Chapter 1: September 1995
“Dumbledore requires you downstairs, Black.” Snape was standing in the open doorway of Sirius’s room, his silhouette lit from behind so that he resembled some ghastly bird of prey—well, even more than he normally did. “Though what purpose you could serve is a mystery to me,” Snape added with a sneer.
“Snape,” he said flatly. He did not have the energy to snap.
Sirius was bent over an open chest, its contents littered across the floor. Too late he realised that Snape had seen what they were and was crouching down. He picked up the photograph at his feet in his slimy hands. It was a picture of the four of them, young and happy and guileless, in front of the Hogwarts Express. He knew James’s mother had taken it at the start of their second year. But the memory of it was cloudy in his mind where the Dementors had eaten away at the shield of his bright, happy past. In the photograph Remus is a little less solemn than usual, and contented crinkle in the corner of his eyes; Peter is grinning his shy little grin and waving at the camera; and James is laughing the laugh that haunts his dreams. His own face is almost unrecognisable in its youth and carelessness.
Snape’s look as he stared at the photograph was for a second, unreadable, before once again materialising into the hated that is so familiar in the deep, sharp lines of his face.
“Sulking again, are we Black? Reliving the old glory days from your pitiful state?”
“You haven’t even those—poor, wretched, greasy Snivellus,” he said, “give it back.”
Unexpectedly, Snape said nothing. He let the photograph drop from his long, yellow fingers. It spiralled to the carpet like a wilted leaf.
“Dumbledore is waiting,” he said, that unreadable look again on his face. Then he turned and strode downstairs.
Sirius crawled over to the doorway where the photograph lay face down on the carpet, pressed two fingers to the blank back as though to cleanse it of Snape’s touch, then also hurried to the dining room.
Chapter 2: October 1995
At some point during the night, Sirius became aware of another presence in the old, creaking house. The nightmares had woken him, as they did most nights. He lay in what seemed like a puddle of his cold sweat. The knowledge of another Order member in the house was enough to rouse him. He pulled off his damp nightshirt and pulled on shirt, slacks and a dark red, quilted dressing gown—all of it had belonged to his father, a weak man Sirius could neither respect nor despise. The clothes hung off his still-emaciated frame. He left his feet bare, and padded quietly downstairs.
The light in the kitchen was on; he didn’t know who to expect. It could not be any of the Weasleys, nor could it be Dumbledore. It would most likely be one of the aurors. He hoped it was Tonks. He liked Tonks. Fixing a ready, if somewhat wan, half-smile on his face, he pushed open the door.
The smile died on his lips when he realised he was staring at the dark figure of Severus Snape, bent over a cauldron at the black marble counter, dressed in fine robes with a deep cowl. His face in the harsh light looked completely bloodless.
He must’ve been at a Death Eater meeting, Sirius thought with a chill. And then he imagined Regulus standing where Snape now stood, dressed in the same heavy robes, and anger flashed in him so hot and sudden it felt as though he’d been struck with lightning.
“What are you doing, Snape?”
“That should be obvious to even your meagre intelligence, Black.”
“I am the master of this house!”
“And guard dog too, it seems.”
“I could withdraw my hospitality,” but as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Sirius realised that this was an empty threat.
“But you won’t. Some of us are actually of use to the Order…Whilst you’re barking and chewing old slippers.”
Sirius reached for his wand—but in the moment it took for him to remember he’d left it upstairs, Snape had already drawn his own and was pointing it directly at his chest.
“Pathetic, Black,” he said contemptuously.
Sirius was tired. Silently, he strode around Snape and his outstretched arm to the cabinet and pulled out a bottle of cheap firewhisky that Mundungus had brought him, and took an impolitic swig straight from the bottle, disregarding Snape’s dark eyes on him, and the uneasiness of his roiling stomach.
“So,” he drawled, “killed any muggles tonight? Or poisoned any babies? Kicked any puppies?”
Snape let out a humourless rasp that might have been a laugh. “Not yet. All in good time, no doubt.”
Sirius did not want to respond. He took another sip of his liquor. It burned wonderfully in his throat. It never occurred to Sirius to offer any to Snape. The room was quiet now but for the unhesitating motions of Snape’s hands and the bubbling cauldron. Snape’s fingers were firm but gentle on the handle of his silver knife and he seemed to do everything by memory or instinct alone. Objectively, Sirius supposed that it was rather impressive.
Then, his soft voice cut Sirius from his reverie. “Tell me about them.”
“Potter, Pettigrew, the Werewolf.”
“What?” Sirius was incredulous, “Are you jealous?”
“Jealous—no. I want to know why you tried to kill me—and how you almost succeeded.” There was something unwillingly contemplative in Snape’s tone, as though the words were drawn from him without his full comprehension or consent. It was not like Snape at all. Perhaps he was drunk too. Not on firewhisky.
“Why should there be a reason?” Sirius’s tone was flippant; he did not look the other man in the eye. “Isn’t that how children are?”
“You want to know—I’ll bloody tell you.” He must have been truly drunk if he was to have this conversation with Snape at the dead of night. Just as well, the bottle in his hand was half-empty. It was better than the Dementors—anything was better really. And Snape was looking at him almost expectantly, his eyes like tunnels.
“Merlin. You should well know, you were there that day on the train! I hated you from the first, you know. You wanted to be in Slytherin—bad enough in itself—not your only crime. But you were judging—all of us—in your stupid hand-me-down robes and yet you were looking at us as though you were so much better. That was unforgiveable. You, a poor, ugly thing. It rankled like hell.” Sirius laughed, sniggered into his bottle. “Without you—and Lily—we might never have been friends.”
There was no doubt of the stiffening of Snape’s shoulders at the mention of Lily’s name. Sirius had never disliked Lily, despite what James always believed. Their camaraderie had not been feigned for James’s benefit.
“You loved her,” Sirius said, “I know. We both lost.” He thought of James’s laugh again, the way that he would tip his head back, the way that the column of his neck would move, the dark shadow of stubble against delicate skin, and the low, warm sound like the crackle of a hearth fire. The last time he had heard it, he had been twenty years old.
“You don’t know, Black.” Snape’s fingers were white against the bench top.
“You think so. You think I don’t know that you see her when you go to sleep every night, when you wake up in the mornings, when you sit, when you stand, when you’re staring at the bloody clouds, when you look at Harry. Bloody hell. You think I don’t know.” Without waiting for a response, he set aside his now-empty bottle and stamped upstairs to his room. After some rummaging, he found the photograph that he had been looking for. The edges, dulled as they were, seemed to cut into his palm as he curled his fist around it. He’d almost expected Snape to be gone when he re-emerged in the kitchen, but there he still was, watching over the potion.
“Here,” he said, thrusting the photograph under Snape’s nose, “James came across it in her things after they were married.”
It was a muggle photograph. Lily was turned to the camera, her hair cascading over her shoulders, her arms wrapped loosely around another figure—a boy with long hair and thin shoulders whose face was hidden but whose identity was unmistakable. And Lily was smiling, smiling, smiling, her eyes piercing even when rendered in monochrome. The photograph was worn, creased and crumpled as though it had been carried around in a pocket for a long time.
Snape did not move. He did not reach out to touch the photograph. His face was blank. But he did not turn away. Eventually, Sirius had no choice but to curl his fingers around the photograph again. Snape went on to finish the potion in silence as Sirius watched with weary eyes half-glazed with cumulated nightmares and alcohol.
The resulting potion was a thick, dark red like old blood. Snape decanted most of the potion into several phials. The rest, he divided equally between two conjured goblets.
“Drink,” he said.
“What is it?” Sirius could feel photograph Lily glaring holes in his hands, even as spoke the words.
“Relief,” Snape whispered, as open as Sirius had ever seen him, his eyes glittering in the dimness.
Sirius drank. The potion robbed his mouth of all sensation. Numbness spread throughout his body and his mind—he was paralysed, unfeeling—he moved through the air as though everything were entirely too far away, out of his grasp. He felt so tired, as though sleep were a breath away.
It was then that Snape’s hand seized the front of his dressing gown. It had seemed to come from nowhere. But he felt no pain, no threat—he was alert but he felt nothing.
“Lily—” Snape gasped like a man drowning, “you—will not say—say anything about her—to anyone.”
Snape’s wand pressed against his temple—he registered it only dully. And then the other man retreated, falling away, disappearing in a pinprick of light. He smiled. He had to smile before the world spiralled away to darkness.
His sleep was blissfully free from dreams.
