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Second Life

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Title: Second Life
Authors: nwhiker and Cassandra7 Rating: NC-17
Pairings: Sirius Black/Severus Snape, Sirius Black/OFC
Disclaimer: All Harry Potter characters herein are the property of J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury/Scholastic. No copyright infringement is intended.
Warnings: character deaths, vanilla
Author's Notes:
When the story was first posted for the Big Bang Blackout, this was in the original author's note: To my beta Cassandra7 (LJ), two simple words: thank you. And because I can't shut up after just two words, I'll add: it was an incredible learning experience working with you, a valuable and positive undertaking.
To the readers: any errors etc etc etc are mine. If you don't like something, she probably told me to take it out. If you do like something, she undoubtedly made it better.


However, since I'm moving it over here to AO3 and thus posting anew, I wanted to do something I should have done back then: change the authorship. It was, truly, a collaboration.

Second Life

He sat up in bed, the sheet around his waist, to watch his lover dress slowly, and he thought the years had not been kind. The gaunt frame, the unhealthy pallor—he wondered if he had always been that pale. Then he dismissed the thought, knowing that he had not fared well, either. The other man buttoned his shirt, settled his tie carefully, and put on his jacket. Muggle clothing...always Muggle clothing now. Dressed, he looked strangely alien, so different from the boy and man in wizard's robes he remembered. His lover's hair was still dark, unlike his own, which had gone to salt-and-pepper during his imprisonment in the caves under Bryn Myrddin.

"I'll see you Friday, then?" he asked.

His lover nodded, bade him goodnight and left silently, closing behind him first the bedroom door, then the door to the flat.

Sirius knew what was next for the other man: he'd walk three blocks of deserted London streets, then wait in the cold for the bus to King's Cross and the last train north. What bitter luck it was that each week brought his lover to the station where, as a boy of eleven, he had so happily waited to take the train to Hogwarts for the first time. The two and a half hour train ride would leave him, in darkest, coldest part of the night, in the empty station where he'd wait for the first morning train to take him the rest of the way. Snape would get home just in time to change for his job at the University.

It would be twenty years in May. Twenty years of talks, of discussions, of retreating to each other, the only two left of their year. Years of secrecy, their affair unknown to almost everyone, the teasing about "Sirius's Mondays" from Harry and Ginny. Years of building a friendship, much to their own surprise. Years of companionship and of love.


----- ∞ -----

He'd first seen his old enemy at Lupin's grave on the anniversary, one year after Voldemort's defeat. They'd been to the small cemetery at Godric's Hollow the day before, Harry carrying his godson Teddy, Sirius helping Andromeda over the uneven ground to where Remus and Tonks were buried. The next day Sirius had come back alone, planning to sit a while near the graves of his friends, James, Remus, Lily, and his cousin Tonks. Near James.

Snape stood in front of Lupin's grave. A bouquet of flowers rested on Lily's stone, and Snape, unaware of Sirius, knelt and placed a spray of plants and flowers on Lupin's. Sirius saw him tense as he approached, but Snape didn't move. He gazed down at the plants on the white headstone, and Sirius did, too.

He recognised some of them, the beautiful yellow flowers of goat weed, some aconite, three bright pink poppies, but most of them were unfamiliar.

Then he remembered a conversation with Remus years before, and he felt an ache in his throat. Wolfsbane. The plants for the potion Snape had brewed for Remus, giving him a better life than he'd had since he was bitten.

Snape still hadn't faced him, and Sirius wondered if he knew who was there.

The other man stood, turned, and nodded at Sirius. "Black," he said.

Sirius started. Snape's voice was different, damaged when the great snake Nagini sank its fangs into his throat and almost killed him. The deadly drawl was no longer silky, but now a hoarse rasp. The scars must be cruel. He felt rage at the man, what he'd put in motion by repeating the prophecy, rage at his betrayal of James and Lily, and he pulled his wand, about to hex him as he'd done so many times before.

The beautiful athlete versus the ill-favoured scholar. Beloved Gryffindor versus isolated Slytherin. Pureblood versus half-blood. Accused murderer versus Death Eater. All the old conflicts. James versus Lily.

Snape stared at Sirius's wand as if he'd never seen one before.

Sirius couldn't keep the fury from trembling in his voice. "How dare you come here, you fuck! How dare you? It's your fault they died, like it's your fault that Dumbledore and James and Lily are dead, and you dare show up here?"

He pointed the wand straight at Snape, expecting the other wizard to pull his, but he stood there, immobile.

Suddenly he remembered Harry's words. "Yeah, Snape's alive. He really isn't bad, but he's rather beastly. The Ministry banished him from the wizarding world. He's not supposed to be around any witch or wizard. I asked them not to snap his wand in case he ever has to defend himself. But they put a Trace on him, and they'll know if he uses magic or magic is used at his place, and he'll end up in Azkaban."

Sirius lowered his wand. Snape didn't say anything. He turned around and walked away slowly, head bent.

----- ∞ -----

They saw each other at the cemetery again a year later. Sirius had gone on Saturday with Harry, Andromeda, and Teddy—now a toddler—but on Sunday he returned alone and sat by James and Lily's grave. James's grave. He wondered if Snape would come back.

He'd not been able to get out of his mind the image of Snape kneeling in front of Remus's headstone, putting plants on it. Why would he do that?

Snape returned. When he saw Sirius, his step faltered, but he continued to Lily and James's grave and knelt down, placing a bouquet of rosemary, violets and lavender—remembrance, faithfulness and devotion—around a purple hyacinth that said "I'm sorry; please forgive me." Sirius had looked them up.

Snape traced her name with his finger, ignoring Sirius, then went to Lupin's headstone. As he had the previous year he placed the sheaf of plants, all of them used to brew the Wolfsbane potion, on the white marble, and stood, head bowed. Sirius moved over and stood next to him. They stayed there in the quiet cemetery, the afternoon sun on their backs, for a long time. Then, without speaking, they walked to the low wall surrounding the graves and sat down.

It was dusk when they stood again and left the cemetery, not having said a word. Godric's Hollow was still.

Not far outside the village Snape turned to Sirius. "This is where I catch my bus," he said.

Sirius nodded, not knowing what to do. The bus rumbled up, a Muggle bus, large and foul smelling, and Sirius felt the size and unfamiliarity of it.

His foot on the bottom step, Snape turned. "Goodbye, Black," he said, and Sirius wasn't able to say a word. The door closed and the monster pulled away. He stood there for a long time.

He'd never really thought Snape was ugly.

----- ∞ -----

One year later, they sat again on the low wall. As the sun began to set, Sirius asked, "Did you love him?"

Snape started. A few heartbeats. He shook his head. "No. I—" He was silent for several minutes. "He probably wouldn't have remembered it, but, during one of the worse times of my life, before I—murdered the Headmaster, I..."

His voice trailed off. Sirius could hear his harsh breathing.

"I'd just found out what Dumbledore really expected of me, beyond killing him, I mean."

Sirius interceded quietly. "That he meant you to convince Harry to go to his death?"

Snape glanced at him, then nodded. "I was...upset. The next day I ran into Lupin. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Thank you for the hard work you're doing, helping us.' He said he knew…that he knew it couldn't be easy, that I was hated and misunderstood as a double agent, in danger, and that he knew that, when we won, it would be in large part because of my efforts." He swallowed.

Sirius sighed and nodded.

"And then I murdered Dumbledore. Of all...all the things I did that was the hardest. And... and knowing I'd lost Lupin's trust hurt in a way I hadn't expected. I'd hated him, I always had from when we were boys, but he'd given me strength to go on."

After a moment he added, "There was another time..." Snape's voice trailed off, and Sirius could hear something precarious in it. Snape didn't continue and Sirius didn't push.

It grew dark. Sirius stood and pulled his cloak more closely around him.

"Butterbeer? Or firewhiskey? There is a pub called The Whistling Wand in Godric's Hollow."

"I can't," Snape said and started towards the bus stop.

"Can't?" asked Sirius, before realising what Snape meant.

The bus pulled up and Snape turned to the other man. "Black," he said and climbed into the bus.

The door started to close. Sirius cried, "Wait!" The driver opened it again, and Sirius leapt on. He'd never taken a Muggle bus before and had never been much around Muggles, many of whom were staring at him, his cloak, his long hair. The driver looked at him expectantly, and Sirius realised he was supposed to pay. He turned to Snape, who said, "I suppose you have no Muggle money?" and, when Sirius shook his head, rolled his eyes and paid, and they moved towards the back of the bus, sitting away from the other passengers.

"Now what?" asked Snape.

"A pint? There's got to be a Muggle pub somewhere on this bus route."

"What if I don't want to go to go in a pub with you?"

"Then I'll Disapparate."

They ended up in a pub in Bristol and talked late into the night. Not much about their private lives, but about what was happening now in the wizarding world, three years after the demise of Voldemort. Sirius was amused that Snape seemed to enjoy hearing about Ginny's Quidditch career, and Sirius gave him as many details as he could remember of the current Quidditch season.

"But you never gave a knut about Quidditch, Snape."

"I followed it with the Headmaster. It's part of that world."

"And would it somehow be cheating to read about it in the Prophet?"

Snape gathered the mugs. "My shout, I think."

They talked about magical theory and chess and briefly of Snape's job "at a school outside of Manchester," but at greater length about Sirius's current passion, reforming conditions at Azkaban. The first thing to go had been the Dementors, of course. Next the manacles, chains, and restraints. Sirius still dreamed of the iron collar he'd worn for ten years until they'd decided he'd finally broken and didn't need it anymore.

After taking a large gulp of ale, he looked up and said, "It was beneath hell, Snape. I survived. Many didn't."

Snape nodded, and they sat in silence. Then he said, turning his face from Sirius, "I didn't know. I hated you, but had I known—I didn't. I thought you were the Secret Keeper."

The pub closed at eleven. They stood in the street in the light drizzle and continued talking. They'd shied away from sharing too much personal information, but the discussion was rambling, and to his surprise—really, Snape?— Sirius found in Snape an educated man with a wide range of interests, and he learned some things about cats and plants and the Animagus transformation, standing on a dark street corner. At last Snape said, "I have to go or I'll miss the last train." He seemed reluctant, and Sirius realised that he, too, didn't want the evening to end, didn't want to wait a whole year before seeing him again.

"Next Monday? At the pub here?" he asked.

Snape hesitated and Sirius added, "I could give you the results of the weekend Quidditch matches."

"I can't," said Snape.

"Next year, then?" he said, hoping he sounded indifferent, and Snape nodded and started to leave.

Sirius pulled his cloak closer, about to Disapparate, when Snape stopped and turned. "Black?" he called.

Sirius looked up.

"Next month? Four weeks from now?"

Curious about Quidditch? It didn't matter. Hiding a smile, Sirius said, "I'll see you then." Snape nodded, and Sirius was more relieved than he wanted to be.

----- ∞ -----

That had been their first Monday, and four weeks later they sat again in the pub, in a dark corner.

"Why aren't we fighting?"

Snape stared into his dark ale and said nothing for a long time. When he did speak, he didn't look at Sirius, and the words seemed to hurt. "We're the only ones left."

Sirius gulped. James. James, Lily, Remus. Tonks. Even Peter. The Longbottoms. Moody. Mary, Lily's best friend, caught in the middle of a battle in Diagon Alley and killed. Opal and her husband, disappeared. Jelly had survived, the only girl he'd ever kissed, but she'd been living in Canada or South Africa or Australia for over twenty years. The boys he'd shared a room with at Hogwarts for seven years grew up to be men and were all dead. As far as he knew, Snape was the only surviving Slytherin of his year. Their generation had fought the War twice and been wiped out in a way Harry's hadn't been. James.

He bought two glasses of whiskey and handed one to the only man alive who'd known him, though he hadn't liked him, as a boy.

Glasses clinked, and Snape said, his hoarse voice still startling to Sirius,

"Peace?"

Sirius nodded. That war, too, was over.

"Next month?" he asked.

Snape shrugged. "I'm free next Monday."

"Next Monday, then."

They met every Monday evening that summer in the half-empty pub in Bristol. Often they strolled the dark streets, talking. Sometimes they sat together or walked side by side in silence.

The conversations were painful. Sirius was reminded of how he'd hurt his paw, running in the Forbidden Forest as Padfoot. It became infected, and Remus had said, "You're going to have to lance it, Paddy." He'd taken a knife and reopened the wound, watching in pain as bloody pus drained out. James gagged and disappeared, but Remus stayed with him, handing him warm cloths wet with a cleansing potion. Gradually it hurt less, and he knew it was healing.

Talking about James, Lily, Harry, Hogwarts, the Shrieking Shack where he'd callously exposed Snape to terrible danger, maybe death—it hurt, but it, too, led to healing.

One evening Sirius apologised for the Shrieking Shack. He didn't try to excuse his actions. He said “I'm sorry,” and he meant it. And, when Snape pointed out that he'd been unconscious during Sirius's explanations about Pettigrew that evening in June and had later been too blinded by hatred and anger to listen to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, it had been Snape's turn to apologise.

The memories they shared of James and Lily were few, both wary of prodding too deeply. Still, when their names were mentioned—the dead man Sirius loved, the dead woman Snape loved—Sirius felt that he and Snape were connected.

He wondered why he chose to spend these evenings with Snape, sometimes talking about subjects that were painful to both of them, when Bill, Charlie, Harry, Ron, even Kingsley would have been happy to be with him. Maybe Snape was right, that they were the only ones left who had started out together at eleven, grown up, and gone through both Wars. And, he reflected one evening as he sought a sheltered place to Disapparate, they were the only ones left who shared in the responsibility for James and Lily's deaths. He decided not to probe his motivations more deeply.

"You loved her. If it hadn't been for James, do you think she could have loved you back?"

"I will always love her, Black."

Snape watched his hands do nothing for a long time. Then he added, "No, I don't think so, not that way. She was an optimistic...shining person. I'd have been like the ogre in the tales, trying to keep the beautiful sorceress trapped by a spell." He sighed. "I wanted her. I mean, not just...you know. I wanted her."

He didn't explain more and Sirius thought that Snape had wanted to possess the essence of Lily more than he'd ever desired her body. And, if it hadn't been for Lily, then James might—Sirius closed his mind. "One can't have another person's light," Snape said. "I know that now."

Four weeks later Snape asked, "What about you, Black? I'd have thought you'd have married."

Sirius hesitated. The moment, he knew, of truth. Homosexuality was accepted in the wizarding world, but not in Slytherin House. Snape's house. His own brother's house. With pain he remembered the horror on Reg's face when he told him he was queer, and how Reg had gone to his parents, and then the final quarrel that made him leave home and take refuge with James's parents.

He braced himself. "I'm queer."

"Most Muggles say 'gay.' Better, I think."

Sirius let out the breath he'd been holding.

"Next Monday, then?" he asked, one evening in late August.

Seemingly regretful, Snape shook his head: "I can't...I'm sorry. Next month?"

Sirius nodded. “Sure,” he said, trying to hide his disappointment and hurt.

“School is back in session,” Snape said, as if it explained everything.

Snape's nose wrinkled as they entered the pub in late September. "Ugh. Smells like wet dog."

Sirius grinned. "Nothing wrong with wet dog." Then he got a whiff. "No, wet human. And wet sheep. Let's walk."

It was cold and raining. Sirius pulled his cloak closer. He got some strange reactions from Muggles when he wore it and ignored them pointedly. Snape was wearing a Muggle raincoat, but his head was bare.

After an hour, they were both soaked and cold.

"I need to go, Black," said Snape.

Their next Monday, in late October, was rainy again, and they tried several pubs, not staying long in any of them. Summer had been fine, but autumn and winter brought people closer, and neither of them liked the press.

They walked into the night, and Snape studied the wet sidewalk. "Maybe we should wait till spring."

Sirius nodded. He'd figured. He made himself open his mouth and ask, "Instead, would you, could you come to London? My place may not be totally clean, but it's better than that pub. And I swear it won't smell like wet dog. Not that there's anything wrong with wet dog."

Snape turned his head away. "I can't."

"Snape, I don't live at Grimmauld Place anymore. Percy Weasley bought that horrid mausoleum, complete with my mother. I have a flat..." His voice trailed off. He'd been about to say "on Diagon Alley."

They walked further. Sirius felt empty. Going from weekly meetings to once a month upset him more than he thought it would or should, and the thought of losing contact...

"I'm sure I can find a Muggle pub in London where we can meet," he said. How would he get in touch with Snape? He thought for a second. "Give me your address. I'll write you."

"Stamps, Black? The postal service?" Snape's voice was amused.

"Hermione'll help me."

He felt Snape tense.

"I won't tell her. I'll ask her to get me some stamps to post a letter, and I've seen boxes to drop them in. Please." He knew he was pleading.

Snape hesitated. He stood under a streetlight, then pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, and a—

"What's that?"

"It's called a ballpoint pen, Black." Again his voice was amused. "A common Muggle item. Practical, too." He wrote quickly, then handed the paper to Sirius.

Sirius nodded. "I'll write you, then, as soon as I figure something out."

"I must go."

"I'll walk to the station with you."

A group of boys loitered near the station. One of them glared at the two wizards and said, "Look at the poofs!" They laughed. Sirius rose to the balls of his feet, his hands free and ready. Snape continued to walk.

"I called you a poof," said the kid.

Sirius grasped his wand inside his cloak. The Ministry would hate this, but what it didn't see—

"Don't," hissed Snape without missing a step.

The leader of the group stepped in front of the two wizards. "I said you were poofters!" he snarled.

Both men stopped. Sirius, ignoring Snape's warning, was about to pull his wand, when Snape looked at the young man. Calm, eyes narrowed, he stared him down. The boy backed off, suddenly nervous, and turned to his group of friends. "Let's go." They melted into the darkness.

Sirius turned to Snape. "How did you do that?"

"Do what?"

"Make them leave. Run off."

Snape shrugged. "I deal with punks on a daily basis. I always have."

"But they could have hurt you."

"I don't care. I think they sense that."

When Snape's train had gone, Sirius studied the paper with the address on it. Not knowing why, he asked one of the agents at the ticket counter how to get from here to there.

He walked away stunned. Eight hours. Each way. To spend—what? Four hours, at most, with a man he'd never considered a friend. Or maybe, thought Sirius, a man he'd never considered a friend until now.

----- ∞ -----

The next day he put his flat near Diagon Alley on the market. Then he went to see Hermione, who was finishing her apprenticeship to the Head Healer at St. Mungo's.

"I want to buy a flat."

"You have one, Sirius."

He grinned. "A flat in Muggle London. I'm selling the one on Diagon Alley."

Her eyes widened. "But—"

He lifted his hand. "Please, Hermione. Just help me, all right?"

She nodded. "A Muggle flat. I'll ask my parents if they know an estate agent. I think my dad has one as a patient. She might know someone in London."

Neville Longbottom's grandmother bought Sirius's flat for Neville, and Sirius's Muggle estate agent found a place in Kensington for him. It was bright, on the top floor, and he and Arthur Weasley spent an hour turning light switches on and off as Hermione and Harry made sure Sirius knew what to touch, what not to touch, how to use the dishwasher, how to pay the bills, what not to do with the fridge and, God help us, don't put your wand in an outlet.

He took Hermione aside. "Where can I buy a stamp?" he asked. She gave him a speculative glance. His face was innocent.

He posted his letter and three days later, on the day he got the keys to the new flat, he met Snape at a café nearby.

"Friday, Black? How odd, for us," said Snape.

Sirius held his eyes. "At least you can sleep in after a night on the train."

"Ah." said Snape. He took a sip of his coffee and said, "London is easier to get to than Bristol."

"Good." said Sirius. "Come on. This coffee is horrid. I've got something better at my place."

"Black, I told you..."

"Come on."

"Look," said Sirius, as he let them in his new flat. "I have lights." He flipped on switches, and Snape followed him around, occasionally stepping over a box or a pile of books, rolling his eyes at Sirius's delight. "I'll get this all sorted next week."

They ended up in the living room, Sirius sprawled on a couch, Snape sitting in an armchair. They were drinking butterbeer, and Snape sighed in pleasure at his first sip.

"Like it better than the Muggle stuff?" Sirius asked.

Snape nodded. Sirius laughed. "Me, too."

Neither mentioned that, in the past five months, they'd drunk dozens of pints of bitter Muggle ale.

Sirius handed Snape the Daily Prophet so he could check the Quidditch scores, and Snape's hands trembled as he took the newspaper. Sirius pretended not to notice when Snape brushed his finger over a photo, causing the witch and wizard whose wedding announcement it was to jump back and threaten him.

"No," he said. "I think it'll be the Magpies over the Falcons, and I have no doubt that the Harpies will win. I'm less sure about the Wimbourne Wasps."

As he was leaving, Snape turned to Sirius, "Thank you, Black."

"Not a problem. You'll come on Monday? That way I can tell you about the match I'm seeing on Saturday."

"How can I resist?"

Sirius laughed, and Snape left to catch a bus to King's Cross Station. They both knew he'd be travelling all night.

"Fine, so you were right. But I know the Falcons will win this time."

"Not going to happen."

"Yes, they will. I bet—"

Snape cut him off. "Don't bet with me, Black. I could have taken the Headmaster for all he was worth anytime during fifteen years."

"Dumbledore I'm not."

"That's right. He was much better than you at picking winners."

"He was not. Anyhow, I have a cuter arse."

He opened a drawer in the sideboard, rummaged through it, then through another one until he found a polished wooden box.

"What?" he asked, sitting back down, seeing Snape's bemused expression.

"A cuter arse? What does that have to do with Quidditch?"

"Nothing," said Sirius, airily. "It was a pickup line some guy tossed at me years ago that I've wanted to use ever since."

"Ummm."

"Relax, Snape. I'm not trying to pick you up. You're not quee—gay, for one thing. For another, I doubt you'd be interested in me. A Gryffindor sex god is not a Slytherin's type." He grinned again and opened the box. It contained a set of old gobstones made of jade and silver.

"These, on the other hand, are very Slytherin," he said as he divided the stones into two piles. "These are yours. You can keep them in that thing over there." The thing was a red and gold glass thing that Neville's grandmother had given Sirius after she'd bought his flat. "I'll keep mine in the fruit bowl."

"You're right, though," said Snape. "You do have a cuter arse than Dumbledore."

Sirius was stuck dumb. Snape went on. "Bet you two that the Falcons lose."

Through Christmas and the New Year they met on Friday evenings to pore over the Daily Prophet and place their bets, on Mondays for Snape to collect his winnings and point out the errors of Sirius's ways and for Sirius to tell Snape about the match he'd attended the day before. Snape would listen with attention, especially when one of the teams was the Chudley Cannons, his favourite. Sirius had laughed at that. "You and Ron. Eternal optimists."

"And the Headmaster as well, Black. But no optimism. We never bet on the Cannons."

"That's because they always lose, Snape. Still, I'd never have thought you a Cannons fan. You seem more like a Bats supporter."

Snape just snorted.

His number of gobstones steadily increased while Sirius's dwindled.

Sirius was teased by Harry, Ginny, Ron, Hermione, Charlie and George about what were called "Sirius's Mondays." He reflected that they'd tease even more if they knew about Fridays. He knew that they thought he had a Muggle girlfriend and he saw no reason to disabuse them.

Odd, though, that spending evenings with Snape was so comfortable. They talked politics. Dissatisfaction with the Ministry of Magic was a subject they agreed on vehemently, hating to see the old prejudices and practices continued. Sirius was grateful that his appointment to improve conditions at Azkaban had been made before the advent of the present Minister. Snape—who wouldn't say a word against the Ministry's treatment of himself, though Sirius was in a chronic fury about it—grieved over the continued mistreatment of werewolves, giants, centaurs, and other "non-humans" seen as lesser and as dangerous beasts in need of control.

They played chess, each game lasting well into the night and exactingly fought. Sirius acquired a Muggle sound system and CDs ranging from classical to heavy metal. That winter they listened to the works of Mozart in order of composition, although Sirius had argued for listening by thematic groupings, and Snape arrived one Friday bringing the two-disk "Mozart: Theatre and Ballet Music." Good thing they couldn't go out, thought Sirius, or there might be toe-shoes in his future. Sometimes they sat without speaking, together, with their thoughts.


----- ∞ -----

"I'll see you Wednesday in Godric's Hollow, then, for the anniversary?"

"Of course."

"Will you be bringing flowers?"

Snape nodded.

"Do you grow them yourself?"

Snape didn't move for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I have a small greenhouse. I—yes."

"Can I help?"

Snape paused. They'd never talked about where he lived, Spinner's End, and Sirius had never angled for an invitation. Then he shrugged. "Yes."

They arranged to get together after Sirius's visit to the cemetery with Teddy and Andromeda on Tuesday, and Snape carefully explained where to Apparate. He seemed nervous and subdued.

He Apparated close to the property line, giving him a view into Snape's small garden and of a greenhouse that looked as if it had been cobbled together from discarded greenhouse parts—which Snape later told him it had been. There was a small plot of what he deduced were herbs and vegetables and around the lawn and under the trees—chestnuts and, of course, a Witches Beech—clustered ferns, the haunting scent of daphne, pink and blue hydrangeas, foxglove and lupine, meadow rue and the soft colors of impatiens, ground-covering baby tears. Snape would name them for him like old friends.

He knocked, Snape opened the door, and they entered an ancient kitchen, saved from gloominess only by the sun coming through the door and high window. He followed Snape into a short hall, then to a large room, rather shabby but with books everywhere, on every surface and wall. The door they'd come through was covered in bookshelves, though the books themselves had been removed, and Sirius later realised that it had been a magical door that Snape could no longer work.

"Would you like some wine?" Snape asked, his voice formal.

Sirius could tell he was nervous, unaccustomed perhaps to receiving anyone here, and he shook his head, "No, I'm fine. Shall we start?"

Snape nodded, and they went back outside and into the greenhouse. Sirius's eyes opened in awe.

It was like walking into a tiny garden in the tropics, and he was reminded of some of the places he'd visited while on the run after his escape from Azkaban. There were hundreds of plants, most of them unfamiliar, and a large table was filled with orchids. There was a tree, which turned out to be a frangipani, its white flowers soft and sweet. A delicate white flower with an exquisite fragrance that Snape said was bouvardia. Along one wall were plants Sirius recognised from Potions classes, wolfsbane and asphodel, wormwood and sopohorous, a shrivelfig tree, and others he'd seen but didn't know the names of.

"I'm not supposed to have them," Snape said.

Sirius turned to him. Snape was staring down an orchid, brushing planting mix from the edge of its pot.

"What do you mean?"

"The magical plants. I'm not supposed to have them, really. I grow them anyway." He caressed the orchid leaf, and Sirius felt shivers run up his spine as the long fingers touched the dark green leaves.

Snape continued. "I would understand if you felt the need to turn me in." His voice was emotionless, as if he'd given Sirius permission to shut the door rather than sentence him to Azkaban.

"No, I don't. I'd never—"

Snape gave him a sidelong glance. "Why? I'd have happily sent you back. I did my best to get you to the Dementors."

Sirius closed his eyes, damming the flood of panic and pain. Didn't Snape understand that their second most horrible fight was almost ten years in the past? That the war was over? "You thought I was guilty. I know you're not," he said.

"I am guilty."

"Of what?" He knew his voice was harsh. "Of killing someone who was going to die anyhow, at his own request? Of letting some die, some that you could not save, to make sure that Harry could save us all? Of what?"

"Of giving the prophecy to the Dar—to Voldemort." he said, "Of not understanding what he was until he threatened someone I loved. Of being cruel. Of not listening when Lupin and the children told me you were innocent. Of not doing enough to protect the students in my care when I was usurping the position of headmaster. Of..."

"Stop. That's enough. You and I both know that you had to do what you did. Everything Dumbledore asked you to. He couldn't have expected more."

"He did!" Sirius could hear his despair. "I didn't do well enough, I didn't do enough, I failed over and over. He..."

"Did his portrait slag you off? Portraits tend to get grumpy. I've dealt with Phineas most of my life and—"

But Snape was shaking his head. "No, not the portrait. But never mind. Let's get these plants together." He was paler than usual, but his voice was firm, and Sirius knew it was time to drop the subject.

Snape took off his jacket, the first time Sirius had seen him do that in the year they'd been meeting. He was wearing a white shirt, of course, and a waistcoat and tie. Always formal. In their evenings together, Snape opened only the bottom button that allowed him to sit down.

He let Snape gather the flowers he needed for Lily's bouquet by himself, glancing at the other wizard from time to time. His face was sad, absorbed, and his fingers nimble, weaving together rosemary and lavender, delicately touching petals. Sirius took the list Snape had written for him and carefully cut the stems needed for the tribute to Lupin and placed them in a jug of water.

While Sirius was pulling the stray foliage off poppy stems, Snape moved next to him and they finished the job together. Then Sirius watched as Snape arranged the herbs and flowers.

When he was done, Snape went to the table full of orchids and started misting them, feeding, checking them for bugs, Sirius supposed.

"Where do you get them?" he asked. "Aren't they expensive?"

Snape nodded. "They're from a local garden shop. When the plants aren't doing too well or have bloomed out, they give them to me, and I take care of them until they're in better shape."

