus sighed, and kept his wand at the ready.

------

James sauntered into the Charms classroom without much worry. If there was some problem with him roaming around the corridors this late at night, he could make up some excuse. The room was completely dark, but as his footsteps echoed off the walls of the classroom he thought he heard a chair squeak across the floor.

“Professor Flitwick? Are you in here?”

From out of the back corridor arose a shadowy figure, and slowly it moved forward. He was taller than Flitwick, and James got his wand at the ready just to be safe.

“Identify yourself!” He called out.

With a hefty sigh, Dirk Cresswell walked forward, smoothing his robes down conspicuously. “Potter? What the hell, mate. Do you mind?”

From behind him a female voice floated out, “What’s going on, Dirk?”

“Sorry, Dirk. I didn’t know!” The laughter started bubbling out of him and he turned to leave so Dirk couldn’t see it. “You know you ought to not keep the door wide open inviting spectators when you two get frisky like that!”

“Why you little..!” Dirk flicked his wand out, “Melofors!

James was about to head out the doorway when his entire head was suddenly covered with a large, well-proportioned pumpkin. He struggled to regain his balance to accommodate the extra weight and ended up knocking his head into the door before falling down to the ground with an undignified, “Mmph!”


Dirk’s laughter echoed off the classroom walls as he headed back inside. Remus poked his head around the corner, and on seeing Jamie’s pathetic state decided that it would be best just to drag him out than to let Peter and Sirius take shots at Dirk. Sadly, James’ head got stuck between the half ajar door and the doorframe.

“Oops, sorry James!” Remus whispered, finally dragging the boy into the hallway. He looked worriedly at Sirius. He was the reactionary member of the group, and if he flew off the handle at this they could be here all night.

But as soon as Sirius saw the size of the pumpkin on James’ head and the tiny trail of pumpkin juice that he’d made on the ground, he started laughing like crazy. His black shadowy aura billowed each time he tried to gasp for breath, which made it difficult to pull the pumpkin pieces off of James’s head.

“I told you I could handle it,” James grinned, his face covered with pumpkin seeds.

Remus chuckled as he pulled the glasses off James’ head and started cleaning them, “Yeah you had that well under control.”

Sirius pulled him to his feet. “You know, that thing looked pretty good on you actually. Might just make your outfit,” he added with a grin.

James rolled his eyes at him. “I don’t think I’ll want any pumpkin juice for a while.”

Peter simply couldn’t wipe the toothy grin off his face as he started trying to clean up the rest of the orange mess with a few well-placed cleaning charms.

James took back the glasses from Remus, replacing them on his nose. He turned to head down the hallway, finally reaching the portrait shortcut Remus had mentioned earlier. He shook his shaggy head, “Damn, I’ll have to use that one on Snivellus next I see him!”

------

“So um, is this the fighting you had in mind?” Regulus grinned, following Severus closely, his wand twirling lazily in his fingertips. With each step his peg leg made a thump that echoed off the castle walls quite nicely.

He looked to his sullen friend, who seemed to have lost a variety of facial expressions since they’d left the ball. In fact, his face had remained so stony that Regulus was wondering if he was listening at all.

“Where do you think they’ll be coming from?” He knew the questions weren’t getting him anywhere, but he still had to ask. They had left the dance via the side door instead of the main entrance. It wasn’t a big deal, but Regulus was kind of hoping to get some more compliments on his peg leg before the night was over.

Silence, not that Regulus was very surprised. The man avoided conversation even on his rare talkative days. Still he had to admit that he was rather fascinated by him. He knew Severus had come up with a plan. He had to have. Lucius wouldn’t be trusting him with this if he didn’t, right? Regulus just wished he could be privy to it. It wasn’t like he was new to dueling or anything.

“Hey Severus, when do we get to – ”

Severus spun around so quickly that Regulus nearly lost his balance on his false leg. “Damn it, Regulus – don’t you ever shut up? This is supposed to be a mission of stealth, not of stupid questions! You do what I say, exactly what I say, and exactly when I tell you to do it. Do I make myself clear?”

Regulus blinked at him for a moment before smiling slowly. “You know you look pretty cool when you get angry like that. You should try that on Evans – she might like it!”

“Christ,” Severus moaned as he turned to continue.

“What’s a Christ? You’ve got so many of these weird muggle words,” Regulus said.

Silence again. Regulus narrowed his eyes.

“Oh, so we’re back to this again?”

Quiet!” Severus hissed, turning to cover Regulus’ mouth as they both tried to catch the noise again. In the distance Regulus thought he could hear laughter, but it was so faint he couldn’t tell if it was from the party or not.

Severus had dropped his voice down to a whisper, “They’re coming this way.”

Regulus followed. The thumping of his leg followed them both.

“Can’t you silence that thing?”

Regulus sighed, dropping his hands to his sides. Nothing seemed to please Severus today. He’d been complementing the leg just a few moments ago, and now he wanted it silenced. The guy seemed to run hot and cold. “I need your cape.”

Severus blinked, “My what?”

“Your cape. To silence the leg.”

“Fine. Whatever. Here, take it.” He slipped the knot free from around his neck. Regulus wrapped the peg leg in it, and then tied a sloppy knot at the top so it wouldn’t fall off.

Severus watched him for a moment, then smiled and shook his head. “You know you could have just cast a muffliato charm or undone the spell…”

Regulus gave a lopsided grin, “Nah it took me an hour to put this spell on, and I’m not about to take it off now. Besides, you’re nearly an expert in magic compared to me. Why didn’t you just take it off? Lucius always says you’re brilliant in potions, and –“

“Regulus?”

“Yeah?”

“Flattery doesn’t work on me, so don’t push it.” He reached out a thin hand to pull him behind one of the statues and waited for the students to appear.


------


Sirius pulled the portrait entrance closed and was keeping an eye on the hallway. “So what’s your plan, Jamie?”

“Well, remember the band that played at last year’s dance? What was that song they played, Steaming Cauldron of Love? Steamy Cauldron Kisses?”

“A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love? I think you were busy watching Lily the entire time,” Remus reminded him with a grin.

“Oh yea…”

Sirius smiled, “So I get to scare them all out of the Great Hall?”

“Oh boy!” Peter squeaked, barely able to contain his excitement.

“No, no, you won’t scare them. Well, maybe a few…” James snickered.

“Won’t scare ‘em? C’mon Jamie, don’t let this beautiful costume go to waste!” Sirius flexed his shadowy arms to prove his point. “We gotta put something this perfect to good use!” The pathetic loverboy smile on his face simply didn’t match the evil aura that surrounded him.

“Come back this way I promise, you’re gonna love this idea.” James started heading toward the back of the Great Hall when Remus caught his arm.

“James, you’ve got to tell us what your plan is! You do realize you could get us into some serious trouble here, right?” Remus paused, folding his arms in resolution. “If you want my assistance I at least need to know what you’re getting us into.”

“Moony, Moony,” James flung an arm over his shoulder. “Have I ever led you wrong?”

Remus narrowed his eyes. “Yes, dozens of times. In fact I can’t even count how many!”

James grimaced a bit, realizing his mistake. “Okay, fair enough. Have I ever led you wrong lately?” Remus went to reply, but James was quicker. “As in the last week?”

Remus narrowed his eyes again. “That’s an awfully short timeframe to base your morals.”

“Moony,” Sirius grinned at him, perhaps the most cheerful Dark Lord ever. “I promise you will have a good time. Okay? I promise!”

Remus acquiesced, nodding shortly in resignation. The pit in his stomach was only getting worse as the night wore on. If Sirius was certain about this, then Remus couldn’t very well abandon them.

------


“See them?” Severus growled, pointing his wand in the direction of the four students. “They’re heading for the Great Hall. I knew it! I knew they were up to something!”

Regulus squinted and could just make out the short one heading down the hallway. He decided that Severus must also know some charms for making your vision better, cause there was no way he could tell what direction they were headed. “Why’s it so dark?”

Severus sighed, giving him a poignant look, but then found himself smirking instead at the scrunched up look on Regulus’ face. “It’s nighttime, Regulus. That’s what happens.”

“No, I mean with them. Why’s it so dark around them?”

“I don’t know, some kind of concealment spell I imagine. I wouldn’t put it past them to go out and find some obsolete spell just to ruin the evening for everyone else.”

“You think they’re going to crash the dance?”