Chapter 3: November 1995
Sirius thought that he’d never before felt so still. Calmness seeped into his bones. His mind felt like a blank. He felt Buckbeak’s breath rise and fall beneath his cheek and allowed himself to slip into that place where his nightmares seemed merely to pass him by, where memories did not drip into flesh and make it crawl. He merely felt Buckbeak’s feathers beneath him, clinging to their familiar texture and warmth.
It was only when he woke up with a soreness in his neck and the sun streaming through the dusty curtains that he realised that he had been asleep. He had woken up naturally—a rarity these days. Beside him, Buckbeak was pawing the ground restlessly, attempting to stretch his wings out in the confining room.
Sirius thought he understood how Buckbeak felt. He waved his wand around the room as to clean it. Another wave of his wand conjured a forest scene, a reproduction of a clearing in the Forbidden Forest he remembered. The scene would disappear in an hour or so, but whilst it lasted, he could imagine that he breathed the clear air of Hogwarts. Carefully, Sirius watched the wavering blue sky above.
He wondered what it would be like to leave after all, to step out into the damp London streets and let come what may. He was not afraid for himself. He was afraid for nothing those twelve years, and then came Harry, and Remus again, and the Order—and then he was afraid again. He wanted—he needed—so desperately to live that he could not. He could only lie on dusty floorboards and wish he were somewhere with the grass beneath his head.
Sirius resisted the urge to turn into the dog. It was too easy of an escape, something he was turning to more and more often. It was better than the firewhisky, he supposed. Eventually, when the charm wore off, he rose to his feet. There was a meeting scheduled for the afternoon; Dumbledore would look at him with those pale eyes full of understanding. He could never stand it.
“Sirius,” it was Tonks knocking on the frame of his door, “I’m here a little early for the meeting, wanna have a cuppa?”
He summoned a smile to his face and rose to his feet, “Brilliant—haven’t eaten all day. And you are my second favourite cousin after your mother.” Of course, Andromeda thought he was a mass murderer still. Tonks hadn’t been allowed to tell her mother anything about him.
She shot him a grin, which almost hid the sheen of worry in her eyes (a soft grey colour that matched his own today). She gave a small bow to Buckbeak who inclined his head and stretched out his wings as much as the room would allow. “Well come on, I’ve got the kettle on.”
“I don’t suppose you were ever here when you were younger. I would’ve remembered seeing you.”
“No, my mum wasn’t welcome. I’m not even on the family tapestry.” Tonks’ hair flashed many colours all at once. “Can’t say that I’m too upset to be honest.”
“No—don’t be. You didn’t miss much.” Sirius kicked aimlessly at the skirting board. “My parents are turning in their graves right now.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a brief frown flash across Tonks’ face.
“You know—” Suddenly, her feet caught on the edge of a runner rug and she almost tumbled head-first down the stairs. Sirius just managed to seize her by the back of her robes. “Merlin!”
Sirius looked up, once Tonks had been righted, only to see Remus standing at the foot of the stairs with a rather amused expression warming his face.
“Tonks, Sirius, good to see you both.”
“Hi Remus. Uh, good thing Sirius grabbed me, or else I might have landed on you!” Tonks grinned a little awkwardly.
To Sirius’ great surprise, instead of laughing, Remus seemed almost abashed at Tonks’ comment. Glancing between then, he said smoothly, “Well, Remus, you’re just in time for some tea.”
“Wonderful,” Remus said, then repeated himself in a slightly lower voice, looking cautiously at the thankfully curtained portrait of Walburga.
Sirius made the tea from the new tin which Albus had deemed necessary to be present in any self-respecting house. From the kitchen, the conversation between Tonks and Remus seemed oddly intimate, as it was so muted. He could not hear much what they were saying. But it was good to hear Remus’s low laughter.
“No fresh milk,” Sirius said, levitating the cups of tea to the dining table, “but sugar’s in the bowl.” The both of them turned to face him, matching smiles across their faces.
“Tonks was just telling me about a raid on some singing toilets.”
She grinned, “You should’ve seen Moody’s face! The wizard who was shipping them out from Bulgaria was terrified. He’s alright of course—fined a hefty sum—and won’t be keen to see a toilet for a while.”
Tonks’s hair was electric blue now; Remus was looking besotted, though that was perhaps only obvious to Sirius. To anyone else, Remus must have looked as careworn and tired as ever. But there was a hint of the friend he had been to Sirius when they were both younger—something beyond the weary man he’d met again two years earlier. He took a sip of his cooling tea.
“Remus, do you remember in third year when we enchanted all the boys’ toilets to sing dirty songs on Valentine’s Day?” Without further prompting, Sirius launched headlong into the first verse of the song about the hag and the troll he could remember; Remus joined him with a half-embarrassed smile for the chorus, and soon, they were clinking their cups together as though they were flagons of ale.
When the other Order members began to trickle in, the three of them were singing Christmas carols in unison. Moody gave them an unimpressed look with both his eyes. Dumbledore arrived not soon after, and called a start to the meeting. People gave their reports from the field as usual. Sirius found himself considering the notion of Remus and Nymphadora’s mutual attraction rather than paying attention to the meeting.
War always did make people do strange things. But he would not be envious of that. He would be happy; he would prove himself a good and loyal friend.
When the meeting finally ended, Dumbledore put a hand on his shoulder.
“Sirius,” Dumbledore said, “a word upstairs if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Certainly.” He preceded Dumbledore upstairs to the library.
“I must apologise, Sirius. I know it has been hard for you to stay here.”
“It’s quite alright, there’s no need to apologise.” But Sirius could not hold back a cold laugh.
“You are frustrated. That is understandable—though I would not wish to pretend I understand how you feel. We are very grateful to you.” Dumbledore closed his eyes for a few seconds; he looked old. “There is something of great import that I must entrust to you. It is remiss of me that I did not consider this earlier. It will involve—well, you will not be able to leave Grimmauld Place—but you have skills that will be valuable to us nonetheless.”
Sirius raised an eyebrow. But when Dumbledore began to speak again, he listened intently.
Snape found him that time at his father’s desk in the library, bent over a recent edition of Transfiguration Today which Dumbledore had left for him. Snape had stayed behind after the meeting. It was a weekend, and he was due to be summoned at any time, and so it was easier perhaps to remain in the Order’s safe house. What an odd term, ‘safe house’—as safe as houses, the muggles say.
“Kirklee’s views of cyclical transfiguration have almost no practical basis…” Snape’s voice from across the desk cut through his reverie. How irritating it was.
“But you forget the foundation established by Mason’s alchemical experiments,” Sirius said, without looking up.
“Mason is seen by most as highly unreliable—a large portion of the work has proven to be unable to be replicated.”
“What about one of your own potioneers—Starkey—her research is quite well borne out, I’m sure you won’t disagree.”
“Certainly, the theory behind Wolfsbane is built on Starkey’s work. Nonetheless, the nature of potions is inherently cyclical, whereas…”
“You lack imagination, Snape. That might be why you’ve never done well at Transfiguration.”
“And you have a remarkably up-to-date knowledge of recent research. Perhaps the Black family name still holds sway amongst some quarters?”
Snape’s sly, insinuating tone rankled, as it always had. In their seventh year, Sirius had overheard a Ravenclaw say what a shame it was that such a pleasant voice could emerge from such a ghastly face. He had never really appreciated the appeal. Snape had had a thick accent when they’d first met on the train; it was still there, carefully concealed beneath his cultivated speech, unnoticeable unless you expected to hear it. Snape’s was a voice that hid things and sought things you didn’t want to give up—a spy’s voice. In retrospect, that suited Snape quite well.
Sirius had always hated the way his parents spoke, as though holding their noses. He remembered how desperate he had been to pick up muggle slang, to speak like they did on the muggle television he’d first seen at Andromeda and Ted’s house.
He wondered if Snape ever guessed, seeing Grimmauld Place, what it might have been like had he been brought up here. He could imagine Snape’s home—the darkness would be the same, and the age—but little else. Snape’s house would be squalid and horrible—a damp, dark cell for the slimy bastard.
“There was very little to do in Azkaban. The Magical Law Reform Society found it within them to provide prisoners with reading material—infrequently—but it was there. I memorised almost everything. There was really very little else.”
Snape raised a single eyebrow. “I see,” he said. He did not pick up their previous subject of discussion, merely turned back to the journal in his own hands.
Sirius felt his mood lightened by what Dumbledore had asked of him earlier. Perhaps he could do some good—even if that was to bury himself in books and papers. Their silent company was almost without hostility, the both of them staring intently at their books. Sirius never let down his guard, however, watching Snape out of the corner of his eye.
Sometime later, when the sound of the clock had again faded into the distance, Snape started abruptly and let out a soft hiss. “Black,” Snape said, “I’m being summoned.”