He moved to a particularly beautiful plant, white flowers with a hint of pink. "This is one of my favourites." After a moment he added, "I've been crossing them."

It was dark when Snape finished taking care of his plants, Sirius helping with the watering and deadheading. Snape rolled up his sleeves, and Sirius had tried not to stare at his thin, strong forearms, at the white scar where the Dark Mark had been.

They went inside and washed their hands in the kitchen sink, and Snape sighed and turned on the electric lights. He glared at them, and Sirius laughed. "Don't you like the light?"

"I hate electricity. I used to use candles, even after—but it was too hard to get them to burn evenly without..." His voice trailed off.

Sirius looked at the lamps everywhere, the candles dusty. He pulled his wand. "Do you want me to—?"

Snape shook his head, regretfully. "They can detect magic from this house, Black."

"But if it's me."

"No. Not on this property. And I'm not supposed to be with anyone from the wizarding world."

Sirius nodded, but didn't speak. What trouble Snape was risking by meeting with him? Why did he do it?

"Dinner?" asked Snape.

"Please."

Snape made an omelette and toast while Sirius sat at the table and watched. He'd never spent much time in a kitchen. His mother had never cooked a thing in her life, and it touched him that someone would cook for him. Snape slid a perfect omelette, redolent of herbs, onto the blue plate in front of him.

They drank tea and talked about botany and Snape's orchids. Sirius found himself glancing at Snape surreptitiously as the other man tidied the kitchen, his skilled hands moving efficiently through the washing up. Sirius found a washing-up cloth and dried, carefully stacking the dishes on the table since he wasn't sure where they went. Something had changed that evening, and he wasn't sure what. Working side by side in the greenhouse, eating together. Snape's cooking for him, washing up, or maybe coming here to Snape's home.

He stood up and stretched. "May I see the rest of the house?"

Slowly Snape nodded. They returned to the living room, and Sirius looked along the bookshelves. Snape had an impressive collection of wizarding books.

"They wanted to take them." Snape's voice was soft. "Miss Granger persuaded them not to. She pointed out that I could know things without doing them. I don't like to think of what it would have been like, that first year, if not for the books."

Sirius ran his finger down the worn spine of Moste Potente Potions, seeing it as a lifeline, Snape's only connection to the world he belonged to.

He followed Snape up the narrow stairs. There were three doors on the landing.

"Loo," Snape said, pointing to one door. He opened another door. "I call this, pretentiously, my office."

The larger bedroom had a couch against a wall, piled with books. Three tables covered with large sheets of paper dominated the space. There were bookshelves on the wall, and these, Sirius saw, contained books on botany, both Muggle and magical.

"I've been trying to classify magical plants so that their magical properties become predictive, like genetic inheritance. This would, theoretically, allow a potion maker to predict what would happen if one brewed, say, feverfew and aconite."

"My God," said Sirius.

"Keeps my mind occupied. This"—he moved to one of the tables—"is the work I'm doing on orchids. I know what I want out of a cross, and I'm trying to see if I can achieve it."

Sirius looked at the paper in Snape's neat handwriting and wondered at the time spent here, in his greenhouse, his office, alone. Snape was a scholar. Always in search of something to learn, to master. To contribute.

"Here's a project I've been working on again."

Shyly, he handed some papers to Sirius, who looked them over.

"I'm not sure I..."

"I started with Wolfsbane," he said, "during the year Lupin taught at Hogwarts. What I'm trying to do—and it's just theory at this point—is see if it can be modified to prevent the initial transformation."

Sirius started. "You mean—?"

"Yes. I think—and, again, this is theory—that it should be possible, if this potion were taken after a bite but before the next moonrise, the person wouldn't become a werewolf. I was working at first with Damocles Belby, who invented the Wolfsbane potion. Then I started experimenting."

"That would be incredible, Snape. Incredible."

Snape shrugged. "Nothing will probably come of it. Who would I test it on? I can't even brew it."

They left the room, Sirius's canine senses attuned to the pain radiating from the other wizard. He felt an urge to take Snape in his arms and fought both the feeling and the impulse to explore the feeling.

Snape opened the last door, to his bedroom. A narrow bed with a metal bedstead, a grey blanket, white sheets. The room was small. It had probably been Snape's when he was a boy.

The image came without warning. Snape on his back, naked, his black eyes gazing up at Sirius. His legs over Sirius's shoulders, his cock hard and leaking, his thin lips swollen from kisses. Sirius started to tremble.

Snape said, "Come see," touching his arm, and Sirius jerked back, unable to bear the touch. Immediately he saw the hurt on Snape's face, saw his face close, pain replaced with blankness. He was in knots. He didn't know what to do. Snape turned away, but his voice was steady when he said, "It's an orchid I've hybridised."

But Sirius wasn't looking at the red-gold orchid with the deep green heart. He was staring at a frame on Snape's bedside table that held a torn photo of Lily Potter and a fragment of a letter with her signature. He recognised them.

They'd fought so often at school, but not with ammunition like this. The insults hurled—thief, murderer, Death Eater—Sirius shouted that Snape had stolen a photo belonging to Harry, and Snape hissed that Sirius should have given it to Harry but, no, he was saving it to look at his beloved James. And Sirius had gone pale. He hadn't known that Snape knew, and he shrieked that thank God Lily had chosen a man, not a greasy git, and Snape had death in his eyes when he snarled that Sirius had hidden for twelve years in Azkaban clutching his grief over James and not cared an iota for his godson.

Sirius screaming, Snape getting more and more quiet, his face pale in contrast to Sirius's flushed cheeks.

Sirius lashed out and slapped Snape across the face.

The sharp sound of hand on cheek. The utter silence that followed. The angry red on Snape's pale skin.

Then Snape's voice, defeated. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have touched you."

Sirius's anger flared at the other's misunderstanding, at his own striking out in anger when he wanted to reach out in—what?

He walked to the landing and, without giving it a thought, Disapparated.

His flat was empty, cool and dark, and he stood in the entry for a long time, his forehead pressed against the wall, fighting waves of nausea and the erection he could not will away.

In bed that night he touched himself, eyes closed, and two black-haired men lived in his fantasies. When he came, it was Snape's name—Severus—he moaned, and it sounded unfamiliar, but somehow welcome and comforting.

----- ∞ -----

He went to Godric's Hollow the next day looking for Snape, but he wasn't there, and only the flowers Harry and Andromeda had left the day before marked the graves.

He went to Spinner's End and knocked at the door. Nobody answered.

Panic set it.

He went back the next day and the next. Still no Snape, and Sirius couldn't tell if he was home and not answering or not home at all.

On Sunday at the Weasleys' he found out. Snape was in Azkaban for three months. He'd been with someone from the wizarding world, and maybe Voldemort's supporters were going to try to rise again, despite the death of the Dark Lord. He'd refused to name the witch or wizard who'd Disapparated that evening. "Not that that would have helped, of course," said Arthur. "He was headed to Azkaban from the moment magic was done in his house."

"What if the other wizard or witch confessed?" He was surprised that his voice sounded so normal.

Arthur shook his head. "It wouldn't have mattered. It's his responsibility to make sure that others leave him alone."

He felt sick.

He Disapparated back to Diagon Alley with George Weasley and walked with him in silence, considering his plan.

"George?"

"Mmmm? Want to stop in for a butterbeer?"

"No, I can't. Harry told me you knew how to pick Muggle locks."

"You sure this dump is empty?" George asked after they stepped over the property line into Snape's garden.

Sirius nodded.

"Why don't you Apparate in, then?"

"There's a Trace," he said. "Just please get me in the greenhouse."

"Done." said George. Sirius blew out the candle he'd been using to light the lock, and they went in.

It still smelled tropical. He flipped on the lights, and George exclaimed, "Whoa! This is unbelievable."

"Do you think you can get into the house?"

George nodded.

"Call me when you get in, please. I need to water some plants."

Sirius knew his bizarre behaviour would be talked about on Friday night when the younger Weasleys met for dinner. He sighed, filled a watering can, and started to water and deadhead.

"It's open." They went upstairs and into Snape's bedroom. Nothing seemed to have been disturbed. George surveyed the room.

"Sirius, what are we doing? Who—?"

Sirius shook his head. He took the orchid, so golden it glowed, and brought it down to the greenhouse. In the kitchen he threw away the food in the fridge and took out the bin. He pocketed the key to the greenhouse that Snape kept on a nail by the back door, and they left, George relocking the house door behind them.

Sirius went back into the greenhouse and continued where he'd left off, working beside George until it was done.

As Sirius turned off the lights, George said, "I'd never have figured Snape for a flower lover."

Sirius's mouth opened.

"I guessed. Don't worry. I won't talk about it, even though I'm curious." He grinned, and Sirius couldn't help but grin back.

----- ∞ -----

He couldn't see Snape. That would have made it worse, would have attracted attention to him. The reforms he was putting in place would make Snape's imprisonment less demeaning and dangerous than it had been earlier. Thank God the Dementors were gone. Still, he worried.

He went to his office at Azkaban more often than usual. He knew that the guards didn't like Snape, and they weren't too fond of him, either. Some of the older ones remembered him from his time as a prisoner, and all of them resented the changes he was making.

One evening after the Governor had left, Sirius broke into his office and took Snape's file from the desk. It had everything, from the initial accusations made by Barty Crouch after the First War to Snape's trial after Voldemort's defeat. He started to read.

It was almost dawn when he finished, upset and confused. Despite Harry's testimony before the Ministry, punishment had been severe and, Sirius thought, unfair. Lucius Malfoy had given details of Snape's work for Voldemort, and, minimising Harry's sworn statement that Dumbledore had planned everything and Snape had been a double agent essential to their victory, the Ministry had struck. Snape sat in Azkaban for almost two months while the Wizengamot tried to figure out what to do with him.

Azkaban had been their first impulse, locking him away, thought Sirius, and forgetting about him. But Harry had been emphatic that that was not just, and Sirius was pleased that his godson's intervention had spared Snape. Then they'd toyed with total house arrest, but it was deemed too complicated. Steered by the passionate arguments of Balthazar Moody, the new Minister of Magic, they settled on banishment.

It galled him that Snape was being forced to pay reparations to several families who'd had relatives killed by the Death Eaters. No wonder Snape lived in that shabby house in Spinner's End. He also learned that Snape was a caretaker at a Muggle school. When he'd said he “worked at a school,” Sirius had thought he was a teacher. He hadn't asked, always shy of prying into Snape's life. He saw a copy of the "request for medical leave” for the summer that the Ministry had created and sent to Snape's school. At least they'd saved his job.

Their hatred of Voldemort, their humiliation at their defeats, their pain at the loss of friends, and their anger at what had been done to the wizarding world—they had taken it all out on Snape. He became the face of the Death Eaters though he had no longer been one, the one they had to punish because so many had escaped punishment. And there was their guilt that they hadn't done as much as he had, hadn't sacrificed everything to the struggle. Revenge taken on a scapegoat.

And Snape hadn't fought back. At no point had he said a word in self-defense. He'd sat as they'd discussed his fate, never acknowledging anyone in the courtroom, impassive. He'd not asked for clemency, not responded when spoken to. Sirius's heart ached at the silent depth of Snape's pain, which was obvious to him though the Ministry had assumed his silence was acquiescence. Qui tacet consentire: Silence gives consent.

The file didn't, unfortunately, give the details of how the Trace worked, but the Ministry would know if Snape did any magic, if any magic was done on his property, and if too much magic was done around him. That last point confused him—what was too much?—and he made a mental note to ask George. His girlfriend Angelina worked at the Ministry in the Department of Restriction of Underage Sorcery, and she'd have a better understanding of what the Trace covered.

No magic, no contact with any other witch or wizard. He was supposed to send a message to the Ministry if anyone tried to contact him, and he was allowed to defend himself if someone threatened him. It was, Sirius thought, idiotic. Typical of the Ministry. Balthazar Moody reminded him of Fudge.

Banishment left a wizard caught between two worlds, one lost to him, one incomprehensible.

----- ∞ -----

"What the fuck?" he shouted as he pulled on a pair of trousers and a jumper. Someone was banging at the front door. It was George.

"Come in, you moron. Don't Apparate onto the landing. There are Muggles around," he grumbled. "Arrive in the living room."

"Yeah, and catch you and Snape in flagrante delicto?" said George.

"It's not like that."

"Right," said George. "They're planning on releasing him tonight. And they're going to dump him in the middle of the road near that Muggle village, with nothing."

Sirius's eyes widened. "Why?"

"I spent the evening at the Leaky Cauldron talking with some Azkaban guards. Trust me on this. They hate him. They wish we could bring Dementors back just for him."

"I'm going."

George nodded. "Will you bring him back here?"

"Yes."

"All right. I'll make sure everything is ready."

The guards, laughing, left him in the middle of the dark road. One of them cast a Stupefy, and they stood there watching until headlights showed in the distance. They waited to Disapparate until it was almost too late. Instantly Padfoot bounded from his hiding place behind some trees, raced to the fallen body, and, at the last second, transformed, grabbed the inert form, and Disapparated to his flat.

The truck driver told the story at a pub on his route of a big, black dog jumping in front of him as he was braking to avoid a body in the road, the dog turning into a human, and both of them disappearing into the darkness. No one believed him.

They landed in a heap on the living room floor, and George helped Sirius get Snape, still unconscious, to the sofa.

"Is he all right?"

"Stupefied," said Sirius. "George, thank you. He would have—"

George cut him off. "I know. They were saying that they'd planned an unfortunate accident. Dementor-fuckers, if you ask me."

"Former Dementor-fuckers," said Sirius with slitted eyes. "You should go."

The other man nodded. "Yes. Remember—they still have a Trace on him, and they have his house Traced, too. You can do some magic close to him, but not on his property."

"So Apparating him here was safe, but to his house wouldn't be?"

"Pretty much, yes. Also, I ran a bath, he'll need it, and I left some potions in the bathroom. He'll probably need those. I got some clothes from his place. He's much too thin for yours."

"George, thank you."

"Not to worry. I owe him. He got me through the worst day of my life."

"Oh?"

George didn't look at Sirius and his voice was taut. "Fred's memorial service. A month or so after the Battle. I was dreading it, and three days before I got a letter. I have no idea how he got it out of Azkaban, but he did. He's powerful. Anyway, it had the instructions for making the Bubbly Burpy Beverage. Which I promptly brewed. without telling my mum, of course. I mixed it into the tea, into the coffee, into everything. I soaked the biscuits. The memorial reception was—Fred would have loved it." He laughed. "People were trying to say solemn things, and they'd take a sip of punch or tea and start burping big coloured bubbles. It was so funny, and Mum was incredibly pissed, but I think everyone felt better. I don't know how—no one else can know about twins, and Fred was so—but Snape understood."

He got Snape, weak and ill, to the bathroom. He undressed him, despite Snape's ineffective protests, and helped him into the bath. The double scar on his throat from the snake's fangs was livid. He was rail-thin, bruised, filthy and, Sirius suspected, probably alive with lice and fleas. How well he remembered.

No time for that. Shampoo, the anti-vermin potion George had left, soap. Snape blushed and demurred, and Sirius shushed him, running the flannel over his body, noticing the pale pink nipples, barely raised, the thin, strong arms, the slender neck, the hollow stomach. He pressed his own hard cock to the side of the tub, urgent for relief, knowing that wasn't going to happen, wanting to help, to soothe, to pleasure—oh, Merlin—to pleasure.

He handed Snape the flannel, "You should probably..." Snape's blush deepened and, avoiding Sirius's eyes, he washed himself.

Sirius used an Evanesco on the dirty water, then filled the tub again, adding the muscle relaxing and the healing potions to the water, and Snape leaned back, eyes closed, face gaunt. Sirius sat on the toilet, his head in his hands, with so much to say and afraid to say it.

In the early light, he helped Snape out of the bath, into pyjamas and his own bed.

"I'll be in the other bedroom. Call if you need anything."

Snape shook his head. "Stay," he said, and he moved over in the bed, making room. Sirius didn't wait for a second invitation. He climbed into bed, drew the shades with a flick of his wand, and shut his eyes, hearing Snape's rough breathing next to him.

"I'm so sorry."

"I knew the risks."

"That's not the point."

"Yes, it is. I am responsible."

"But I shouldn't have—"

"I shouldn't have touched you. I'm sorry. I know it angered you."

Sirius shook his head in the darkness. "No, you're wrong. It didn't. I wanted—want—you. Oh, fuck." He buried his face in the pillow, not knowing what to say. He took a breath. "I wanted to touch you. And it scared me. And then Lily. You and Lily. And James—and I still want to touch you, and it still scares me."

They lay for a long time in the darkened room, not speaking, not sleeping.

Then Snape said, "I shouldn't have stolen that photo of Lily, the letter. I should have sent them back when I didn't die. I thought I would, but—" His voice trailed off, then he added, "I'm a complete prat."

"That makes two of us."

"And they say we have nothing in common."

The absurdity of it hit Sirius and he started to laugh.

"What?" asked Snape.

"Oh, Merlin—Severus, do you realise that we've spent the past thirty years hating each other and fighting and almost getting each other killed, and here we are trying to make each other feel better?"

It was the first time he'd used Snape's given name. He braced himself.

Snape's voice was soft. "Isn't that what friends do, Sirius?"

Sirius's cleared his throat. Something like happiness. Friends.

Under the blankets, Snape's hand found his. His heart started to beat faster, and he felt the blood pooling in his groin. Snape interlaced his fingers with Sirius's and said, "I don't know what is going to happen, if anything, and I need time. If this is what you want, I want to think about it..."

Sirius swallowed to steady his voice. "I'll wait. I do hope that...this...won't stop our evenings together?"

Snape's voice was amused. "And miss fleecing you? I've got most of the gobstones, you know."

"Friday, then?" he asked as Snape moved toward the front door late the following afternoon. He'd suggested he stay the night, but Snape had refused, and Sirius didn't press. Time.

Snape nodded.

"Are you sure you don't want me to come with you? I wouldn't mind the train ride."

Snape gave a fleeting smile, but shook his head. "I must go."

The card arrived by Muggle post two days later. On one side, a pen and ink drawing of an orchid, every minute detail lovingly drawn. On the side with the address, two words: "Thank you."

He put the card on his desk next to the Azkaban reform file, which was filling rapidly. The Governor, hanging on to his job only because of Snape's flat refusal to testify, sent pages of defensive bureaucratic blather which Sirius translated, "Food, baths, beds, no bruises, no bugs." The guards George described proved to have fresh cuts on their knuckles and were sacked. Sirius's eyes were cold when he realised he couldn't gaol them; his first reform had been to end imprisonment without trial and conviction.

Snape came on Friday. His eyes flicked to Sirius's face when he walked in. The electric lights were off and the flat, probably against all Muggle fire codes, was lit by candles.
"But things are better at Azkaban now. No Dementors. No one raped me."

"I'd hoped things were improved beyond the lack of Dementors and rape." Sirius sighed. "I'm getting it sorted, but—why ever were you there, that first time?"

"I broke through the wards of the Headmaster's office and was arrested for trespassing. One of the portraits complained to the Ministry."

"You did what? You'd returned from the dead, the post-war celebration still going on…"

"If I had to be alive, I needed my memories from the Pensieve. Don't you see, Black? My memories—my worst memories—without them, I'd have no Lily, no Headmaster, no failure, no betrayal, no reason. They are my self. My why. I had to have them back."

Sirius got to his feet and refilled their glasses. "But every time we Obliviate someone—"

"We rob that person of self. Worse than theft. It's amputation. Obliviate should be an Unforgivable." Snape held the cognac snifter in both hands and didn't drink.

"So they put me in prison, but Harry swore I'd been in the Order and a double agent and that I killed Dumbledore at his request. Demand, really. Not that it matters. Minister Moody—"

Sirius wheeled to face him. "Balthazar? That paranoid little rat? We should have gone with Kingsley."

"People wanted it quick. Tidy. Vengeance instead of trials and justice. It never works."

"It surely didn't work in your case."

"The Minister holds me responsible for his father's death."

"Better than having to face how much he hated and feared his father." He waited for Snape's familiar shrug. "Or Mad-Eye's contempt for him."

"He can't prove it was me because there were no witnesses and I won't let him paw through my memories. So he arranged the exile and the Trace, and there was no one left alive who wanted to fight him over it. A double agent has few friends, and I'd killed both of mine."

----- ∞ -----

They slipped easily back into their twice a week arrangement and Snape, in late October, won the last of the gobstones.

"Now what?" he asked.

Sirius, who was staring at the thin lips, their corners turned up, answered, "You give me half back and we start over."

His hopeful tone made Snape's smile broaden. "Umm. No, I don't think so. You owe me."

Sirius leaned forward, his face close to Snape's, intent. "Tell me what I can give you."

Blood rushed to Snape's cheeks. They both knew what Sirius was offering. Grey eyes held black. One breath. Two. Sirius moved closer until they were mere inches apart. He could feel the warmth emanating from Snape.

Snape moved away, blinking. His voice was close to his old silken drawl as he said, "I'll wait to collect."

Sirius grinned, calming his breathing. "Fine. Now give me back half those gobstones, and this time I won't count on the Falcons."

"I have some news."

"What?" Snape had barely walked in the door.

"Harry and Ginny are getting married."

"Ah. When?"

"Next week. And, before you ask, no, Ginny is not pregnant."

"I wasn't going to ask, actually. The thought of former pupils having sex is disturbing enough."

Sirius laughed.

"Why the haste, then?"

"Ginny is playing for England in the World Cup next summer, and if she isn't married she can't get passes from training camp to see Harry."

The Burrow was in chaos, and Ginny, wandering around smiling, was of no help.

"Oh, Mum, come see this." She'd opened a plain white box and took out a bouquet of orchids. "There's no card, but isn't this beautiful?" She sniffed, "Mmmm. Smells so good. There's a headpiece, too, and a bouquet for Hermione exactly the colour of her dress."

"I wonder who sent them." Harry frowned slightly.

"Bill checked it for curses," George said, "so it's safe. Probably one of your fans." He raised an eyebrow at Sirius.

"Thank you," said Sirius. "The flowers were beautiful."

Snape inclined his head several inches.

"What are you doing for Christmas?"

"Nothing."

Sirius paused, not sure if the invitation would be welcome. "Would you spend Christmas evening with me? You can stay the night and we could maybe go for a walk on Boxing Day?"

"I...no."

"Why not?"

Snape moved a shoulder in his habitual gesture. "No trains."

On New Year's Eve he handed Snape a gift enclosure envelope. Snape looked at him quizzically. "Go ahead and open it," Sirius said.

It was a key.

"For both the door downstairs and the door to the flat," he said. "That way you can always get in, no matter if I'm here or not."

"No, I—"

"Please. Use it if I'm not home. And, you know, if the trains aren't running. You can always stay here."

A pause, and then Snape nodded. Sirius started breathing again.

"Happy Birthday!"

"Oh, Merlin. Candles and everything?"

----- ∞ -----

It had been five years since the fall of Voldemort, and Sirius sat through the two days of ceremonies and the accolades and the speeches, bored and in pain. They'd lost too much to have it reduced to well-spoken words and a few Orders of Merlin. One of which he tossed in a drawer when he got home. It made no sense when one of the War's greatest heroes lived in wandless exile.

The next day they went to the cemetery as always, Harry, Teddy, Andromeda and Sirius. Elsewhere, the Weasleys were making their own pilgrimage. He knew that Neville Longbottom was visiting his parents in St. Mungo's and telling them, as he did every year, how Voldemort had fallen. They wouldn't understand, but Neville hoped that at some level they knew.

The day after that, his visit to the cemetery with Snape was quiet. He took the Muggle train back to Manchester with his friend, sitting together through the changes, the village stations. He walked with him through the drab and probably dangerous streets near his home. They hadn't exchanged more than ten words all day.

Snape turned to him. "Would you like to come in?"

Sirius nodded. "I can Disapparate from somewhere away from here later."

The calming routine of taking care of plants, of Snape's cooking. They didn't eat together often, Snape usually saying he was "Fine, thank you" when Sirius offered.

Sirius watched as Snape chopped and diced, put water on for pasta, sautéed garlic and tomatoes, onion, added olives and capers and anchovies for spaghetti alla puttanesca. It smelled good. The kitchen was warm, and Sirius, after two days of official speeches and official food, felt a knot inside him start to relax.

They sat across from each other and ate. Glancing at Snape, Sirius felt at ease in a way he didn't with anyone else. He wanted Snape, yes, but it wasn't the blazing desire he'd had for James so many years ago nor even the burning in his belly during his few brief affairs during the First War. It was like the embers in a fireplace in the morning, warm and full of potential, waiting to burst into flame at the slightest encouragement.

He looked up to catch Snape's eyes on him, and slowly Snape reached across the table and took Sirius's hand.

From embers to flame in the space of a breath.

They sat for a long time, Sirius's breathing audible to both of them, he knew, as he tried to keep his body under control, to ignore the pulse of his groin, the shivers up and down his spine.

Snape ran his thumb over the back of Sirius's hand, the light touch at odds with the full body tremors it caused Sirius. His voice was low when he spoke. "I want you to know I'm thinking. Trying."

Sirius said, over the ache in his throat, "I don't want you to try. I want you to want it. Me."

Snape nodded. "Would it help if I said that, if I ever do make that choice, it would be you?"

Sirius closed his eyes, focusing for a moment on the touch of Snape's hand. He didn't want to ask, but he had to know. "Choosing it for me or with me?"

A shadow of a smile and he knew Snape had understood his question. "Both."

“How did you know?” he asked Snape one evening after dinner.

Snape looked up from the chessboard he was arranging. “Know?”

“About James.”

“Ah,” said Snape. He paused to collect his thoughts. “When you speak of him, there's something different in your voice.”

“I loved him,” said Sirius, fingering a pawn. He tipped it over and watched it roll back and forth. “We were never lovers,” he said, abruptly. “It wasn't like that.'

“Oh,” said Snape. “I'm sorry.”

Sirius sighed. “Me, too,” he said.

Sirius travelled to India with Harry, Hermione, Ginny and the national team. England would be playing Mexico in the finals, the two evenly matched.

Snape stayed at Sirius's flat where he could listen to the games on the wizarding wireless. He'd been reluctant, but Sirius had convinced him.

Sirius had bet the remainder of his gobstones on England and Ginny. Snape had shaken his head and bet on Mexico.

"But Severus—Ginny is playing for England. How can you—?"

"Oh, I'll root for England. But I'm going to bet on Mexico. The climate is in their favour."

Sirius rolled his eyes.

Mexico won. The match ran long, and eventually the heat and the humidity got to the British players.

Sirius arrived home in the middle of the day. Or maybe it was night. The Portkey had been late. He'd been separated from Harry who had higher priority. It had been terribly hot in India, much hotter than he remembered from his time on the run so many years before. He was exhausted—too much heat, too little sleep, too much alcohol, too much spicy food. He stumbled into the living room, and Snape looked up from reading Mansfield Park for the third time.

"You all right?"

Sirius shook his head. "Yes. No. I think so." He collapsed into an armchair.

Snape stood. "Let me get you some tea, and you can tell me about it. I listened on the wireless. What a game!"

"Mmmm...." said Sirius, drowsily.

Hot tea, some plain crackers with cheese, a carefully cut-up pear. His eyes were heavy. He felt cared for.

"Do you want a bath?"

"Am I rank?"

"A bit high."

"Then yes, I suppose."

The bath water was the right temperature. Snape helped him silently, so much stronger than he appeared. Sirius reflected that he was glad that he was too tired to achieve an erection because he didn't want Snape to leave.

Cool sheets, and he closed his eyes. Snape's hand holding his, he drifted off to sleep.

Snape had won all the gobstones again.

"I'll pay up. Really. Whenever you want."

"I daresay."

It snowed one Friday evening in November. Snape looked up from their chess game and hissed.

"Don't like snow?" asked Sirius.

"The train schedule will be a complete cock-up."

Sirius's voice was casual. "Spend the night here, then. The sheets in the other bedroom are clean, and I can loan you pyjamas. Or you can sleep naked with me, of course."

Snape raised an eyebrow, and Sirius laughed, "Fine. You can sleep in your pyjamas with me."

Snape rolled his eyes. "Yes and no," he said. They continued to play.

Snape started to stay in the second bedroom on Friday nights. They'd have dinner together, one or the other cooking, spend the evening in conversation and music or chess or gobstones, and would meet at breakfast, not talking much in the mornings. Snape would leave around noon on Saturday, and Sirius, not often admitting it to himself, would count the hours until Monday evening.

He wondered, as November drifted into December and December to January, if he would ever have what he so much wanted. Not the chronic throb of desiring James, always there, but as if suddenly—in the middle of whatever they were doing or nothing at all—a slender hand had seized his heart. Or his cock.

----- ∞ -----

Snape was standing at the dark living room window. It was late, and Sirius brought cocoa, put the tray on a low table, and moved over to stand behind Snape, close, closer perhaps than he should have. Snape didn't move away, and when Sirius exhaled he could see the hair at Snape's neck move. The now-familiar trembling started inside him.

"I'm afraid."

"Afraid?" Sirius asked hoarsely.