Severus nodded, getting to his feet. “Come on, we have to warn the others before Lucius proposes.”

The two boys started to make their way back to the party. “Hey Severus?”

He sighed in anticipation of yet another stupid question. Honestly, didn’t first-years have anything better to do than to pester their elders? “What is it?”

“How come you smell so good?”

He blinked, pausing in his tracks and turning to the shorter boy. “What? I don’t-“

Regulus merely winked, wearing that stupid Black smile like a piece of jewely, strutting past him with his ridiculous wrapped peg leg. “At least I got an answer out of you finally!”

Chapter 4: Threats

The echoes of the party could be heard from the hallways nearby, and Remus couldn’t help but wonder how much he’d have to smooth over with McGonagall this time. Behind these walls, almost every Hogwarts student in the castle was laughing and dancing, enjoying themselves at this costume ball. Part of him wanted to rush in and tell the professors everything that his friends had planned, to thwart the plans before they could even get started. But realistically, he knew that he too was eager to see what James was planning. He had to watch as all those mouths dropped open in complete shock when the Marauders finally got the chance they were looking for: to be the best known troublemakers in Hogwarts history. It was certainly a tall order, but one he felt they were on a clear path towards.

Of course Remus knew that obtaining such a dangerous title might garner him an immediate expulsion from the school, but he’d never had such close friends. And if he had to choose expulsion or his friends, he’d certainly choose the latter. Besides if he did get expelled, he wouldn’t be heading out alone. Sure he’d have to face his father’s anger, but since Remus had been bitten he’d seen quite a bit of that from him. Incredibly it seemed like his father had changed more from Remus’ affliction than he had. These days every trip home was another disappointed look from his father, and apologies from his mother. It seemed like another world compared to his camaraderie with the Marauders. They accepted him regardless of his affliction.

Peter transformed back to his human form next to Remus and pulled him out of his thoughts. “They’re patrolling all the exits.” His beady eyes were wide with worry, “I barely escaped getting stepped on! And Professor Sprout wanted to put me out in her garden,” he frowned.

“Ah, Wormy we wouldn’t let her do that!” Sirius slapped him on the back, his red eyes shining in the darkness of the corridor. Peter jumped, but tried to remember that it was Sirius behind him and not really a Dark Lord.

“Really?” Peter sniffled, “I’d hate to be put out there. Her plants might swallow me whole!”

James peered down the hall, his mind deep in thought. “There has to be another way…”

Remus was about to put up a few ideas when a hissing whisper caught his attention, “There’ll be no Gryffindors causing a nuisance tonight!” And just as Remus was going for his wand, he was suddenly petrified and falling to the ground. Damn it, he just wasn’t fast enough to match Snape!

Above him he saw James and Sirius already had their wands out and spells were flying back and forth, the light from them illuminating the two boys’ faces. Peter had fallen back against the wall, shooting spells occasionally, but mostly just cheering his friends on.

“Shit!” cried out another voice, and Remus suddenly realized that Snape wasn’t alone. He tried to see who it was but could only make out a wooden stick wrapped in black cloth.

“Don’t you dare back away, you cowardly little-” Snape’s voice was strained, and evidently he was just distracted enough for James to get in a final blow.

Melofors!” James cried, and an orange spark erupted from his wand. Suddenly Remus was able to move again and Peter was helping him to his feet. As Remus spun around to see what had happened, he saw Snape wobbling around, his arms outstretched, a giant pumpkin in place of his head. Regulus Black, Sirius’ younger brother, was beside him being completely useless to the Slytherin cause because he was laughing too hard.

Sirius dragged his fingers through his black hair and stalked over to his brother, who was too busy wiping tears out of his eyes to notice. Moving toward him, Sirius moved out of the shadows he and James had been standing in and stood purposely within a pool of light. “You fool!” his voice hissed. If it wasn’t a perfect mimic of the Dark Lord himself, it was certainly close enough. Regulus’ eyes grew wide as he stared at him. His wand dropped helplessly to the ground.

Remus had to stifle a laugh; the boy certainly would’ve had problems were this the real Dark Lord. Putting his wand away, Sirius stalked up to the shorter boy. His serpentine smile grew wider as Regulus started quivering. Remus knew he should’ve stopped it there. Sirius should have just let the boy run back to the others with his story of coming face to face with the Dark Lord. But this was Sirius. And everything had to be a spectacle.

With two pale hands he lifted the boy off the ground, pulling him eye level. “Do you not know who – I – am?” His red glowing eyes stared into Regulus’. It was simply too much, and recognition started dawning on Regulus. Remus looked at James, but he was too busy mocking Severus to notice that someone was onto the disguise.

“S-Sirius?” Regulus’ voice was tiny, but Remus could see clear realization in his eyes. It was as though he were pretending to be frightened now. “Wow, that is really you, isn’t it? That is one crazy outfit!” His eyes went up and down Sirius’ body in a strange mixture of fear and amazement. “Where’d you get that?”

Sirius paused for a moment, his red eyes blinking in surprise. Then his fearsome face broke into a wide gloating smile, and his voice dropped down to its regular pitch. Remus noticed that James was moving over to them now, probably realizing as Remus did that this was not good. “Well from one of mom’s junk chests actually.”

“That is so cool! You must’ve had to sneak it out overnight or something…”

“Actually I sneaked it out during the day! You know she’s a night owl.”

“Yea, that’s a good point,” Regulus nodded. His face was the very picture of admiration, but his eyes were dark. They looked like what James called the ‘Plotting Slytherin Eyes’.

James let out a moan and walked up to the two, putting a hand on each of them. “Ok, Regulus. Get your pathetic friend here and get the hell out of my face.” He motioned down to Severus who was trying to find his wand on the ground. He might’ve been able to find it if Peter wasn’t holding it over his head snickering. “And if you mention this to anyone…”
Regulus nodded calmly, “Not a word. Promise.”

“So ah, won’t you guys tell me what you’re up to?” he smiled innocently up at his older brother.

“Not if your life depended on it,” Sirius smiled, placing him roughly onto the ground again. Regulus straightened out his robe before picking up his wand and snatching Snape’s wand out of Peter’s hand. He casually floated Severus’ body into the air amid moans of indignation emanating from his pumpkin head. He drifted Severus’ pumpkin-strewn body down the hall and back the way they came, but just as he turned the corner Remus could see he was smiling. More than smiling, he was practically beaming. Remus knew that they’d somehow lost this battle.

“Well that was interesting…”

“Yeah interesting.” James spun towards Sirius, “What the hell were you doing? Trading costume ideas? I mean, you’re supposed to be a Dark Lord here! You were supposed to scare him away!”

“What are you talking about, Jamie?” Sirius flung his arms out to the side. “Did you see the kid shaking? He was scared!”

James grunted, putting a thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose. “Damn you’re so dense.”

“Hey now, what am I missing here? Moony, what the hell just happened?”

Remus sighed. He intensely wished he could stay out of these arguments. “What happened was: the Slytherins found out that Sirius Black is masquerading as a Dark Lord, and the Marauders are sneaking him into the party.”

“Think of them as scouts, Padfoot.” James sighed. “And they just figured out what we’re planning.”

Sirius was quiet for a moment as the realization dawned on him. Peter fidgeted nervously at his side looking from Sirius to James.

“Dammit,” Sirius rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. “Well why couldn’t we have just tied them up in the loo or something?”

“Because,” James folded his arms. “They obviously were sent by someone.”

Peter cleared his throat, “Well at least you know Snape’s not with Lily, right James?”

James gave him a pointed look and Remus just rolled his eyes. They might have just won the battle, but so far the Slytherins were winning the war tonight.


-----

This was taking far longer than he’d expected. The dessert had already been served and still no sign of Severus or Regulus. Surely it didn’t take that long to hunt down four troublesome students. Perhaps one of the professors had found them, or maybe even Filch. Lucius frowned at the thought.

“Lucius, what the hell is wrong with you? If you were any more sour, I’d swear my sister were dating a toad instead of a Malfoy.” Bellatrix grinned slyly between bites of cakes and pastries.

He merely smiled back, “I’m so sorry that I’m not being a more gracious sitter for you, Bella dear. I suppose it’s necessary for those of us forced to watch over children to behave ourselves now and then.”

She rolled her eyes, flicking back a wet strand of hair out of her eyes. “Whatever, Lucius. You know whenever you start talking I instinctively start ignoring you. I can’t imagine why that would be!”