“What, you want me to kiss you goodbye?”
Snape fixed him with a well-practised sneer. “Have this store of potions ready if I should need them.” He removed a large satchel from beneath his robes. “I have some potions on my person, of course, but these would cause some suspicion if they were to be found on me.”
Sirius glanced quickly at the contents of satchel, then at Snape’s paler-than-usual face. “Expecting to disappoint?”
Snape let out a humourless laugh. Then he drew up the sleeve of his robe, and there, the snake and skull stood out starkly. He pressed his fingers to it and vanished in a swirl of robes. Sirius stared at the space where he was a second before, feeling a sudden heaviness overcome him. He never thought that he would envy Snape, but in that moment, he could not think of another word to describe how that heaviness felt.
Snape never returned to Grimmauld Place that night. At the next Order meeting, he barely acknowledged anyone, least of all Sirius. Still he kept Snape’s potions in a cupboard in the kitchen, disguised with a concealment spell. He wondered why he did not toss the lot into the fire. Perhaps it was seeing Snape’s slender hands on the knife so many weeks before, perhaps it was tasting another sort of relief.
Chapter 4: December 1995
Sirius had been overjoyed when he realised that he would have company over the Christmas holidays. He could not stop himself grinning foolishly at nothing. Grimmauld Place was at last gleaming clean, and members of the Order were always dropping by, buoyed by the holiday spirit despite their collective dismay over news of Arthur Weasley’s attack.
When the doorbell rang, and his mother’s portrait started screaming, he paused in doing the dishes to answer the door, expecting to see Remus, or Tonks, or even Moody. Instead, Snape stood there, the hood of his thick winter cloak pulled over his head.
The happy Christmas on his lips died. “Snape,” he said in greeting.
Snape nodded, and rudely stepped past Sirius, shaking the snow off his heavy cloak, and hanging it up on the coat rack, all the while ignoring Walburga’s shouts of “dirty, traitorous half-blood”. Without his cloak, Sirius noted how Snape’s robes seemed to hang off his skinny frame, and how his skin had a grey, unhealthy cast.
Clearly, Snape was the one member of the Order whose mood was not at all lightened by the joyous season.
Sirius wrenched the curtains shut on the screaming portrait of his mother, and, ignoring Snape, resumed his washing at the kitchen sink. Snape trailed after him like a bad smell.
“I have come to play messenger,” Snape said. “Dumbledore has more reading material for you—and he is expecting some reports from you. He also asks me to pass on a message.”
Sirius set the last of the mugs on the side of the sink to dry, and sat down warily opposite Snape. “You can tell him that I’ll have the notes for him by the next Order meeting. What other message?”
“Dumbledore asks you to keep an eye on the magical signatures in the house—particularly at night.”
“Magical signatures… At night… But does he expect me to cast some sort of surveillance spell? Why does Dumbledore not speak to me himself?”
“I imagine he has much better things to be getting on with. You understand what he’s really asking you, Black? Your godson—”
“Leave Harry out of this! Whatever happened.”
“Stupid mutt. I can’t leave your precious Potter out of this. This is about him. All of this.”
Sirius scowled. It was just like Dumbledore to be secretive—and to make Snape do his dirty work.
Snape sneered, “Don’t you wonder—his link to the Dark Lord. Surely your godson has told you of it.”
“What are you insinuating, Snape?”
“Perhaps he is serpent beneath the flower after all?”
“Of course he isn’t! Harry isn’t—he hasn’t got a shred of that in him.” But a small voice whispered in Sirius’s mind: he’d said that about Peter, and look how that turned out. No: Harry was not like Peter. Sirius remembered the fierceness on Harry’s face as he’d looked down at the pathetic rat.
Snape was silent for a moment, his head tipped to the side as he considered Sirius’s protestations. “The boy is entirely foolhardy, and utterly unthinking. Not a shred of Slytherin, or intelligence. But he is—unstable—angry after what happened at the Tournament. The Dark Lord has a way of using these things.”
“Harry wouldn’t—he isn’t tempted by anything Voldemort’s got to offer! If you think otherwise—well, then you’re a bigger fool than even I thought.”
“Are all Gryffindors so incapable of thought? The Dark Lord’s appeal is his power. What boy is immune to promises of greatness?”
“You certainly weren’t, were you Snape? Where did this promised greatness get you? Aren’t you little better than—” Sirius laughed. “Harry doesn’t care about those things. Do you know what he said to me after the whole fiasco with bloody Pettigrew. He said, ‘Can I come live with you?’ He’d known me for an hour or two at the most. He’d spent the year thinking I’d murdered people. He thought I’d betrayed his parents! And he wanted to live with me.”
Harry had a wisdom. And a certain sadness. Sirius had felt awe in the face of that boy, looking into his green eyes, and the sudden weight of great responsibility that night of the full moon—before everything had gone to shit.
“If you could persuade the boy with so little effort, then the Dark Lord—”
“No! You don’t understand, Snape. It has nothing to do with persuading...” But Sirius thought that Snape would never really understand. And he had neither the patience nor the inclination to make him understand. Suddenly, he was angry that he was having this godforsaken conversation with Snivellus. Snivellus—that greedy, grasping thing. His good mood had all but evaporated. “I know Harry—I know what he’s like.”
“Nevertheless, Dumbledore does not seem to trust your judgement, Black. Hence the message… and certain other precautions.”
“If I find out you’ve been poisoning Dumbledore against Harry, I—”
“There is no need for that,” Snape said shortly. “The Headmaster wants you to observe, nothing more. And perhaps try to get through the boy’s thick skull, and let him trust you.”
“Dumbledore has one spy,” Sirius spat, “and now he wants another.”
“I’m a messenger, Black, and I give you the courtesy of warning you. Dumbledore would not be so… forthcoming.”
“You’re always there aren’t you—bloody Snape—sticking your overly large nose into everything! Why don’t you go find somewhere else to be?”
“Well, Black, I could throw myself at the tender mercies of either of your dear cousins, and perhaps, late into the holiday revels, let slip a little something about the adored, mass-murdering black sheep of the family. I am sure they would be ever so happy to see you again.”
“They would be at least as happy to see me as you. You should’ve heard how Bellatrix talked of you, Snape. She called you a dirty little sneak. She thought you were a pathetic half-blood, always crawling after Malfoy, as though desperate for a pat on the head. And you’re no different now… Skulking about, showing up where you’re not wanted.”
Snape’s face contorted grotesquely, the colour rising in his cheeks.
Sirius went on, heedless. “It’s pathetic how you thought you could be one of them—one of us. You would never be. And what is it anyway—just this. This mouldering pile of shit. This—my mother screaming, my father drunk and sleeping at this desk. You thought what? That this was a little gentlemen’s club you could join? Have people bow and scrape? And who are you anyway? A little creep up to his eyeballs in the Dark Arts. Your mother some witch from the Continent—or was it Ireland? You had to know your place.”
“Well,” Snape said, his voice a bare whisper, “it is easy to see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree after all. Your mother would be so proud of your little speech.”
“This is a fucking pit—and all you want to do is see the bottom.”
“Your high-mindedness Black—it’s truly, fucking touching. Did you climb out? I see you’re still here.” Snape was clenching his teeth so hard that the words came out as a hiss. His eyes were wide and ferocious. “I did see the bottom. I did.”
Silence stretched between them. Sirius listened to Snape’s harsh breathing gradually even out.
Finally, Snape spoke again, brusquely. “Dumbledore left me these—to give to you. Don’t forget the message.” Snape drew a small stack of shrunken journals from his pocket. Restoring them to their original size, he left them on the table beside Sirius.
There were recent editions of Transfiguration and Dark Arts journals, as well as a volume on Alchemy. As Snape made to move towards the fireplace, Sirius also rose.
“Snape,” he said, “for whatever it’s worth, I don’t look proudly on what we did. To you—to anyone else. That first day on the train, you didn’t… you don’t…” Sirius felt as though his voice was close to breaking; Snape must have heard it too, because he closed his eyes briefly. When he looked at Sirius again, whatever feeling in them was gone, and they were as cold as dark tunnels.
“The prophecy—the weapon—I heard it. I gave it to the Dark Lord. That was why he went after them.” Snape did not react when Sirius seized the front of his robes; his face was still and his voice empty as he continued: “So you see—I am to blame. I did deserve it.”
Sirius considered the dozens—hundreds—of curses he wanted to cast on Snape then. Crucio almost sprang to his lips; his face contorted into a grimace in anticipation. Instead, he shoved Snape back so hard that his slighter frame fell against the edge of the long kitchen table.