Snape nodded. "What if we go beyond this, and it all falls apart?"

Sirius leaned against Snape's shoulder and tried to think. "I don't know. I'm sorry. I don't know."

"I don't want to lose what we do have. I...value your friendship."

Sirius closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of Snape's hair, his neck, felt the cloth of his suit, fought back the urge to embrace him. The loss of Snape's friendship would leave a hole in his life. But he had other friends. Snape had no one else. He worked alone most of the time. He had no family at all, and Sirius doubted he'd stop at the pub for a pint with his neighbours. Snape had too much to lose.

"I understand," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I should never have asked."

"No, I'd have wanted to know. But, if this is too painful for you, I'd understand if you didn't want to see me."

His arms, despite themselves, circled Snape's slight form, and he pulled the other man close, glad that he didn't resist the embrace.

They were both trembling now. He knew that Snape could feel his erection which he was trying with such effort to will down.

Snape's voice was almost inaudible. "I understand that you'll probably find someone else, and I know what that will mean, but I can't keep on giving you hope, when I won't..."

Sirius drew a breath. "Would you...want to be lovers if there weren't any danger of losing it all?"

He felt Snape's shudder and his nod. His insides lurched and he didn't know if his legs would continue to support him. "Come on. Let's sit down."

They sat on the couch and Sirius, with a flick of his wand, dimmed the candles. It was easier to speak, or not, in the dark room. "I don't think I'm gay," said Snape. "But I do feel—desire. I want to get closer to you, all the time. But..." His voice trailed off.

Sirius remained silent, knowing there was more.

"But I can't see why you would...could want me."

Sirius hoped his voice would be audible when he spoke. "Because—because, for whatever reason, you're the person I most want to be close to. I think you said it, back then—we're the only two left, Severus. You are the only part of my life that has always been there." ("And your long white fingers make me tremble when I see them, and your mouth, and your belly, and your neck and the scar that needs kissing." But he didn't say any of that out loud.)

"I can't say what would happen if we became lovers"—his whole body thrilled as he said the word— "and it didn't work out. I still think we'd...manage. Because there's only you and me left." ("And I can't imagine my life without you. My real life. Its heart." But he didn't say that aloud, either.)

Time passed.

"I don't think that I'd try to find anyone else," he said at last. "I'm not that hungry for sex. I mean"—he laughed nervously—"I am, but I'm more...wanting the closeness. With you."

Snape spoke slowly. "So the friendship is more important to you, too?"

Sirius paused and then said, "Yes. I think we'd be good lovers, like we're good friends, but I can't risk losing your friendship."

Careful in the dim room, he fetched brandy—more suitable, he felt, than the cocoa they'd been sipping to give themselves time.

The alcohol burned his throat and he closed his eyes, enjoying the heat of it, anticipating the slight headiness that would follow. He opened his eyes when the snifter was taken from his hand and he felt Snape's lips touch his.

Time stopped...sprinted to catch up, and Sirius wondered if his heart was still beating, then if it would explode in his chest, because nothing had ever felt like this.

They didn't settle simply into the kiss. They bumped noses and clashed teeth and struggled for air. Then things fell into place, and Sirius had never known a kiss could be this good. Lips meeting Snape's lips, one hand on the back of his head, the other gripping the lapel of his jacket.

Vaguely he realised that Snape must be uncomfortable, propped up with one hand on the arm of the sofa. Trying not to disrupt the kissing too much, he slid down and over, and they were both lying on the sofa, pressed against each other.

He shuddered when he felt Snape's hard, clothed cock next to his, his whole body tense with desire. Snape's hand on his shoulder, running down his arm, up his back, and Snape's fingers in his hair, holding his head, their tongues coming together, Snape's mouth, evocative of brandy and chocolate.

He pressed his groin towards Snape, felt him press back. He heard moaning, Snape's panting, his own heart pounding in his chest.

Lips and tongues and hands. And Snape's eyes. Looking into those dark eyes, so dark. Trust and desire.

His hands on Snape's arse, pulling him closer, rubbing together, urgent for release, wanting more than anything to rip off Snape's clothes, to touch him, oh Merlin, to touch him. Snape's eyes half closed, his gasping.

He let out his breath and whispered in Snape's ear, "Whatever you want."

Snape nodded and softly sucked Sirius's lip. He groaned, they both did, and their arms gripped each other. They followed the kiss, spinning out of control, reduced and expanded to their lips and mouths.

Sirius slipped his hand down between them and cupped Snape's cock. He felt Snape tense, and he nodded. No further than kissing tonight.

Later they stumbled to their rooms. Sirius, the taste of Snape still in his mouth, on his lips, ripped open his trousers and brought himself to climax, fast and hard, biting his lip, leaning against the door. Spent, he stumbled half dressed to his bed and lay there for a long time, catching his breath, wondering if Snape was doing the same on the other side of the wall.

He was concerned about what the light of morning would bring. Showered and shaved, Snape hesitated in the doorway. Sirius was pouring tea. Their eyes met. He put down the teapot, went to Snape and kissed him.

"Good morning." he said.

As easy as that.

Easy to slip into a new pattern. They'd touch now when Snape arrived, while talking or listening to music, and when eating they'd often hold hands over the table, at least until one of them needed to cut meat or butter the bread.

They would only kiss later because, Sirius thought as he sank naked on the bed and grasped his hard cock, they knew they could last so long before they had to take care of matters in private.

He knew that Snape, in the room next to his, was doing what he was. Snape couldn't use a cleaning charm afterwards, so he left flannels by the bed. He loved thinking of Snape lying there, his eyes closed, his long fingers wrapped around the cock Sirius knew was hard because he'd cupped it moments before and Snape had pressed into his hand and, oh, God.

A knock at the door. His eyes widened and he stilled his hand. He took a breath and rasped, "Come in."

He lay there, not knowing what Snape wanted, harder than before because he knew Snape would see him, naked and hard. He kept his eyes closed and felt Snape sit on the bed next to him, felt Snape's thigh pressed against his own, felt—oh, Merlin—felt Snape's fingers around his cock.

His eyes flew open and he sought Snape's, but the other man was turned away from him.

Uncertain, Snape moved his hand, and Sirius groaned.

"I'm sorry. I should ask. May I...?"

Sirius's answer came as a sob, but he was too far gone to care. "Yes. Please. Yes."

Snape's thumb ran over Sirius's slit, and he felt pre-come, and Snape swirled the slippery warmth around, and then his thumb on the head of Sirius's cock and he stroked, and Sirius moaned, bit his lip and moaned.

He struggled up onto his elbows and buried his face in Snape's hair. It smelled good, and he inhaled and gasped. A finger had strayed down to his balls, touching them as Snape's hand continued to move up and down his cock. He wasn't going to last. Already he could feel liquid fire in his balls.

Sensing how close Sirius was, Snape sped up his movements and Sirius came, shooting come over himself and Snape. His head fell back, his breathing uneven. Snape's face was still turned away from him, and Sirius, barely able to lift his arm, reached out and touched Snape's shoulder, then managed to sit up and tried to see Snape. The other man moved away slightly, and Sirius felt a chill run down his body.

"Severus? I—let me..."

Snape stood. He still hadn't looked at Sirius, and his voice was controlled. "Good night, Sirius." He left.

Sirius hid his face in the pillow, feeling sick. What had that been?

After a long time he fell asleep.

Snape was up before him the next morning. Sirius entered the kitchen, tense, nervous, but Snape wished him a good morning, dished up scrambled eggs, and poured them both tea.

Two weeks passed. On Fridays they'd kiss, and later Snape would slip into Sirius's room, bring him to orgasm, and leave without allowing Sirius to touch him. On Mondays, they'd mostly stay on the sofa, and after, Snape would get up, wash his hands, bid Sirius a good night, and leave in the cold night for King's Cross and his train home.

This wasn't what Sirius wanted. It made him feel dirty. He remembered, some time after they'd left Hogwarts, Peter telling them about having gone to a Muggle prostitute. That was what it felt like; there was no mutual anything. One who was pretending not to be there and another who was completely alone. It was empty, and he didn't like what it made him or what it made Snape. Humiliating for both of them, and, worse, he was afraid that Snape was disgusted with him, with his cock, with the come on his hand, with Sirius's moans and his rebuffed attempts to give back.

Anger slipped into his feelings. That Snape thought so little of him and their friendship that he felt this impersonal servicing was what Sirius wanted. Everything felt different, and the delight Sirius had taken in kissing Snape and in feeling his body respond was gone.

"No," he said, "we need to talk."

Snape seemed to contract, and Sirius thought he saw a fleeting expression of panic on the other man's face.

"Very well."

It was going to be up to him, Sirius could tell. He closed his eyes briefly.

"I don't want this to be for me, but with me."

Snape didn't answer.

"I had gotten the impression that you might...have some desire for me."

Snape wouldn't look at him, and he felt anger flare. He tamped it down and waited.

"I cannot deny that my body is responding. I...do not, however, want..." His voice trailed off. There was silence, and then Snape spoke again, more forcefully. "It is not necessary for you to...reciprocate."

"The thought of me disgusts you?" Sirius kept his voice neutral.

Snape looked at him, surprise on his face, "No, no, it's not that. But I can't."

"Can't what?"

"How can I do that…when Lily is dead?"

Ah. Lily. The heart of the matter. He gulped. He knew that he was powerless against Snape's idealised vision of the love of his life. No matter what, Lily would always be the one that Snape loved and wanted, and that hurt. Even if he might have wished that James—he shut down the thought.

"Do you think Lily would have wanted you to live alone, with no friends, no lovers, no pleasure?"

"It's not that. She hasn't forgiven me. How can I forgive myself and be happy, when..."

Sirius cut him off. "You don't know that she didn't, wouldn't forgive you. I knew Lily, too. She..."

"She didn't."

"How do you know this? Did you see her before she died?"

"No," said Snape, "after I died."

Sirius stopped. This was something beyond his knowledge. "Tell me," he said. Snape's voice was as empty as Sirius had ever heard it.

"I died. I did. I looked into Potter's eyes, and I thought he was Lily, and I was happy." Sirius could hear him breathe. "Then I was standing in the middle of...nothing. Just nothing. There was a—I suppose one could call it a line, a barrier, but I couldn't see it—in front of me. James Potter was there. Lupin and Miss Tonks. Regulus was there. So was Fred Weasley, and Mad-Eye Moody and almost everyone I'd ever known, who'd...died on our side. And Lily was there. She…she shook her head at me…"

Sirius could tell how difficult it was, what each word cost. He remained silent, ignoring his gut-wrenching panic.

"They were standing there. Potter and Lupin were closest to me. I knew things. I don't know how I knew them. And then the Dementors came..."

Sirius shuddered.

"One needs to be reached for by two people to move on, to be accepted. If nobody reaches out a hand for you, you can't cross, and the Dementors get you, to what end I can only imagine. Muggle Hell, I suppose, or maybe non-being. I don't know."

Snape was silent for a moment.

“Potter said, 'He's supposed to be at King's Cross' and turned away. And Lily turned away, too, and then Lupin held out a hand for me. No one else did."

"Dumbledore wasn't there, after everything you did for him? And Lily? James didn't help? You died to protect their son."

Snape shook his head. "No." There was no self-pity in his voice. He was relating facts. "But, since one person had, the Dementors couldn't have me, so I had to return here. I suppose they'll get me next time."

Sirius closed his eyes. Rage overpowered him. Rage at Dumbledore, who'd asked so much from this man but hadn't helped him in the end. At James, who should have understood, at Lily whom Snape still loved but who hadn't been there to reach for him—at all of them. For Snape, for himself. His disappointment and rage spilled out.

"So is that why you made friends with me?" he asked, though he'd pursued the friendship far more than Snape had. "So that, if I die before you, you'll have someone else to reach for you?"

The pain left him empty. He couldn't believe he'd said that, had lashed out at Snape in his rage at those who should have known, should have cared, but hadn't.

Snape stood up and left. He didn't say a word. Sirius heard the door close and shouted, "Good riddance!"

He broke most of the crockery and went to bed angry and bitter. He woke up in the middle of the night, and the tears and remorse came.

----- ∞ -----

During the day, bravado kept him going, ignoring the gnawing pain, but at night he couldn't forget it. Couldn't forget that he'd done exactly what Snape had feared, couldn't forget his deliberate cruelty, his anger at and disenchantment with Dumbledore, James, Lily—surely they'd have known, understood what Snape had done? If he, Sirius, had been able to, what about them? James and Lily must have been told. And Dumbledore. Had asked it, required it of him. What kind of people were they, after all? Himself included.

Monday evening was bad. He paced his empty flat, knowing that Snape would not come, and, after waiting for hours, left, Disapparating to the Leaky Cauldron and hanging out with Kingsley and Charlie who were playing wizard chess in a corner.

In those days of late January he slept poorly. He wasn't eating well, either. He hadn't realised how the loss of Snape's friendship would affect him. Harry was concerned and talked to him one Sunday after the weekly dinner at the Burrow. Sirius dodged his questions, but asked suddenly, "May I borrow your Invisibility Cloak?"

"Will you tell me why?"

Sirius shook his head, "No. But I need it."

Sirius followed Snape when he left his house in the cold, wet morning and walked to school. He was invisible and had a cast a Softfoot spell to be quiet, yet Snape turned around several times as if he sensed the presence ten feet behind him. Sirius froze.

He followed him to the bus, with its early morning passengers, glum and avoiding each other's eyes.

He followed him into the school. He stood silently as Snape took off his suit jacket and put on an overall. He followed as Snape got the supplies ready for the school day. Caretaker. It didn't bear thinking about, and Sirius tried to ignore the sharp pain. Severus Snape, powerful wizard, potions master of great talent, a man of supreme courage who'd given everything he had in the War, who should have been a presence and a power in the wizarding world, was tending to the boilers, washing windows, and, after the students had tromped through the hallways in their muddy shoes, mopping. Snape with a mop.

He didn't look anyone in the eyes. He did his job. To the students, it was as if he wasn't there. The teachers spoke shortly to him, and Sirius never heard a please or thank you. The headmaster and his staff were barely civil. He was a servant, a factotum.

He thought of Filch, how they'd treated him, and he sighed. He knew Filch was a Squib. He was also a human being. How much pain had they added? Not that Filch didn't earn it, of course, but—he hadn't been born that mean.

For a week he followed Snape at his job and after. Snape would walk home, stopping to purchase a day's food. Sirius, carefully avoiding being touched or bumped into, overheard people talking after Snape had left. The things they said hurt. "Creeps me out," "I can't stand that bloke," "Always polite, but I do wish he wouldn't shop here."

He trailed Snape to the garden shop where he left them three beautiful orchids, about to bloom, and took home a box with four bedraggled ones. The garden shop manager said to his assistant, "I don't know how he does it. It's like he has some magical touch. Patience, perhaps. I wish he wasn't so disagreeable."

Snape wasn't disagreeable, Sirius knew. But he didn't engage at all, kept his emotions so far inside that people assumed he didn't have any. Like with the sex. Not allowing feeling, even to himself. At Hogwarts and during the Wars he'd shown anger and scorn and used them to cover everything else. Maybe not from Lily, at the beginning. Maybe not from the Headmaster. Since he'd not been allowed to die, nothing. Then, gradually, with Sirius he'd started to open. Just a bit—a little trust, a lot of regret, some fear but not much—and Sirius had...

He closed his eyes against the wave of now-familiar pain, the pain at having hurt him. Savagely. He knew he had. There was no doubt in his mind.

Sirius was standing in a doorway, watching as Snape finished mopping the floor, the long grey hallway that had been covered with student footprints. Done, Snape stood up and stretched his back with a slight grimace. Four students came in late. Sirius had seen them before, noticing with a pang how much they reminded him of himself and James and Remus and Peter. These boys were handsome, arrogant, and popular. And cruel.

Their feet were muddy and the hallway was dirty again. Snape sighed, and the tallest boy, the one who reminded Sirius most of himself at that age, heard him. His name was Nigel. Sirius had heard it used by the other students.

The boy looked Snape up and down, an expression of contempt on his face that made Sirius wince. He was carrying a coffee from one of the shops, and he smiled insincerely, took the lid off the cup, and poured the milky liquid out, splashing Snape's boots and leaving a puddle on the floor.

"Oops," he said, dropping the cup and the lid while his friends laughed, and, laughing, they sauntered down the hallway. Snape picked up his mop.

He knew he shouldn't, knew the Ministry would have his neck for something like this, and hoped that Snape wouldn't see him. Under the cloak, he moved swiftly and stuck a leg out, tripping Nigel and sending him sprawling on the floor. He flicked his wand and murmured, "Aeger eger." It would do the boy good to be sick. Purgative. "Foris," he added, not wanting to make more work for Snape.

Snape frowned and then got back to his cleaning. The boys, unnerved, quickly got themselves to their classroom, except for Nigel who staggered back outside. Sirius left the school through the kitchens and, behind a rubbish bin, took off the cloak and transformed into Padfoot. He curled up near an oven exhaust vent, almost warm, almost dry, to wait for Snape.

It had to change. As he waited that long afternoon he made a plan. He'd need George's help again and probably Angelina's as well. This was ridiculous. Snape had refused to let him petition the Wizengamot for a pardon, but he wouldn't be able to budge Sirius on this one. He needed to do some research and put a few things in place, and then Snape wouldn't know what hit him. There was no way he was going to continue to let Snape waste his brilliance on mopping up after Nigel and the likes of him.

He trotted on the other side of the road, several feet behind Snape, keeping out of his sight as he walked home. Snape was wearing a heavy black overcoat against the chill and the rain, his head down, not paying attention to anyone. Sirius noticed again how people seemed to sense this and avoided looking at him, bumping into him.

Snape opened the door the shop on the corner, the one whose owner wished he wouldn't shop there anymore. Padfoot growled at the memory.

Then one small sound overrode all other noise. The mew of a young cat in the middle of the road, white against the dark pavement, water splashing, cars whizzing past her in both directions.

Snape's head whipped around at the sound, and he dashed into the street, not bothering to look. Brakes shrieked and the car stopped in time. The cat, scared, ran into the path of the traffic on the other side of the road.

Padfoot bounded. There was no thought, only action. Then he was on the sidewalk, the small cat held softly in his mouth, and Snape, face paler than Sirius had ever seen it, was kneeling on the wet pavement next to him, running his hands through Padfoot's fur, asking, "Are you all right?"

He dropped the cat and Snape picked it up. Man's eyes met dog's. Peace.

People were starting to cluster around them. Sirius, adrenaline still coursing through his body, could hear bits and pieces of conversation. "Dog ran into the street...," "...grabbed that cat," "Bloke could have been killed..."

The shopkeeper hurried out and leaned over towards Snape, who was still holding the cat in one hand, the other gripping the fur on Padfoot's neck.

"Is that your dog?" she asked.

Snape inhaled and nodded.

"The two of you outdid yourselves tonight," she said. "You both might have been killed."

He nodded again. A man held out a hand and helped Snape up.

"Are you going to keep the cat?" asked the shopkeeper.

Snape nodded a third time. Laughing, the woman said, "Wait here." She went into her shop and returned a moment later, handing Snape a paper bag of canned cat food, gave Padfoot a dog biscuit and patted him on the head.

The spectators dispersed, and Snape regarded the dog. "Are you coming with me?" he asked and Padfoot barked, falling in step next to Snape.

As soon as the front door was closed, Snape dropped to his knees again, in front of the wet dog and buried his face in the fur. "You could have died," he said. "That was stupid."

Sirius knew better than to transform, and he sat there, big and black and damp, and let the feeling of being cared for flow through him. He whimpered and licked Snape's face, a long wet lick.

Snape laughed. "We'll go out later and you can transform, but for now you're stuck like that," he said. "Come with me, and we'll take care of this cat."

Padfoot watching, Snape carefully dried the little animal.

"It's a female," said Snape.

The dog nuzzled it and jumped back in surprise when the creature took a swipe at his nose. He whined, and Snape laughed and made sure it was just a scratch. Later he toweled Padfoot down.

"How I've longed for my house to be filled with the scent of wet dog," he said, picking up a forepaw to make sure it was dry. "Paw prints and dog smell. Shedding and fleas. The spice of a simple life." He changed to a fresh towel for the final rubdown. "There you go—home and dry."

Padfoot wagged his tail with enthusiasm, hoping he wouldn't knock anything over and break it.

They sat down in front of the fire in the book-lined room, Snape in his armchair, the cat on his knee, Padfoot at his feet. When he felt it was safe, Padfoot sat up and leaned his head against Snape's other knee. Snape put a hand on the silky head and stroked. "We should take a walk so you can transform," he said. "I don't want you to go by yourself."

Padfoot shook his black head.

"All right. Do you...er...need to go out?"

He slept at Snape's feet that night, on his bed. The cat, left in a box by the kitchen stove, cried, and Snape brought her up to the bedroom, hoping she'd be content on the rug next to his bed. She ended up curled next to his head on the pillow. Padfoot had jumped onto the bed, not asking permission, and Snape hadn't objected.

He woke to Snape's hand on his head. He was still asleep, the cat curled up at his neck. Padfoot whined appreciatively. Had he been Sirius, he would have sighed with contentment.

They left the house, Padfoot trotting beside Snape, tail up. A park far enough away to satisfy the Ministry, deserted in the cold wet morning. They slipped into a copse of trees and, Snape watching intently, Sirius transformed.

He wobbled, and Snape's hand was at his elbow.

"Sorry. Takes a bit."

Snape nodded but didn't let go. Snape ran a finger lightly down Sirius's nose. "She got you," he said.

Sirius took the hand and held it to his cheek. He felt Snape's other hand tighten on his elbow. He closed his eyes and leaned forward, and Snape did, too, and their lips met.

Cold lips, a light kiss at first, then it deepened and tongues met, hands pulled bodies closer, breathing quickened, and moans escaped from mouths.

It was Sirius who drew away slightly and looked down at the other man, intense. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I..."

Snape shook his head, "You were angry because you felt they treated me poorly," he said. "It means a lot to me that you care."

("And angry—hurt—because you care for Lily more than you ever will for me," thought Sirius, with sense enough not to say it aloud.)

Forehead to forehead, lips to lips, groin to groin.

"I think," Snape said, rather breathless, "that we should leave. I would rather not be picked up by the police for...um...public something illegal."

As they walked home through the early morning streets, Sirius slipped his hand into Snape's. He felt the other man stiffen, but he didn't pull his hand away, and Sirius squeezed it.

They stopped at the corner shop to buy some milk. "How's the cat doing?" asked the shopkeeper.

It was Sirius who answered. "She's doing fine. But look at my nose." He smiled as he showed her the scratch, and she smiled back. Snape looked bemused.

"And how's your dog getting on with the cat?" she asked.

Snape raised an eyebrow. "I'm afraid his nose looks like—"

"—mine," finished Sirius with a grin, as Snape paid and the shopkeeper counted out the change. Snape put the coins in his pocket, picked up the milk, and Sirius took his hand again. The woman's eyes widened for a second, but she dimpled at them as they left.

Outside, Snape turned to Sirius. "How did you do that?"

"Do what?" asked Sirius.

"Charm her. I mean, she was smiling at us."

"That's because you're sweet."

Snape stopped dead. "I may be many things, but sweet isn't one of them."

Sirius grinned. "That's what you think. Last night she saw you hug a big shaggy dog and risk your life for a cat. And this morning hold hands with another man. She's realised you're human."

Snape rolled his eyes.

After Snape shut the front door, Sirius said, his voice tightly controlled, "Give the cat her breakfast and let's go to bed."

Snape raised an eyebrow. "It's morning. Why do you want to go to bed?"

Sirius took a step towards him, pinning the slighter man against the wall. He could feel the warmth of Snape's body, hear his ragged breathing. He pressed their cocks together and lowered his voice. "Do you think you'll be able to stay on your feet?"

Snape's breath caught and he shook his head. Sirius took a step back.

Hands trembling, Snape fed the cat and heated her some milk.

When he stood, their eyes met and calm descended. There was a purposefulness to Snape's movements as he climbed the stairs, Sirius following, and opened the door to the bedroom.

"May I?" Sirius's voice was hoarse.

Snape nodded, and Sirius carefully took off the jacket and hung it on the back of a chair, loosened his black and grey tie and slipped it over his head. He unbuttoned Snape's shirt. It fell to the floor, and Sirius's heart accelerated at his first touch of Snape's shoulders, the skin impossibly pale and softer than Sirius had expected. He ran his hands from his shoulders down his arms and briefly held his hands. Then he placed his own hands at Snape's waist and pulled him closer, feeling the curves and hollows of his back. He leaned over and kissed his neck, running his lips over the terrible scar there, over his shoulders, his jawline. Snape's breathing was raw, his eyes closed, and his arms at his sides, not moving. He shivered, and Sirius fought back the impulse to cast an Incendio at the fireplace to heat the room. He released Snape for a moment and turned on the gas fire.

"Better?" he asked.

"I'm not sure I'm cold," Snape said. Their lips met, and Sirius ran his fingers through Snape's hair. He groaned when Snape's hands dropped to his arse and pulled him close.

Bodies pressed, mouths crushed, groans the only sound. Sirius slipped a hand between them and caressed Snape's chest, letting his fingers tangle in the fine hair and running his thumb over Snape's left nipple.

He gasped, and Sirius did it again, and again, smiling into the kiss as the nipple rose under his touch. Snape's breath came haltingly, and he held on to Sirius.

Snape's dark eyes were locked on his when Sirius let his hand stray downwards. His eyelids fluttered, but he didn't speak, and Sirius undid the button at the waistband of Snape's trousers and cursed under his breath at the zipper. He wasn't used to zippers.

Still looking into Snape's eyes, he slid his hand past the waistband of his boxers and could not restrain a groan that matched Snape's when he finally—finally—wrapped his hand around Snape's cock, hot and hard. Slowly at first, then faster, he stroked and Snape moaned and gripped Sirius's shoulders, and they fell onto the bed, barely breaking contact. Sirius knew he wasn't giving the best he could, it was fast and quick and sloppy, and Snape came in his hand, and he felt an immense tenderness towards the man whose body was pressed against his, and Snape lay there, spent, sweat glistening on his face, totally adrift.

Eventually they pulled off their clothes and found a way to settle together, close and silent.

"I needed that," sighed Sirius.

Snape laughed. "You needed that?"

Sirius's face was grave. "You let me give, Severus. That's a joy."

Snape nodded thoughtfully.

"Nothing compares to giving pleasure. To being allowed to give."

Snape's voice was soft. "So there was someone you cared about? A lover, I mean..."

Sirius sighed. "Yes. He was killed in a train wreck in Italy. It wasn't love, but a joyful friendship. He was a Muggle, and I still wish I'd told the Ministry to go fuck itself and got him on a Portkey with me. I waited at the train station in Genoa for hours, not knowing what had happened, not speaking Italian, until Remus, who'd heard the news, came to get me."

"Ah," said Snape. "I'm sorry. That's so sad." He touched Sirius's cheek, and Sirius held his hand there.

He closed his eyes, remembering the blond boy with curly hair he'd had so much fun with years ago, a welcome escape from the War. It had been light-hearted, its importance magnified by its abrupt end.

Snape, his friend, now his lover. Real and good and probably the best thing ever to happen to him.

He leaned over for a kiss, rolled Snape onto his back and lay on top of him, feeling his own cock harden and Snape's as well. He remembered his fantasy of almost two years before and closed his eyes as they kissed and thrust and fell into rhythm.

"All right?" he panted, looking down at Snape, and Snape nodded, and Sirius knew he wasn't going to last much longer, it had been too long, and this was what he'd dreamed of. The hot friction of their cocks, the smells and sounds of sex—

Eighteen needles landed on his arse, and he yelped in shock and pain, and the needles, accompanied by a hiss, dug into his back and, as he thrust one more time, the cat toppled off his shoulder, onto the pillow, hissing and spitting. He came then, in pain and pleasure, out of control, his head thrown back, and the world went grey for a few seconds, and he heard Snape's breath and felt his cock pulse and add to the wetness between their stomachs, and they lay there for a long moment.

With another hiss, the cat took aim at his nose and swiped, and he wailed as he rolled off Snape, off the bed, and stood up.

"What the hell!" Sirius shouted. The cat mewed in triumph as she remained alone on the pillow with Snape, and Snape started to laugh, struggling to sit up, ignoring the come running down his chest.

Shaking his head, he fetched a flannel and carefully wiped Snape down, kissing him and keeping an eye on the cat who scrutinised him balefully.

He climbed into bed, leaning back on Snape's chest and felt his chin against his shoulder, Snape's long nose nuzzling his neck.

"She hates me," he said.

Snape looked down at the white cat, curled up against his thigh. "She does," he said.

"Ingrate."

Snape shrugged. "She's a cat."

They spent the day in bed, getting up only for Snape to take care of his orchids and the cat and for Sirius to throw together some food.

They learned and explored, keeping, Sirius said with a grin, to hands. For now. And kissing. Kissing as they had before, only better, because now it might lead to more. Or maybe the kisses would be enough. It didn't matter.