Lucius sighed. As Bella was finishing off the last bit of cake on her plate, he started wondering what exactly she was supposed to be dressed as. Her hair was dripping wet, and had been the entire evening. Her clothes were also soaked and she made little puddles throughout the room whenever she stood still for more than a minute. Her makeup was very dark around the eyes, which wasn’t necessarily unusual for her; extreme but certainly not unusual. Earlier he had assumed she’d just not dried her hair before coming to the party, but now knowing that it was part of her outfit made it even more disturbing.

“What exactly are you, Bella?”

She blinked for a moment, then smiled and stood up to spin around in her dripping clothes. Lucius was glad he was sitting on the opposite side of the table. “I’m the drowned Ophelia. Committed suicide after going mad from the cruelty of her parents and lover. You know of her, I’m sure.”

“Yes, but why the drowned Ophelia? I mean, surely you could just be the living version? Cause less of a mess, perhaps?”

She leaned forward, a cocky grin on her face. “Because that wouldn’t annoy you nearly as much. And besides, I think this shows off my figure better than any dress the other girls are wearing.”

Lucius had to agree with that. The sleek black dress with the addition of the soaking water left little to the imagination. Bella sat back down in a huff. “And where has my sister run off to, leaving me alone with you of all people. I wonder if she’s just trying to bore me to death.”

Across the Great Hall, Lucius suddenly heard his name being called out. But it wasn’t Severus as he’d hoped or expected, but Narcissa. He jumped at the opportunity to be free of Bella and started heading off in the direction. “If you’ll excuse me, Bella,” he breathed quickly before heading off, barely noticing her curious expression.

Toward the back of the Great Hall, Narcissa was wringing her hands, her face gleaming in the candlelight but marred with worry. “Lucius, thank you for coming. I would have gone to fetch you myself but I knew Bella would follow if I did.”

“Narcissa, what’s wrong?”

She sighed, looking markedly calmer and more controlled now that he was here. He loved it when he could soothe her nerves like this. “It’s Rodolphus. He… slipped in one of Bellas drippings and hit his head.”

Lucius laughed, “Why is that something to worry over? Come, let me see him.” He made to leave out the back door, but she grasped his arm quickly.

“Please be discreet. He was planning on proposing to Bella tonight!”

Lucius felt the blood suddenly drain from his face and his mouth dry up. Why was he planning to do it tonight of all times? Didn’t he know that Lucius was planning to propose as well? What kind of message was he trying to convey here? “I’ll… be discreet,” he muttered and headed out through the large doors toward the corridor. He could just see the image in his mind’s eye: Rodolphus sporting a fancy bandage around his bloody skull and Bella making a fountain in the middle of the Great Hall as his knees were soaked from kneeling in her newly created puddle. What kind of ridiculous scene would that be?

He found Rodolphus sitting on the ground, holding a handful of napkins to the back of his head. He smiled as Lucius approached. “Good to see you! Hope you know of a few mending charms that might be helpful. I don’t exactly want to spend the rest of the party in the Hospital Wing over a small bump, you know?”

Lucius rolled his eyes, looking over his shoulder to make sure Narcissa was out of earshot. He crouched down next to him, glaring as hard as he could into his eyes. “Why are you planning to propose to her tonight?” Lucius’ hissed through his teeth.

Rodolphus blinked, a sheepish expression coming over him. “Oh, oh she told you that, eh?” His voice was much smaller now.

“Yes, she told me that. And after I specifically told you of my plans? How could you take the evening away from us like that after all my planning and preparation?”

Rodolphus sighed, reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out the tiny black velvet box. “Because she asked me to,” he stated simply.

Lucius shook his head in disbelief, “But why? Why would she want to be engaged the same night as her sister?” He didn’t think Bella had an ounce of ill will against Narcissa. True they tended to disagree with each other frequently, but that certainly didn’t mean there was any bad blood between them.

“Bellatrix wanted to have as grand an engagement as her sister. Come now, surely you’ve noticed that sexy dress she’s wearing tonight. She wore that specifically for the event.” Lucius had to hold back the shudder of disgust that swept through him at the thought of someone wanting to be engaged in that outfit.

“Come now, Lucius. Two engagements in one night isn’t so bad, is it?” he smiled apologetically.

Lucius raised his head slightly in indignation. “Yes, Rodolphus, it is in fact that bad. I refuse to let either of you take away from Narcissa’s limelight tonight. You might just want to use that head injury as an excuse to keep your distance the rest of the evening. I wouldn’t want to have to …remove you for the remainder of the dance.”

His eyes were wide, “But what about Bellatrix!”

“She’ll be fine. You two will simply have to choose another night. It’s not that difficult. Now come here.” Lucius leaned his head forward and did a small mending charm to make the wound less obvious. “It’s not much. You’ll probably still have to see the mediwitch by tomorrow.”

Rodolphus sighed, “Alright Lucius. Thank you.”

“Not a problem.” He leaned down and helped him back to his feet. “So, do we have an agreement?” Lucius held out his hand politely, a knowing smile on his lips.

He sighed again, looking at Lucius’ hand with some agitation. Lucius waited patiently, maintaining eye contact whenever he could. Finally Rodolphus took it and gave a weak shake. “Yeah, we’ve got one.”

“Excellent.”


Chapter 5: Sidetracked

Regulus pulled Severus down several hallways before he figured they were clear of the Marauders. Severus had said they were going to warn the others, not charge in and try to take them out. He still couldn’t believe the guts on this guy – facing down all four Marauders and expecting him to do the same? Sneaking, stalking, figuring out information – he could do those things. But an outnumbered wand match was not exactly his forte. He pulled Severus behind a wall and allowed himself a moment to appreciate the moment.

Slumped at his feet, pulling desperately at the giant pumpkin on top of his shoulders, Severus’ body looked even smaller than normal. Regulus had to hold back the laughter. His friend would be quick to hear it. Besides he had to prepare himself to face the renowned wrath of Snape. Rumor had it his glare could make even McGonnagal squirm. Using a cutting charm he’d picked up at home, he had chopped the large pumpkin into a slimy orange mess in a matter of moments. Severus stood awkwardly, hands wiping at his face and the curse words already attempting to make their way out of his mouth for all the pumpkin seeds and spittle.

Regulus sighed in amusement, starting in on the cleaning charms and laughing to himself at Severus’ vain attempts to wipe off the muck.

“Those cursed… hideous…disgusting…” Each word escaped Severus’ lips at a higher pitch of rage, and Regulus started to get nervous. He desperately hoped Snape didn’t shriek like Mother did when she got angry, and his eyes were already darting down the hallways in search of an emergency exit just to be safe.

“Shh, calm down. It’s just a pumpkin.” Regulus whispered, too distracted to notice Severus’ outraged expression.

“Just a –“

“Hmm, I think if we head this way we should be able to avoid Filch –“

“Just a pumpkin – ?“

“ – and head back to the party without anyone noticing.” Regulus finished with a smile. He already knew the news he’d deliver to Malfoy and the others. How shocked and amazed when they heard of their scuffle and of Snape’s bravery. He turned back to his glowering friend with that same cocky Black grin, not even noticing the small balled fist that was moving quickly toward his jaw.

The pain exploded on his cheek and the dim light from the hall torches doubled and tripled for a moment, the light intensifying. Then Severus was walking up to him again, his form blurry and unfocused. But he could make out the other fist raising. Regulus didn’t know what to do other than put his arms over his face. The words were pouring out of Severus’ mouth, but Regulus could only catch bits and pieces.

“You pathetic little son of a whore! You could have fucking helped me back there instead of making me look so goddamn stupid!”

Smack!

“You let them humiliate me!”

Smack!

That last one really made the lights beam as Severus’ fist knocked into his temple. Regulus reeled for a moment then landed against something cold and smooth. He slowly let himself slump to the ground, listening to the sounds of Severus’ furious breaths, not knowing what was going to come next.

-----

It had all happened far too quickly. He hadn’t ever intended to punch the boy really. But before he’d known it his arms had grown minds of their own, acting of their own accord and no longer listening to his commands. And they weren’t even his hands anymore were they? For just those few moments, they weren’t his. His hands, his voice, they belonged to Da--.

He caught himself, suddenly regaining control of his limbs as quickly as he’d lost it. He opened his palms and stared at the thin hands, the long fingers winding up. They looked nothing like Tobias’ hard, course hands. His fingers were so covered in the dirt and grime of the mill they had almost absorbed the color. But not his, his hands were still pale and clean. At least for the most part.