“They’re dead. And so are you, aren’t you Snape?”
Snape did not look at him but righted himself, then threw a handful of green powder into the fireplace and disappeared.
Chapter 5: January 1996
It was a quiet morning in the house. The portrait silent, most of the Order absent on assignments or back at their work after the Christmas holidays. Molly was in the kitchen, Harry, the Weasleys and Hermione were upstairs. The house almost had a homey feel—warm and lived in. Sirius knew that they all had somewhere else to be soon, everyone except him.
The Blacks had Christmas traditions as all old families had to. Sirius remembered his cousins descending upon Grimmauld Place with bags of presents and a new enchantment or two to lend extra flair to the decorations. He remembered one year Regulus had strung miniaturised baubles to hang around Kreacher’s ears—and the elf hadn’t taken them off until after the New Year.
It was strange to think that he had not been entirely unhappy in this house. Beneath the dust and the doxy droppings, there was perhaps the grandeur of a better time. But even that thought—it seemed heretical. His mother had been cruel—his father weak under the shadow of Sirius’s grandfather. His brother had been foolish in the extreme, thinking himself the inheritor of some great tradition, when he was mere scion to an oblivious, inbred house of fantasists. He could not think of Regulus’s small sticky hand in his own, or of his shrieks of joy as they raced each other on tiny broomsticks.
Sirius passed his brother’s room each time he went down stairs. He never went so far as to open the door.
And the dust was already settling back on the old house; and the gloom was setting back in his mind.
The quiet house brought self-pitying reflections. He could go upstairs and speak to Harry and the others. Usually, they could wring a smile out of him. But he was a man out of time—a man grown in his childhood home, and an old man in truth. He was built of memories—too many and too few all at once.
He could not look at Harry and his two friends without a sliver of pain. There was something of Peter’s insecurity in Ron’s face perhaps; and something of Remus’s loneliness in Hermione. Harry—James, but not James—he had Sirius’s own recklessness, a quickness to disregard his own life.
Sirius could not help but wonder if he was too familiar with his godson. Ought he be more distant? Less himself in some way? But no one had ever taught him how to be a good parent or guardian, had they? From Molly’s disapproving glances, Sirius knew that he was failing in some way. He was not being what Harry needed and deserved. But Harry could not tell him—from what he’d heard of the Dursleys, no one had shown Harry a good parent or guardian either. He could try, but he felt so old and so young at once, as though he were closer to James, and Lily, and his brother than he was to Harry.
Dumbledore had asked him to look out for Harry—but how could he, when every night, the only disturbances he uncovered were his own?
Torn between wallowing in solitude and seeking company, he paced on the first floor landing, scowling fiercely at the elf heads mounted on the wall. He let Molly answer the door when there came a knock, lingering at the foot of the stairs.
“Mrs. Weasley, I am here to speak with Mr. Potter. I don’t have much time, so if he would come down directly.”
Molly Weasley, though surprised to see Snape and slightly put off by his abrupt greeting, nodded good naturedly. “I’ll get Harry, Professor, he’s upstairs with Ron. He’ll meet you in the kitchen.” Molly gave Sirius a wan smile as she passed him on her way up the stairs.
Snape looked through him, making a beeline for the kitchen.
Sirius followed on his heels. “Anything you have to say to Harry, you can say in front of me.”
“If you’re so worried—Albus’s letter—see for yourself.” Snape dropped the envelope from his pocket in front of Sirius at the dining table, seating himself several places away, moving stiffly and deliberately avoiding Sirius’s gaze.
Sirius could not look at Snape and fail to remember what had taken place weeks ago, at this very spot. He’d dreamed constantly of Snape kneeling before a hooded figure, and offering up a trussed up James, or Lily, or both. And then, there would be pain, and Sirius would wake up gasping again. Or else—and these dreams were worse, in a way—he saw Snape crouched and eyes wide with fear at the end of the familiar tunnel underneath the Whomping Willow. But there was no Prongs to save him, only Sirius himself. And he could only raise his wand and block Snape’s escape. There was no way to tell where Snape’s screams ended and his own began. He found himself more and more restless, disturbed by horrible thoughts even during the day.
And now, he could hear Snape’s shallow breathing. Snape was pointedly ignoring him.
Dumbledore’s thin, slanting writing stared up at him from the parchment. He tore through the parchment envelope, but the lines of text on the parchment swam in front of his eyes. Sirius pretended to read the missive for several minutes, but he took nothing in. He listened to the in and out of Snape’s breathing, and listened to the rush of blood in his ears.
“Fine,” he said shortly, flattening the parchment against the tabletop.
The silence stretched between them. Snape sat stiffly, staring out into the air. Breathing—in, out, in, out.
“You look like something spat you out, Snape.” In fact, Snape’s hair appeared extra greasy, his skin seemed clammy, and there were dark circles underneath his eyes. And maybe, though he might have just imagined it, there was dried blood beneath Snape’s fingernails.
Snape raised an eyebrow, and twisted his lips in a pale approximation of his usual sneer. He seemed unwilling to take Sirius’s bait. Sirius wished he would fight back, that he would be as easily goaded as he normally was. But Snape was silent, frowning, and remote. They sat stonily until Harry announced himself awkwardly at the door.
“Sit down, Potter,” Snape snapped.
The whole thing went downhill from there. Snape was not so impervious after all. The rush of magic through Sirius had felt wonderful—alive—as though just waiting to leap from his hands, through his wand, and into his old foe. He could’ve been fifteen again, his magic attentive as its familiar victim came into view, ready to subdue his old enemy.
Sirius was thankful for the distraction of the Weasleys, and others, that evening. But he could see Harry out of the corner of his eye, glancing at him worriedly when he thought Sirius wasn’t paying attention, as though Sirius were about to leap out of his seat at any moment and announce his intention of duelling Voldemort then and there.
Sirius often wondered—had his life been different—would he have his own dark-haired boy? He was not paternal by nature, not in the way Arthur Weasley seemed to be. (Though the Weasleys were exceptional in that way.) When he was younger he had never wanted to inflict the curse that was the extended Black family on anyone else, but Harry always made him think of it. Even when Harry was only a baby. More than ever, he wished James and Lily were here to watch their child grow up.
Instead, he was here. An inadequate substitute. Help me, please, he thought, handing over a bowl of potatoes to Mundungus, please help me know I’m doing something right. There was silence. So, he made himself smile at the twins’ jokes and studiously avoided Harry’s searching eyes.
Chapter 6: April 1996, Easter Sunday
The spring night was warmer than usual. He could not sleep, pacing restlessly back and forth. It was Easter. A day of feasting after a long fast. But what did you do when you were ravenous? When you could eat and eat and never feel sated?
Well, anyway, old wizarding families weren’t big on muggle religious practices. He wanted to hack at the elf heads on the walls. He wanted to smash each piece of china in the kitchen. He wanted to throw the silverware, with their family crests, in the fire, and watch it turn black.
Sirius sensed Snape in the house before he saw the man. He had materialised on the top step of the house and leaned heavily against the door. Sirius came half way down the stairs, waved a hand at the door, and Snape stumbled through, dragging himself slowly to the drawing room, where he sprawled out untidily on an armchair. Snape’s clothes smelt like ash and alcohol.
It had been months since he’d last seen Snape. In that time, his appearance had not improved; the dark smudges under his eyes were as dark as bruises. He was almost pleased to see the man.
“Here,” Sirius said curtly, summoning a glass of water for the man.
Snape turned away from him to drain the water, a curtain of hair shielding his face, and set the empty glass by his feet. “Potions—do you still have them?”
Sirius left the room to retrieve the potions from where he had hidden them. The rest of their exchange was wordless, as he observed Snape rifling through the bag. He took out four separate vials and drank them in quick succession, shuddering minutely after each one.
“Why didn’t you go back to Hogwarts?”
“I’ve had enough of masters for one day.”
“Ah. You want a drink? No? Well I’ll have one.” He poured himself a glass of wine from the drinks cabinet, whilst Snape watched him warily, his dark eyes swivelling in his parchment white face, still half-slumped in his seat. Snape looked like an oily black slick against the green velvet of the armchair. “So, does Voldemort take a certain enjoyment at this yearly celebration of resurrection?”
“The Dark Lord certainly has a sense of occasion.”
“And I take it that he celebrated by punishing doubting disciples.”
“No—he’d much rather punish the non-believers.”
Sirius raised his glass and swallowed the rest of the wine. “Here’s to them—the non-believers.”
Snape raised a single dark eyebrow, but did not otherwise react.
“How about a game of chess, Snape?” Sirius said, after the silence had become too unbearable. He did not expect Snape to reply.