Sitting with his legs around Snape's waist, Sirius brought them both to completion, his large strong hand holding both their cocks, gentle at first, then faster as they both got closer. Snape kissed him, his tongue wet and incredibly hot, and, when they came, Sirius felt his toes curl from joy, and they collapsed together on the bed, still holding each other.

"I'm going to call her Emmy," Snape said out of nowhere. And Sirius laughed and said that Beelzebub was better, and Snape haughtily responded that she was a girl, and Sirius had suggested Lilith or Jezebel or maybe even Catherine, for Catherine de Médici, and Snape hit him with a pillow, and they teased and kissed and fell asleep.

Sirius left the next day for Sunday dinner at Ron and Hermione's with the rest of their family. He didn't want to, but he needed to see George.

"Tomorrow?" he asked. Snape nodded. "My place?" Snape nodded again. "Probably safer. I have a hard time remembering not to do magic here, and your cat is going to disembowel me."

They stood forehead to forehead for a while, breathing together, hands held. Then, reluctantly, Sirius left.

"Thanks, Harry." He returned the silvery cloak to its owner.

"Did you do what you needed?"

Sirius grinned. "Yup." He didn't say more, and Harry wondered at Sirius's happiness.


----- ∞ -----

And he was happy. Happy at his new relationship with Snape, the smoothness of it.

He was surprised at first at Snape's willingness to explore. He'd figured that Snape was the inexperienced one, that he'd be the more hesitant. Though Sirius had to admit that it had been a long time for him, too. But he'd figured he'd take the lead—that, with his experience, limited though it might be, he'd be guiding, introducing...

But Snape woke him up two Saturdays later by taking his cock in his mouth, and Sirius grabbed the sheets to make sure there was still a reality beyond that hot mouth.

Adept at picking up cues, Snape soon had Sirius moaning, writhing on the bed, his cock leaking in Snape's mouth, gasping each time Snape touched his nipples. He knew he was babbling.

"Severus, I have to move..." He tried to push Snape's head away, but Snape didn't budge. He continued and Sirius felt and heard his "It's all right." It would have been too late, anyhow.

When he opened his eyes, Snape was looking down at him, a slight smile on his face. Sirius lifted his hand and ran it through Snape's hair, then tried to pull him down for a kiss. Snape resisted.

"What?" he asked, still slightly breathless.

"Do you want to? I mean..."

Sirius laughed and pulled harder, Snape leaned down, and the kiss was an intimate exploration that left them holding each other, sweaty bodies pressed together.

"That was incredible," said Sirius.

"The book was fairly explicit."

"The book?"

Snape arched an eyebrow. "Of course the book. I'd never done that before so I bought a book."

"You walked into a bookshop and bought a book on sex?"

"Of course not. I ordered The Joy of Gay Sex from Amazon."

"The Joy of Gay Sex?"

"Third revision. You keep repeating what I say. Should I have got Perverts and Their Pleasures?"

"No, no," said Sirius. "What do you mean—the Amazon?"

"Black. Tell me you've heard of Amazon.com? Computers? The Internet?"

Sirius's eyes were wide. "So you're into electronic technology? Mr. I-hate-electricity?"

"I use the computers at school or at an Internet café when I need them. There are important botany resources online."

Sirius leapt out of bed. "Come on."

"What?"

"Let's get dressed and go buy a computer. I'll make you happy in the shower."

One laptop, an appointment for setup, and two mobile phones later, they left the shop. Sirius was elated.

"You mean that I can send you e-mail and you'll get it right away?"

"I'd get it as soon as I sat at a computer."

"You need a computer."

"Two things. One, I cannot afford a computer. Two, to get e-mail on a computer I'd need a phone. I don't have one nor do I want one. Electricity..."

"Use the mobile."

Another laptop and an upgraded mobile plan later, they left the shop again, Snape still protesting.

Sirius stopped on the sidewalk. People streamed around them, mostly shoppers with large bags. He said urgently, "Listen, shut the fuck up and accept it, all right? I'm filthy stinking rich."

Snape raised an eyebrow.

"No, really. Just because they chose to live in that horrid house didn't mean they didn't have loads of gold. I got an enormous settlement from the Ministry for twelve innocent years in Azkaban, and I'm getting paid for improving the place. Even if I spend non-stop for the next thirty years, there'll be plenty left for Harry and Teddy."

Snape opened his mouth.

"Shut up. You're paying for train tickets and books on gay sex. I can stump up for us to communicate. I'm going back in for that DVD player. Then let's go home and back to bed before you have to leave."

Snape's tag was CantoXXXIV from Dante's Inferno and Sirius was, of course, Padfoot. They took to e-mail, Sirius remarked, like Cornish pixies to mischief.

By Wednesday, they were e-mailing every evening and soon discovered instant messaging.

Sex and computers and the Internet. Sirius found that wanking alone to anonymous erotica was less satisfying than wanking alone and thinking about Snape, and better yet was wanking together. Wanking each other, he mused, clicking on the icon to open his e-mail, was best, but it wasn't wanking, it was—well, maybe not making love, but at least having sex. Sharing sex.

He also discovered that he needed reading glasses. And a television set to go with the DVD player.

----- ∞ -----

He met with George and Angelina a few days later. They sat in surprised silence as they listened to his plan.

“Let me see if I've got this right,” said George finally. “You want to get Snape to enroll in a Muggle university to study botany?”

“Or chemistry. Maybe pharmacology.”

“I don't even know what pharmacology is,” sighed George, “but you think so?”

“I do. George, he's a scholar. He's wasting his life and his mind, mopping floors.”

George and Angelina winced.

“I can see that, but, Sirius, if he's working, how can he go to university? Isn't that like a full-time job?”

Sirius nodded. “I...I snooped around a bit at his school. I think he could work there part-time and go to school part-time. He finished paying those bloody reparations, so he's got some savings. But he's got to get out of this caretaker gig.”

"Did you know Minister Moody wanted him to pay Harry for his parents and Aberforth Dumbledore for the Headmaster? You can imagine how far that got with Harry and Aberforth," said Angelina. "I hate his working at that dreary job. But what if Professor Snape doesn't want to be a student again?”

“I think he would. It would allow him to extend the research he's doing beyond anything anyone's discovered yet. I'm already faint but pursuing.”

“Brilliant," said George. "I could do with a lark. What do you need?”

Each left with an assignment. Angelina would find Squibs or Muggle relatives of wizards to help with the educational history Snape would need to be credited with. George would forge the necessary transcripts, test scores, and letters of recommendation to get Snape into a nearby university. Sirius would convince Snape that this was the perfect solution.

Angelina discovered that a fifth-year Slytherin was the beloved daughter of the Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. With his amused help, George and Angelina had a complete set of transcripts, scores, and recommendations forged and ready in three weeks; George was particularly proud of the official school seal on Snape's certificate from prep. school. Sirius hadn't spoken to Snape.

Warmth was his first impression, and he didn't open his eyes, enjoying it. Snape's arm around his waist, the other wizard's body close against his and, best of all, Snape's morning erection pressed to the crack of his arse. He pushed back against it, nestling the cock more firmly in his cleft, and Snape shifted closer to him. They rocked together. Sirius was hard and Snape's hand was flat against his stomach and then cupping his balls, circling his cock with strong, deft fingers.

A sleepy morning custom that brought them both to climax in a wave that started slowly and built in pleasure before cresting in groans and urgent thrusts, in a union the thought of which made Sirius's throat ache.

This morning as they moved together, eyes still closed, Sirius felt the blunt tip of Snape's cock press against his arsehole, and Snape shifted quickly, as if indicating that that wasn't what he'd meant. Sirius, however, squirmed, seeking the pressure, and he murmured, "Do you want to...?" He felt Snape's breath at his neck, the quick intake, the sudden tightness. He pressed against the other man harder, felt Snape's hand grip his shoulder. "I—don't know. I—"

"Didn't your book cover this?" Sirius teased, reaching over to the bedside table for the lube they'd taken to keeping there for finger play.

"Of course, but..." Snape slicked three fingers.

It was unfamiliar and awkward and perfect.

Not, Sirius reflected one Monday evening after Snape had left, the jubilant, energetic coupling of his youth. It was a deeper joy. Sex was now one lovely facet of a relationship, not its central jewel.


----- ∞ -----


Early in the summer they went to Spain. Sirius insisted, and Snape said he didn't want to go anywhere, and why bother, and long train rides, but Sirius had arranged for the shopkeeper, Mrs. Mayberry, to take care of Emmy and water Snape's plants, helped Snape buy a bathing suit, and bought a Spanish phrase book and train tickets. Sirius had gone with him, rather than Disapparating, and they were side by side on the long journey from London to the Costa del Sol.

Where, on their first day, Snape suffered acute, paralyzing sunburn.

Sirius rang George urgently. "About the Trace–you said I can't do magic with him. What does that mean? That I can't do magic when he's around or I can't do magic working together with him or I can't do magic on him or use him in the process somehow or what?"

"Not a clue, mate. I thought you were in Spain. I mean, I see what you mean, but I don't know what the Ministry mean. Let me get on to Angelina before you land Snape back in Azkaban."

Angelina, concluding that the Disciplinary Document was hopelessly ambiguous, removed the Trace for the weekend.

Sirius rang Hermione. "Sirius? I thought you were in Spain."

"Can people get swollen up from sunburn, Hermione?"

"Oh, yes. Edema can be caused by bad sunburn. Fluid retention, usually in the feet and legs."

"Do they ever—um—burst?"

"Not a chance. Think of pregnancy. But you never burn like that, Sirius."

"Not me. My friend. Pale skin, never been to the sea before, burnt to a bloody crisp."

"Oh, dear. You weren't paying attention, were you? Elevate her feet, cool compresses or baths, aspirin, force fluids, slather her gently with aloe vera several times a day. Healing spells, of course."

"We could do with a little foolish wand-waving."

"Dear God, don't mention that speech. It scarred me for life. Abrogo dolor would help with the pain. Redintegro tergum or redintegro iniuria for the actual healing."

"You're breaking up. What's hello vera?"

"A-l-o-e vera. Ask the hotel to send someone for it. You'll never find it wandering through the market district with a Spanish phrase book in one hand and a guide book in the other."

"That's what he—they—said."

"You aren't really going to take that, are you? You look like you might sell me a pretzel from a cart."

"It's a beach umbrella and we're going to the beach. Once burned, twice shy."

"I would think having every inch of your body covered with clothing would be protection enough."

"Your essential nudity will compensate."

"I'm wearing shorts. I want to go in the water."

"Shorts, indeed." Snape rolled his eyes. "Where do you keep your wand?"

Sirius ran across the sand towards the ebbing waves and screamed.

Snape darted to him, glanced at the sand, and moaned. "Sirius, your wand. Pull your wand and sit down."

He thrust the pole into the sand so the umbrella would screen them from the Muggle tourists further down the beach.

Sirius, sobbing with pain, wavered on his left leg, trying to look at the sole of his right foot which he held in both hands.

"Your wand, Sirius, quickly. Don't be daft. Sit down."

"I don't—I can't—oh, God, Severus, it hurts—"

"Jellyfish," said Snape, standing four feet back from him. "We don't have much time. Pull your wand and sit down."

"But the Trace—" Sirius hopped on the hot sand, clasping his foot, tears of agony running down his face.

"I'll tell you the spells, but hurry!"

"Azkaban—"

"Shut up and do as I say! I'm over here. Don't be moronic, and where is your wand?"

Sirius let go of his foot with one hand and pulled his wand from the back of his shorts, swaying on his uninjured leg and whimpering. He tried to point the wand at the sole of his foot and fell over onto the sand.

"Sit up," snapped Snape. "Put your bad foot on your good knee. Now cast Abrogo Spiculum."

"Never heard of it," moaned Sirius who sat up and dropped his wand in the sand.

"You don't need to know it!" Snape hissed. His hands twisted together, fighting the need to seize the wand and cast the spells himself. "I know it! Abrogo Spiculum right now, you cretinous imbecile!"

"Abrogo Spiculum," muttered Sirius, managing to get his wand waved in the direction of his foot. He looked up at Snape, astonished at his sudden release from the sharpest pain.

"Abrogo Venenum," cried Snape. "Quickly, dammit! The poison is still spreading."

Sirius cast again. The rest of the pain vanished. He gulped with relief.

So did Snape. "Renovo Inuria," he said, and Sirius cast.

"The phrase 'death in minutes' is not usually one of my favourites," said Snape.

It was quiet except for the waves. Sirius lay on the sand under the umbrella. Then something was happening. He opened his eyes to see Snape, bare-chested, bandaging his foot in strips torn from his own long-sleeved shirt.

"You have to walk back to the hotel," Snape said. Did he sound apologetic, Sirius wondered through the haze of spent intensity. "You can't wear my shoes; they're too narrow. You can't cast Mobilicorpus and float where you point your wand; people might notice."

"Why don't we stay here?" murmured Sirius. "It's peaceful."

"There are things I need to do to your foot with vinegar and tweezers," said Snape.

"So romantic."

"And the aloe vera."

"Ah," sighed Sirius, letting Snape help him to his feet, one bare, the other heavily wrapped in strips of shirt. "Don't forget your jacket. Jacket-over-bare-chest is the latest thing."

They ate some questionable shellfish, the heat was oppressive, and Sirius lost his wallet briefly to a pickpocket. And each was unaccustomed to being with anyone else for more than a day or so. Sirius had imagined a week of long strolls on the Mediterranean coast, afternoons at cafés, colorful markets. Glorious sunsets, sea breezes—cramps, sunburn, and noise. Mostly great food, fascinating architecture, lovely light, the jellyfish incident, and beating sun.

When they got back to the flat in London, amazed at how quiet and cool it felt, each had a bath, and then they sat in dressing gowns in the living room, drinking cognac.

"That," said Sirius, "was a less than successful week."

Snape looked at him in surprise. "I enjoyed it," he said. "It was…companionable."

"You said I was a cretinous imbecile."

"Doubtless a slip of the tongue."

"Doubtless. Which did you like better, the flamenco or the paella?"

"I thought the only Spanish you learned was ensaladas,sopas, pescados, mariscos, and carne."

"I also learned flan. Flan was essential. All you learned was une habitacion por la noche and la llave."

"The key was also essential."

"Thanks to George and Angelina, we didn't need the Spanish for 'Fetch a Healer at once! My friend is swelling up like a glotón!' "

"A glutton? Perhaps you mean globo?"

"Full of hot air."

"Nor the Spanish for 'Fetch a Healer at once! My friend has only five seconds to live!' "

"I didn't step on that kind of jellyfish."

"You might have done."

"But really—the flamenco or the food?"

"How could one choose? The motor-bike, however…"

"Without the motor-bike, we'd never have seen the castle and the Roman theater and the white villages."

"I don't fear death but do dislike the notion of being maimed. What's the Spanish for 'I demand to speak to the British consul. My friend has contracted vehicular lunacy'?" They sipped cognac in friendly silence.

Then Sirius said, "I quite liked your outfit when we went back to the beach. I hadn't known there was a Slytherin beach umbrella."

"It was a green umbrella, and it was a beach."

"Also the long trousers, long sleeves, the hat, and the sunglasses. Courageous, foregoing the gloves."

"I kept my hands in my pockets. The point was to walk on the beach. We walked on the beach."

"Did you like it?"

"Of course. And your fetching lack of clothing made up for what you seemed to regard as excess on my part." After a moment Snape added, "The aloe vera was also very nice."

"Lying in bed in agony being slathered was nice?" Sirius swirled the contents of his glass. "I suspect you were healed by the second day. Though still being slathered."

"Better safe than sorry."

"Quite right. Do we have any left?"

It had, Sirius realised, been a good week.


----- ∞ -----

After Spain he made his move. University didn't start until late September. However, the helpful Dean had pointed out that, while papers could be forged, knowledge could not. Snape needed to learn all the maths and lab sciences studied in Muggle secondary school, and the Dean suggested that he enroll in the summer remedial intensive program. R.I.P.—the students said it stood for "Rest in Pieces."

The pre-life science program covered biology, chemistry, and physics (with intensive labs) during the day and, in the evening, algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Since Snape had studied Defense Against the Dark Arts, Charms, and Transfiguration instead, the Dean felt his preparation was, to say the least, weak. He needed to be in the program.

And Snape's job began in early September, so Sirius needed to talk to him about that, too, because he'd already put in Snape's forged application for part-time work and didn't want him blindsided when his workday and income were cut in half.

“Um...” he said.

Snape looked at him, got up, and turned off the Sabicas' Gypsy Flamenco.

“Yes?”

“I want to talk to you about something,” he said.

“I gathered as much.”

“I think you should go back to school.”

“Sorry?”

"You're wasting your life mopping floors. If you can't do magical research, do Muggle research." Sirius was afraid to stop talking. "Go to university and study botany or biochemistry or whatever. You're a scholar, not a caretaker."

“No.”

“Why not? I can't think of a single good reason for you not—”

“And I,” Snape interrupted, “can think of half a dozen. It's out of the question.”

“It's not, really," said Sirius, "and there's this great Dean at the University of Manchester who helped us forge all your papers, and your summer remedial program starts—”

Snape's narrowed eyes froze the words in Sirius's mouth. "It's so comforting to know that one is in good hands, that one need make no decisions because it will all be taken care of without one's consent or considering one's commitments or desires," he drawled. "Outside one's purview, better hands pull the strings and the puppet dances to a better tune. I must write a letter of thanks to the committee that worked so diligently to rearrange my life. But likely the committee has already written to congratulate itself."

“So what?” Sirius shouted, losing his temper. “So what about who did what? You're going to spend the rest of your life pretending to be Filch being abused by a bunch of arrogant teenagers? You're better than that, you deserve better than that, and, whilst the wizarding world may be morons when it comes to recognising it, you've got solid gold to offer the Muggle world instead."

Sirius dropped to his knees before Snape and took both his hands in his own. "You're a fucking scientist, Severus. It's your duty! Think of the lives you'll save. You're a scientist unifying Muggle and wizarding science, a man with too much the world needs to waste his time feeding the fucking boilers!”

Snape stared at him for a long time and then spoke slowly. “I'm the only one at school who can program the thermostats,” he said.

“Well, you'll just have to train a replacement, won't you?”

“I suppose. Do you really feel that way? About...me?"

"Lives to be saved—of course I feel that way. You're too good to waste."

"You're biased."

"I'm adamant. I intend to be impossible. You know you'd love to."

"Oh, very well. I'll sign up. Do I apply online?”

"Er, you already have,” said Sirius, “and your summer remedial classes start Monday. Nine to nine.” He put his hands over his ears, not wanting to hear Snape's outrage.

Maths made Snape cranky all summer—though Sirius hardly saw him that summer since R.I.P. met six days a week—and throughout the autumn. Due to the summer's intensive, he was able to keep up with the first year lectures and labs. A lab, he realised, is a lab, measuring and mixing and heating and waiting, with or without a wand, a home. But the maths were a difficulty.

They never had gone out much, preferring to be together at Sirius's flat, but at least they'd been doing the same thing. Now, while Sirius listened to music or read, Snape had a maths book on his lap. Calculus, which would be followed by statistics.

Sirius bought him a state-of-the-art graphing calculator from Texas Instruments and a Bose headset for himself. He thought about his own work and began reading about prisons. Not theory and history this time, but literature: "In the Penal Colony," In Cold Blood, Executioner's Song, Little Dorrit, The Gulag Archipelago, Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number. After Prisoner, Padfoot lay in front of the fire for several hours without moving. Did prisons do anything but damage?

Then Sirius sought comfort from Billie Holiday: A fine romance, with no kisses. A fine romance, my friend, this is…

“What happened to us?” groaned Snape one day. “Newton was a more than competent wizard and one of the best mathematicians in history. How did we lose that?”

“What do you mean?”

“At one point, Sirius, witches and wizards were the scientists, the mathematicians, the healers. After the 1692 Statute of Wizarding Secrecy we seem to have lost track of the mathematical rigour needed for science. We don't need it for magic, but magic could be so much more powerful if we'd kept that discipline.”

“But the work you're doing, the classification? That's both together, right?”

“Yes, but it's just a beginning,” said Snape. “There's so much to do that it doesn't scratch the surface.”

“At least you're aware of it and starting the integration,” said Sirius.

“No pun intended?” Snape sighed. “Maybe. If I can figure out bloody calculus.”


----- ∞ -----

Late one Friday evening Snape opened the Daily Prophet, but Sirius took it and sat down next to him, their knees touching. "I'm listening," Snape said.

"Harry and Ginny are having a baby."

He'd expected Snape to be pleased, but his reaction was completely unexpected.

Tears ran down his face. He stood and tried to leave the room, but Sirius held him, and, to his surprise, started to cry, too. James's grandchild. Lily's grandchild. They sat on the sofa for a long time, holding hands.

In two years rather than the usual three, Snape took a First in Biochemistry. Night classes, summer programs, credit by examination. Sirius had hardly seen him except when he was studying—lab reports, problem sets—or asleep, but he went to the ceremonies and beamed as Snape was given his Bachelor of Science hood. George tapped him on the shoulder.

"You came."

"Couldn't miss it."

"Would you look at him?" Sirius said. "I'm dead chuffed."

"So I see. Crikey! He does look great.”

"Takes me back," said Sirius. "No one looks as regal in robes as Snape. It's the nose. I keep expecting him to hex me halfway across the quad."

"Two months' detention for me," said George. "God, it makes me miss Fred."

Sirius put a hand on the younger man's shoulder. “We always will." There was a silence. Then Sirius said, "Snape's decided to go on.”

“On where?”

"He's round the bend with science and studying. Can't get him out of the lab. He wants a doctorate.”

“Isn't that like a healer?”

“That's what I thought, too. Turns out to mean bloody obsessed with one discipline.” He sighed. “You get to do research. You get a lab and funding and graduate students." After a moment he brightened. "The good news is that he's quit that foul mopping job.”

“Oh?” asked George. “How's he paying his tuition, then? You helping?”

“Not a hope. He won't take a thing from me. But the University think he's so clever it's paying him.”

----- ∞ -----

They went to Ireland that summer, taking the ferry over. They'd talked about Scotland, but, even though Snape hadn't said it, they would have been too close to Hogwarts, the place that Snape missed in a way he would never express.

But Ireland they could do, and, unlike Spain, it was cool and misty and green. They rented a rundown cottage near the beach and spent hours walking and sitting by, listening to, and looking at the ocean. Sirius rented another motorbike and again persuaded Snape to ride with him. They found another cottage by the sea, in better shape than the one they were renting, with a little land around it, far from everything, and Sirius bought it. Despite Snape's strenuous protests, he put it in both their names, and they spent afternoons finding furnishings. Unlike his flat or Snape's house, it was theirs. Every chair, throw rug, flowerpot, and teacup chosen by both of them.

They moved into it the last week they were there, and it was better than Sirius could have hoped. The first night they made love in a bed that was theirs, which they'd picked out together, in a place they both held dear.

He delighted in the white walls and the red roof and the gigantic fireplace that kept the whole place cozy.

He was less fond of the stone floors. He'd gotten down on his knees after showering, unable to resist burying his nose in Snape's damp pubic hair, smiling as Snape's cock nudged him under the chin as it swelled and listening to Snape's moan, low at first, then louder as Sirius took him into his mouth, and the moan became keening, and Snape grabbed the sink to keep from falling, and Sirius seized a buttock to keep him close, and sucked and licked and rolled his balls in his hand until Snape's moans became frantic and he came and Sirius swallowed.

He loved having Snape come in his mouth. He never got over how tender it made him feel, how powerful and intimate that he, with his lips and mouth and tongue, could reduce Snape, so self-controlled, to trembling, quivering and collapsing in his arms, letting himself be led to bed. He was moved that often Snape's eyes were wet afterwards.

However, his knees didn't like the cold stone floors. Getting old, he thought. He could fold up a towel to kneel on.

Leaving Snape reading Solanaceae: The Family of Nightshade in a sheltered corner in the sun, Sirius made arrangements with a neighbouring farmer to take care of the cottage while they were away and also, as a pleasure for Snape, to put in and care for a small garden.

"Roses," he said, "and plants that bloom in the summer and smell good. Lavender, gardenias, jasmine, mock orange—that sort of thing. And some herbs."

He walked back to the cottage. The sun was setting, and as he got closer he sped up. He was going home, home to his lover. He was surprised at how happy that thought made him.

University started for Snape immediately after they got back. He had a job as a research assistant in the biochemistry lab. Sirius listened to Snape talk about his research, his classes. It was largely incomprehensible to him, but he was proud of what Snape was doing, impressed with his knowledge, and pleased to have initiated it.

Graduate school was even more demanding than undergraduate had been. The course work was more challenging, the job took both time and intelligence, and Snape was also learning French.

Their Monday evenings had been suspended since Snape had first started school. It made the week much longer for Sirius, left him somewhat at loose ends. Fridays Sirius went to Snape's, often to end up watching him work. He read a lot. After breakfast Snape went to the lab, and Sirius tagged along, feeling superfluous and carrying his book.

Snape was absorbed. He was fascinated with Muggle science and told Sirius he could already see how it would help with potion-making, how he'd be able to extend his lab work to what he knew about potions and magic.

“How can you do magical research in your lab?” Sirius asked.

“Oh, I don't. That's all pure Muggle stuff. The magical research I do at home.”

Sirius wondered when Snape slept.

Sirius had hoped they'd be able to take some time off around Christmas, but Snape was busy. He had some experiments running that he needed to supervise, and his main professor had given him not only run of the lab, but also the responsibility for helping some other students. Sirius felt he hid his resentment, but it rankled. New Year's Eve they ended up spending in the lab because the experiment was at a point Snape couldn't leave. Sirius never felt comfortable in the chilly lab and missed his warm flat with its fireplace and excellent sound system.

While New Year's had been disappointing, Christmas had been wonderful. He spent most of it with Harry and his family. He wished Snape could see the baby, James Sirius Potter, who looked, Sirius claimed, exactly like James and Harry. Snape had looked at the photos intently and listened to Sirius talk about the baby, what he was doing, how he would hold on—so hard!—to Sirius's fingers, how he wailed—good lungs!—and Sirius could already tell his reflexes would be lightning fast—future Gryffindor seeker, I tell you!

He bought a digital camera and took photos of James to mail to Snape. He took photos of everything. Harry and the rest of them were, Sirius knew, amused by his adopting Muggle technology, though Hermione carried a mobile phone.

Sirius made sure to see James once a week. He was always there for Sunday dinner and would hold the baby as he napped.

One of Hermione's colleagues, a St. Mungo's matron named Rachel, was often there. She was about forty, with blond hair and wide blue eyes, and she always seemed to be smiling. One week she invited Sirius to dinner the following Wednesday. He had some doubts, but he went. After all, he wasn't seeing Snape that day, and Snape had cancelled on him the previous Friday, and it was nice to have someone to spend time with, and it wasn't as if it would go anywhere...

As winter turned to spring, Snape got busier. He missed some weeks altogether. He seemed distant, always thinking about something else. Sirius tried to persuade him to take a few days off around Easter, but Snape said he couldn't. No time, he said.

Rachel invited Sirius to spend Easter with her at her house in Godric's Hollow. He went, since Snape was busy, and her spare bedroom was a nightmare of ruffles and silk flowers. The weather, on the other hand, was beautiful. They took long walks, had dinner at the Whistling Wand, and spent a pleasant evening listening to the wizarding wireless. Rachel knitted a great deal of the time, and she kept a small flock of sheep and goats for their wool, which she dyed and spun. She talked a lot, much more than Snape did, and, while sometimes her chatter bothered Sirius, mostly he enjoyed it, to his surprise. She was easy to be around.

He found himself spending more time with her as Snape vanished almost entirely into his lab. Even his e-mails had become brisk and to the point. Sirius knew that he should confront Snape, tell him how hard his absence was on him, but he felt he didn't have the right. After all, he was the one who'd told Snape to go back to school. This was what Snape wanted, and he was enjoying considerable success in his new endeavours.

That June Snape missed going to the cemetery in Godric's Hollow. He was presenting a paper at a conference, he told Sirius, and he'd go the following weekend. Rachel went with Sirius. As he had years before with Snape, he sat with her on the small stone wall. Then they walked back to her house. She had dinner ready for him, and after eating they brought in the sheep and goats, then went for a walk through the village. In the dusk, she slipped her hand into his.

He was shocked at his own reaction. He was gay, always had been, and yet…it felt nice. She was pleasant, and she didn't have anyone, either. Her husband had been killed at the beginning of the War, and they'd never had any children, her main regret, she'd said. She loved children. She was Matron on the paediatric ward at St. Mungo's.

And here he was, his lover half a country away presenting a paper at a conference on Muggle science, but with a pleasant witch walking next to him. He squeezed her hand, and she looked up at him, her blond curls shiny in the light from a nearby window. They walked to her house in silence.

Snape took a Master's that spring. Sirius watched him receive his degree and special departmental recognition for post-graduate research. Snape looked tired, Sirius noted, though that was to be expected after the work he'd done. He hoped Snape would lay off a bit, make some time for the two of them. He needed it. He was confused.