Reluctantly he looked down at Regulus’ crumpled form, a dark shape forming on either side of his jaw where his fist had made contact. Regulus’ glassy eyes were staring listlessly across the hall, with his arms in front of his face in case more blows were coming. Severus felt pain at the recognition he saw in that position, and it wasn’t that difficult to imagine what he must have looked like in his fit of rage. Much like his father, he imagined.

The very thought that he and Tobias had anything in common formed a tight knot of anger in his chest. The memories came without need or want, but they spilled over his mind nonetheless. He his mother, her dark eyes and pale face framed by the thin black hair he’d inherited. Her lips were red, blood red from the beating she’d endured the night before. The light had only just begun seeping into the tiny room they called the kitchen, though really it had felt more like a hallway with the amount of space. She’d been sitting at the kitchen table and she hadn’t turned when he’d entered. Her voice was quiet but hard, as though a hot fire burned behind the thin words. Her hands were clutching her familiar blue mug of coffee on the side of which “Freshly Brewed” was scripted alongside the cartoonish picture of a witch beside her cauldron. Her hands were trembling. Slightly, but it was enough for him to notice.

A cigarette hung loosely from her lips, the tobacco had been what had awoken him that morning. She usually smoked when she got depressed. That morning she was nursing a dark black splotch over her right eye, her black bangs parted just above it, as though she’d half-heartedly tried to tend to it earlier. Severus sighed, pulling up a chair beside her, and flicked his wand out.

“Don’t,” she whispered, her eyes growing cold and suddenly seeing him.

“You can’t just let them stay.”

“He hates it when you use magic. You’ll simply give him an excuse to come out and give you the same.”

Severus sighed again, his forehead creased with worry. “Then… I’ll just have to do the same when he does it to me, won’t I?”

He leaned forward tentatively and started muttering healing charms to himself, his gaze occasionally drifting back to her eyes. They still burned but she didn’t resist his aid.

Pulling his mind to the present, he looked down at Regulus. His mother had been right of course. Tobias had found out what he’d done and gotten furious as he always did; except Severus had gotten two black eyes for the price of healing one. He thought of his mother and her prideful eyes, her inner strength. He also felt their cold rage. He shouldn’t have done this. He shouldn’t have become what he hated most, some blind stupid muggle that swung before he spoke. He had seen what could come of it. But he also knew that he couldn’t deal with that now. Even if Regulus only liked being around him because he thought he was useful, at least he was around. That’s more than he could say for Lily at the moment.

The entire evening Regulus hadn’t done much to anger him, at least not intentionally. His similarities to his brother were the only persistent annoyances. And then when he floated him down the halls bearing a pumpkin on his head, it was just too much like a move Sirius Black would pull for him to find it amusing. Severus couldn’t deny his own fiery temper, but even if it became too much to bear, that didn’t mean he could lash out at Regulus. Hell it didn’t excuse him lashing out at anyone, but least of all a first year. The Marauders at least could take it, but this kid certainly couldn’t. He sighed, knowing what was coming next. He’d have to try and fix this, like he always had to do after he stepped out of line. He had to put this to rest, even if it meant… apologizing.

He shuddered at the thought, and then sunk down beside Regulus as humbly as possible. Regulus’ eyes came into focus then, watching him warily as though he was a wild animal that could lunge out and snap at him. Not that Severus could really blame him. He didn’t really trust himself either at the moment.

After a few moments of silence, Regulus’ voice came out in a bitter whisper, “You feel better now?”

Severus felt his shame rushing to his cheeks, and pulled up his knees to his chest. He wrapped his arms around them and then propped his chin against the makeshift bridge. “I’m… I’m sorry, Regulus. I didn’t mean to do it…” The words sounded so useless when they came out. So much less apologetic than how he felt. How he hated his voice sometimes.

Regulus watched him for a moment, Severus could feel his stare. It was difficult not to meet glare. It wasn’t everyday that someone attacked you and then a moment later apologized for it, especially in Hogwarts. He’d probably never let him live this down, and once the other Slytherins caught wind of it they’d shun him. He’d be ostracized from the only group to which he’d ever really belonged.

Pulling himself into more of an upright position, Regalus let out a shaky sigh. “You really didn’t like that pumpkin spell too much, did you?” he chuckled nervously.

Severus couldn’t really make himself find the humor, but waited a moment before responding. “Evidently not.”

“Yeah well…” Regulus felt his face gingerly with one hand. “At least this’ll add to me pirate costume, eh matey?”

Severus looked up and smiled weakly. “I really didn’t think your costume needed that much of an improvement.”

Regulus laughed, coaxing a small sort of snort out of his friend. Then he pushed himself up next to Severus, sliding his bum across the floor with his wrapped peg leg. “Don’t worry, man. I won’t tell anyone you beat the crap out of me. Promise,” he grinned.

“Damn it, Regulus.” Severus rolled his eyes. Oddly enough, he was smiling too.

“No seriously, why the hell would I want to do that? I mean, that hurt like crazy!” Severus looked at him with complete confusion, but Regulus continued. “I mean my mom, sure she can get mad. But when she gets really mad, I mean we’re talking spells you wished had just finished you off, you know?”

Severus blinked, a strange mixture of humiliation and curiosity, “No, actually I don’t.”

“Well, there was this time that Sirius and I were playing in the house. You know, tossing the quaffle around. I mean, our house doesn’t have anything you’d call a yard really, so we were doing it in the house of course. And then mom gets home and goes completely berserk. She starts spitting hexes and curses out right and left, I mean some things I’ve never even dreamed would exist. Stuff’s flying everywhere, dishes flying out of the cupboard, plates flying at us, the oven’s throwing fire up. And the next thing we know, we’ve been herded down to the basement.”

Severus smiled, “Oh, well that’s not so bad.”

Regulus looked at him as though he were crazy.

“What? I’d love staying in a basement for a while. No sunlight getting in my eyes, plenty of time to read and work on potions – with the proper equipment of course…”

“Oh no, we didn’t have one of those friendly basements.”

Severus cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“No, no, no. You wouldn’t want to be in this one for any length of time. You see, my mom, she liked to dabble in dark arts.”

He couldn’t help it; Severus’ interest was instantly piqued. He tried not to let his voice show it. “Oh really? Huh, imagine that.”

“Yeah, imagine that.” A shudder went down Regulus’ back. “I guess she stuck all her failed experiments down there. Let’s just say she really liked her family, ok?”

His eyes grew wide. “Regulus! You don’t mean she….”

“Uh-huh.” He sighed heavily. “She sure did.”

“I mean, that’s just, oh my God that’s disgusting!” Severus’ mind was filled with horrid images of Walburgia Black sneaking down into the basement wearing little more than a house robe. His voice came out in a strained whisper, as though the word itself stung his throat. “Necrophelia?”

Regulus blinked, “What?”

“Necrophelia?” He repeated it, hoping to God he wasn’t going to have to explain another Muggle word.

“No, clue what that is.” Regulus’ blank eyes stared as he shook his head. “No, she turned them into inferni.”

“Oh!” Severus was absolutely relieved. For a moment at least until the words dawned on him. “Oh. That’s disgusting.”

“Yeah,” Regulus shook his head.

Severus was simply glad he hadn’t ruined the poor first year’s mind with that kind of rubbish. He could only imagine what he would have thought had he told him.

-----

The thundering of feet across the dance floor made him feel as if he were dodging around a pack of wild elephants instead of his fellow classmates. Peter’s beady black eyes darted back and forth at each of the pairs of legs. His feet were skittering across the polished wooden floor of the Great Hall almost as quickly as his heart was racing. He’d combed almost the entire room, from each shadowy corner to the dazzlingly colored dance floor and there was still no sign of him. Malfoy’s bright blonde hair was typically very distinctive and Peter thought it would’ve attracted his attention even amid the torrent of dancers. Deftly he skittered underneath wide skirts to get a glimpse of a shapely witch’s undergarments, and then pull his tail away to move onto the next lovely pair of legs. Still, even as he nearly had a particularly high heel jammed into his rear, he was fairly certain that the Slytherin was nowhere near here.