“You want to play Gobstones? Didn’t think you’d be one for children’s games. Why not, I suppose.” He was in a mood to humour his guest.
They set up the stones and board on the carpet. The Black family set he asked Kreacher to fetch had fifteen green and fifteen pearly white stones. He hadn’t seen the things since before he left for Hogwarts, since the last time he had played with Regulus on the floor of his brother’s bedroom. He had gotten an eyeful of stinking sap that time, and tackled Regulus in retribution, abandoning their board mid-game.
“I’ll take the white stones,” Sirius said, “and you can go first.”
Snape sat across from him, cross-legged on the carpet, having slid off the chair. He was hunched over the board, his chin in his hand, oddly engrossed. “My mother was the head of the Hogwarts Gobstones Team,” he said quietly, almost to himself.
His dark green stone struck one of Sirius’s white ones, sending it rolling off the board. The white stone gave a little shake, but whatever spell had caused it to spit out stinking sap had worn off. It fell still pathetically. Their game was utterly one-sided; Snape won easily.
But Snape was already plucking the stones from the carpet, and returning them to the wooden box. The rows of white and green stones looked like little eyeballs peering up at him from their little box, and suddenly; Sirius could not stand their perfect, mocking, curving surfaces. He pulled his wand from his pocket—levitating each stone into the air, and reducing each one to dust. Snape did not move from his spot on the floor, watching him unblinkingly, something distant in his eyes. Then, with another wave of Sirius’s wand, the dust rose up in a cloud, the stones were restored, and fell with a soft patter into their box. The stones lay there once again, round and sly.
Snape’s pale hand snaked out then, and picked up a stone. The green stone glinted with a gold sheen between his fingers when he held it up to the firelight. “I don’t forgive you, Black.”
“I don’t deserve it.” He did not allow his voice to sound with its practised insouciance.
Chapter 7: May 1996
“That was rather unlike Harry,” Remus had said, when Harry had abruptly withdrawn from the fireplace. “I need—we need to—speak to Dumbledore.”
Sirius had nodded. He had noticed the wild anger and betrayal in Harry’s eyes. The darkness of doubt had clouded Harry’s eyes for the very first time that he could remember, and it saddened him. Not for the first time, Sirius considered the glimpses he’d seen of the man he thought Harry would grow into. He wanted desperately to be able to see that man—as he’d never been able to see James.
Sirius thought of what Harry had asked him—about James, about Remus, and about him. What brilliant fools they were. How unthinking, how wonderfully free. Of course, none of them had been really free. And perhaps—well Peter had made that clear—they hadn’t all been as happy as they’d seemed. But none of them had really questioned anything so plain as happiness. Sirius certainly had not. It was there, all the time—and then the war came—then whatever happiness was—it was gone.
He had been so determined to be happy, since the Hat called out Gryffindor, since he had to rend that Black part of himself. Sirius hated the part of him that doubted—he could not afford doubt, so he cut it out—and in its place left a scar.
That day by the lake—if he could give it a name—he might call it the last day of childhood. But that would be a maudlin thing. And it would not be honest.
And that look that Remus had given him, when Sirius told Harry that he had not been proud of what they did. He wondered if Remus had believed him—he wished he’d asked Remus, but after Harry had ended their call so abruptly, they had only spoken of Hogwarts, and Snape, and the Occlumency lessons. Sirius wanted to tell his old friend that he had not been lying, that pride was not one of the seething things he felt.
Every night, he had terrible dreams—of Lily and James presenting him with a lifeless Harry; of Snape and the werewolf, both headless and bloody; of everyone he knew dead or rotting in Azkaban—he wanted to tell Remus that too, but he could not. He was not proud of what he had done, but he could not tell Remus that in a way that would cause Remus to believe him. There had been something distant and disbelieving in the quirk of Remus’s scarred mouth—as though his old friend had wanted to tamp down the laugh that came to him automatically.
That old reflex of their fifteen-year-old selves: it was not so easily suppressed. And then they had laughed: at the memories of James with the Snitch… James mussing up his hair for the girls’ attention… James hanging another boy up by his ankles.
Snape had not believed him either, all those months ago. Snape also could not suppress that long-ingrained response, and for once, Snape had managed to strike Sirius deeper than he himself had been struck.
They had been fifteen. They had been in love with their own magic and in love with the power in their hands, and faces, and mouths. They had thought themselves princes or emperors or guardians of some wizarding valour—an old-fashioned brotherhood. They were half in love with each other when they were fifteen. Even now, they could not help but laugh at the memories. Remus could rue his inaction, and Sirius could recognise his own arrogance, but they would still laugh. Laugh, and the grey in Remus’s hair faded away; laugh, and the tremors in Sirius’s hands evaporated.
And Sirius could still see his own boyish shadow there, by the edge of the lake, the sun picking out golden threads in his dark hair, reaching out his hand to catch a wayward Snitch. This shadow knew no pain. His hazel eyes glowed with light. He rumpled his hair and glanced up through his lashes, hoping that someone—anyone—was watching. When he saw Sirius, the shadow grinned up at him, patting the empty patch of grass by his side. Sit down my friend, he seemed to say, let’s keep laughing.
Harry was fifteen, and he was afraid of the shadow with hazel eyes instead of green.
Sirius imagines another shadow by the side of the lake, under the serpentine shadows of the beech tree. He has dark hair that is dull despite the sun, and moves like puppet with its strings cut. This time, Sirius never tells him about the passage underneath the Whomping Willow. This time, Sirius never challenges him to meet them on the night of the full moon. This time, Sirius ignores the boy in hand-me-downs on the train, and stares silently at the green countryside as the Express travels northward.
Black, the shadow said, plainly and without emotion.
Hello, Sirius said. And they sit without touching by the edge of the lake, until the sun that is high in the sky sinks beneath the mountains. By the time it is dark, the shadow has already faded away.
If such a memory existed, Sirius wondered if Snape would have put it away in his Pensieve.
He thought again of the chest of photographs beneath his bed. The little images of them moved—but their smiles were frozen, caught like insects in amber.
Sirius sat down in his room and cradled the two-way mirror in his hands. He willed Harry to remember—to call him. But though he sat there a long time, he saw only his own long, weary face. His eyes were almost the colour of the tarnished silver frame of the mirror. In the white fog of the mirror’s surface, he looked like a bare skull.
“Don’t do anything rash, okay?” Remus had said, before he had taken up his threadbare cloak, “Harry doesn’t need you to do anything rash. Don’t deal with Snape. Leave Snape and Dumbledore to me. Promise?”
“Remus,” he had said, “ever the good Prefect. I promise I won’t hex Snape. I’ll stay here like a good old dog.”
Remus had clasped his shoulder with an iron grip then, “I thought you were gone for so long. Much too long. Harry needs you—we need you—”
“Moony, you know me,” he had grinned with as much affection as he could summon and given Remus a one-armed hug, “now, you’d better not keep Tonks waiting.”
Chapter 8: June 1996
“You’re drunk, Black. It reeks in here.”
“What are you doing here, Snape? Can’t you find somewhere else to slither to?”
“This is a regular den of serpents, Black. Or have you forgotten.”
“All the snakes are dead here.” Then because he felt spiteful, Sirius muttered, “I wish you would join them.”
“I’m already dead—didn’t you say so, Black?”
“I did, and you are.” Sirius’s eyelids were heavy, and his body felt as though it weighed a tonne. “We are dead men—and the other side—so close—behind a curtain. We can just reach out…and…” He reached out a hand, but he seized nothing except air.
“You know, Black, Potter expects his dog-father to live to a ripe old age. You wouldn’t want to be a further disappointment to him.”
“You want to tell me I’m drinking myself into an early grave? I know that. Do you also want to ask me what Harry would say if he could see me now?” Sirius gave a mirthless chuckle.
“You may do whatever destruction you like to your body. I certainly don’t care. But you are endangering everyone in the Order and your precious godson. Dumbledore…”
“He’s the one who’s done this to me, isn’t he? Dumbledore, and Voldemort, and everyone else pulling our strings. I should think Dumbledore doesn’t care a whit what I do—I’m less than a pawn now. I gave him the research—I’m sure he knew everything already. There’s nothing—Harry, oh Merlin—it’s a death sentence. Dumbledore knew that too. The old fool. Hah.” Sirius let the empty bottle in his hand fall to the floor. “You’re just a pawn too, Snape. Expendable.”
Snape said nothing, but moved to the kitchen table, where he set up a cauldron with practiced ease. He pulled a case of ingredients from somewhere beneath his heavy cloak and began to work quickly, without looking at Sirius. Same as before. Snape’s hands worked assuredly—cutting and dicing and crushing—soon, the cauldron’s vapours were filling the whole room.