Rachel offered him a different life. With magic and other wizards, in the open. Harry and Ginny and the rest knew and liked her, and she fit in at their gatherings. She wanted a baby, and he was shocked at how the thought of having a child of his own thrilled him. She was open and infectiously enthusiastic. Sirius hadn't felt like that in a long time.

Snape...he didn't know how Snape felt about him. He didn't know if Snape missed him, missed their time together. When they went to dinner after the degree ceremonies, Sirius realised that they hadn't spent an evening together in over a month. Still, they'd be leaving for Ireland in two weeks, and he looked forward to this weekend, which he hoped they'd spend together.

“You're coming back to London with me, right?” he asked.

Snape looked at him quickly, and Sirius saw the guilt in his face. “Oh, Sirius, no, I'm sorry. I'm going to Paris tomorrow. We collaborate with a lab there, and I'm going to work for these two weeks with a visiting professor to get a head start on my doctoral research. Unless you'd like to come with me?”

He could hear the hope in Snape's voice, but he refused. “Sorry,” he said. “It would have been good, but I told Harry and Ginny I'd babysit for James for a few days so they can get away. Then Harry's birthday party is the next weekend.”

Snape's face didn't show any disappointment. “Oh. I'm sorry. I'll see you when I get back, then? For Ireland?”

He spent the night at Snape's house despite Emmy's obvious displeasure. He hoped they'd make love, but Snape fell asleep right away. Sirius lay awake, confused and hurt, listening to the breathing of the man next to him and wondering what was happening. He didn't fall asleep until late, and, when he woke, Snape was ready to leave for his early train.

Rachel helped him with James that week, and they had a good time, taking him for walks and enjoying his babyhood. He e-mailed Snape, but got only brief replies. He was busy and working hard, Snape said.

Rachel came back from putting James to bed, and Sirius closed his computer.

At Harry's 25th birthday party a week later they announced their engagement.

He hadn't told Snape. They were to leave for Ireland the following week, and he knew he had tell him before that, but somehow he hadn't gotten around to it. He explained to Rachel, who'd asked to come with him, that this holiday with "a friend" was long planned.

He needed to tell Snape. He didn't want to hurt him. He just wanted a chance at an ordinary life, and with Rachel he could have it. But he owed Snape an explanation. As they sat after dinner a few nights before they were to leave, Sirius took a deep breath.

“There is something I need to tell you,” he said. Snape looked up at him, his dark eyes almost hidden behind his hair. He needed a haircut, Sirius noted.

“I'm listening,” he said with a smile. When he'd shown up a few hours earlier, he'd been tired and wilted from his trip, and he'd relaxed visibly over the past few hours.

“I've met someone,” Sirius said. It wouldn't help to dance around it. “Rachel. I told you about her a while back. We...we get along well. She seems to like me, and, well…I do care about her..." His voice trailed off. Snape waited for him to go on. “We've been spending a lot of time together, and I think she and I may have a shot at marriage...”

Snape's silence unnerved him.

"The thing is, Severus, we could be open. We could have kids. I'd like to have children. I didn't realise how much, and she does, too—"

He watched as Snape traced a series of parallel lines on his trousers.

“I know this may seem a bit sudden, but things haven't been going well between the two of us, and Rachel…we decided to move in together and maybe get married in a few months. Just engaged now, though.” He laughed nervously.

Snape nodded. "Then all that's left for me is to congratulate you," he said.

He stood. Sirius did, too, and Snape held out his hand. "Congratulations, Black. I wish you and...Rachel happiness."

Sirius took the hand, sensing the finality of the gesture. Why had he not expected this? "But we're still friends?"

"I'm sorry. I don't think I can do that."

"But—" He tried to keep the panic out of his voice.

"I'm sorry, Black. I can't."

At the door, he turned. "I've left some things here. May I ask that you post them to me?"

Sirius nodded, then found his voice. "You don't want to go to Ireland?" he asked, wondering why he'd thought Snape would.

His back to Sirius, Snape shook his head and left.

“Are you out of your mind?” George's voice was cold and angry.

“What are you talking about?”

“You and Rachel. You don't love her, and she's okay, but she really doesn't love you. You're not thinking.”

“I'm fond of her.”

“Fond of her doesn't mean you want to spend the rest of your life with her. What about Snape?”

“What about him?”

“Sirius, what are you doing? You have a friend, a lover, a good life—why are you throwing it all away for—what? Rachel? A baby? Are you sure you even want a baby?”

“George, listen—”

“No, you listen. You're fucking this up. Tell me you don't care about Snape, tell me right now and be honest about it, and I'll never say 'I told you so.' Just get out of this ridiculous engagement before it's too late. Sirius, you're gay, for God's sake.”

“I do care about Snape, but he's got a new life, and apparently it doesn't involve me. So fuck that, and I'm going to get married and maybe have a kid and a chance at a normal life, in the open, not hiding...”

“Well, maybe if you worked to get Snape pardoned, you could have that life. But this—you're moving into a closet worse than you've ever imagined.”

Sirius didn't want to think about that closet. “You don't think I've tried? Easier to tell a Snitch to stay put. He won't let me do a damn thing, but that's his fucking choice. And let's be honest—do you really think Harry and the rest of them would welcome Snape back into the fold?”

“Harry knows who we owe victory—”

“Right, and we're all very grateful to Snape, blah blah blah, but you know what? Nobody wants to fucking see him every day. Nobody wants to be his friend. He knows that, he's made his peace with it, he's got his own life, he's becoming a scientist, and it's not about me. So sod off!”

“Look, I just think you're making a mistake is all. Who cares if Harry wants to see Snape every day? You want to see Snape every day.”

“My problem, not yours, all right?” he replied, his voice rough.

They were civil to each other at The Burrow. Sirius missed the camaraderie they'd shared.

----- ∞ -----

No date had been set for the wedding. Sirius moved into Rachel's tiny house in Godric's Hollow. He hated living there, but it would have to do for the time being. Rachel had many ties to Godric's Hollow, her house, her aunt and uncle nearby, and of course her sheep and goats. He hadn't realised until he moved in with her that the yarn she spun was much in demand. He couldn't move the flock to London, though he entertained the thought for a moment. It was odd, now, living in a wizarding community. Over the years, Sirius had grown comfortable in his Muggle neighbourhood and found the closeness of Godric's Hollow restrictive.

When they ate at the Whistling Wand, he'd approach the pub food, hearty and bland, without enthusiasm and think about the Indian restaurant near his flat that had wonderful Palak Paneer and chicken Tikka Masala take-away. He and Snape had eaten there often. And there was the great dim sum place where they'd eaten on Saturday mornings. Glaring at his steak and kidney pie, Sirius felt his mouth water at the thought of pork shu mai and salt and pepper prawns.

The sex wasn't something he relished, but he got through it. Rachel didn't want to get pregnant before the wedding, which was fine with Sirius. That way they didn't have to have sex too often. He didn't like to admit to himself that a wank in the shower was more satisfying than sex with Rachel. She was sweet, and he really did care about her and wanted it to work, but sometimes he wondered.

Yet there were good things. He'd given up really good sex and good food and quiet friendship and deep intelligence for someone who was much more social, much more integrated into the wizarding world. Over the years with Snape he'd found himself doing less and less magic, and now, living in Godric's Hollow with Rachel, he was using it all the time: to clean the dishes, mop up small spills, shave, make the bed. Not exactly Expecto Patronum, but still.

He left his computer at the flat in Kensington and spent several afternoons a week there to check his e-mail and be by himself, listening to Chopin and Dire Straits, while Rachel was at work. He didn't need to sell the flat. He had enough money to keep it, and it gave him a place to go when he needed to be alone. He sent Snape mail and but got no response. He tried texting him, but his text messages were blocked, and shortly after that the mobile contract lapsed.

Sirius's work at Azkaban reached a milestone. For the first time an unannounced inspection showed full compliance with the guidelines he'd insisted on. Prisoners were treated with dignity and respect and could expect clean cells, beds, and clothes, decent food, regular baths, and no abuse. The progress had been slow, but it was secure, and he was profoundly satisfied. He tried to talk to Rachel about it, but she hated talking about Azkaban, so he dropped it. He could understand that. Like many witches and wizards, she had a horror of the prison, which was why, he figured, the situation had gotten so terribly bad there. The staff had been law unto themselves with little or no oversight, and, as for the Dementors, the oversight was more scared of them than they were of the oversight.

Early in the summer he and Rachel took a holiday together. She knew he had a cottage in Ireland, and Sirius had been reluctant to take her there. But Ireland wasn't what she wanted. Spain, she said. Some place sunny. They went to the Costa del Sol, the same place he and Snape had gone. Rachel had a wonderful time. Sirius hated it more than he had during his prior visit. Too loud, too hot, too bright. And Rachel liked to go dancing, which made everything worse. Night clubs were not for him. There was no realisation on his return that time spent together, close, was time better than spent apart. He wondered at that, poked at it, but couldn't come to a conclusion. It wasn't the quiet companionship he'd so cherished with Snape, but it was agreeable, and, except for things like the food and the occasional loud, hot holiday, it was an easy relationship. He was probably getting too old for sex much, anyway. And he liked being able to go places in the wizarding world with a companion.

They got an owl from Harry one morning and hurried to London to see Ginny and her new son. Harry was nearby, beaming with pride. Sirius snapped a photo and leaned over to study the new baby.

"What's his name?" he asked.

Harry said, "Promise you won't be upset?"

"Why would I be upset?"

"Albus...Albus Severus Potter," said Harry. "I know Snape was a snarky sod, but we couldn't have won the War without him, I owe him a life debt, and he loved my mum—"

Sirius cut him off. "I think it's a wonderful name, Harry, and he's beautiful."

"He's got my mum's eyes," said Harry. "I think it's fitting, you know?"

Sirius nodded. "I agree," he said, against the lump in his throat.

Rose Weasley was born two months later, and Rachel was busy, knitting pink things, buying stuffed animals, thrilled with the little girl. Sirius spent one golden afternoon at the Burrow holding both Al and Rosie, one on each shoulder, as they fell asleep. He loved their heavy warmth, the milk sweet smell of baby, their regular breathing, and Rachel talked to Hermione about a potion that would help her get pregnant.

Shortly after that, Rachel told Sirius she wanted to try for a baby. "Finally" was his first thought. The second, overwhelming in its intensity, was "No!"

Rachel talked, making plans, which room they'd use as the nursery. Sirius responded minimally, getting more and more panicked. He didn't want this, he didn't want this after all. And the wedding—she didn't want a large wedding, it being her second, but a ceremony in her garden, next month probably, the weather should be good, and they'd have to invite—more plans. His head spun.

He wanted his life back. Being able to come and go, to eat something interesting, to see Snape, to have sex that made his senses sing. He was, he reminded himself, gay. And a person with habits, tastes and desires. He wanted Snape's restful presence, his humour, his wisdom, his passion and his joy in bed.

A year, and he wasn't sure why he'd done it, what he'd been thinking. He didn't want a baby, didn't want a wife, either. He didn't want a family. He wanted Snape.

James and Al and Rosie—he adored them, but he could hand them back to their parents. He didn't want to raise them. Whatever had made him think he did?

Late that night, listening to Rachel's calm breathing next to him, he faced the fact that he didn't love her. He never had. He had been going to use her, and, worse, he had betrayed Snape, the promises he'd made to him. He cringed with shame.

He lay awake all night, knowing he had to put an end to this charade.

There were some tears, and she admitted that she wasn't sure she'd wanted children, either, but had thought he did. She tried to persuade him to stay with her, but he wanted to go, needed to go. He packed his things that afternoon and left the too-hot, overly decorated house with its overstuffed sofas, its shelves clustered with knickknacks, its wireless turned only to wizarding stations, and its kitchen in which the most daring spice was nutmeg.

He left behind the wizarding world. He'd be living between two worlds, joining Snape. If Snape would have him back.

That evening he rang Hermione and got the strong impression that Rachel wouldn't be pining for him. She'd enjoyed having a handsome, strong man around, but, ultimately, she'd be fine and was planning to adopt a cat. He shuddered, thinking of Emmy. Sex with Rachel hadn't been so good that he'd have been willing to risk being scratched to hell and back for it.

----- ∞ -----

A year since he'd seen Snape, a year since he'd heard from him. He'd been living in Godric's Hollow and had gone to the cemetery after the day Snape would have been there and seen the flowers he'd left. But he hadn't seen Snape, hadn't wanted to.

Now he did, though, and wondered how. He wanted to apologise for doing exactly what Snape had feared, getting so close and then walking away. Their parting overflowed with pain that Snape would never express, that he, Sirius, had caused. He'd acted like a child because Snape had made a place for himself as Muggle scientist and didn't need Sirius quite as much.

It was as if he'd tamed an animal and, when at last it trusted him, he'd kicked it and abandoned it. He blushed with the shame of his rotten behaviour.

He had thought he'd be able to have them both, Rachel and Snape, or at least Rachel in the nursery and Snape as his friend, hadn't thought that becoming lovers with Snape had changed the nature of their relationship. Actually, Rachel as a friend and Snape as a lover would have been better. Though, of course, Snape was his friend, had been his friend, his closest friend. He'd thought he wanted a child, a wife, and had ignored most of the basic facts about himself in pursuit of them. God, what a fool.

He was walking in London that day, thinking about Snape, when an idea occurred to him. He grinned to himself. And he had money. He could hire help.

He'd looked them up years ago when he first saw the bouquet Snape had made for Lily, not lilies, but rosemary, violets, lavender, and a purple hyacinth, for remembrance, faithfulness, devotion, and "I'm sorry; please forgive me."

He was going to inundate Snape with purple hyacinths.

He sat down in an Internet café, not able to wait until he got home. He'd start with a dozen delivered in pots every day for a week. He found a florist. The woman he talked with was helpful. He rang the shopkeeper near Snape's house, who was quite cold to him when she realised who he was, but became more friendly when he told her his plan. She said, with a lack of professional discretion Sirius appreciated, that Snape had looked bad for some months, that she could tell that he was sad and probably lonely, and how happy he'd been when they'd gotten back from Ireland a year ago.

How had he not realised that Snape was happy to be spending time with him? However had he survived the War and Azkaban if he couldn't recognise the most obvious facts? "Cretinous imbecile" didn't begin to describe it.

She agreed to help him with his plan. He'd have the hyacinths delivered to her to pass on.

Nothing like plans, he grinned. Now it was hyacinths for Snape.

Now it was begging for forgiveness.

He talked to George, the only person who knew about Snape and him. George rolled his eyes, but there was no way he was not going to help.

He rang the garden shop Snape dealt with. Snape was to drop off some orchids on Saturday. He'd be given an orchid to nurse. And a purple hyacinth. No explanation.

The florist had promised to start delivering to Snape's house on Sunday. Twelve hyacinths every day until Sirius told them to stop. The shopkeeper had told Sirius that Snape shopped after work on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and she'd hand him, with no explanation, a potted hyacinth each time.

That Friday while Snape was at work Sirius and George would go to his house, dig flower beds in every possible spot, and plant hyacinths. He'd arranged for three hundred of them to be delivered in the morning after Snape had gone to work.

In the next days he got calls, texts, and e-mails from his various lieutenants, announcing success. Snape had seemed bewildered at first, but now seemed to accept that hyacinths continued to appear.

Which they did. Wearing the Invisibility Cloak, he left them in Snape's small office at the University, in the lab, even next to him on the evening bus. The bus was crowded, and several people seemed baffled by the empty space they couldn't move into because Sirius was invisibly in it.

Friday morning when Snape got to work each professor's, staff member's, and graduate student's desk had a purple hyacinth on it along with a box of a half-dozen chocolates (sugar-free ones for the head secretary who was diabetic). Everyone in the department was in a buoyant mood all day.

While Snape performed some intricate experiment or other at the lab, Sirius was at his house, awaiting delivery of three hundred hyacinths. When George got there with coffee, the plants were ready, and Sirius was starting to dig clumsy holes with a spade.

"Use a digging charm," said George.

"Can't. The Trace."

George raised an eyebrow. "I figured. Angelina removed the Trace again this morning. She'll have to put it back tonight, but nobody should notice today, and she'll claim she made a mistake if they do. It'll be fine. And make our day easier," he added, reaching for his wand.

Magic hurried the planting, and the results were stunning. George Disapparated to London. Before he left, Sirius put out his hand.

“You were right. I was wrong,” he said.

George shook his hand, then playfully slugged Sirius in the shoulder. “I told you so,” he said. “Good luck.”

Sirius put on the Invisibility Cloak when he heard Snape arrive in the late afternoon and moved towards the back of the small garden.

Snape stopped at the back door, staring. Taking advantage of the lifted Trace, Sirius had magically repaired and cleaned the greenhouse, and the glass was gleaming. Around the plot of grass and in front of the foundation plantings, every inch of turned earth now burst with purple hyacinths. Their scent was heady and clean.

Snape knelt down. He touched one of the flowers, the purple petals, running his finger along the dark green leaves. Sirius felt his throat constrict. Snape smiled, and Emmy padded out into the garden and made straight for Sirius.

Snape stood and watched as the cat, more fierce than ever, edged up to Sirius and swiped at his ankle, totally unfazed by the cloak. He yelped, and Snape started to laugh.

"Are you spending the evening out here being mauled?"

Sirius took off the cloak and followed Snape into the kitchen. "I hadn't planned on seeing you," he said. "I thought I'd arrive tomorrow morning."

"With a dozen hyacinths?"

Sirius couldn't help laughing. There were at least thirty in the kitchen, sitting on every surface, in pots and vases, and he figured there were probably another fifty in the rest of the house if things had gone as planned.

"Actually, I was going to come with scones for breakfast," he said.

"Will you settle for pasta for dinner?"

"Puttanesca?"

"If you like."

"Oh, yes, please, Severus. With extra anchovies?"

"If you like."

He heard the distance in Snape's voice. He gathered himself.

"I want you," he said, his voice very soft.

Snape closed his eyes for a moment. "I can't."

Sirius felt his stomach turn over. He nodded. "I understand," he said. "I'm sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am, how badly I fucked up."

"I know exactly how badly you fucked up." There was a pause. Then Snape gestured toward the flowers all over the kitchen and toward the garden. "I have some idea," he said, "of how you feel now."

He watched, as he'd often done before, as Snape prepared the pasta sauce, staring at the slender hands, noticing that Snape had lost weight. His fault. Snape poured them each a glass of wine and put water on for pasta.

Emmy jumped on Sirius's lap and he tensed, about to put her on the floor, expecting to be scratched or bitten, but she settled down on his knees, purring. He petted her tentatively, and she let him.

They ate, careful with the subjects they discussed. He showed Snape photos of Al and Rosie, told him that George and Angelina had gotten married, and he nodded. Snape told him about the University, about the research he was doing for his doctorate, the progress he was making in his classification project.

The silences grew longer, but they weren't uncomfortable. Snape got up to make them some tea, and Sirius closed his eyes. Like Al and Rosie, Emmy seemed to weigh him down warmly, and he didn't want to move. He sipped his tea, his eyelids drooping, knowing he was going to have to get up and leave soon.

"And Rachel?" Snape asked.

After a moment, Sirius said, "It didn't work out. Or, to be more accurate, it was an enormous, colossal mistake. I must have been mad."

"Indeed."

"I'm so ashamed." Sirius covered his face with his hands.

Snape looked at him until he lowered his hands to his lap.

"How could I have known myself so little? How could I ignore reality so completely? Much worse, how could I treat my dearest friend like that? Walk out flat in pursuit of a fantasy? A delusion, really. I made a mistake beyond forgiving, Severus, and I don't know what I can do even to try to make it better."

Snape looked at him again for long minutes. "Tomorrow," he said, then hesitated.

"Tomorrow?"

"I'm going to the local hospital." He pointed at the sideboard covered with flowers. "There are people there who will appreciate flowers. Would you like to come with me?"

Sirius nodded. "I would."

"I'm sorry, too."

“For what?” he asked.

“I didn't realise that you needed me, too. That my suddenly spending so much time working would change— everything— so much." Snape took a breath and started again. "I never could see why…you wanted me, so I didn't take into account that you…did." He sighed. "I regret it.”

They were silent again, and then Sirius said, "I tried to pretend it would work out with Rachel, but it was all wrong. I was suffocating. I missed you every minute. She and I had almost nothing in common, we didn't want the same anything." He grimaced at Snape. "She loved the Costa del Sol, and now that I'm gone she's planning on getting a cat." He sighed. "If nothing else, you'd think I might remember that I'm gay."

Emmy stretched on his knee, using her claws against his robe, but carefully not scratching him. He knew that this was a watershed with her and beamed. She'd never love him, maybe, but she'd put up with him. If only Snape would, too. Emmy jumped down, rubbed against Snape's legs, then padded over to her water bowl.

"She's tolerating you rather well," said Snape.

"Like you, I guess. She loves only one person, but she tolerates me. Better than being gutted."

Emmy jumped into Snape's lap, and Sirius could hear her purr.

"I suppose I should be going."

Snape continued to stroke the cat as he spoke. "There is the couch in the office."

Sirius nodded, though Snape wasn't looking at him. "Thank you. I'll get up tomorrow and get the scones."

Snape glanced at him. "No, you won't. You never get up early. I'll get the scones."

He could tell that Snape was trying to resume the banter they'd shared, the teasing. It was a step.

"Clotted cream?"

"You sound about six."

"Strawberry jam?"

"Of course, my child."

By the time they climbed the dark staircase it was late, and Sirius was tired. He'd been up at dawn.

Snape made the bed in the office for him and got him a spare pair of pyjamas. As he left, he paused in the doorway. "Sirius?" he said. Sirius looked at him. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"The flowers. The greenhouse. For being sorry."

"Will you come to Ireland with me?" he asked.

In the past several weeks they'd gotten together several times for tea in Manchester, near the University, and once in London. They hadn't been to Sirius's flat or back to Snape's house. They hadn't touched. Or mentioned the future. Or much of the past.

Snape seemed to be thinking about it. Then he faced Sirius. "Do you think that's a good idea?"

"I'll sleep on the couch, and I promise I won’t crowd you. I haven't been back since—since last time, and I'd like you to be there."

Snape was silent, and Sirius plunged on, filling the silence with words. "It's not like we're not friends. I mean, we can be, and it'll be nice. We can walk on the beach and visit some places, maybe even Dublin, and I want to see the Giant's Causeway."

"That was the last place in the British Isles where giants lived, did you know? They were only forced out in the past hundred years or so."

They didn't speak of it any more that day, but Sirius casually told Snape when he'd booked the ferry. Snape didn't say anything, and Sirius hoped that meant he was considering it.

He got e-mail from CantoXXXIV—Snape!—one evening. Snape wrote that he wouldn't be able to make it to their planned meeting the next day, but could they reschedule?

He had asked to reschedule. Another step.

He e-mailed Snape photos of James and Al and Rosie. He e-mailed him Quidditch scores and copies of Ginny's articles in the Prophet. Then he raised his hand to cover his mouth. "You berk," he said. "You fucking berk. Always, always about you."

After half an hour with search engines, he sent Snape a report on the botanical research that had led to the recent Nobel Prize in medicine. He followed it with an article about the use of earthworm castings to protect gardenias from scale. He also sent him the details of the ferry reservations and where they could meet, and he didn't get a response.

----- ∞ -----


"You came."

"Yes."

"Thank you. I hoped you would. I wasn't sure."

Snape looked at the boat, then at Sirius. "I wasn't, either. I made up my mind this morning."

Sirius nodded. "I'm happy you're here," he said.

They didn't talk much on the trip, but spent a lot of time watching the sea. The wind whipped Sirius's hair around his head, and, as he watched the seagulls in the sky, he wanted to cry out his rejoicing.

It was dark when they got to their cottage. Sirius had rung ahead, and there was food waiting for them, the bed was made up, and sheets and blankets and pillows were on the couch. They ate dinner and got ready for bed.

The sofa was too short for him, and he ended up curled up as Padfoot on the hearthrug. It smelled of empty house, and he looked forward to its taking on the odors of living.

He heard Snape get up in the morning and go outside. He tried to rouse himself enough to go with him, but decided against it. There was time. He'd go down to the beach before noon and, maybe as Padfoot, have a good run.

He woke up much later, stretched, and transformed back. Snape was sitting on the sofa Sirius had abandoned the night before. Without speaking he left the room, and, as he stumbled to the loo, Sirius heard him put on the kettle.

Snape set the breakfast table outside, at the edge of the garden Sirius had asked the caretakers to plant and tend for a year. It was lovely—roses, gardenias, ferns, beds of blooming annuals, and some plants Sirius couldn't identify. Snape had cut some freesias and put them in a vase on the table. He didn't speak as he poured tea from an old and lustrous blue teapot they'd bought together the last time they'd been there. They ate in silence, but Sirius felt that something had shifted.

As they were washing up after breakfast, Snape leaned over to put the vase of cut freesias on the windowsill and said, "The garden is beautiful."

"It is, isn't it?"

"Outside this morning, I could smell roses and the sea. It was wonderful."

"I'm glad."

"You arranged this last time we were here?"

Sirius nodded.

"Thank you."

Sirius grinned. "I hoped you'd like it."

"I do. I'm eager to work in it. There's some pruning—are there secateurs here? And herbs to experiment with in the kitchen…"

Sirius hung up the washing-up cloth. "What would you like to do today? We can go down to the village and rent a motorbike and start exploring. Or—?"

"Shall we go to the beach?"

They did, going along the cliffs to the precarious path down to the water. The tide was out, and they walked along the edge of the wet sand, listening to the gulls, to the waves, smelling the ocean. It was sunny, and Sirius liked being next to Snape, almost touching shoulders.

Holidays were the only times Snape abandoned his formal suit and tie. In Spain, he'd worn black cotton trousers. In Ireland he wore black jeans—carefully pressed—a shirt, and a black jacket. No tie, though. Sirius grinned to himself. Strange how someone who always wore a suit looked positively casual in jeans and a jacket. And bare feet.

He nearly stumbled when he felt Snape's hand slip into his. His heart rate accelerated and he took a breath. They'd take it slowly. The warm hand in his represented hope. They continued side by side, holding hands, silent, and Sirius was happy.

That night Snape said to Padfoot, who was curled up in front of the fireplace, "You can sleep on the bed if you want to."

He did and woke with Snape's hand on his head, and, when Snape woke, he lay there and enjoyed being petted. Snape might not be ready to touch Sirius, but he would touch Padfoot. The dog whimpered with pleasure.

They took morning walks, Snape cared for the roses while Sirius re-read Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (no help at all—perhaps he'd try The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), breakfast and lunch outside if the weather cooperated. In the afternoons they explored the Giant's Causeway, castles, gardens, and villages. They took trains, buses, the motorbike Sirius had rented. As they strolled home from the village one evening, Sirius said, "I wonder if I should learn to drive?"

Snape put an arm around Sirius's shoulders and squeezed briefly. "Don't," he said. "It's too dangerous."

"I suppose," he said, reveling in the sudden closeness. Snape moved his arm, but their hands found each other as they walked the rest of the way to their cottage.

They lingered after breakfast at the table in the garden, Snape reading Metaphysical poetry and botanical monographs, Sirius watching the ocean.

"Go and catch a falling star, / Get with child a mandrake root…"

"Severus?"

"Could one get with child a mandrake root?" Snape looked up from Donne's Songs and Sonnets. "Almost anything's possible if the magic's dark enough. But why ever would one want to?"

Sirius took the book out of his hands.

"Mandragora is part of the nightshade family. Did you say something?"

“When I was with Rachel. Was there...anyone else?”

“No,” Snape said finally.

Sirius stared at the book in his hands, mesmerised. "This poem isn't about potions. It's about unfaithfulness." He bit his lip. “I don't deserve to be so lucky.”

“What we get in life and what we deserve aren't always the same.”

He'd never asked before. "Do you miss it dreadfully?"

Snape missed a step, but his voice was controlled. "What?"

"Our world. Magic."

His voice was dead, unlike anything Sirius had ever heard. "Every second of every day," he said.

"I'm sorry. So very sorry."

"Don't be. I deserve it."

"But—"

"I wish I'd died, you know, for good."

Sirius looked down at his feet. He couldn't bear to think about that, about only Remus reaching out to greet Snape. And he couldn't bear that Snape would rather be dead than be here. Because Sirius had never been happier than this summer.

"Waking up must have been hard."

"Very."

"What happened?" He realised he'd never asked that, either.

Snape inhaled. "I woke up. You know—after. I couldn't move, I was too weak, covered in blood. I lay there until I could crawl out of the Shack. Someone in Hogsmeade found me. They thought I was drunk. The party had been going on for three days by then."

"Three days?"

"Yes."

Sirius's voice turned to ice. "Do you mean that no one recovered your body?"

"It's not like it was on anyone's list."

"Three days."

Snape hurried on. "They helped me, got me patched up, to St. Mungo's. And Potter had said that I was on their side in the Final—"

Sirius cut him off. "For three days nobody bothered to get your body. Harry, Ron, and Hermione knew you were there, and they didn't bother. They buried Voldemort, for fuck's sake, and Bellatrix, and nobody remembered you?"

"There were others more important."

"No. You—like Remus and Fred and Tonks and everyone else who died—you gave your life so we could win the War, take back our world. They should have..."