Frustrated and out of breath, he crept under the safety of one of the numerous dining tables, covered in thick black velvet and tiny iridescent pumpkins for the festivities. He wrung his tiny paws with worry, scanning the room for one last sweep of the Great Hall. Unfortunately the refreshment table he was underneath was more populated than he would’ve liked, making it particularly difficult to spot much of anything in the distance. The music from the stage was horribly loud to his sensitive rodent ears, and he dreaded having to go toward it to reach his friends. Oh, how he wished for hands to plug up his ears!

With a twitch of his whiskered nose and a sigh that sounded more like a squeak, he dove out from under the cloth toward the stage where the wizard band was playing. He couldn’t recall what their name was, but their romantic violin solo had obviously been given a much too powerful sonorus spell. As he cleared the immediate line of students huddled around the table, he barely registered that he’d popped out directly in front of Narcissa Black – and more importantly that she’d seen him. Peter kept on his chosen path, weaving into the throng of the dangerous dancers’ shoes. Narcissa’s shriek of fright mingled with the whining violin as he scurried up behind the shadowy curtains of the wooden stage.

He placed his furry paws against his large ears even as he was transforming back to his normal human form. “Oh that noise!” he squealed. “You’d think they could turn it down.” Peter looked toward his friends, but realized that other than screaming at them there was no way they could actually hear him. Peter sighed, shuffling over to James and tugging at his sleeve. James turned, nodding and raising his eyebrows inquisitively. The smile on his face told that he was hoping Peter had good news for him.

Remus moved up behind James; he was still wearing the dark vampiric robes, but now had a guitar over his chest. James also had one, and he cradled it with one arm as he waited in anticipation. Peter shrugged and shook his head. There’d been no sign of any of them, not Snape, not Sirius’ brother, and certainly not Malfoy. Peter could tell this didn’t sit well with James; he recognized those furrowed bushy eyebrows and the finger that sat in contemplation on the bridge of his glasses. The Slytherins were planning something, but at this point it was anybody’s idea what. Snape and Regulus didn’t seem to have given anything away earlier about their plans, but they had definitely wanted to stop the four of them. More than likely it was due to the simple fact that they were Gryffindors – most of the time that was all the reason that was necessary.

The musicians on the stage had finally finished and the roar of applause emerged from the other side of the folds of ruby fabric. Peter was thankful to be able to hear again, though the ring of the violin still reverberated within his ears. James put a hand on his shoulder and led him to the side, guiding him to a squat rolling chair. Peter was curious, but waited to see what secret James wanted to share. He was shocked when instead James waved to a wide set of drums beside him, his smile gleaming in the shadowy room. He stared down at the five round objects with a fresh wave of panic washing over him. This was possibly worse than a pop quiz in potions class.

“But – James!” his voice caught in his throat, which had swollen up as soon as he’d seen the drums. “I don’t know how to play one of these muggle… things!”

James smiled, cocking his head to the side. “It’s okay, you don’t have to. All you have to do is look like you know how. Okay?”

Peter stared down at the dim white drum heads with horror. He could feel his body shaking from head to toe. “But… I… “

“Come on, it’s not that bad. We’ll be doing it too, right Moony?”

Remus nodded meekly, his cheerful grin not meeting his eyes. He kept looking behind them as though a nightmarish McGonnagal was going to spring forth out of the shadows shouting detentions and homework. From beside him, a trap door lifted up from beneath the stage, revealing a dark, shadowy figure nearly giving Peter a heart attack.

“Sirius,” James laughed nervously. He’d evidently been more spooked by his appearance than he’d let on. “You find a way to the stage?”

“You bet,” Sirius smiled a toothy grin, his eyes looming red orbs. “I got this covered.”



Chapter 6: The Three Sisters

After leading Lucius to the back room, Narcissa had made a direct line for the drinks. She got herself a tall glass of butterbeer and found a seat where she could keep an eye on the back room where Lucius was assisting Rodolphus. As much as she loved her sister, Bella was part of the reason the poor man was in such a mess. The puddles Bella was leaving throughout the Great Hall were so numerous that the House Elves were having a rough time keeping up with them. Occasionally Narcissa would see a tiny figure pop in and deftly snap a puddle clean before popping out again, all in mere moments. But the Great Hall was adorned with mood lighting, which meant everyone had to hope the floor was still beneath them when they walked around the room

She hadn’t seen Bella when she’d returned, but honestly she was rather grateful for a little bit of quiet time. Once Rodolphus proposed, the place would be packed and she’d be surrounded by other students asking her questions, many of which she knew she wouldn’t have answers to. She knew that Bella and Rodolphus were certainly serious about being with each other, but they’d only been seeing each other for a year. She and Lucius had been seeing each other for three years and he certainly hadn’t indicated any plans of proposing.

However, Lucius was a Malfoy as Bella frequently reminded her. His family line had a strong French background, and for some reason that made everyone assume that he wasn’t seriously interested in marriage, or that he had some sweet French tart on the side. The idea was completely abhorrent to Narcissa, and she balled her free hand unconsciously. To be honest she really couldn’t imagine Lucius treating her in such a foul fashion. Regardless of what others thought of his attractiveness and the ease with which he manipulated his fellow Slytherins, Narcissa firmly believed he loved her. She despised the nervous eyes and slight frowns she’d get when speaking of their future. And now that Bella was to be engaged, that would mean of course that their parents would be joining in, asking her what she was planning and when. And she knew they’d expect her to be at least be engaged before graduation; it was a requirement of all three sisters.

She took a long drought on her drink and sighed. In a few years they’d all be happily married and maybe even have a few children on the way. It felt like her time at Hogwarts was slipping quickly past her, and the best she could hope for was to hold on. She let her eyes sweep across the throng of dancers, the other students gathered around the refreshment tables, whispering romantic words to their loved ones. Sometimes she wondered how much easier it would be were she not a pure blood and held by all the expectations and pressures of her family. She knew Lucius experienced it as well, perhaps even more so since he was the only heir to the Malfoy fortune. But he preferred not to mention it, and the few times she’d pried into his family’s requests, he’d clamed up.

At least he didn’t have to worry about being compared to his siblings constantly. She loved both Bella and Andromeda dearly, but as they’d gotten older and closer to the marrying age there grew a discernable distance between them, a wide gap that had not existed before. Andromeda’s contempt toward their family as a whole had pushed Narcissa and Bella closer, and mother had all but given up on Andromeda marrying a respectable pure-blood. Even tonight she was down in the Slytherin dungeons, probably writing a letter to her muggle boyfriend instead of mingling with her wizarding friends and family. The entire situation made Narcissa weary, longing for the simple times they’d spent in their youth. Though to hear Bella talk of her, you’d think she’d never had Andromeda as a sister.

Narcissa swirled her butterbeer within the glass, the dark orange liquid sparkling against the reflection of the starry ceiling. She was still a respectable Black, she reminded herself. Regardless of what happened with her sisters, she still had her family’s reputation to think of. This was neither the time nor the place to be moping about uncertain futures. She couldn’t sit hidden away on the sidelines for the duration of the party. Perhaps she should track down Bella and try feeling her out for the impromptu engagement. Did she know about it? Or had she been part of planning it? Narcissa couldn’t help but wonder, and the potential gossip was making her daringly curious. At the back of the room Lucius strode out, his dark green tights giving him a most pleasing silhouette as he searched the crowd for her. Narcissa couldn’t repress the devious grin. He was bloody hot.

She stood up quickly and started making her way around the table to wave to him, but froze. Something warm and furry rushed by her legs. Her eyes widened as she watched the large rodent slip away from her legs, its long coiled tail disappearing into the throng of dancers. She couldn’t help the yelp of fright that escaped her lips as she dropped her empty glass to the ground.

She felt strong hands wrap around her arms, “Narcissa! Are you alright?”

Narcissa turned to Lucius, pointing a finger in the direction the disgusting creature had scampered. In the rat’s place was a dismal looking house elf, which quickly repaired the broken glass before popping off again. “Lucius – oh thank goodness! It was a rat – a horrible, gigantic, disgusting thing!”

Lucius snickered rubbing his warm hands briskly up and down her arms, “Come now, surely it wasn’t that big.” Narcissa aimed her wide-eyed glare directly into Lucius’ grey eyes. His normally relaxed stance became a bit tense. One thing she’d learned of her Black heritage: her anger certainly rattled him. Typically he was all arrogance and pomp, but as soon as he knew she was serious his entire demeanor changed. Sometimes all those old sadistic family rumors could be quite useful.