“A pawn who’s willing to die—that’s the rarest of them.”
Still, Snape made no indication he’d heard Sirius.
“Well—what’s there to live for? Everyone’s—dead. We’re dead.”
Snape didn’t reply, but stirred the potion, which turned from a pale yellow to a meadow green. He decanted it into a single goblet, which he presented wordlessly to Sirius.
“A bit of a tradition, this, isn’t it?”
“Counters alcohol,” Snape said, “and works almost immediately.”
“Handy, isn’t it? But why would I want to counter the effects of the excellent vintage I have just consumed?” Sirius glanced down at the bottle. He had not bothered with a glass. “Last bottle, you know. Mother was saving it for a special occasion. Kreacher must be furious.”
“Drink this, or not, as you will.” Snape bottled the remainder of the potion and packed up his kit with as much efficiency as before. “I must return to Hogwarts.”
“Why do you return to that place?”
“I am the Potions Master at Hogwarts.”
“Don’t be insufferable, Snape! Hogwarts—we made your life terrible. Don’t you find it miserable?”
“I certainly hate the children,” Snape sneered, as he approached the fireplace and reached for the floo powder.
Desperately, Sirius threw out an arm, barring Snape’s way. “No, stay! I’ll drink this.” He drank the green potion down in a single gulp. It was not bitter, but had a mild, lemony taste. It was not what he’d expected—but neither was Snape, today.
Snape turned from the fireplace and leaned back against the table warily. Every time he saw Snape alone, he seemed to drop a little more of that stiff posture he’d adopted, and became ever more like that stringy, twitchy thing that creeped through the Hogwarts corridors like a long-legged spider.
“Why do you never—I wish you would—” But Sirius did not know what he’d wanted Snape to say after all. “You can get out still—just leave—forget—”
Even as he said it, he knew Snape would not forget: he could not forget.
“You are hopelessly maudlin, Black.”
There was something familiar in the tone Snape used—something almost friendly. Snape had ignored everything that Sirius knew he already understood. Sirius felt the last remnants of the liquor in his blood as a dull hum. A desperate, unbearable anger burned. Suddenly, he could not stand the gall of Snivellus.
“Oh you’re one to talk Snape. Pining over a dead girl. I bet you—”
“Don’t you dare!” Snape had pulled out his wand before he could blink. His lips were white and shaking slightly.
But Sirius didn’t care. “I bet you live chaste as a monk. Poor Snivellus. Do you have a shrine to her? Do you have her hair in a locket? Or did you never think she’d go away? You have nothing, but some memories. Do you watch them over and over again in Dumbledore’s Pensieve? But memories are cold, aren’t they?”
“Stop! Or I’ll—”
“Oh you’re pathetic. There’s nothing you can do to me, Snape. Why don’t you hex me—I’m unarmed.” He had promised Remus he wouldn’t hex Snivellus, but perhaps getting hexed would be just as satisfying.
Snape sneered, and his mouth worked silently, his fingers pressing hard into his wand. Snape’s rage then was just like Snivellus’s rage—impotent and bitter. And for a moment, Sirius felt an energy in his body, daring him to do anything—no matter how foolish or dangerous.
Finally, and with a seemingly great effort, Snape turned his back on Sirius, and again reached for the floo powder. Sirius, as though in a trance, reached for the front of Snape’s robes and pulled the other man down, so that he landed roughly on the floor, so that he was looking up at Sirius in his chair.
Surprise crossed Snape’s face, before it was once again replaced by a flush of anger.
Sirius laid a hand against Snape’s face. The skin of his jaw was rough, and had a sickly pallor that matched his own.
Snape flinched back with a violent start, recoiling as though Sirius’s hand was burning hot. But Snape remained there, kneeling there on the flagstones, just looking at him. Sirius did not drop his gaze, but stared almost pleadingly into the other man’s face, which was as ugly as it ever was, though his eyes had an unfamiliar, bewildered sheen. Sober now, Sirius felt as though he would not feel anything ever again.
They would always end up here, Sirius knew, never truly at an equilibrium, and the both of them too empty and too full at once.
“Stay! Hex me—or punch me—or,” Sirius bit back a sob, “Just, stay.” But the other man did not.
Chapter 9: July 1996
There were no wards on Grimmauld Place. The Order had stopped using it as a meeting place following Black’s death, but Dumbledore had been in to check it over, examine Black’s last will and testament, and determine the question of the house’s ownership. The smell of old ghosts was palpable.
Buckbeak (Witherwings now) had been moved back to Hogwarts, under Hagrid’s capable care. There was only Kreacher in the old house, watching over his old mistress’s legacy as he always did. Though he saw Snape, he only greeted the man with only a quiet, muttered “filthy half-blood” and left well enough alone. Snape swept through the old house, noticing the layer of dust that had quickly covered everything.
He passed quickly through the sitting rooms, with their faded velvet and Victorian furniture; he lingered in the kitchen where he had last conversed with Black. Upstairs, he ran his fingers over the door to Regulus’s room. He was so young when he’d died—disappeared, they heard, but they knew he was dead. He was only nineteen. Regulus should’ve had the time to know better. As you did, a small voice whispered. And he ruthlessly suppressed the overwhelming feeling envy that suddenly engulfed him.
Black’s room, when he went inside, was remarkably clean and neat, as though its owner had left for a holiday. The bed had been made, the sheets straightened. It was not how he remembered it, when he had last seen it briefly. But seeing the whole room for the first time in its entirety, Snape immediately detested Black for his garish posters, and his terrible penchant for decorating everything in Gryffindor colours.
There was a musty smell already suffusing the bedroom. The antique furniture spoke to the Black family’s fascination with the ancient. Snape now found it grotesque how these families, caught up in the tenacity of their blood, rejected all the world around them. They lived, on their strange little antiquarian stage, ignorant of the turbulence of millions of people around the world. What petty lives they led, and to think their play mattered at all. Snape wanted to spit at it. His father would’ve spat at this silly thing—at Dumbledore playing general with toy soldiers, and at his son dressed in his own kind of uniform.
Tobias had seen too many men go off in uniforms, and too few return. Eileen had told her son that, sometimes, if only to excuse his father’s anger. But it didn’t make sense to him then, all those years ago.
Why was he still here—in this place—in this mausoleum?
He had come for the photographs. A hiding place under the bed: the kind of childish, sentimental, and obvious place Snape had expected. Snape took the one he wanted, refused to linger over the others, and he left.
Sirius Black was wrong: they were both more alive than dead. They had to be, if it meant anything. He had to wear his cloak and mask. He had to remain. Because he had seen the depths.
How strange—there would be no grave for the last Black, no body to bury.
The End (?)
Chapter 10: Another July 1996
Oh, let the sun beat down upon my face
And stars fill my dreams…
Remus had brought him a stack of old records from his parents’ old house, after a rare visit to Lyall Lupin. His friend was often melancholy after these visits. Remus’s mother had died all those years ago, but her beautiful ghost hung over both Lyall and his son still.
As soon as Remus had stepped over the threshold, Sirius had noticed that Remus bore a nasty cut to his arm from the Ministry. The cut was red and raw—and carried the scent of a curse. It had prickled a sense of shame. He had wanted to offer his friend something—but he had nothing.
“I bought you some things I thought you might like,” Remus had said instead, “You remember—you gave me some of these when we were at Hogwarts.”
All the memories had come flooding back then… Listening to the new vinyls he’d cajoled Lily to buy for them in muggle London in their tower room on an enchanted record player… Letting his hair grow as long as he could before his mother demanded that he cut it…
James had no real appreciation for muggle music, though he’d danced to it as eagerly as they all had when they were all sixteen. It was Lily he’d brought all the new release LPs to when the pair of them had been cooped up in Godric’s Hollow. It was Lily he’d given his record player to—and now, that too reduced to rubble no doubt.
Talk in songs from tongues of lilting grace
Sounds caress my ear
And not a word I heard could I relate
The story was quite clear…
Snape was here again, like the bad scent you could never quite shake off; the man was sitting with one leg crossed over the other at the long kitchen table. Snivellus would’ve listened to the same music as they did, Sirius was certain. Perhaps he had lain on his bed, all those summers ago, once everyone else in the house were asleep, listening to the record with something akin to awe. Perhaps he had walked down to the chain record store in the centre of town, and spent hours there while the sun shone outside. Or perhaps he had heard songs only when cars drove past with their radios on too loud.