He could see Snape shrug in the dusk. "It doesn't matter."

"Yes, it does. It matters to me. Because you did—no, shut up and listen to me—you did what you had to do to help us win, and yet here you are, and nobody acknowledges—"

"It doesn't matter," Snape repeated. "I don't deserve..."

"You do. The Wizengamot are wrong, and you deserve to be part of our world." He heard the edge of despair in his voice.

"No, I don't. Sirius, think about it. I betrayed our people, betrayed the woman I loved. I caused her death, and James Potter's, and others', too. You're not being logical. You're not seeing who I am. A traitor."

"Canto XXXIV," said Sirius.

"Indeed."

"I looked it up. I see you for what you are, Severus. It's you who don't see the truth about yourself."

Snape started walking again. "But I do, Sirius. I gave the Prophecy to the Dark Lord. I'm not stupid. I'd heard it, I could understand it. Sirius, how could I have ignored that what I was telling him would condemn a baby to death? How? I betrayed everything, everyone, and maybe I did my best to make up for that. Then I killed the only other person I'd ever loved, too."

"Severus, he asked you to. It was a mercy killing."

"Do you think that matters? Do you think that, when I wake up and remember that night, that the fact he was dying and that it needed to happen, matters? Over and over I hear his words. He said 'Severus, please' and looking at him and killing him, seeing the light go out of his eyes—I took his life, Sirius, and he was the kindest, best human being I ever knew."

Sirius started to cry in big gulping sobs. He felt torn in half, unable to accept that to people he loved and respected—Dumbledore, James, Lily, Harry—Snape's life and soul and work had been expendable, that the man who'd outsmarted Voldemort hadn't deserved so much as burial.

Snape held him as he cried, held him close, and Sirius felt the irony of being consoled by the man whose fate he was mourning.

Eventually, his sobs quieted and Snape released him. "Let's go home," he said.

That night it was Sirius who shared the bed with Snape, and they held onto each other, and neither of them knew who was comforting and who was comforted.

The weather was beautiful, warm and sunny, and Sirius transformed into Padfoot. Snape was weeding around the jasmine and laughed when Sirius shoved his nose against a shoulder, wanting to be petted.

"Headed to the beach?" he asked, and Padfoot barked and trotted off, breaking into a run, then delicately making his way down to the water.

Snape walked to the top of the cliff and watched the black dog running along the edge of the water, attacking waves and jumping at seagulls. Such uncomplicated joy. The dog wrestled with a piece of seaweed, flinging it into the air and catching it with his mouth.

It happened so quickly. A wave, larger than the others, knocked the dog down, and, as Padfoot lost his footing and his eyes and mouth and nose were filled with salty, sandy water, he lost his sense of direction. The wave was pulling him out to sea, and he was powerless.

Snape saw Padfoot being dragged out to sea. "No! Sirius!" was lost in the wind as he ran down the path to the beach, ignoring the precariousness of his own footing. If he'd had his wand, he'd have used it, Azkaban be damned. Careening down the path, he tried to think. Get to the beach. Get to the beach. He didn't know how to swim, but Padfoot was in trouble. He'd save him or die.

He tore off his clothes as he ran towards the waves.

The water hit him harder than he'd expected, and he didn't know if he'd be able to help. A large wave poured over him and his feet almost went out from under him, but it had brought the dog closer in.

At the next wave he flung himself at the dog and grabbed his forepaws. Together they were carried back and forth, up, down, sideways, directions made no sense—there was only air or its absence. Sirius transformed back, black eyes held grey, and both knew that death was not something they feared. They'd die together or live together.

A wave brought them closer to shore, dangerously near the rocks. They were able to crawl to their knees and, a second later, collapsed on the beach. Sirius vomited salt water, and Snape held him and repeated, "You're all right, you're all right."

A silence fell. They regarded each other. Snape stood to pick up his scattered clothes, a little wary. Sirius closed his eyes for a moment, reliving the fear and then the blaze of conviction that it was all right because Severus was with him.

He had fallen in love. Everything in his life changed. He choked, spitting seawater, and Severus was there, his hands on Sirius's shoulders.

"All right?"

Sirius nodded and stood, wobbling. He grasped Severus by the arms, said, "Hold on," and Disapparated them both to the cottage.

They landed in the bedroom. "Damn," said Sirius. "I was aiming for the bed." Severus laughed, and Sirius felt his cock stir at the sensuality of the sound. He closed his eyes for a moment against the emotions that threatened to engulf him before leaning towards Severus.

It was both familiar and new, Severus's mouth, his shoulders, his back. Sirius let their connection run through him.

Lips and hands, and Sirius knew that Severus wanted this as much as he did. They hurried to get his soaked clothes off and Severus's boxers until they were naked, skin to skin. They leaned against each other, and Sirius had a hard time catching his breath, and Severus stroked his damp hair, giving him time, and then they were devouring each other's mouths, and Sirius savoured the heat of their bodies, warming flesh chilled by the sea. He felt Severus's hands on his chest and heard his rough breathing.

They rubbed their groins together, and Sirius dropped his hands from Severus's waist to his skinny arse, pulling him closer. He knew it was going to be fast, knew there was no way he'd be able to wait to touch Severus, and, from the moans coming from his lover, he knew Severus was as wild as he was for climax.

One hand on Severus's hip, he let the other slip between their bodies, felt his hand against Severus's belly, and a thrill ran through him at the thought of Severus's cock in his own hand.

Pain. Rasping, gritting pain. He yelped and heard Severus's bit-back cry. What the—

The churning water, the sand. The sand.

They started to laugh, and stood there, faces touching, breathing together, holding each other's hand.

"Shower first, perhaps?" said Sirius.

They took their time, each soaping the other's back, kneeling and washing legs, and carefully getting the sand from all the places it was hidden. They toweled each other off, and Severus combed Sirius's long hair, now as much grey as black. They touched, soft touches, reconnecting and recreating the magic that they'd shared before.

Clean and dry, Severus took Sirius's hand and led him back to the bed. It was late afternoon. The sun was spilling into the room that smelled of the roses Severus had put in a vase on the chest of drawers. They lay on their sides, looking into each other's eyes, and Sirius shivered as Severus ran a hand from his shoulder to his thigh, lingering at the hip.

So much shared, so much out of hiding. Few words were spoken, their names and "good" and "yes" and, for the first time, "love." Later, holding Severus, he knew what had changed. Before had been mourning: "This is good, but James would have been better." That was over. From now on, it was a different life, one in which he and Severus were the central players, Severus no longer a friend who could never quite replace James, but Sirius's full partner.

"This is my life, and I wouldn't want any other way," he thought, feeling Severus's soft hair against his face. He held him closer.


----- ∞ -----

That Christmas, Sirius and Severus spent the holiday together for the first time.

Sirius had bought a gaming system. They found a computer game called "Second Life," and it amused them for an afternoon. " 'Second Life,' eh?" grinned Sirius. "That's what I feel I'm living."

Severus arched an eyebrow. "Doubtless," he said.

They both laughed.

That spring Severus defended his doctoral dissertation in biochemistry at the University. Sirius understood little of the presentation he gave, but he watched other people's reactions and was proud of how impressed they were. Afterwards, Severus introduced him to his professors and colleagues, and he smiled and was polite and couldn't wait to congratulate Severus in private.

“Now what?” he asked later that evening. He was sitting up in Severus's bed, and Severus was leaning back against his chest. Emmy eyed him suspiciously from the bedside table.

“Regarding?”

“Work. School. You're done with being a student. What's next?”

“Ah. They've offered me a position. Two positions. Postdoctoral research associate and teaching fellow. The same, only more so.”

He squeezed Severus's hand. “That's wonderful, Severus...Professor Snape, I mean.” He knew Severus was rolling his eyes. “What about the magical classification?”

“I'm still working on it, but now I can use the lab to do the analyses. Science hasn't been applied to magic in much too long.”

“Severus?”

“Mmmm?”

“What with being a professor...you will have time to come to Ireland later this summer, right?”

“I will.”

“Good. I'm looking forward to that.”

“I am, too.”

“It's a girl,” he said. “They've called her Lily.”

Severus closed his eyes for a moment and then took the glass of champagne Sirius was holding out. “A new life,” he said.

----- ∞ -----

Every summer Sirius spent a long weekend on holiday with Harry and his family, but the time that he looked forward to, that filled him with joy, was the month he and Severus spent together. No matter what else they did, they spent at least a week at their cottage each summer, taking Emmy with them. In addition one year, despite Severus's horror, they took an airplane to the United States, visiting the American Southwest and the Grand Canyon, a place that left both of them speechless. One year they took a cruise to Scandinavia, and one year went to Paris in August when it was full of tourists. They stayed at a gîte rural outside of the city where it was cool and the gardens beautiful, and the two gay Muggles running it made them feel welcome and part of the community. He always brought back extravagant gifts for everyone and was amused when they commented at his bravery, travelling the Muggle way.

To no one's surprise, Hermione became the Deputy Head Healer at St. Mungo's. She was responsible for many of the changes that made life better for Muggle-wizarding families. The Muggle spouses of witches and wizards could now be treated at St. Mungo's, and she pioneered some research into post-traumatic stress disorder that helped many in the wizarding world who still suffered from the horrors of war over a decade after Voldemort's defeat.

Sirius's two lives never met. Monday evenings were sacrosanct, and no one teased him anymore. Friday evenings and Saturday mornings he spent with Severus.

He started training his replacement at Azkaban.

----- ∞ -----

He got the text as he was coming home from a Quidditch game, and he Apparated to his usual place near Severus's house and rushed inside. Severus was in the living room, he had a fire going, and he was holding Emmy in his lap.

“Is she all right?” he asked kneeling in front of them, peering at the small white cat. She took a swipe at him, but it was half-hearted, and he felt dread.

Severus looked tired. “The veterinarian said she would be all right,” he said. “She was sick all last night.” He sighed. “She's getting old, Sirius. In my heart, she's still that bedraggled kitten you rescued, but she's knocking on.”

He calculated quickly. “But she's only about thirteen!” he protested.

Severus sighed. “Muggle cats apparently don't live as long as ours,” he said.

“Why not?” asked Sirius.

“I don't know. I never thought about it until last night when I realised how sick she was. Is.”

The next day Sirius went to the Magical Menagerie in Diagon Alley. He talked to the witch who owned the place, and she sold him a cat tonic in a large blue bottle. “One capful once a week,” she said. “The earlier you start, the longer the cat's life, but the results should be good even for a thirteen-year-old cat.”

He handed the bottle to Severus who took it and read the ingredients carefully. He opened his mouth, and Sirius put a finger on his lips. “Don't,” he said, and Severus didn't.

----- ∞ -----

A few weeks after James started Hogwarts, Harry called Sirius to let him know that Elphias Doge, Albus Dumbledore's old friend, had died and to ask if he'd would go to the funeral with him. The service was sparsely attended, and Harry gave a eulogy. Afterwards, he and Sirius ended up at The Whistling Wand for a pint before each headed home.

Harry yawned.

“Long day?” asked Sirius.

“I was up a good part of the night working on that eulogy. I so hate writing them.”

“It was fine,” said Sirius. “I'm sure he would have been pleased.”

“I hope so. He was a good man, and I hope Dumbledore was waiting for him at King's Cross.”

A buzz filled Sirius's ears for a moment. “King's Cross?” he asked, his voice thick.

Harry hesitated. “Look...yes. I never told anyone but Ron and Hermione, and then Ginny.”

“What do you mean about King's Cross?”

What Harry told him left him stunned. His godson had died and had met Albus Dumbledore at King's Cross, and, from what he could tell, it was a meeting place, a place for a guide to welcome those who had come and might go back.

“Why?”

“I don't know, Sirius. I know that some people are given the option of going back because they have things yet to do. I know I was, and I read that Paracelsus apparently was given the choice when he was a very young wizard, long before he made all his discoveries.”

“Huh.”

“Yes. I gather that normally when you die you're helped on by family and lovers and friends. I don' t know. I just know that Dumbledore was there for me, and I was given a choice.”

Harry played for a moment with a knut he'd taken from his pocket, his eyes not meeting Sirius's. “I've wondered, over the years...”

“What?”

“Snape. I saw him die, Sirius. The light went out in his eyes, and he was gone. That much I'm sure of. So is Hermione. But then he showed up alive. I wonder if he wasn't given a choice, too, and chose to come back.”

Sirius blinked slowly. “Why?”

“I don't know. I do know that he's become a Muggle scientist. That's rather prestigious, and he's very good at what he does. Oh, don't look so surprised. We keep tabs on him at the Ministry.”

Not very well, thought Sirius, bitterly.

“Anyhow, I've wondered over the years if Dumbledore met him and spoke to him.”

Suddenly it was clear to Sirius what James's comment had meant. “ 'He's supposed to be at King's Cross.' ” Severus had assumed indifference, but it hadn't been. Remus, who'd just gotten there, hadn't understood.

Through the staccato of his heartbeat, he realised that Harry was still speaking, and he forced himself to pay attention. “... made a life for himself in the Muggle world, I'm glad to say. I've been trying to get him pardoned every single year, but the Wizengamot pay no attention.”

He gulped. He could hear the frustration in his godson's voice. “Yes?” he asked.

“Look, Sirius, he was punished enough, right? There was no reason for the banishment except pure revenge and people feeling guilty that they'd not done enough, you know? And don't look at me like that. Of course I've tried to get him pardoned. How could I live with myself if I didn't?”

“I'm surprised you haven't succeeded.”

Harry shook his head. “I'm an Auror, Sirius. I'm—bah!—the hero of the War and all that. But I'm not political. They don't fear me so they don't listen to me. And Balthazar Moody is a maniac on the subject of Snape. So I do what I can, and that's going every year and demanding that the case be reviewed. I try to work behind the scenes, but I haven't had much success.” He hesitated. “After the War for a few years he was working as a caretaker. You know, pushing a mop? If he hadn't moved on maybe I'd work harder, but now he seems to be doing well.”

“But he can't do magic, Harry,” said Sirius. “That's like not breathing.”

“I know,” said Harry, his voice very soft. “Which is why I'll keep at them, every year. Sooner or later they'll give in.”

Sirius Apparated to the University where he suspected he'd find Severus. His office was empty, and he went into the lab where he usually worked. It was empty, too, but he found him in a nearby seminar room.

There were six graduate students around him. He glanced up at Sirius, who nodded at him to continue and took a seat at the table. Severus was explaining something about analysing organic compounds, and Sirius took pride in the look of rapt attention on the students' faces, the respect in their voices when they asked questions, and Severus's obvious love of his subject. Harry was right about one thing: Severus was good at what he did.

The students left, and Severus came over to Sirius, sat next to him, and leaned over for a kiss. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked.

“We need to talk,” he said, and added quickly when he saw the fleeting look of panic on Severus's face, “It's nothing bad.”

Severus nodded. “Come to my office, then. Coffee? Or tea?”

Severus sat without moving as Sirius repeated everything Harry had told him and his own conclusions. Then he stood and stared out the window.

“Do you really think so?” he asked.

“Yes, Severus, I do. Dumbledore loved and cared about you. Something happened. You were supposed to be somewhere else. Remus died after you, and yet he was there waiting for you. Something went wrong. I don't know that we'll ever know what.”

“I wonder if he was going to give me a choice.”

Sirius stood behind him, and they watched students walking to class in the pale autumn sunlight. “Perhaps. Or perhaps he wanted to welcome you,” he said. He knew what Severus's decision would have been.

“I don't like to think that I might have missed out on all this,” Severus said, and he turned to take Sirius in his arms. They kissed for a long time.

----- ∞ -----

"I'd love to go to Italy," mused Sirius.

"Too hot," responded Severus.

They'd been to Godric's Hollow to pay their respects and were taking the train back to Severus's house as they had so many times before.

"Then let's go next Christmas," said Sirius. "We'll take the train to Genoa."

Severus's hand found his and squeezed. "Are you sure?"

Sirius nodded, and, briefly because they were in public, let his head rest on Severus's shoulder. "Let's," he repeated. "It will be fun to spend Christmas in Italy with you. Maybe in Venice."

It snowed. Venice under the snow was like magic. They wandered by mistake into the wizarding quarter of La Serenissima, called La Strega, and Severus tightened in panic, but nobody paid attention to them. While they were in the city, they had coffee and rolls every day in the wizarding café at one corner of the plaza.

Their Christmas gifts to each other had always been inexpensive, sometimes symbolic or funny. A DVD of Mathew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake from Sirius to Severus which made Severus blush. A ballpoint pen from Severus to Sirius one year, marked "Click" on one end and "Write" on the other. Sirius had gotten Severus a tie pin one year, set with a tourmaline the colour of Emmy's eyes. They'd bought each other dressing gowns, and they'd chosen mobile phone ringtones and iPod playlists for each other. This year Sirius broke with tradition.

In La Strega one could rent a gondola, and he arranged one for Christmas morning, not caring about what a cliché it was.

He wrapped his cloak around both of them. The morning was chilly, and they sat under blankets with warming charms as the boat floated down the canals, under bridges, past old buildings. Mist rose off the water, and Sirius felt that Venice itself was magical.

Severus handed him his gift. He opened it and grinned. Ginny had taken the photo with Sirius's camera, of him with James, Al, Rosie, Hugh and Lily sitting in the garden at the Burrow that past summer. It was bright and cheerful. He'd e-mailed it to Severus, along with the Times review of the Royal Ballet's new production of La Bayadere. The frame was walnut, a wood Severus knew he favoured, and beautifully carved with lilies and roses. He ran a finger over the flowers and said, "It's beautiful. I love it."

He waited a moment, a little frightened. "I cheated," he said, trying to make his voice light, but it came out thick and strangled.

"Indeed?"

"I bought us both something," he said.

He opened his hand. In a little box two golden rings shone softly. He knew Severus would recognise Claddagh rings. They'd visited Claddagh the previous summer, and Sirius had returned alone the next day to a wizarding jewelry shop that looked like a closed bakery to the villagers. He'd bought the rings then.

Love, friendship, and loyalty. He didn't know what Severus would make of the love implicit in the ring, but they'd built a relationship on friendship and loyalty, and he was fairly sure Severus would understand and want to honour that. His fingers were trembling as he picked up one ring, warm from his body's heat, and took Severus's right hand in his. Their eyes met, Severus gave an almost imperceptible nod, and Sirius slipped the ring on his finger, heart pointing in. Severus took the other ring and did what Sirius had hoped he would. He put it on Sirius's finger.

They held hands for a moment, forehead to forehead, as the gondola brought them back to the plaza in La Strega. They got out, still holding hands, not having spoken, and walked silently back to the pensione. There they undressed, their lips met, and they made love slowly, letting their bodies move together in familiar and loving ways.

----- ∞ -----

He went to Sunday lunch at the Burrow. He knew that the first thing they'd notice was the new gold ring on his hand when he arrived with his usual flowers for Molly and special biscuits for tea. Nobody said anything during lunch or after, and he wasn't sure anyone would question him directly.

James did. They were having tea and biscuits, and James asked without shyness, forthright in a way that reminded Sirius of his old friend.

"Did you get married, Sirius?" he asked.

Everyone stopped eating and drinking, and even the children at the low table next to the taller one were still.

He looked at the gold band on his finger, turned it, then faced them. "No," he said. "I didn't get married, but, as everyone has guessed, there is someone in my life."

Ron opened his mouth to ask a question, but Hermione gestured him to be quiet, and Harry seemed—Harry seemed hurt.

Molly changed the subject, and the moment passed. As they were leaving, Sirius asked Harry to have lunch with him the next day.

When he and Harry finished eating on Monday, Sirius said, "So. You're wondering about my ring."

"Umm. At the least," said Harry, and they both laughed.

Sirius gazed down at his hand, at the ring Severus had slipped on his finger, and, as he often did, touched it with his other index finger.

"I have a lover," he said, and Harry nodded. "We've been together a long time."

"Your Mondays," said Harry.

"Yes. And Fridays. And our holidays."

"Why haven't you brought her to meet us?"

He shook his head. "It's more complicated than that, Harry."

"All right."

He stirred his coffee, which didn't need it, then stared at his own reflection in the spoon. "I'm gay," he said.

"Oh."

Harry was surprised but there was no dismay in his voice, and for this Sirius was grateful.

"Complicates things a bit, eh?"

"Oh, come on, Sirius. It does not. Nobody cares anymore. Is he a Muggle?"

"Harry, I need to keep this private, to keep my two lives separate. It's important, and I can't explain. But I'm happy, happier than I've ever been."

It was Harry's turn to stir his coffee. "I feel bad that you don't trust me."

He reached out and touched his godson's arm. "It isn't that. Really. It's not trust. It's complicated, and...I want you to know that I'm happy and in love."

"And he loves you, too?"

Sirius touched the heart on his ring. "I don't know. I think so, sometimes. Other times I think he's—fond of me. I'm not like anyone else in his life."

After a moment, Harry asked, "What about Rachel?"

Sirius rolled his eyes. "Dear God, I have no idea, not a clue, what made me think I could marry her, settle down, and have kids. Move into the closet and pretend to be straight," he sighed. "I felt bad, breaking up with her, but, once it was done, I felt as if I'd caught the Snitch at the World Cup."

Harry laughed. "Oops."

"Yeah. It was a serious mistake, I hurt two people, one of them deeply, and I almost destroyed my most important relationship. I'm so lucky that that didn't happen. He's a generous man. Too generous, maybe."

He left his job at Azkaban. The prison was still a prison, but now clean, safe, and law-abiding. The replacement team he'd formed was more than competent to handle things. He began spending much of his time helping Severus by doing research for him in wizarding libraries.

He was awed by Severus's classification project. It was a work that combined Muggle science and magical knowledge, and Sirius understood its implications. Severus was studying the genomes of plants that could be both magical or ordinary, hoping he'd be able to isolate what sparked the magic, and, in doing so, he was finding relationships between plants and their properties and how they interacted that nobody in the wizarding world even suspected. He pressed Severus to publish his research, but Severus shrugged, saying that the wizarding world didn't need to hear from him again. His work was, however, gaining recognition in the Muggle world.

Severus asked him to help. It had started when he'd needed some wizarding books, and Sirius had borrowed them from Hogwarts, thanks to Neville Longbottom who was now teaching there. Sometimes Severus didn't know what book the information he needed would be in, and Sirius would comb through the collections at St. Mungo's, Hogwarts, and the Ministry.

Sirius loved the smell of libraries. The feel of old books and the different feel of new ones. He bought a fax machine and sent Severus the notes he took and photocopies of articles and chapters. The ones on DNA might as well have been written in Mermish, but botany was a revelation. Penicillin—but fungi were now studied in mycology. If the earliest anesthetics came from fermenting plants, if the poppy could lead to morphine, what Severus might uncover was beyond his imagining. Severus, he realised, lived on the other side of an enormous door that was opening for Sirius just a bit.

An unexpected new way for his partnership with Severus to bring him joy. It was a light that surrounded him and a foundation deeper than any other, his love, their fidelity, and the joining of their bodies they both delighted in.

Maybe they had sex less often, he reflected one evening after Severus left. It didn't matter. Being together, touching and holding each other, even if it didn't lead to orgasm, created a feeling of union both of them rejoiced in.

Life was good, Sirius reflected as they stood on the deck of the ferry on their way back from Ireland one summer. They'd grow old together, maybe share a house when Severus retired, if, of course, he ever did. He took Severus's hand in his and pressed it. Severus pressed his back.

----- ∞ -----

The year James turned fifteen Sirius bought him a computer and delighted in exchanging e-mail with the young man. Severus spent six months in California, and Sirius went with him. They rented a house in Berkeley and enjoyed the time away, though when the university there offered Severus a position he declined. His research had recently been published to great acclaim in the scientific world, and he was much in demand for conferences and talks. In addition, one of the discoveries he'd made years before had been the basis for a colleague's synthesising a medication that worked against Alzheimer's disease, a cause of senility in Muggles. They were jointly credited, and Severus's name was on the patent. He was shocked when the money started coming in, more than he could ever use. Most of it he rolled into a foundation that would supply the drug free to those who needed it, and his colleague decided to do the same.

Sirius tried to persuade him to sell his house, to move to London with him or to a flat or house somewhere between London and Manchester, but Severus didn't want to. He was attached to his house, he'd grown up there, and didn't feel the need to move. Sirius was hurt at Severus's not wanting to move in with him, but finally thought he understood: limited time together meant both brought the best to their meetings, the intensity of only periodic togetherness, the small partings sad, but the reunions joyful.

Early January the following year, the wizarding world buzzed with the news: Severus Snape was on the New Year's Honours list, a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. It was all over the front page of the Daily Prophet.

“I'll need to call you Sir Severus, then?” Sirius asked, and Severus had glared at him in a way that made Sirius laugh. The next week Severus showed Sirius the note of congratulations that Harry had sent him.

----- ∞ -----

Two years later Severus went to Boston for three months. When he came back he was exhausted and ill. The work had been exhilarating and productive, but the pace had been frenetic. He decided to take a few months' break, and he and Sirius spent much of the time in Ireland, working on the magical classification project. Sirius again pressed Severus to publish a preliminary report, but Severus still refused.

In January he noticed Severus was losing weight on a frame that was lean to begin with. He asked about it, but the other man shrugged it off as not enough time to eat, a major research breakthrough, and too much time in the lab. It worried Sirius, but Severus's explanation was plausible.

In February he noticed that Severus was sometimes in pain, and this worried him greatly. Severus shrugged it away as he had the weight loss.

In March, Severus tripped over Emmy, fell down the stairs, and broke three bones in his arm. It was set at the local Muggle hospital. Sirius urged him to let him ask Hermione to heal him, but Severus was adamant that it had been an accident. He promised Sirius he'd see a Muggle doctor as soon as he was done writing the paper he was working on.

James was preparing for his N.E.W.T.s that year and having trouble with Potions, unlike Al who seemed to have inherited his grandmother's gift. Since he wanted to be a Healer, he needed do well on the exam, but over spring holidays he confided to Sirius that he figured he was going to fail it and didn't know what to do.

"Play Quidditch for England?" asked Sirius, and James grinned and told him he'd wanted to do that, too, but not long-term. Sirius nodded.

That Friday at dinner he observed Severus who was barely eating, and he worried. Then he asked, "Do you think you could help James a bit with Potions?"

Severus looked up, surprised. "Ummm?"

"By e-mail. He's not bad at potions themselves. But he doesn't see why they work. Or how. Hermione has been trying to help him, but what he needs is basic theoretical understanding. The teacher they have is more of a cook, and James needs to understand the theory."

"Sirius—"

"It would help him for his N.E.W.T. and let you see how clearly you can explain your overarching theory, too," he said.

"I—"

"By e-mail. He'll never know who's helping him."

"Fine."

"You'll do it?"

"Yes, if it will shut you up," Severus answered. "I'll wash up whilst you e-mail him. I can see you're dying to."

Sirius nodded. "I am. Thank you."

He put them in touch. Severus signed "Canto," and three weeks later James wrote to Sirius, "Your friend is great. I think I might be able to pass."

Severus didn't come one Friday evening, and Sirius worried. He waited and waited, then at ten o'clock Disapparated to Spinner's End. Inside, the house was still. Emmy ran down the stairs to him, and she mewed. A glance at her bowls made it clear that it wasn't hunger or thirst, and fear gripped at his gut as he bounded upstairs.

Severus was lying on his bed, hot with fever, his sheets and pyjamas soaked with sweat. He was semi-conscious, and Sirius started shaking with panic. What to do? Left to himself, he'd have called Hermione, but Snape wouldn't like it. He thought about getting Severus to a Muggle doctor, but that was unknown territory and Snape might be furious. He sat down on the bed, ran his hand over Severus's forehead, called his name. Severus's eyelids fluttered, and his gaze fixed on Sirius for a second, then his eyes closed again.

"I'm here, Severus. I'll get you something. I'll be right back." He searched in the medicine cabinet, found a bottle of aspirin, and relaxed a bit. Aspirin was derived from a fever-reducing potion—he knew that. Salicylic acid from the bark of willow trees, the botanists said. He read the details on the bottle, shook three tablets out, got a glass of water. He helped Severus sit up, got him to take the aspirin.

He moved Severus to a chair while he stripped the soaked sheets and remade the bed.

He spent the night bathing Severus's forehead with a flannel, waiting for the fever to break, which it did at dawn. When Severus woke up, he was cool, but totally exhausted. "I'm sorry. I didn't ring to let you know I wasn't going to come."

"Hush. You should have rung to let me know that you needed help."

"I..."

He put his finger on Severus's lips. "Do you think you can eat something? Some tea?"

"Tea, perhaps. Sirius. Thank you."

Downstairs he topped off Emmy's water and food and put the kettle on. While it was heating, he went into Severus's living room, as always dark and full of books. He picked up the mail and a package from the floor by the front door and realised that Severus had probably been ill for several days. He berated himself for not noticing that there had been no e-mail or texts, though he'd written and had Amazon send him the expanded edition of The Ultimate Rose Book.

He put the mail on the oak secretary in which Severus kept his Muggle gas and electric bills and noticed a letter with a bold signature at the bottom. Curious, he glanced at it. He read it. His hands trembled and he thought might vomit.