Lucius shook his head, returning a nervous smile to her cold gaze. “Come dear, have a seat.” He brought her over to an abandoned table, keeping his cool as best as possible. “Your nerves are probably just shaken, dear.” She rolled her eyes. He must have meant; “whatever it takes to remove that murderous glare, dear”. Normally she’d give some kind of snarky remark, but sometimes it’s best to make a lover feel like he’s needed. Especially when it’s Lucius, who always thinks he’s in control of the situation. She sat down slowly. He pulled up a chair beside her, and placed her hand in his, smiling intently. For the life of her she couldn’t figure out why he suddenly was so strange. Was her dress crooked? Did he want something? Her mind grasped at anything to change the topic.

“So how did it go with Rodolphus?” she smiled, hoping her forced curiosity wouldn’t be detected. The way he was acting, she was starting to wonder if he’d been hexed in her short absence.

“Hm? Oh it went splendidly, actually. I was surprised; I thought for sure he’d have put up more of a fight.”

Narcissa cocked an eyebrow, “More of a fight? Lucius what are you-”

“I mean his head obviously lost the battle in the end, wouldn’t you agree?” His earnest smile bespoke more amusement than sincerity.

She sighed. The entire evening had been rather draining, and now Lucius was playing games with her. “I truly hope you didn’t give him a hard time, dear.”

“Me? Oh never, love!” Lucius cooed, “Come, you look more refreshed now.” He grasped her hands in his and stood before her; he was practically beaming. It was a bit frightening. “Care for a dance, my dear?”

“A… dance? Oh, I don’t know. I’m still a bit shaken still, I think.”

“Nonsense! All you need is a turn around the dance floor and you’ll feel better. You sit still for too long and that butterbeer will go to your head.”

There was hardly any room for dissent as he pulled her to her feet and led her reluctantly to the main floor. The dancers were far fewer than there had been earlier, but it was still packed enough that Lucius had to push for a spot. They started in an easy sway, and Narcissa relaxed and tried to enjoy the moment. Though this certainly wasn’t the final dance of the year, it was one of the last Halloween balls they’d be able to attend. Meaning he wouldn’t get another chance to wear those eye-catching leggings. She stole a glance up into his eyes, surprised that he was scanning the room instead of noticing her. What was he searching for?

Narcissa pulled him in closer, and took the opportunity to see if she could get more information out of him. She laid her head on his chest, putting her face just under his chin so she knew he could hear her. If there was one thing she hated, it was being left in the dark. Something was going on, and she’d be damned if she allowed Lucius to keep her out of it.

“Lucius, love, who in the world are you looking for?”

He blinked, apparently surprised she’d noticed. He was always so damned arrogant. “No one my dear. I was… trying to figure out if this was the best time.”

She sighed, not in the least surprised she’d been given a cryptic answer. “The best time for what exactly? Heading to the dungeon?” She smiled wickedly, trailing a finger across his abdomen and loving the slightest hint of color rise on his pale cheeks. The blushing Robin Hood smiled sheepishly for just a moment before collecting himself once more.

His eyes became softer, and his footsteps slowed as he wrapped a strong arm around her waist. “Why the best time to surprise you, my dear.” He leaned down to place a graceful kiss on her forehead.

“Lucius!”

Lucius looked up quickly at the hiss of his name from across the room. Narcissa pursed her lips and closed her eyes. She was so close to getting it out of him – why did they have to be interrupted now? Small romantic whispers, stolen glances? It wore her on her patience. She prepared her most fetid glare for whoever the interloper was, but her outrage turned to chagrin as she watched poor Severus try to weave his way through the tightly packed dancers. He looked positively alien on the floor and it seemed every step he took forward involved nearly colliding with some outraged pair of students. It was quite comical, though Lucius was quite urgent to find out what he wanted.

Regulus reached them first from the side, sporting a foolhardy grin and a most hideous black eye that Narcissa was certain hadn’t been there earlier in the evening. “Regulus!” She gasped, unconsciously pulling away from Lucius to clamp a hand over her lips. “What in the world happened to you?”

“Oh this?” Regulus gleamed, “Oh, its nothing. Just got into a bit of a skirmish with some other students while Severus and I were, uh, taking care of things.”

“Was it with the Marauders?” Lucius gritted. Regulus barely noticed the question; he was far too intent on explaining the harrowing incident.

“Well, Severus and I were sneaking around, doing our thing, when those goddamn Gryffindors just got dropped out of nowhere! Severus went down first, but they obviously didn’t know they were up against a Black,” he winked appreciatively at Narcissa. “I took out two pretty quickly, bashing their heads up against the walls. But then the one that had taken Severus out came up behind me and caught me off guard. I may look bad, but you should’ve seen him! I’m sure he’ll be licking his wound for some time.” He crossed his arms and nodded in agreement with himself.

“Are you finished yet?” Severus had finally made his way to the trio and looked quite aggravated at the throngs of people making circles around them. Each couple was clearly curious about the incident, but pretended not to be.

Lucius smiled, “Severus – excellent! Please you must tell me what happened,” his eyes shot obvious concern in Regulus’ direction before locking again on Severus.

“Lucius, they’re planning to crash it.”

“It – what are you talking about?” Narcissa finally realized that this might be what Lucius had been hiding from her all evening.

“It. The party of course.” Severus looked exasperated at having to explain himself.

Lucius was already scanning the crowd, “Where are they coming from?”

“I don’t know exactly, but they were definitely headed for the front of the room.

Lucius turned to look at him dubiously, “Toward the stage?” Severus nodded. “How very odd...”

“Yeah, and you will not believe Sirius’ costume!” Regulus couldn’t hold back the guffaws of laughter.

“His costume?” Severus smirked, “You didn’t tell me about that. What does he look like? A giant ass? Cause that would be an improvement.”

“Wait,” Narcissa chimed in, “I don’t understand – I thought both of you fought the Marauders.” She turned to Severus, “What happened out there? And why all this foolish secrecy?”

Severus took a few moments to look between the glaring eyes of Narcissa and Lucius’ chagrin. “Lucius, are you still stalling?”

“What? No! I just wanted to make sure it was the right time, that’s all.”

“Lucius, what the bloody hell is this all about?” Narcissa was seething. Her feet were sore, she now had a pervasive headache thanks to the ear-splitting violin on stage, and now she found that her suspicions had indeed been true. Lucius was hiding something, and more than likely it wasn’t good.

“Narcissa, dear.” He clasped her hands in his, “I admit I’ve been hiding something from you tonight. And to be honest with you, it was definitely a feat to keep it hidden. But now…”

From the main stage, a spotlight was steady over a particularly loud violin solo. Other than the main stage though, there was no movement. Even the few professors that had been milling about at the beginning of the party had slunk out of the room or assaulted the food and drinks. He swallowed hard, giving a thoughtful smile before dropping down to one knee.

“Narcissa, my love,” he reached into his pocket and produced a tiny green velvet bag. He pinched his fingers into the tiny satchel and produced a large silver ring. “Would you be my most perfect Maid Mariam for all eternity?”

Regulus tried to get a better look, but Severus held him back. The ring glinted beneath the starry sky above, and Narcissa could just make out the tiny emerald eyes of two snakes circling around the rim continuously.

“Oh, Lucius!” she cried, clasping her hands together.

As the final note of the violin ended and echoed throughout the Great Hall, it felt for just a moment that the entire student body was waiting on Narcissa’s response. Her eyes were full of tears and she was having problems catching her breath. And just as the words “I do” started to form on her lips, the entire room fell into complete darkness.


Chapter 7: Showtime

When the entire room plummeted into darkness, it was certainly bad enough to put most of the students on edge. But the high pitched screaming of the young witches, matched with the embarrassingly high cries of the wizards, only made Severus annoyed. The evening had been leading up to one giant annoyance in his eyes, and his hand went instinctively for his wand. He honestly didn’t understand what these people were so upset about; he was perfectly comfortable in a dark room.

Regulus was perhaps the most obnoxiously loud student in the room, simply due to his close proximity. “Oh god – what do you think happened? The Gryffindors, you think?”

Of course Narcissa wasn’t much better; her voice was at a considerably higher pitch, just enough to make Severus’ temples ache. “Lucius! What’s this all about? What did you three do?”

“Nothing – honestly, dear!”

“If this is some sort of engagement surprise, then you certainly could have had better taste!”