Oh, baby, I been blind
Oh, yeah, mama, there ain’t no denyin’
Oh, oh yes, I been blind
Mama, mama, ain’t no denyin’, no denyin’
All I see turns to brown
As the sun burns the ground
And my eyes fill with sand
As I scan this wasted land
Try to find, try to find the way I feel..
“Why did you do that?”
“Don’t! You know what. I deserved to be at the Ministry. I should have been there. You had no right to…”
“I saved you from yourself. If you are so determined to die, there are less pathetic ways.”
Sirius laughed, a raspy, horrible thing. Snape really was a presumptive fool. “You! Damn you!”
In the aftermath of the battle at the Ministry, Dumbledore believed that it was no longer safe to use Grimmauld Place as the Order’s Headquarters after Sirius’s presence in their midst had been discovered by Voldemort. It was decided that Sirius alone should stay in the house, guarded with strengthened protections in addition to the Fidelius.
But Sirius was alone now—without even the stupefying routine of endless meetings, those hours of sitting there and feeling useless and guilty. Well, he was alone for his occasional house guests—Remus, Tonks—and evidently, Snape.
Maybe Dumbledore had sent them, fearing that Sirius would fall so deeply into his bottle that he would not be able to be salvaged again. Maybe Dumbledore had further use for him—now that Sirius understood the perverse nature of Voldemort’s soul. Or Dumbledore just wanted to inflict upon him further humiliations. It was impossible to tell with the Machiavellian old man.
Snape leaned forward and rested his chin against his fingers—a gesture that suggested he had spent far too long in Dumbledore’s employ. “It would have been the height of foolishness. How would it look if a convicted mass murderer had shown up at the Ministry, hmm? If one of Death Eaters had not killed or captured you—making your godson’s imbecilic fears a reality—then surely the Aurors would have done so.”
“Do you care so much?”
Snape’s face shuttered immediately. Something flickered in his eyes, and his lips twisted cruelly. He leaned back in his seat. “I have never desired to willingly send another man to his death.”
Sirius leapt to his feet. “Will you stop! I’ve tried—I apologised. I was a teenager! It was wrong. I was twelve years in Azkaban. Is that not punishment enough? Isn’t it enough? Do you want me to be Kissed still? I know…” Sirius’s voice broke, “I know—don’t you think I don’t—I could never be punished enough. They’re dead and I’m not.”
Snape made to get up and leave, his face frozen in a mask of some undiscernible emotion.
“That’s always your way, isn’t it, Snape? Leaving—ignoring anything that doesn’t suit you. You’re a bloody coward.”
“I don’t owe you anything, Black.” Snape looked like he wanted to spit at him, fury suffusing his face.
“Then why are you here, Snape?” He moved towards the other man, cornering him against the wood-panelled wall. They were mere inches apart, and Sirius could see the minute movements of Snape’s mouth. “Why are you always here? What do you want from this—from me?”
Come on, oh let me take you there…
Let me take you there..
The record came to a stop as the last melancholy note of the song faded out. Something seemed to shift then.
Snape’s frown formed a sharp line between his brows, but he was surging forward, seizing Sirius’s jaw in one hand and kissing him roughly on the mouth. His thin lips were dry and startlingly soft. And just as suddenly, his hand fell away, and the pressure of his lips was gone.
“This is what you wanted—that last time—wasn’t it.” Snape’s dark eyes were staring at some point past Sirius’s shoulder.
The herbaceous scent of Snape’s hair and robes was still heavy on Sirius’s mind. He could still remember how desperately lonely he had been that night, when the whole of Grimmauld Place had been empty except for the ghosts. A night not unlike this one.
Sirius was suddenly unsurprised at his own arousal. He pressed Snape against the wall, and kissed him again. Snape was pliant and unresisting, one hand carefully braced against Sirius’s shoulder, and the other hand moving to untie the belt of his dressing gown and reach inside his trousers.
Sirius found himself moving to meet Snape’s long fingers, his lips still on Snape’s, tasting the bitterness of Snape’s mouth. He bucked into Snape’s hand. He was hard and leaking; and Snape’s fingers were sure, and firm, and warm on his cock. He wondered if his kisses were too desperate, too rough—but this was Snape after all.
It had been so long since anyone had touched him. Once, when he had been hiding as Padfoot, he’d taken a risk and lingered outside a muggle bar—and there had been a muggle man with messy dark brown hair and rectangular glasses. His skin had been soft under Sirius’s hands. Sirius had cried afterwards, his heart pounding too hard and his hands shaking, but the man had not been there to see it.
And before that… Sirius dimly remembered giggling trysts at Hogwarts, sneaking out of Gryffindor Tower when the others were asleep. Then there were those brief few years when he’d been able to pretend—to play at being in love with this person or that. It had all inevitably ended in disappointment.
Snape felt—the same somehow as all those others—perfunctory. It shouldn’t have felt like this. Sirius knew this with a certainty. It should’ve been different.
Snape’s brow was furrowed, and his lips twisted oddly. Snape’s touches, though gratifying, were mechanical—and although the other man’s breath was hot against his cheek, Sirius could detect little trace of arousal in Snape’s methodically moving body.
Sirius pulled back. His body screamed at the sudden loss, but he tried to ignore it.
“Is this some kind of punishment? Some sort of twisted self-flagellation?”
“Does it matter? You want this—wanted this—don’t you?” Snape sounded sullen, like a little chastised child.
“I don’t want—I don’t. No—stop. Leave then—like you wanted. You were going to, weren’t you? Leave!”
Snape stepped back immediately, extricating himself fully from Sirius. But rather than turning his heel and departing immediately as Sirius had expected, Snape cleaned himself and carefully poured out two cups of tea from the still-warm teapot on the kitchen bench. Sirius hastily re-fastened his dressing gown, and willed his body to obey his mind.
A month ago, Sirius thought he might have let Snape continue. He might have been glad for the release it brought, and the sheer relief of having something else to think about—and to feel anything. And then he would have felt a little guilt afterwards—but convincing himself that Snape had enjoyed the encounter as much as he had. But something had changed—he felt as though he could no longer abide whatever untruth had tethered him to the past. He no longer cared to see Snivellus spitting and angry, no longer sought the heady rush of whatever it was that it brought him.
There was an ugly flush on Snape’s face which could not be hidden by the long curtains of his black hair as he handed the cup and saucer to Sirius. The tea was lukewarm and too bitter. Still, Sirius sipped at it studiously, avoiding Snape’s face.
“This was my grandfather’s tea set,” he said slowly, staring into the brown liquid that swirled slowly in the cup, “the Minister of Magic at the time had it made for him. And you can still see the crest in the side here.”
“Fascinating,” Snape said, rather dryly.
“The cups are held together my magic more than anything else. They have been broken and mended so many times…” His eyes creased in remembrance. “It was my punishment, you know, when I was younger. My mother had a tendency of smashing the crockery. She hated these teacups, but she couldn’t say so whilst my grandfather was alive. So, she broke them over and over. I had to pick up the pieces for her to mend them. Then she mended me too.”
Sirius raised his palms to his face, as though he were surprised at their smoothness.
Beside him, Snape drained his cup of tea. Then, wordlessly, he let the empty cup and saucer drop on the flagstones. The sharp sound of china cracking broke Sirius’s reverie. Snape banished the pieces of shattered china with a dismissive flick of his wand. “What an insipid story, Black,” he said with a sneer, “I couldn’t care less for the vagaries of your inbred household.”
Sirius barked a short laugh. “Game of Gobstones?”
“I don’t think so. Chess perhaps?”
Snape was an adequate chess player, as it turned out. He did not have the innate talent of the youngest Weasley, or the studied practice of Remus. Sirius beat him with little difficulty. The game was a silent one. The both of them seemed determined to forget what had just occurred, and stared a little too intently at the board. And Snape studiously avoided his eyes.
When Snape finally tipped over his king, a little waspishly, Sirius stared at him until Snape met his eyes.
Snape rolled his eyes. “Stay put like a good dog,” he said, pulling his travelling cloak on, “We don’t all have the luxury of doing nothing when there’s a war.”
Sirius smiled, without any trace of irony; he felt a sudden lightness. “I am not doing nothing—I am living.”
Chapter 11: Another February 1997
“Merlin, Snape, what are you doing?”
Snape looked up from where he was lying, slumped by the fireplace as though he’d toppled out of the Floo and hadn’t bothered to move. “You knew, didn’t you?”
“Knew what? Oh hell, it smells as if you fell into a distillery.”
“I’m sick—sick—of doing…” Snape buried his face in his white hands. “My soul—what about my soul, Dumbledore.”
“Is that meddling old man the reason you’re here reeking of wine, and whatever else, in my house?”
Snape moaned softly and clutched at his hair with his fingers.