Many of the words were Muggle medical terms, but the overall meaning was clear enough. The letter confirmed the diagnosis of primary bone cancer in multiple locations and repeated that Severus should come in for radiation and chemotherapy, and that, if he continued to decline treatment, his prognosis was perhaps six months and considerable pain, which they could treat with morphine if he would come back to get a prescription.

The world got darker than the shadows in Severus's room. Six months. His knees gave way and he sank to the floor, buried his head into a musty sofa cushion and wailed. He felt Emmy press against his thigh, turned to sit on the floor, picked up the cat and wept into her fur.

The kettle was whistling. He made the tea. His hands were shaking, and he spilled tea leaves on the countertop. While the tea was brewing he sat at the table and re-read the letter. It left little doubt.

He added extra sugar to the tea and got a mug for himself, too, though he wasn't sure he'd be able to drink it.

Severus was sitting up in bed, his face grey and tired, but he smiled when Sirius appeared. Emmy, who was sitting in his lap, only growled once, for which Sirius was grateful.

He handed Severus the mug and a plate of toast with marmalade. Severus managed only two or three bites of the toast, but sipped at the tea. They didn't talk. When they finished the tea, Sirius sat on the bed next to Severus, his chin on his hand. Looking straight at him, he asked, "When were you going to tell me?"

Severus dropped his eyes, unable to meet Sirius's gaze. "I..."

Sirius took Severus in his arms, and they lay there for a long time, holding each other. Sirius cried and Severus hushed him, running his hand over his wet cheeks.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm so sorry."

Sirius grabbed a tissue from the night table and blew his nose. "Why are you sorry?" he asked, trying to hold back his tears.

"I'm hurting you."

"Oh, Severus."

He rang Harry to let him know that he wouldn't be making it to the Burrow for lunch. Harry asked if everything was all right, and Sirius took a breath and lied.

By Monday evening he was confident that Severus was stable. The fevers, Severus said, would happen periodically, according to the doctors. At lunch on Monday, he was able to tell Sirius why he'd chosen not to treat the cancer, and that most opiates, while they would help with the pain, would rob him of lucidity, and he hated the thought.

"I want to be here, Sirius, until the end, aware. I've seen what opiates can do to people. I want to avoid them as long as I can."

"What about St. Mungo's, Severus?"

Severus shook his head. "No. I've been banished. I have no right."

"But—"

"No. I won't. My bones are riddled with cancer, Sirius, and, unless things have changed in the past years, this is not a disease we can cure, either. Even wizarding treatment would just prolong it. I'll take the pain medication when it gets too bad to live with."

Sirius used Severus's computer to scan in the letter from the hospital and e-mail it to himself.

Monday afternoon they spent making love in Severus's narrow bed, Sirius careful with his lover, afraid of hurting him, but Severus responding more enthusiastically than Sirius had expected. He held Sirius down, took the lube from the bedside table, and breached Sirius's body with two fingers. Sirius moaned while Severus moved his fingers and pleasure as electric as lightning coursed through his body.

Years had taught each of them what the other liked and needed, rhythms as ingrained as their own pulses, and the familiarity allowed for endless variations on the melody of hands and lips and cocks, and voices.

Severus came, shooting his seed deep into Sirius's body, and then helped Sirius over the edge, and they collapsed together, holding each other, having successfully pushed death back for one afternoon.

Tuesday morning, back in his flat, he sat at his computer for forty minutes, then rang Hermione. "I need to see you," he said. "As soon as possible."

"Are you ill?"

"Not me."

She cleared some time for him that afternoon. The tone of his voice made it clear that this was urgent.

He sat down in Hermione's bright office, with the family photos and a large quill and ink drawing of Hogwarts that Victoire had given her. Sirius studied it. Then slowly, not wanting to do it, he handed her the copy of the letter. He'd changed the name of the patient.

She took the paper and read through it once, then again. He stared at the Astronomy Tower on the drawing behind her.

"Sirius?"

He knew that this wasn't going to be good.

"Is this your—friend?"

He nodded. She put her hand on his arm. "I'm sorry," she said, and he nodded again. He started to stand. "Wait, Sirius," she said, and he sat back down. "Bring him in. Remember, Muggle spouses of witches and wizards can now be treated at St. Mungo's, and I can make an exception for a long-term partner."

Partner. He blinked back tears.

"It's not that easy, Hermione."

"Does he not know you're a wizard?"

"No, he knows. It's...he's not coming to St. Mungo's."

She didn't press him. "There isn't much we can do for bone cancer. What we have is little better than palliative."

"Ah..."

"But there's one big difference."

"Oh?"

"The potions won't cause him nausea or fuzzy-headedness or have any serious side effects, unlike Muggle chemo and painkillers."

"Oh. That's good."

"And life expectancy is better."

"What do you mean by better?"

She looked at him steadily. "Four or five years. Maybe as many as ten."

"Four years?" he asked, and she nodded. He started to cry then, relief and hope washing over him.

She came around her desk and hugged him.

"Oh, Sirius, I'm so sorry."

"It's much better than six months." He blew his nose. "I had no idea..."

"It is better. Still. I'm sorry."

He wiped the tears from his face. "I've been given three major reprieves in life, Hermione—Azkaban, the Veil, being forgiven for something unforgiveable—I never take them for granted."

They were silent, and Hermione rang for tea.

"What next?"

"Do you think he'll see me at your place?" she asked. The tea arrived.

"No."

She grimaced. "I shouldn't be treating someone without having examined him. Since the alternative is a painful death in six months, are you sure that you won't be able to persuade him to come in?" She poured him a cup of tea. Sirius put it down untouched.

"I won't."

She sighed deeply. "How much does he weigh?"

"Less than I do. A good deal less."

"How tall?"

"A bit shorter than I am."

"Built like?"

"Like Ron. Thin. Even thinner now."

"All right. I'll have the potions owled to you tomorrow. To be taken every day. Will that work?"

"I think so. If he won't cooperate, I'll ring you tomorrow."

"Good. There will be some pain, the potions won't be able to deal with all of it, but things should get better fairly soon and should be good for at least a few years. I'd be able to explain more about disease progression if he ever wants to come see me."

"Hermione, how can I ever thank you?"

She put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm glad I can help, Sirius."

He covered her hand with his, and they said nothing for long minutes.

"I have one more favour to ask."

"You'd like me not to tell Harry and the rest about this."

"How did you know?"

"You're so private about this relationship. I'll not speak of it to anyone. Now I have rounds. I'll see you at Harry and Ginny's on Wednesday?"

It took much less persuading than Sirius had feared. Severus took the potions, remarking that they must have been improved in the past years, but soon they started planning a trip to Switzerland. Severus was excited, and gradually the immediacy of the disease faded from the forefront of Sirius's life, and, he knew, from Severus's, too. There was still pain, but Severus gained some weight and was his usual pale, not the frightening ashen he had been.

James took his N.E.W.T.s and was accepted into the healer program at St. Mungo's. Sirius was pleased. He met him for lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, thinking of how proud James and Lily would have been of their grandson.

"Sirius?"

"Mmmm?"

"Your friend? Canto?"

"Yes?"

"Is he, I mean—" He gestured at Sirius's ring. "Is it...?"

Sirius nodded.

"Wow. He's, like, the best, right? I mean, the N.E.W.T. O I got in Potions? Totally him, and in Defense as well."

"I'm sure he'll be glad to hear that."

"I texted him when I got the results."

"Before you owled me?"

"Ummm, yes."

"I'll be sure to tell him. He'll be pleased."

"Sirius?"

"Yes?"

"Could you give this to him?"

"What is it?" asked Sirius, taking the package.

James grinned, stood up, and grabbed his cloak. "You'll have to wait until he opens it, won't you?" he said and ran off with a wave at Sirius.

After dinner that evening Severus opened the package. It contained an exquisite sculpture of a miniature orchid. It shimmered.

"Pretty," said Sirius.

Severus shook his head. "It's not just pretty," he said.

"Oh?"

"It's a Green Thumb. If you leave it by a plant or in a garden, it figures out what the plants need and gives it to them. Clever bit of magic. Pomona Sprout told me about them years ago when they were first being made."

"That means you can leave your plants for a week without anyone taking care of them?"

Severus nodded. "Exactly. And this one is beautiful. That was a very thoughtful gift. I'll text him..."

Sirius laughed. "Did you know he texted you before he owled me?"

Severus looked up from his mobile, surprised. "No," he said. "You aren't...ummm?"

"Upset? No, not at all," he answered and leaned over and kissed Severus on the lips. "How could I be? We both know he needed help, and you were the one to help him. He calls you Canto."

In bed before they fell asleep, Severus spoke in the darkness. "Sirius?"

"Mmmm?"

"Thank you for letting me help him."

"James?"

"Yes, James. It—it meant so much to me, being able to help him a bit."

Sirius turned over and pulled the other wizard to him. "I'm glad. And I know James is. And he has no idea it's you, but he does know that you're my partner." He touched the ring Severus wore, and Severus nodded.

"Ah," he said.

"He asked me flat out, and I couldn’t lie to him. He'll not say anything."

"Oh? From what you've told me about that family, I'd not have expected him to keep anything like that quiet."

"He's growing up, Severus. Less like his grandfather James and his uncle Ron as boys and more like his father and grandmother." He paused. "James changed, too, you know."

"Lily couldn't have loved him if he hadn't," said Severus.

"It's been so many years, Severus."

"Indeed." They held each other for a long time before falling asleep that evening, each buried in memories decades old, each acutely aware of the twists of fate that had brought them together. That it had required the deaths of James and Lily Potter could never be mentioned.


----- ∞ -----


The pain, Severus told Sirius, was almost gone. Sirius was well aware that "almost" didn't mean gone, and Severus's very occasional "bad days," days spent with fever and pain, scared him. Still, they made some longer-term plans and for the first time spoke of what they'd do if Severus decided to retire from the University.

Sirius again pressed Severus to move in with him. There was no reason not to. He could keep the house in Spinner's End with its greenhouse for his research and the orchids and go back and forth. "I'll Disapparate you," he said, and Severus had refused.

Sirius had, years and years before, told Severus that he could come get him, that there was no need for the long train ride to and from London which ate up so much time that they could have been spending together. Severus had always refused, never giving a reason, and Sirius had figured that Severus viewed that time as his penance, the boredom and bother of a long journey the price he had to pay for the time he spent with Sirius. Sirius could understand that. After all, he'd spent years in Azkaban, attempting by being punished to expiate his guilt over his part in James and Lily's deaths. And so the trips continued, the expense and bother of the train rides part of Severus's life.

"Severus, it would make sense—"

"I don't think you want to lose your independence that way, Sirius. Living together..."

"Oh, come on. People move in together all the time."

"Young people do. And people who've spent their lives with others. We'd drive each other round the bend."

"Can we try it, at least? For a time?"

"And what about Emmy?"

"She could move in with us. She and I get along all right when we go to Ireland."

"I don't want to ruin the anticipation of togetherness with the banality of day to day."

They spent a month together in December, travelling to Ireland where it was cold and windy and then staying at Sirius's flat in London, getting take-away from Indian restaurants and playing chess with intensity.

"See, I told you we could do it," said Sirius as he walked with Severus to the station.

"Aren't you glad to see me go? To get back your privacy?"

"No, I'll miss you. That cat, though, I'm not sure."

Emmy, from her carrier, hissed at him.

For Severus's 63rd birthday, three days later, Sirius sent him one hundred helium balloons. Severus rang him that evening, his voice squeaky.

"What are you doing?" Sirius asked.

"Lying on my bed covered with balloons, inhaling helium and laughing," Severus answered.

"I'll be right there."

At Easter, Severus took revenge. He decorated and painted six dozen eggs and hid them in Sirius's flat.

"You'd best find them before they get ripe," he said, leaning over and kissing Sirius. "I'll see you next week."

"We have an appointment with the tailor tomorrow morning," Sirius said the following Friday night.

Severus raised an eyebrow. "You may have."

"No, we need evening clothes. You'll like them—very Edwardian and full of complex buttonings and waistcoats and your sort of thing. You'll be gorgeous."

"Don't be daft, Sirius. Why ever would we need Muggle evening clothes?"

"We can't go to the Daily Prophet Plagiarism Picnic or the Order of Merlin Orgy." Sirius dropped a small, fat envelope over Severus's shoulder and into his lap. "So, my love, we have season tickets to the Muggle Royal Ballet, and we wouldn't want to look wizardly or underdressed."

"Your notion of dressed is to put on a shirt." Severus spread out the tickets to read them. "Oh, my. Oh, my. Giselle, too." He looked up at Sirius, his eyes even darker than usual.

"Yes, Giselle. Petrouchka. Afternoon of the Faun. Lilac Garden. And, to keep us from swooning permanently into a romantic soup, Coppelia, a couple of things by Balanchine, and The Concert (or, the Perils of Everybody)."

"I can't—"

"Yes, you can. I'm not going without you, and you wouldn't deprive me of such a blissfully agonized experience. Heartbreak, betrayal, exile, doomed love—our line of country, no doubt." Standing behind Severus, he put his hands on his shoulders. "Music and dancing and color and you in evening clothes. White tie and waistcoat with that fabulous white streak in your hair. I get hard just thinking about it."

"You're incorrigible," said Severus, holding the tickets for Giselle in one hand while he read through the rest of them again.

"I daresay," said Sirius. "I hope so. Do you think top hats and canes would be too much?"


----- ∞ -----

James texted him, and Sirius threw on his clothes and rushed to St. Mungo's. Rosie was on the bed, sitting up while a young healer cleaned the wound on her arm. Hermione was talking to Ron and Harry in a corner, while Ginny and James were with Al, who looked exhausted and upset, in contrast to Rosie's defiant face.

"Rosie," he said leaning over to give her a hug, hiding his panic.

"Grandpa Sirius!" she said, pointing at the bite on her arm. "I got bitten by a werewolf. I'm going to be a werewolf like Teddy's dad."

She seemed pleased with this development. There was no terror on her face, no fear, no fucking realisation, Sirius felt, that her life had changed forever or of the horror that awaited her.

"What happened?" he asked.

Ron's and Hermione's faces were grey and Harry's was barely better. He said, "Rosie and Al were out in the Forbidden Forrest last night, doing what Al wouldn't say. They were attacked by a werewolf, and Rosie got bitten."

"Is Al all right?"

"He wasn't bitten," said Hermione, "but he's not all right."

"Dear God," said Sirius. "What next?"

"The Ministry have already been in touch," Ron said. "It wants us to turn Rosie over so she can be branded." His voice faltered, and Harry put a hand on his arm. "And, of course, locked up. I don't know if Headmistress Clearwater has the guts to stand up to them at Hogwarts."

"Is she—? I mean, is she really—?"

Hermione sighed. "The attack happened as the moon was setting, and Al said she didn't transform. She will next month, though. She's already reacting to silver. It burns her."

Sirius didn't let his face reflect the despair that ate into him.

"She seems to be taking it well?" he asked.

"She thinks it's a lark," said Hermione. "She has no bloody clue." Hermione didn't swear often. Sirius unclenched his hand.

"Will she be able to get Wolfsbane?" he asked.

"Yes," said Ron. "That won't be a problem. But the Ministry want her under their control. They want to brand her, lock her up..."

"We won't let that happen, Ron," said Harry, his voice calm. "I don't want to, I never have, but, if they try, I'll run for Minister of Magic and I'll win."

Hermione turned to the lab bench behind her and touched a silver cauldron. Sirius could see her fighting back tears, and Ron held her while Harry put his arms around both of them. Sirius moved over toward Al.

His green eyes were full of despair, and he was pulled in on himself. The pain was tangible. Sirius put a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"It's my fault," Al said. "Why isn't it me who's hurt and not her?" and Sirius felt his heart break, remembering his own despair—why them and not me? He gripped Al's shoulder harder.

"We weren't far from school grounds," he said. "It was just about dawn, and suddenly something landed on top of me. I fell down on top of Rosie, and I could hear it snarling and growling. I grabbed my wand and rolled over and hit it with a Petrificus, but it didn't stop. It bit Rosie, then ran off." Harry, Ron, and Hermione were listening. "I grabbed Rosie, she was bleeding, and I dragged her to the light. The sun was just coming up."

"That was good thinking," said Hermione. "It probably prevented her from transforming right away which would have been dangerous for both of you."

"It's my fault. It should have been me."

Hermione shook her head. "Al, it's not a matter of blame. We've got to do what's best for Rosie."

"But if I'd stayed on top of her when we fell, it might have bit me instead."

"Or both of you or neither," said Hermione. "Sweetheart, this isn't useful, and it's hurting you."

Sirius felt a hand on his arm. It was James in his apprentice healer robes. "I need a word," he said.

Sirius followed him over to the lab bench. James cast a cone of silence spell, and Sirius remembered that Severus had invented that spell.

"Canto," James said.

"What?"

"When we were e-mailing, last spring? He mentioned once that he'd done some work extending Wolfsbane so it might prevent the initial transformation. We were talking potions theory."

Sirius remembered the evening years before when Severus had talked about it. He didn't know how far he'd gotten, if there was even a prototype. "Good thinking, James. Come on."

They Apparated to just outside Severus's back garden. Severus should be home, feeding Emmy before leaving to the train station to go to London, thought Sirius.

"James," he said, and James turned from the greenhouse to him. "Listen. This is going to be a shock, and it's important to me that the rest of them don't find out who Canto is in my life."

"What do you mean?"

"I'll explain how we found him, all right? And, yes, I'll be lying. It's complicated, in more ways than one." He was floundering, and James nodded, just as Severus, Emmy in his arms, opened the back door.

"Sirius? What's the matter?" Sirius felt bad about the fear on Severus's face.

"Severus, this is my grandson, James Potter. James, this is Severus Snape. My best friend, my lover, my partner. You know him as Canto."

James's mouth opened. Severus carefully put Emmy down and looked at the younger man. He didn't hold out a hand, and Sirius knew it was because he didn't expect James to want to touch it, and that diffidence, that lack of self-esteem, cracked another part of his heart.

James recovered quickly and held out his hand. "Professor," he said, and for the first time Sirius realised how much James sounded like Harry.

Severus blinked. They shook hands, and Sirius felt one of the bands that seemed to be constricting his chest dissolve. "What's the trouble?" asked Severus.

"Rosie has been bitten by a werewolf." Sirius told the story briefly, emphasising that she hadn't transformed.

"And why...?"

"You mentioned you were working with Damocles Belby at one point and had hoped you might have made a potion that maybe could help when we were e-mailing last year?" said James.

They went into the kitchen.

"Yes, but it's theoretical. It's never been tested, never been brewed. I don't know if it'll work, what it would do, the side effects."

"The Ministry want to brand her and lock her up. Remember Remus's life." Sirius could see Severus starting to waver.

"But I don't know..."

"Severus," said Sirius. "Rosie has been bitten. Al was with her. He thinks it's his fault, and if she does turn—Hermione said she's already started to react to silver—he'll have to live with that guilt forever."

"I'll get my notes."

They followed him upstairs and into his office. He gathered three notebooks and some loose parchments and put them in a leather bag. They followed him into the bedroom, and James blushed, seeing the narrow, neatly made bed, wondering if Professor Snape and his grandfather had had sex there. Sirius, noticing the blush on the younger man's face, raised one eyebrow, and James blushed even more deeply.

Severus opened the drawer on his bedside table and took out his wand. He held it, and Sirius stopped breathing. He'd seen it before, had seen Severus touch it with a fingertip when he opened the drawer, seen the look of longing. His throat ached as Severus held it and realised that his Muggle jacket didn't have a place for it.

From the wardrobe Sirius took out a black robe. It smelled slightly musty, and, knowing that there would be more illegal spells cast that day, he cast a freshening spell and handed the robe to Severus. Severus blinked. "Put it on," he said.

"I'll wait downstairs," said James.

"We'll sort out the Ministry," said Sirius. "Harry should have enough pull."

"It doesn't matter," Severus said. "It's the least I can do for Healer Granger."

Sirius slipped his hand behind Severus's head and pulled him close. They kissed, and Severus pulled away. "Time to play wizard, I imagine," he said and changed into his robe.

He looked different. His chin was up, his eyes sparkling and fierce, his shoulders pulled back. "Let's go," he said. He cast a concealment charm on his ring, picked up his bag, put his wand up his sleeve, and Sirius felt overwhelmed with love for him.

Along with fear for Rosie, pain for Al, and concern about how he was going to pull this off. He knew that Severus needed to keep their relationship private.

James was petting Emmy, and she was tolerating it. He looked up when he heard the swish of Severus's robes and felt pure astonishment. This proud wizard, dark and powerful, was no one he'd met.

"Hmmm," said Sirius. "She attempts to scratch my eyes out if I think at her wrong, but she's letting you pet her."

James said nothing, his eyes huge. He put down the cat and stood.

In the garden, they pulled their wands.

"You good for this?" asked Sirius.

"It's like breathing."

"Hermione," said Sirius, going into the hospital room, Severus and James following him. "I've brought someone who may be able to help."

Everyone froze briefly, then Harry's and Ron's hands both went to their wands. Al was sitting by the side of Rosie's bed, and he alone didn't move.

"What the hell, Sirius?" said Harry.

Sirius held up a hand. Severus didn't move, but stood silently between James and Sirius. "Come," Sirius said, and the adults moved over to the lab bench. James went to sit next to Rosie and Al.

"Years ago, like, oh, four years after the War, I met Severus at Remus's grave. He's the one who left the wolfsbane plants."

Harry nodded. Going to Godric's Hollow two days late one year with Teddy, they'd found the bouquet and wondered at it.

"He mentioned that he'd been collaborating with Damocles Belby and working on an improved potion that I think might help Rosie."

The lie was told, with enough truth to make it plausible, and Sirius gulped. He could tell the atmosphere in the room had chilled, and he bit the inside of his cheek, trying to calm himself.

"And?" asked Ron, his tone aggressive.

Severus spoke for the first time. "I may have a potion that can prevent the first transformation, Mr. Weasley," he said.

Sirius saw Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny start, and he realised that they'd never heard Severus speak, since—since.

"What makes you think that, Snape?" asked Harry.

Severus pulled notebooks and papers from his bag and set them out. He pointed to a diagram and addressed Hermione.

"These are the paths of how lycanthropy affects a human being, Healer Granger," he said and started to explain what he'd done to block the pathways, thereby preventing the change from happening.

Al moved over, his green eyes wide, listening to Severus.

“Each component of the potion prevents something from happening, and the whole potion is derived from Wolfsbane, which, as you know, already disrupts the monthly transformation in that the werewolf doesn't lose his or her human mind during that time.”

Severus paused, and Al leaned over and pointed to the page. "You're using meadowsweet to keep the body temperature from reaching a wolf's," he said. "Right?"

Severus nodded.

"What would happen the next time she caught a cold?" Al looked up at Severus, who froze. There was a moment's silence.

"It's not the same thing," he said finally, and they were off again.

Harry, Ron, Ginny, and Sirius were silent. Hermione understood a good portion of Severus's explanation, as did James and Al.

"And you think it will work?" she asked.

"I don't know for sure, Healer Granger," he said. "I've not brewed it. I've not tested it. I know that theoretically it should work."

"Basically, if I understand correctly," said Al, "you've created a whole series of predictive tables, using underlying structures, and now you could know how ingredients will interact magically before even mixing them?"

Severus looked impressed. "That is pretty much it, Mr. Potter," he said.

"Wow," said Al, and Hermione nodded. "That's extraordinary. The question is: will it work?"

"The plants I've used, with the exception of the meadowsweet, are either non-toxic to werewolves and humans or plants whose toxicity is mitigated by the brewing."

"What would happen if she took it?" asked Ron.

"If the potion works, she'll revert to fully human. She's not a werewolf yet. By blocking these pathways, we hope she won't ever fully transform."

"And would there be side effects?"

Severus nodded. "Yes, there will. Mild ones, I think. The poppies will make her sleepy, and the goat weed is an...um...aphrodisiac," Al and James both giggled. "Aside from that—" He spread his open hands.

Hermione was reading Severus's papers carefully. She shook her head. "What are the odds?"

"I don't know, Healer Granger. I honestly don't think it will harm her, but I have no tests and no guarantees."

"It shouldn't," said James, studying the list of ingredients, and Al nodded.

"Can you brew it?" Hermione asked.

Severus closed his eyes briefly. "Yes," he said.

"Should I trust you?"

"You have no reason to."

"Except that you came, knowing you were putting yourself at risk of imprisonment, because Sirius and my nephew asked you to help my daughter."

"I owe you at least that much, Healer Granger."

"Oh?" They were looking straight at each other, and Hermione suddenly remembered he was a Legilimens. An image appeared in her mind of Sirius on a beach, turning around to smile at someone, the wind whipping his hair around his face and an aura of happiness surrounding him. She blinked, suddenly understanding, tears pricked her eyelids at that image of precarious happiness when her daughter was sitting on a bed almost certainly becoming a werewolf.

She nodded. "Please do, then. I trust you."

"Hermione," hissed Harry, and Ron was about to protest, but she shook her head.

"And you will have to trust me, Ron. Professor, what do you need?"

They gathered around to watch. Hermione had put a hand on Sirius's arm and whispered "Thank you," and, from the expression on her face, he knew she knew and somehow that helped. James went to fetch the ingredients necessary for the potion, and Severus flicked his wand at the cauldron to light a low flame and prepared the potion base. His hands, as always, were elegant, his movements quick and economical. As when he was cooking, and Sirius remembered the comfort of pasta puttanesca, his favourite food, made in the dingy kitchen at Spinner's End.

Al was staring intently at the work, having carefully read Severus's notes. He pulled his potions knife from his pocket, stood next to Severus, and started shredding orris roots. Severus glanced at his work, looked him in the face, held very still again, and then moved over to give him room. He pulled on dragonhide gloves, and Al motioned him toward the Aconitum napellus leaves, careful not to touch them.

The room filled with the smell of brewing meadowsweet while Al crushed a mix of beetle carapaces and poppy seeds. James was hurrying in and out, bringing ingredients from the apothecary and the medicinal gardens.

Severus murmured a spell, moving his wand subtly, and stepped back from the bench. The potion was simmering.

"I'll stir," said Al.

"Figure eights," Severus said. "Every tenth one counterclockwise. Pause thirty seconds between cycles. Glass stirring stick."

Harry asked, "Why?"

It was Al who answered. "It helps stretch out the properties. The nine-eights-counter-one is good when you have potions with poppies in them."

"That makes no sense," said Ron, and Harry nodded.

For a moment it looked as if Severus was going to respond, and his four former Potions students braced themselves, but it was James who spoke. "Actually, it does. As Al said, it stretches the magical properties of the poppies and allows them to bind with the aconite and the beetles."

"If you say so," said Ron.

Al had been up all night, and the day had been a disaster until the last forty minutes.

"Are you tired?" asked Severus, taking the stick from him and stirring carefully.

"Yes."

"Could you have someone bring food, James?' asked Hermione. "And some tea and coffee?"

He nodded and left.

The mood in the room had changed, Sirius noticed. From despair to hope. Ron and Hermione had lost their haunted expressions. Rosie slept, thanks to the potions to help her wound heal.

Some food and coffee woke Al up, and he took over the stirring from Severus, who stood poised with his wand ready for the spells he muttered over the potion every five or six minutes.

Al rolled up his shirtsleeves and seemed better since they were doing something. The resilience of youth, thought Sirius, much better than the hollow misery he'd seen in Al's eyes that morning. "This summer, when I'm out of school," Al said, "I'm getting a tat."

He raised his left arm, and James jumped back to avoid being splashed with potion from the stir stick. "An asp," he said, "slithering up my arm."

"Of course," said James, but Sirius was staring at Severus who had a look of horror on his face. Probably reminded of the Dark Mark.

"An asp?" Severus asked.

"Yeah, it's a snake, you know, a viper," said Al.

Harry shifted uncomfortably.

"It isn't an obvious choice." Severus turned pages in one of his notebooks, read, then made a complicated gesture with his wand over the cauldron, saying something in a low voice that could have been Latin but wasn't. A purple vapour drifted upwards and filled the room with the scent of ammonia.

Al watched the drift of the vapour and then laughed. "Of course it is. I mean, ASP? You know? Oh. Maybe you don't." He held out his hand. "Albus Severus Potter. ASP."

Stunned, Severus took the proffered hand. Sirius remembered that Al had been born when he had been living with Rachel, and he wasn't sure he'd ever told Severus Al's full name, why he didn't quite know. Damn. Damn. Nor had he mentioned that, like Harry, Al had Lily's eyes.

Oblivious of Severus's reaction, Al stirred the potion again, nine figure eights and one counterclockwise. He grinned at Severus. "They had to know I was going to end up in Slytherin with a name like that."

Severus's hand gripped the edge of the lab bench. "You're in Slytherin?" he asked.

Sirius had deliberately not mentioned it. He was a Gryffindor, after all, and acknowledging to Snape, Severus Snape—friend and lover, perhaps, but Slytherin to the bone—that Al was in his old house? Never would he give the old snake the satisfaction. He figured there might be hell to pay for it later. Oh, well. Maybe sex would help.