“No, I promise. I had nothing to do with this. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on,” Lucius gritted.

Arguing at a time when they should be reacting to an imminent danger. Those two will make an excellent couple, he thought snidely. He elbowed Regulus in the side simply to get him to shut up, and then dragged him toward the front of the room. The boy was crap in a fight, but at the moment he was the only semi-competent backup available. Above them what had been a starlit sky was utterly black, all except a small area over the stage the was dimly brighter than the rest of the room. Over the stage, he could see the start of a strange mist forming. As the two crept closer, Severus noted that the closer they got to it, the faster the other students were moving to get away from it. They were tripping over chairs, slamming into their boyfriends and girlfriends, and generally just freaking as though an army of trolls had just appeared. Honestly, why were they all so cowardly?

“Regulus,” Severus aimed a finger up at the thickening mist on stage. “What do you think is causing that?” Severus wasn’t quite sure why he was whispering, but something told him he should keep his voice down. Regulus’ face was very dimly visible in the foggy light emanating from around the stage, and he squinted towards it.

“No clue,” he swallowed hard, eying the other students as though he wanted to take off with them. But he tried to stay focused. “You think the Marauders are behind it?”

“Do you know of any fogging spell?”

Regulus shook his head a bit nervously. “Could it be some muggle device?”

Severus didn’t think so. No electronic devices worked here, unless they’d found some way to do it without one. He tried to think back to times during Halloween when he was young, but he’d never really been interested in that sort of thing. He’d had much more fun watching the other kids get scared. He thought it had something to do with ice. “Even if it were,” he responded finally, “I don’t know if they’d even know how to use it.”

Severus glanced at Regulus to see if he had any other ideas, but his friend’s eyes were wide. He turned his attention to the very front of the stage to see a slinking black shape rising up from the floor. The fog had concealed most of its body giving it the appearance of some ghostly apparition. Finally the shadowy creature flung back his cape and revealing his glowing red eyes and an all too familiar face. A strange hush came over the students, as though they had collectively drawn in breath as preparation for whatever was to come.

“Fear me!” The thin, high-pitched voice rebounded across the room, and Severus broke into a cold sweat. “I now command your school, you unbelievers!”

From behind him, the students who Severus had thought had been screaming before now truly began to scream. Their shrieking voices bounced off the tall walls of the Great Hall. Severus knew he needed to run, that he should bolt from the room without looking back, but his legs had become stubborn and refused to pay attention to his logic. His body was trembling as he stared into those vicious red eyes. Was this truly him? Was this the Dark Lord? Had the Gryffindors of all people actually let him into the school!?

He felt something poke him in the side, but didn’t pay much attention to it; he was enraptured watching the shadowy creature lift his wand to aim it menacingly at the mass of students. His eyes seemed to fall on each and every one of them, and Severus heard his heart thumping wildly in his ears. He vaguely wondered if he might pass out.

“Isn’t this great?”

Finally he heard Regulus’ voice, and his anger and confusion pulled him back. He glanced at him, and saw that Regulus was actually smiling. Maybe he should’ve done worse to him in the hallway earlier.

“What the bloody hell are you talking about?” his voice was softer than he’d intended, but it was fueled by his rage. “Great, the Dark Lord might kill us all?”

Regulus chuckled, shaking his head. “Nah, he’s no Dark Lord, trust me. He’s a good imitation, but he’s certainly not Him.”

Severus was having a hard time trying to wrap his mind around those words. “Not the Dark Lord?” he muttered stupidly.

“Nope. But wow, is he an attention hog!”

Severus couldn’t quite believe he was hearing this. “Oh and I suppose you’d be the expert?”

“What me? No, no. I’m just saying – my brother’s good, but not that good.”

“Your brother?” Severus’ rage was rising swiftly. “That’s Sirius Black?!”

“Yup!”

Severus didn’t even realize he’d pulled out his wand, but a curse was already on his lips. Suddenly a red light burst at his fingertips and he felt a flash of pain. He dropped his wand instinctively with a gasp.

“What are you doing?!” Bellatrix was stalking over to him, her eyes wide. Popping in and out behind her was a dismal house elf making a vain attempt to keep up with the numerous puddles she’d been creating all evening. “You can’t curse him!”

“But – But – !” Severus was livid, and coherent words were no longer possible. He pointed up at Sirius’ form on stage, as though that were all the argument he needed.

Bellatrix held up a finger as though she were training a dog. “No! And Regulus, you’d best not let him have that wand again.”

Regulus sighed, folding his arms as Bella stalked off – the tiny house elf not far behind. “What the hell was that all about?”

Severus didn’t care what Bella thought. All he knew was that Sirius Black of all people had no right to impersonate the Dark Lord.

-----

Narcissa was absolutely terrified. She had never expected the Dark Lord to fall upon their school at such a beautiful moment. The tears were streaking her face, though Lucius’ firm arm around her waist did help. She wasn’t sure what had happened, but had an unsettling feeling that Lucius was somehow involved.

His eyes were hard, and she could feel the heat of his anger. She took a calming breath before she spoke, “Lucius, shouldn’t we leave? Escape before he…” Narcissa wasn’t sure what the Dark Lord would do to them, but she had no intention to sit around to find out. Her eyes scanned the outer perimeter of the room. Surely one of the professors was nearby, surely one of them would stop him. Her eyes fell upon Professor Slughorn at the very back of the room, pushing students aside to reach the exit to the Great Hall. The more optimistic part of her was hoping that he was going for help, but honestly she doubted it.

“Of all the nerve,” Lucius spat.

“What?”

“What do you mean, what? Your bloody cousin, that’s who!”

“Oh Lucius, how can you bring Sirius and Regulus into this!”

Bella suddenly appeared beside them, her face gleamed with restrained excitement. “Lucius – Cissy! Do you see him? Oh it’s wonderful – what a fabulous evening! The Dark Lord, here, at our school!” She squeeled a little in excitement, watching him on the stage. Behind him, three dark forms were also rising up out of the mist. “And look there! Actual Death Eaters! Oh, I wonder if they’ll kill a mudblood for us!”

The very idea made Narcissa’s stomach tilt. She could not even fathom what it was about this horrific situation that made her sister so giddy, but she wasn’t sure if she could stomach it for long. The idea of one of her classmates falling to the killing curse… and on the eve of her marriage proposal…

“That,” Lucius pointed an accusatory finger toward the stage. “That is not the Dark Lord.”

“What?” Bella blinked, lifting her chin suspiciously. “You wouldn’t know the Dark Lord if he blasted you right here with an Avada Kadavra curse.”

“Bella, don’t say such things!” Narcissa’s voice caught in her throat, and she pulled on Lucius’ arm willing him to leave. “We mustn’t stay here, dear!”

Then the guitars started playing, a low, steady beat thrumming through the audience. The drums joined in, and then the angry hissing voice of the Dark Lord even joined. Other than the music, the entire room was stalled in shock.

“What in the…” Even Bellatrix wasn’t sure what to do. She couldn’t recall if there had ever been news that the Dark Lord sang to his enemies. Torture them, yes; talk to them, perhaps; but sing? It was the most absurd idea she’d ever heard of. But she kind of liked it. She liked it so much in fact that she didn’t notice Lucius raise his wand slowly to the lead singer, taking careful aim not to miss.



Chapter 8: Bringing Down the Curtain

Severus’ eyes were locked onto the hooded figure on stage. The bastard was so interested in his ridiculous singing that he didn’t notice him, though he had to admit he was an expert at slinking through shadows. From behind him the screaming of the students had ceased completely and Severus hoped they were still here to see this. He was not about to let Sirius make a complete mockery of the school, and he couldn’t wait to humiliate him before their entire class.

Moving quickly he pulled himself up through the sidelines of the stage where he could watch the Marauders from behind. He was a bit surprised that the band that had played earlier wasn’t back here, but then again they were probably fooled by the whole Dark Lord getup as well. He jumped when he felt a hand on his arm.

“Sorry, sorry!” Regulus whispered, backing off. “I just thought you might need this if you’re going to do this solo is all.”

Severus grasped the wand, reluctantly nodding his head in thanks. He turned back to the stage, making plans on taking out the squat drummer first. It was probably Pettigrew and he’d be an easy target, taking the others off guard.

“You know you don’t have to stay here, right?” Severus muttered.

“Yeah, but you’ll need help.”

“The last time you tried to help, I ended up getting my ass kicked.”