“Come on, Snape. Get up. At least sit on a proper chair.” He pushed the mostly-empty bottle of cheap muggle gin out of Snape’s reach. “Sit down!”
“He takes too much for granted. Maybe I don’t want to—maybe—I’ve done too much already—too much…”
Sirius suppressed the worst of his adolescent tendencies. Snape had once brewed him a hangover cure, after all. “Difficult day at work, huh?”
“Black! You knew! It was for nothing—all nothing. Lily—oh…”
Sirius finally understood. “You found out, didn’t you?”
“How can you be so calm! How can you sit there? I promised… Why aren’t you doing something…”
“I’ve already tried drinking it away—or don’t you remember? It didn’t exactly work.” Sirius took a swig of Snape’s gin, and almost spat it back out again. “We’re in a war—as you so helpfully remind me, every now and then.”
“But all for nothing—and what about my soul. I showed him—he knows—and still he thinks that I will…”
“Shut up, Snape!” Sirius frowned. He was not good at offering comfort at the best of times. It was awkward and wrong to have Snape here, and in such a state. “Surely you shouldn’t be telling me this! Spy and all that…”
“What does it matter, Black! You’re a dead man.” Snape laughed, and Sirius feared that he was again in great danger of falling to the floor. “And I’m sure to be dead soon enough. I wish—I wish it were now.” Snape laughed again, as though he had told a wonderful joke; he stared at Sirius accusingly, angry that he was not laughing along.
“Accio alcohol cure,” Sirius muttered under his breath; to his surprise, a vial of the greenish potion he recognised soared into his hand. “Why don’t you drink this, Snape?”
Snape raised a single eyebrow in disdain at the vial. Then his hand snaked out and seized the bottle of gin. “I hardly think so,” he said, emptying the bottle down his throat.
But Sirius had already forcibly spelled the potion into Snape’s stomach, and could see it gradually begin to affect the other man. It was not how he would’ve preferred to do things, but he was feeling queasy watching Snape. He preferred the devil he knew—the greasy, sniping, and sober devil.
Snape had pillowed his head in his arms, the only sign of his continued consciousness being the slow rise and fall of his shoulders. Sirius stared, quite silently, and could not help but wonder why Snape had chosen to come here of all places. Well—that was not quite true—he could understand if only he considered it. Those who knew us in childhood could be trusted as those who only came to know us later never could. Even, as Sirius thought, when that knowledge was coloured with pain and anger.
“Merlin save us,” Snape said, his voice muffled by the sleeve of his heavy robe.
“Merlin can’t save us now. Even Dumbledore…”
“I shouldn’t have come here…” Snape did not look up, but seemed unable to lift his head, his whole body wracked with tension. “Stupid mutt—what would you know…”
“I don’t know shit, Snape. So what? Who cares?”
Snape seemed to remember something, suddenly, and lifted his head like a fox that had scented a weasel. He seemed alert again, not a trace of intoxication in his eyes. “All that research you were doing for Dumbledore—you know something. What is wrong with Dumbledore’s hand? Why did he take such an unnecessary risk? Why would the Dark Lord be afraid for Nagini?”
“You have a lot of questions,” Sirius said. He considered Snape, whose hair was mussed and whose eyes were wild with a sort of derangement. “Dumbledore does not trust me, you know. Less than he trusts you. And if I were him I also wouldn’t trust a man who spent twelve years in a hellhole prison and another couple of years drinking himself into oblivion.”
Snape had hardly heard him; he was staring right past Sirius’s face. “Dumbledore… Potter… Gryffindors and their notions of self-sacrifice. And of course, they’re too bloody good to do the dirty work themselves.” He looked like he wanted to spit on the floor.
“Look Snape, I’m not an idiot, whatever you may think. I do know.”
“You know?” Snape frowned, his eyes focussing again.
“What happened to Dumbledore’s hand?”
“A curse. He was supremely stupid. A cursed ring. I managed to contain the curse to only his hand—but it’s sure to spread. By the end of the year.”
“I thought it would be as much,” Sirius said, leaning forward. “The curse—it was Voldemort’s was it not?”
“I cannot be sure, but something about it—the curse, the magical signature—seemed familiar.”
Sirius could see Snape’s mind working now, and he suddenly felt a rush of elation. He remembered the long hours in the library with James and Peter, heads bent over musty Transfiguration tomes, and watching his fingers turn into hairy black paws for the very first time. The thought had long formed in his mind—of course, Dumbledore had been impervious to his questioning—and it was a relish to speak it aloud.
“Last year—I was researching Fiendfyre—and corrosive poisons—and destruction spells.”
Snape’s frown darkened.
“Horcruxes,” Sirius said, trying to keep an element of triumph out of his voice.
“It explains everything. What Harry told me about Voldemort’s return… What state he was in after James and Lily… What he said about going further than anyone else to obtain eternal life. What could be more horrible and more fitting? There was this book in Grandfather’s library—I remember it—a biography about Herpo the Foul. I had nightmares about it, when I was younger.”
“Horcruxes,” Snape repeated in a whisper, “more than one?”
“Disgusting thought—isn’t it?”
“The ring must have been a Horcrux—for it to have been protected with such a dark spell—but the others… The snake! Dumbledore knew that the Dark Lord would fear for the safety of Nagini.”
“Horcruxes... They’re not easy to destroy,” Sirius said, “Fiendfyre is almost impossible to control; any potion that can be easily brewed does not offer sufficient destruction; other spells are too easily countered… Avada Kedavra may work, except the Horcrux is not alive in any sense. Perhaps it may work on the snake…”
“And Dumbledore did not seek to guide you in this?”
“No,” Sirius barked out a laugh, “he doesn’t trust me, remember? I’m a Black, and slightly mad, to boot. I think he already knows. He just set me to research to rule out any other possibilities. I’m sure he can destroy them already. He destroyed the ring, didn’t he?”
“Of course! The Sword of Gryffindor—it has absorbed Basilisk poison.” Snape moaned. “Souls… It is souls of course. That is why Potter must die. I was so foolish! Dumbledore said as much. I thought—minds, not souls, but they are one—and Dumbledore knew all along—”
“Her son must die—it was for nothing after all. I’ve given my soul—mine—and must give more—”
“Snape,” Sirius said, the name heavy on his tongue, a muddy twist of emotions swirling tiredly in his mind, “this is a war; people will die.”
Snape stared him; Sirius knew that he was seeing the faces of everyone who had died. Snape might drown in those faces, if he let himself.
“I can’t—it isn’t right—but Harry is a survivor. He can get through this.” But Sirius could see that his words had simply bounced off Snape, who was still staring into some place long gone. “I don’t… Listen, Snape. I can’t—nothing can be as it was. Too many people are dead. It’s too late. But it can be right again. It can be right, if we destroy the Horcruxes—if Harry puts an end to Voldemort.”
Snape made a noise that sounded like a scoff and a choked laugh.
“It’s past time that we grew up.” Sirius reached out a hand and shook Snape shortly by the shoulder. He could feel the sharpness of Snape’s shoulders—the strange grating of flesh and bone. “Lily—look—she’s sixteen years dead. You didn’t even know her past the age of sixteen.”
“And what of you precious James Potter!” Snape snarled, flinching away from Sirius’s touch.
“He’s dead too,” Sirius shrugged, “and he never felt about me the same way I felt about him. They’re gone and there’s no bringing them back. You can’t change that!”
Sirius reached into the pocket of his muggle jeans and pulled out the small sheaf of papers he now carried with him constantly. There was a moving photograph in there—the one of the four of them at Hogwarts Snape had seen him with all those long months ago—and the photograph of Lily and Snape together as children. He held letters from James and Lily during their time in hiding, the once-dark lines of their script fading into grey. These documents looked like so much detritus spread out on the table. Their past was lost.
He could see Snape, struggling to suppress the desire to hold these last remnants of the dead, his white hands furling and unfurling in his lap. And it would’ve been pathetic—as he had spat at Snape all that time ago—if Sirius himself did not know the keen, stinging sweetness of their monochrome gaze.
“They’re in here,” Sirius said, smoothing his hand over the photographs, “but they’re not out there. I’ve been trying to convince myself of that.”
Finally, as though inescapably weary—and worn down by temptation—Snape brought the tips of his fingers to the photographs. His touch was tender and stuttering. Sirius hoped he was saying goodbye.
“What are you trying to tell me, Black? Spare me your posing and your speeches. What are you trying to say?”
Sirius took up Snape’s thin, white hand in his own and pressed his lips to the palm. Snape’s eyes were dark and shining; he was not smiling.
“Live,” Sirius said, and let go.