Silence. Good now maybe he’d run along and let Severus get down to work. Honestly, he’d seen puppies that were less needy.

“Which is why I’ve got to have another chance!”

“Look, this isn’t the time nor the place to argue about this. You’re only going to get in the way. You’re too slow of a duelist, and you’re too young to know of any decent hexes. Now move your ass or I’ll move it for you!”

From the other side of the curtain a curse was blurted out, then a black shadowy figure flew through the air and into the squat drummer in the back. A grin spread over Severus’ face as he saw the dark clad creature was actually the lead singer. He rubbed his wand and bit his lip. A stunned and off guard Sirius Black had just landed at his feet. The night just got interesting.
-----

Sirius couldn’t tell where the blast had come from, only that a bright red light had erupted from where Bellatrix had been ogling him. The curse hit him square in the chest and suddenly he was flying through the air. He’d landed with a crunch through the drum set and into a stunned Peter. It took him a moment to stand, but by the time he’d gotten to his feet, Remus and James had already started tossing curses into the direction of the assault. He loved how his buddies always covered for him. They always were his most reliable mates. He pulled out his wand ready to join them, but then got hit with another blast, this time from the side. How the hell had they gotten surrounded?

He landed in a heap on the other side of the backstage. He heard the footsteps running up to him, and knew he had to act quickly. Turning to brace himself, he flew a punch wildly in the general direction of his would-be assailant. When he realized he’d actually hit something, he looked up to find Snape looking just as shocked as he was. The git fell grudgingly to his knees, clutching his gut.

“But – how did you know?” Severus sputtered, gasping for breath. “Dammit, I hate you!”

Sirius grinned, cause he knew Snape meant it. Damn, it was fun to piss this kid off. So Severus here assumed Sirius could ever be knocked off guard, huh? Behind him Sirius could see Regulus looking shocked and although his wand was out, he didn’t look like he wanted to use it. Instead he settled for staring nervously in their direction and kept his distance. Good. His little brother at least had the sense to know when he was outmatched. If Snape wasn’t so bullheaded, maybe he’d figure it out too someday. His eyes darted to the stage again when he heard a cry, and he knew they’d gotten Remus. Peter was unconscious under the pile of the drum set. That meant James would be next. He kicked Snape’s wand aside from where he dropped it, and pulled him to his feet.

“Come on, Snivellus. Time to show your star power!”

“What?” Severus was trying to clutch his gut and pull away from Sirius at the same time. It wasn’t very effective. Sirius easily turned him around, looping his arm along the boy’s back and underneath his elbows. All he had to do now was lift and Snape would go wherever he wanted.

Snape was struggling, but realized quickly that he wasn’t going to get loose. Sirius pulled out his wand and held it to his captive’s head. Snape just rolled his eyes and glared at him mockingly, “Really?”

Sirius just grinned, and started moving him toward the stage. Then Snape really started to struggle.

“Damn, it Black, no!”Snape was trying to get free, but Sirius had a strong hold, and whenever Snape seemed close to getting loose he just lifted his arm and heard him wince in pain. It was beautiful. He’d have to thank Moony for letting him watch those wrestling shows when they visited last summer. Slowly the duo moved onto the stage. “Oh come on, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Severus grumbled. James was shooting curses desperately, hiding behind a large table that had somehow been flung up there. Damn, Snape had been distracting him from some fun!

“Hold!” Sirius hissed, pushing his voice up into the high octaves again. He was pretty sure most of the students knew he wasn’t the Dark Lord by now, but he needed to keep the gig going until he could get his buddies out of here. And besides, the evil Dark Lord voice was kind of sexy. “If you continue to torment my … Death Eaters, one of your own will be punished!”

He heard a squeal of laughter; damn, was Bella still standing? “Why would we care what happened to him?”

“Cause if you don’t… I’ll kill him!” Sirius tugged a bit tighter on Snape’ arms and felt him tighten up under his grip.

“Oh yeah, that’ll be the day,” Severus sneered through the pain. “You know nobody believes this. You might as well just shove off and try to save some of your dwindling reputation.”

“Shut up, Snape!” Sirius practically spat into his ear. He didn’t know how long he could keep them at bay, and stole a glance at James hoping for some kind of direction. Remus and Peter were down, the two of them and Snape were all that was left. James just shrugged and shook his head from behind the overturned table. Great, so much for Jamie’s big plan. Well, it looked like Sirius was going to have to save the day alone.

“So… anybody want an encore?” he grinned, and could hear the moan of James beside him. Each of the Slytherins he could spot raised their wands, and Sirius and Severus braced themselves for the inevitable crash into the drum set again. Sirius was almost glad when the doors to the Great Hall slammed open and Dumbledore entered the room. Almost at least. The man was boiling with anger and Sirius took a step back when the Headmaster’s eyes fixed on the two of them from behind his half-moon spectacles.

“Shit,” Severus breathed. “Let me go, you buffoon!” He started struggling again as Dumbledore snapped his fingers. In an instant the ceiling turned into a clear morning sky, the sun drenching the room in warm sunlight. When had it become morning? Sirius winced, and reluctantly lost his grip on Snape who was determined to get to the back of the stage as quickly as possible.

“Not so fast.” Each word Dumbledore spoke betrayed the undercurrents of his anger, and Snape skid to a halt. He certainly wasn’t foolish enough to try to ignore a furious headmaster. Dumbledore climbed onto the stage, moving with much more grace than Sirius would have predicted and walked slowly over to the two of them. Dumbledore’s eyes were boring holes into his skull and Sirius couldn’t bring himself to maintain eye contact. In all his years at Hogwarts, he’d never seen him so livid.

“Don’t you like the costume?” Sirius forced a weak grin.

Dumbledore waved his hand and the shadows on the cloak dissipated. He waved it again and Sirius’ pale skin darkened to its original shade, and his hair started unraveling out of his scalp as if he’d tied it inside his head for later use. His eyes were brought back to their normal shade, and lost the fake gleam and glow he’d charmed onto them. Once the final transformation was complete Severus was incredulous that he’d ever mistaken him for a true Dark Lord. He was far too short after all.


Chapter 9: Cleaning Up

Detention. For all of them. The humiliation of it all was almost too much to bear. Severus was now known as the local damsel in distress, and picking his way back to the Slytherin common room he kept getting reminded of his being held captive by the so-called Dark Lord. Lucius was having problems even speaking to Narcissa now. She’d gotten this ridiculous idea that somehow the three of them had indirectly caused the whole incident, which was absolute nonsense. But somewhere in the night Lucius had evidently threatened Rodolphus, who was planning to propose during the dance as well. It certainly helped explain why Bella had been such a pain in the ass all night.

In a mass the Slytherins were heading down the hall away from the Great Hall after Dumbledore declared the festivities to be finished. The night had started with such promise and now he’d be quite satisfied with just a good night’s sleep so he could forget the humiliation for a few hours. He looked to his side and saw Lucius had fallen in line next to him, looking perhaps more depressed than he was. Severus looked down at the clutched box in his hand and pursed his lips. So Narcissa hadn’t agreed. Or she’d been so distracted by the night’s events that she’d forgotten about it, which Severus doubted. She was probably just making his poor friend wait for a response, which was downright torture for such an egomaniac. He thought maybe a change of topic might cheer him up.

“So Lucius, I need your advice.”

Lucius didn’t say anything, but lifted his head slightly. Good, at least he was paying attention.

“I was working with Regulus earlier, as you recommended I might add, and he told me the strangest thing.”

Severus was watching him carefully for any signs that might indicate what he was thinking. Lucius was quite good at hiding his thoughts, but Severus was also good at reading him. He thought he saw his eyes light up for just a moment, but then vanished.

“Lucius… I… I think Regulus was coming on to me…”

Lucius smirked. “Oh you do, do you?”

Severus blinked, “What, you think this is a joke?”

He snickered, “You know, I’m always amazed at your perceptive mind, Severus. Have I told you that? You absolutely astonish me.”

“Shut the hell up! I’m serious; he said I smell good.”

“Well, do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Smell good? Personally I think you smell like the Potions classroom, but I suppose if Regulus is into that sort of thing…”

“Lucius…” Severus’ eyes narrowed. “You knew already, didn’t you?”

Lucius shrugged awkwardly, shaking his head at his dark friend, speechless for but a moment. “Look, it’s not as though he told me. It was quite obvious really. If you were a