Al adopted a slightly combative posture. "You have a problem with that?"

"Al..." started Harry, but Severus was already speaking.

"No, quite the contrary. I was surprised, that's all. It doesn't seem like a place to find one of Harry Potter's children."

"Don't be. I'm a Slytherin true and through and proud of it."

"I'm glad to hear it," said Severus, who seemed to be, Sirius thought, in shock.

Al must have heard something in his voice. "Are you a Slytherin?"

Severus nodded. "I was."

"Then you still are. Once, always—you know. Glad to have an ally in this bunch." He pointed his thumb at the rest of the room. "Bloody Gryffindors, the whole lot of them. Rosie and I stand out like sore thumbs."

"Is Miss Weasley a Slytherin, too?" asked Severus. "One moment. Let me—" Al stepped back to give Severus room to stir figure eights with his wand this time, nine and one counterclockwise.

"Does that make a difference?" asked Al.

"It should increase the power of the potion, if all goes well." Severus wiped his wand on a cloth and let Al resume stirring and his train of thought.

"Rosie's a Ravenclaw. The rest of them, though? Pfah! Gryffindors. And they act like it."

Sirius rolled his eyes. "Hey, go easy on us," he said. "We're just dumb Gryffindors."

"You said it, Grandpa, not me," said Al, with a grin. "Why don't you get a tattoo, too? A lion."

"Or 'Marauders' in a some cool script?" said James.

"A black dog," suggested Ginny. "That would make sense."

"A motorbike," said Harry.

Severus said, "A pink heart with 'Mother' in it."

Harry and Ron looked at each other. They remembered the old animosity between Severus and Sirius, and Harry wasn't about to take the truce for granted.

But Sirius started to laugh, and then the rest of them did, except for James and Al who looked perplexed.

"My mother," said Sirius, wiping tears from his face, "was the nastiest old bag you could imagine. She's the one whose portrait is walled off at Percy's. I used to live in Grimmauld Place."

"I didn't know that," said Al, surprised. "We never visited there much."

Severus shook two drops of liquid into the potion from a tiny bottle he took from his sleeve. He moved his wand in intricate patterns over the cauldron and nodded to Al to continue stirring.

"Was that—?"

"Yes."

"Dangerous."

"Yes. But without aconite—"

"No point at all, really." Al sighed and, glancing at the others, added, "Aconitum lycotonum is wolfsbane. Too much, she dies. Too little, she's a werewolf."

"I wonder why you never visited Percy," said Sirius. "Maybe because it was the most horrible house ever. And nothing Percy did helped. I tried to warn him when he bought the place." He turned to Severus. "So no, no pink hearts with 'Mother,' thank you very much. Hideous thought."

"Did you know Sirius's mother?" Al asked.

Severus nodded. "Indeed. I knew Sirius's brother. He brought me to meet his parents."

"Did you like Sirius's mother?"

Severus rolled his eyes, which made Al and James laugh.

The door opened suddenly. Roger Davies, the new Minister of Magic, entered, followed by two Aurors who looked apologetically at Harry.

"Ah, ha!" said Minister Davies.

Harry put up a hand. "James, Al, leave the room and close the door," he said.

Both young men obeyed instantly, hearing something in their father's voice that wasn't often there. Harry cast the cone of silence spell, shielding the sleeping Rosie.

The Aurors moved to Severus, seizing his arms. He didn't resist, but handed the stir stick to Sirius. "Don't stop," he said, and one Auror shook him.

"That's enough, Minister. Geoffrey, let him go," said Harry.

"You may be the head of the Auror division, Potter, but ultimately they answer to me. Franken, Rivers, arrest that man and take him to Azkaban."

Furious, Sirius opened his mouth to protest, but Harry was already speaking.

"I don't think that will be necessary, Roger," he said. "Professor Snape is helping us with an unfortunate situation, and he will be using magic for the duration."

"Which brings up the other matter at hand," said Minister Davies, pointing at Rosie. "The girl must be taken into Ministry custody and branded. That's the law and—"

Ron leapt toward him, but Ginny and Hermione grabbed him.

"I don't think that will be necessary," repeated Harry. "Rosie stands a good chance of not being a werewolf—no, hear me out—if the potion Professor Snape is brewing works. Which means there is no need to brand or imprison her. Professor Snape is here at my request, helping us in a way no other wizard could. We owe him thanks, not the threat of Azkaban."

"You think that's the way it's going to work? Rivers! Franken!"

The Aurors glanced between the Minister and at their boss. Harry was pretty sure their loyalty was with him, but didn't want it tried.

"Roger, let me be clear on one thing," he said. "If you push this you will regret it."

Davies pulled himself up to his full height and looked down at Harry. "Are you threatening me?"

"Ummm, yes, I think I am. If you continue this, I will challenge you for your job. And make no mistake about it—I will win."

Roger Davies paled. "There is no—"

"Why don't you leave now? Rosie is going to be fine, and, even if she isn't, we'll keep her safe and make sure she takes Wolfsbane, and, yes, we'll inform the Ministry of what's happening. Professor Snape is under my protection for the…next few days and will be performing magic as needed. Is that clear?"

The Minister didn't answer. He turned on his heel, called to the two Aurors, and they left. It was a good thing, Sirius thought, that the Minister didn't notice the thumbs up Rivers and Franken gave Harry as they left.

Severus nodded his thanks to Harry and once again stirred the pattern with his wand, adding two more drops of the aconite. He murmured another spell no one quite caught, and the room was filled with the scents of fennel and wet steel. The mist was scarlet.

"That cone of silence spell?" said Harry to Severus. "One of the most useful spells ever. Thank you."

Severus inclined his head. He looked, Sirius thought, vulnerable and tired. "I think the thanks—"

But Harry cut him off. "No. Don't, please."

Severus nodded, and Sirius wanted to touch him.

Al and James returned. "What did they want?" asked Al, but his father shook his head.

Nobody spoke for a long time. The potion simmered, Al and James taking turns stirring. Severus, after a wave of his wand that produced both lavender mist and lavender scent from the cauldron, was making notes and additions to his papers, and Hermione was reading through them.

The healers were doing afternoon rounds when Severus cast a wordless vanilla-scented spell, inspected the potion, and said, "It's done."

"How can you tell?" asked Al.

"See how, when you look deep into it at an angle, you can see a full moon?" said Severus. Al tried and nodded. "That's the mark of any potion with aconite in it. When it starts out, it's fully poisonous, and the moon appears as a waxing crescent. The toxicity goes down as the moon gets fuller. At full, as it is now, it's non-toxic. That's where you want it for both Wolfsbane and this potion. If you continue to bind the aconite, the moon will start to wane, and the toxic effects will start to intensify in the opposite direction."

"You mean, instead of slowing down the heart and breathing, it'll speed them up?" asked Al.

Severus nodded. "Yes, it will start acting like digitalis, which is, of course, the antidote for aconite poisoning."

"Why would you ever get to the waning moon, then? Why not use digitalis?"

"Because they aren't exact opposites," answered Severus, carefully pouring the potion into a goblet. "They're close, but their magical properties are slightly different. And aconite is also a diaphoretic."

"Which is what?" asked Al.

James answered. "A fever reducer," he said. "Which brings up the question of why the meadowsweet?"

Severus nodded. "The meadowsweet binds to one of the lycanthropy pathways. In this case the aconite is needed elsewhere..."

"I haven't felt this dumb in a long time," Ron said.

Ginny grinned at him. "We're only dumb Gryffindors," she reminded him. "And I don't understand a damn thing they're saying, either."

"Snape doesn't look too good, does he?" said Ron, suddenly.

"What do you mean?" asked Sirius.

"I dunno," said Ron, "I guess he looks...um…kind of frail."

"And, oh, maybe a few decades older? So odd because, of course, the rest of us still look like our teenage selves," laughed Ginny.

"Okay, fine," said Ron. "Still, he could stand to gain a stone."

"Ron, you sound like Mum," said Ginny. "We'll have to feed him."

Harry turned to Sirius. "Sirius, thank you for bringing him. It never would have occurred to me. I'm so glad you knew about the potion. And where Snape was."

"Me, too," said Sirius, not liking where the conversation was headed.

"So you saw him? When?"

"As I said, a few years after the War. You know how I visit the cemetery the next day? Well, he was there, and we talked for a bit."

Hermione interrupted them. "It's ready," she said.

They woke Rosie up and gave her a light meal. She turned her nose up at the strawberries and said she'd prefer some raw meat, thanks, and her parents turned pale, but James said, "Cut it out, Rosie," and she ate the berries and toast and drank some tea.

Hermione sat on the bed next to her daughter and explained what the potion was and what it would do.

"No," said Rosie.

"Sorry?" said her father.

"I'm not taking it."

"Rosie—"

"Dad, I want to be a werewolf."

"No one could want to be a werewolf."

Ron and Hermione talked to her. Harry interjected facts about Remus. Sirius spoke last.

"You don't know what you're talking about, Rosie. I grew up with Remus Lupin. We were good friends for a long time. It wasn't an easy life, to put it mildly—every month a sweet boy turned into a mindless, murderous beast and had to be forcibly restrained—and I doubt things have gotten better for werewolves."

She was adamant. Severus told her that Wolfsbane tasted horrid and that she'd have to take it every month, and that stopped her for a moment until she decided that she wasn't going to take it. She'd roam the Forbidden Forest and threaten to eat students.

"Can it wait?" asked Ron. "Will the transformation happen tonight?"

Severus shook his head. "I'm not sure. But the moon is still nearly full, and I'm afraid changes are happening, changes that will be complete at the next full moon when she'd make her first transformation."

"She has to take it today," said Hermione. "The silver burns are leaving worse marks on her skin."

"Do you think there is anything we can do?" asked Sirius.

"Not really," sighed Ron. "She's of age so she can make her own decisions."

"By the time we could get a compulsory treatment order it would be too late," added Hermione.

"Then hold her bloody down and drip it in through a tube!" hissed Sirius. "I saw what happened to Remus—she'd never survive it."

Rosie would not take the potion. Her eyes had taken on a hard yellow look that Sirius remembered from Remus's, and Al looked terrified.

"Rosie, why would you want to be a werewolf? I don't understand," said Ginny.

The girl had always had the same fierceness and strength as her Aunt Ginny. Now she broke down in angry tears. "I hate myself! I hate being who I am. At school they call me Rulesie Rosie! I'm tired of following rules, I'm tired of being Rosie, Head Girl because she's never done anything wrong. I'm not going to be Rulesie Rosie anymore! I'm going to be a werewolf, and everyone will be afraid of me. I won't take your stupid potion!"

They looked at each other.

"Miss Weasley?" Severus's voice was soft.

"Yes, sir?" she said, something in his tone commanding respect.

"You will take that potion."

"No, I won't! I'm not going to! I'm going to be a powerful werewolf. And—"

"You will take it."

"That is so not going to happen."

Severus sat down on the bed next to her and stared straight at her. "You will take it. Because the rest of them? Your parents, your aunt and uncle, your Grandfather Sirius? They're nice people." His tone was conversational. "I am not."

"Oh?" she said, looking worried for the first time.

"You will take the potion of your own volition, or I will put you under an Imperius Curse and you will take it then. Your choice."

"That's an Unforgivable."

Severus shrugged. "It is, isn't it? I've cast others. I don't care. Miss Weasley, it's your choice. Drink it or I will make you drink it."

Harry and Ron looked at each other. He wouldn't, would he?

"You wouldn't dare," said Rosie. "They'd throw you in Azkaban."

His gaze was level. "I don't care."

Sirius remembered the evening at that train station near Bristol so many years before. Severus staring down the hooligans who'd taunted them. "They could kill you," he'd said, and Severus had shrugged and said what he was saying now. "I don't care." The words ripped at Sirius. He might have moved on, his life was complete, himself fully invested with Severus, no longer pining for James, but Severus hadn't. He didn't care if he died. Sirius would always be nothing to him compared to Lily. He tried to clear his throat.

"You couldn't! I'd resist."

Severus raised an eyebrow calmly and didn't bother responding. Harry leaned over his niece, and his voice was almost as level as Severus's. "Rosie," he said. "He could, and you couldn't."

Shocked, she started to cry. Hermione made a move, but it was Severus who reached her. He put an arm around her shoulder and handed her the goblet. She took it from him and drank. She dropped the goblet and buried her face on Severus's shoulder. He looked helpless for a moment, then held her as she cried. When her sobbing quieted he helped her sit back on the bed, and she looked up, her face wet with tears. Her eyes had lost their lupine glint. Hermione pressed a silver spoon to her daughter's hand, and there was only a slight reddening of the skin. The relief in the room was unmistakable.

She sniffled. "That was vile," she said.

Severus nodded sympathetically. "Indeed. It tastes better than pure Wolfsbane, though. However, like Wolfsbane, you will have to take it each month. It's probably an unnecessary precaution, but better to be safe."

Her mouth opened in outrage. "You didn't tell me that!"

"It must have slipped my mind," he said.

"You tricked me!" she shrieked.

Ron and Harry hid their laugher. The young healer came in to check the dressings on Rosie's arm and pulled a curtain around the bed, and Hermione and the others joined Harry and Ron. The laughter was full of relief.

Al was shaking his head and staring at Severus. "You outwitted Rosie," he said, disbelief in his tone. "I don't believe it. You managed to trick Rosie. That's, like, never happened before."

"Al," said Harry. "He tricked Voldemort. I don't think Rosie posed much difficulty for him. This is Severus Snape."

Al recovered quickly. He held out his hand. "Honoured to meet you, Headmaster," he said.

Severus shook his head. Sirius knew he loathed that he'd officially been headmaster at Hogwarts because of the death of Dumbledore and the Death Eater takeover of the school. He took Al's hand, though, and Sirius decided to intervene.

"Call him Snivellus, Al," he said. "I do."

"Sirius," said Ginny sharply, "behave."

"Good dog," said Severus. "Roll over. Fetch."

There was no animosity in their tones, and Harry relaxed. He supposed that maturity had softened their edges.

Al was staring at Severus, almost adoringly.

Severus put away his papers. He turned to Hermione. "I'll finish writing up the instructions for the potion, Healer Granger," he said, "and I'll drop them in the post to you. If you have any questions on brewing it, let me know.”

Rosie had gotten out of bed, helped by her father and uncle. "I'm tired," she said. "So sleepy."

"Normal," said James. "There was one wallop of poppies in that potion. Oh. And plenty of goatsbane." He blushed. "Maybe we should leave Rosie and Al?" he said, and Ron and Harry both scowled at him.

There was a quick knock on the door, Hermione called "Come in," and Sirius groaned.

Rachel rushed over to Rosie, breathlessly worried, horrified that Rosie was going to be werewolf, in tears, hugging Rosie, patting Al. Hermione managed to say that Rosie was fine, that she'd probably not transform, and Rachel's sigh of relief was loud.

Severus was staring at the woman. She had blond curls and wore a pink robe with a scattering of sequins. Her glasses were pink, too. She was plump, and her eyes were wide and blue. Her voice was wispy and little girl-ish, and he had a sudden image of Dolores Umbridge, without Umbridge's malice.

She saw Sirius, who had a fixed smile on his face, launched herself at him and enveloped him in a hug. "Sirius, by Merlin, it's been too long!"

"Hullo, Rachel," said Sirius, dreading the look on Severus's face.

She turned to Severus and smiled blandly. Sirius tried to extricate himself to introduce Severus properly, but was unable to, and Hermione did it.

"Professor, this is Rachel Gladwing, a Matron here at St. Mungo's," she said. "Rachel, this is Professor Severus Snape."

There was a look of shock on Rachel's face, but she recovered quickly and held out a hand. She also let go of Sirius.

Hermione explained why Severus was there, and Rachel volubly started thanking him, because, really, poor Rosie, that would have just been too horrid. Rosie called her over to show her the actual bite, and she went to hug the young girl close.

Severus turned to James. "If you could accompany me downstairs, Mr. Potter, I'll go home," he said.

"No," said Ginny, and Severus turned to her, surprised. "Come with us. We're going to have dinner. We can at least feed you."

"That's quite all right, Mrs. Potter," he said, "I don't—"

"Please," said Ron, and Rosie, held up by Rachel and Al, nodded.

"I, uh..."

"Come to my place," Sirius said, knowing that, even if he had to hide it, the familiarity of the surroundings would be comforting for Severus.

He got everyone settled with butterbeer and pumpkin juice. Sirius could feel it. They wanted to thank Severus, but he was putting out "Don't touch me, please ignore me," and they were unable to. Harry spoke to Sirius in the kitchen while he was organising glasses. "I want to say thank you, Sirius, and I don't know how. I'm having a hard time with 'Thank you for giving my niece back her life and saving my son from a lifetime of guilt,' you know?"

Sirius polished a glass that didn't need it. "I don't think he wants you to," he said. "I'm betting he's viewing it as a given that he'd help. I know one thing, though. He'd never want Al to go through a life of guilt. He knows about guilt."

Rosie was dozing in the spare bedroom, and Al was with her.

Sirius rang for take-away Indian and asked James and Severus to go with him to pick it up.

On the way downstairs, Sirius leaned over and hit the stop button. The lift came to a halt between floors.

"What—" began James.

"James," said Sirius firmly. "Turn around, please."

James obediently turned his back to the other two wizards, and Sirius took Severus in his arms. Severus tried to resist for a moment, but then gave in.

James whistled tunelessly and watched in the polished metal doors.

Severus's arms around Sirius's waist, Sirius's around Severus's neck. James watched them kiss, and he swallowed against the emotions that filled him.

It was a long, sweet kiss, reminding them why they'd chosen, against the odds, to be together.

"You all right?" Sirius asked.

"Yes," said Severus. "He has Lily's eyes."

"Which means no," sighed Sirius. "I'm sorry, but I had to bring you."

"I'm glad I could help."

"I'm sorry I didn't warn you. You were right years ago—I am an impossible cretin."

"Not a bit of it. As I recall, a cretinous imbecile."

They kissed again, and Sirius dropped his head to Severus's shoulder for a moment, inhaling the smell of potion, of poppy and aconite, of meadowsweet and calendula. He was flooded with love for the other man, wanted nothing more than to say "I love you," to go upstairs and walk in holding Severus's hand and acknowledge him to his other family.

One more kiss, then Sirius leaned over the hit the start button, and the lift jerked into motion. He noticed the shiny doors, turned to James and said, "You watched."

James grinned at both of them as the doors opened on the ground floor. "Totally hot," he said. Sirius laughed, and Severus blushed.

On their way to the restaurant, James said, "I suppose this is a spectacular time to say that I'm gay, huh?"

"Spectacular," said Sirius. "When are you planning on telling your parents?"

"When he gets out of school."

"He?"

"My...um..."

"Partner," supplied Severus, with a half-smile that warmed Sirius. "There are other words, but partner always seemed like a good one to me."

"And he is gay, too?"

"Umm...duh, Grandpa," said James, but Sirius shook his head.

"It doesn't always work that way, James."

"Your grandfather is my best friend," said Severus, "the person I'm the closest to." His voice was halting, but he seemed determined to go on. "We...entered into a sexual relationship because..."

Because I begged, thought Sirius.

"Because, I think, I wanted so overwhelmingly to be with him that it didn't matter if he was a wizard or a witch."

"I mean—my first crush? When I was eleven?" said James.

"Was?"

"Teddy," admitted James. "I saw him and Victoire snogging and, you know, holding hands and all that? The more I saw them the more I wanted to snog Teddy...and Teddy is straighter than straight."

Sirius laughed and put his arm around the younger man's shoulders. "I totally understand that," he said, remembering the other James.

On the way back up to Sirius's flat, James said to the other two men, "Thank you."

"For what?" asked Sirius as the doors opened to the landing.

"For not being shocked. And, like, because it's the two of you. The old enemies, Sirius Black and Severus Snape. Well, my partner—?"

"Yes?"

"Scorpius Malfoy," said James, going into the flat and leaving Sirius and Severus standing there dumbfounded.

"I think we're going to laugh about this later," Sirius said.

"Draco Malfoy's son?"

"I think so. This is too much for me."

"But not snogging in the lift?" asked Severus.

"One of these nights, let's make it sex in the lift," suggested Sirius. "I don't know why we never did that before."

Nobody noticed that Severus was blushing when they came in.

"You like James, don't you?" asked Sirius, later that evening. They were sitting in bed after the evening spent with a full house. When it came time to leave, James offered loudly, "I'll Disapparate back to your place with you, Professor, to make sure the Ministry aren't waiting," and they'd left, doubling back after everyone else was gone.

"He's a wonderful young man," said Severus, marking his place in The Towers of Silence and taking a sip of brandy.

Sirius beamed. "He is. When we were putting things away in the kitchen, he told me how much he liked you, and he asked if he could hang with us sometimes. The fact that he wants to hang with us rather than visit is, I think, a compliment."

"Al is very talented. So much like Lily," Severus said. "But I didn't know...I mean, his name. I..."

Sirius touched Severus's arm. "I think it was Harry's way of saying it was over, that he understood. He might not have liked you, and he and the others treated you very wrongly, but for him it was over in some way."

Severus nodded. "Poor boy," he said.

"Al? No. He thinks it's great. He goes by Asp at Hogwarts, as you've probably figured, and Harry has always told him that he was named after two of the men he most admired."

"I...I'm speechless."

"Not as speechless as Harry's going be when he finds out that James is in love with Scorpius Malfoy."

"Will that be a problem?"

Sirius shook his head. "I don't think so. They'll never be friends, but Harry and Draco Malfoy apparently can tolerate each other when they need to be together."

"Sirius, I've never asked. How is Lucius? And your cousin?"

"They're doing fine," Sirius said nastily. "I keep hoping they'll rot in hell, but no joy."

"Sirius?"

"What? You expect me to have any good feelings towards Lucius Fucking Malfoy, who is a respected member of the wizarding community, despite having gotten caught twice supporting Voldemort, whilst you are banished from our world?"

"That's not Lucius's fault. I deserved..."

Sirius held out a hand. "Let's not go through that again, Severus. If they'd applied punishments and rewards equitably—"

"Hush," said Severus. "I deserved what was done to me, Sirius. I have no animosity against the Wizengamot."

"Well, I do," said Sirius. "I know why you were punished and Lucius wasn't, and Harry knows it, too. He does petition the Wizengamot every year to get you pardoned, but even he hasn't been able to get them to reverse their ruling.”

"What do you mean? About why."

Sirius shook his head. "It's that—Lucius and some of the others who got off scot-free? Their crimes were against nameless people, against all of us. You were punished for its being James and Lily."

"That only seems fair to me."

"No. Mary MacDonald, who was killed in Diagon Alley years ago, was her life less valuable than Lily's? Was Colin Creevey's? Was—"

Severus winced. "Poor Colin. The Creevey boys. That was terribly sad."

Sirius interlaced his fingers with Severus's, looking at his brown skin next to Severus's ivory. He brought Severus's hand to his lips and kissed his palm. They sat in silence.

Then Sirius said, "You've met Rachel."

"I can see why you...left. Why you wanted to try to make a life with her."

"Oh," said Sirius, surprised.

"What? Did you think I'd detest her?"

Sirius gazed at the sheet. "No, but I hoped you'd have at least some animosity towards her—or was that reserved for me?"

"No animosity. Sirius, you never did understand. I wasn't ever angry with you. I was hurt, but it makes sense to me that you would want a life in the open with the normal things that you would have had if it hadn't been for me."

“And if I hadn't been gay, of course.”

“Of course.”

He kissed Severus's palm again. "I don't want those things, Severus. I don't regret any of them." It hurt that Severus would have let him go for what he thought was his good, but, when Severus and Lily had had their falling out, Severus had come to grips with the fact that he and Lily would never have made it, that he was dark to her light, and Sirius guessed that Severus in some ways saw their relationship in a similar manner.

"I'm sorry," said Severus, "I wish you could have a normal life, but I'm so very glad that you didn't. That is, well, us."

"This is my normal life," said Sirius. "It's a little undisclosed, maybe, but that saves you from all those Weasley dinners."

Much later, when the lights were out and they'd settled down to sleep, Severus spoke. "When you showed up, with James—? And you said, 'This is my best friend, my lover, my partner'? That made me so happy. Like the sun after a stormy day." Sirius didn't answer but turned over to pull Severus to him. They fell asleep and woke up in each other's arms and made drowsy love in the dawn light.


----- ∞ -----

Hermione appealed to the Wizengamot, and, while she wasn't able to get it to budge on Severus's banishment, did get permission for his work on the anti-lycanthropy potion to be published in both healer and potion journals to much acclaim.

Al and Rosie took their N.E.W.T.s. Al did well in general and outstandingly in potions, and Rosie got Os in almost every subject. She spent her summer with Ron and George and Al at the joke shop and in the fall started work in the legal department at the Ministry and rapidly rose in the ranks. Al stayed on at the joke shop, and, though there was considerable disappointment that he was wasting his talents there, his happiness was obvious. Al and Rosie had moved into a flat off Diagon Alley, and James and Scorpius Malfoy moved into one in the same building.

The flat next to Sirius's came on the market, and Sirius and Severus decided to buy it and remodel the two into one. Using a combination of Muggle and wizarding contractors, they got the original estimate of about one year down to three months, which they decided to spend at their cottage in Ireland. Sirius, without telling Severus, had an addition made to the plans: he had a compact greenhouse built in one corner of the rooftop garden.

When they got back, Severus moved in with Sirius, supposedly on a trial basis, working from his office in the flat in London and commuting to Manchester several times a week. He was thrilled with the new greenhouse, Emmy found a sunny spot in the rooftop garden that was especially to her liking, and they settled in with much less fuss than they had expected. Emmy declared a truce with Sirius, for which he was grateful. Negotiating the details of life was sometimes tricky, but, overall, they put effort into getting along, had enough space to escape each other if necessary, and enjoyed being together in time they both knew was borrowed. They felt lucky that, thanks to Hermione, that time was being measured in years, rather than months. James visited them often, and they enjoyed his company. James called Serverus Canto, and that removed some of the sting from the old e-mail tag.

Their concern that fall was that Sirius was having occasional intense dizzy spells, which worried Hermione who couldn't determine their cause. Her initial diagnosis was migraines, and she couldn't verify it. She tried to get him to Muggle doctors for some diagnostic tests, but he refused. They didn't happen often enough, he said, and didn't seem serious enough for him to worry about. He could deal with being dizzy for a few hours once every month or so. Severus pressured him as well, but to no avail.

It took almost four years of living together for Severus to be ready to sell his house. When the two of them walked through it the day the sale was final, their footsteps echoed in the empty rooms. To Sirius it seemed as though there were ghosts everywhere. The first time he'd looked at Severus and felt the overwhelming desire that changed everything. The first time Severus had cooked for him. The first time they'd made love. The hyacinths and his desperate quest for forgiveness. Memories, not all of them happy, but theirs. He stood behind Severus, his arms around his lover's waist, as Severus locked the door for the last time.

James qualified as a Healer, and Hermione, saying that that it was because of his work on the lycanthropy potion, bullied the Ministry into allowing Severus to be there. He stood with the family, not too far from Sirius, as James took the Healer's oath. Afterwards there was a reception, and Hermione and Rosie and Al stayed closed to Severus. To his surprise, few people came up to speak to him. The Malfoys ignored him, and he avoided looking their way. Sirius snarled at Lucius and Narcissa.

James, who was supposed to start work at St. Mungo's soon, came for dinner one evening late that summer. Like his grandfather Sirius, he loved pasta puttanesca, and Severus indulged him. The three of them were finishing a bottle of Chianti when James announced with no preamble, “I'm going to become a Muggle doctor.”

Sirius's jaw dropped. “What?” he squeaked, which made James and Severus laugh.

“I've enrolled at—”

“Don't tell me,” said Sirius. “The University of Manchester.”

“Yes.”

“You two have, of course, talked about this,” he grumbled.

Severus nodded. “James came to talk to me late last April, and I encouraged him to apply.”

“It's the future, Sirius. Merging magic and Muggle science is going to change our world, and I want to be ready for it.”

Sirius looked at Severus. “They banished you,” he said, “and yet your work is probably going to build the biggest bridge between the Muggle and wizarding worlds in the past four centuries, and it's going to be to our advantage.”

“My legacy,” said Severus with a wry smile.

James was in Manchester in October when the news came. He frantically texted Sirius and was told to come instantly and where to Apparate. They were both in the front row of the crowd that had assembled around Severus and his Alzheimer's drug partner, Reese Roberts, at the start of the press conference that had been hastily called after the announcement of the Nobel Prize in medicine.

After dinner that evening, Sirius and Severus lingered over brandy.

“I'm so proud of you,” said Sirius. He'd not stopped congratulating him all day.

“I know to whom I owe it all,” said Severus.

“What do you mean?”

Severus looked straight into his eyes. “That was some of the first research I did, you know, after I got my degree. After you enrolled me at university and didn't listen to my protests. Without you, I'd still be pushing a mop in the hallways of that grim school, not doing work beyond anything I ever could have imagined.”

“You did it all. I mean,” he laughed, “I'm still not clear on the difference between DNA and RNA, and I've never figured out what you're actually doing.”

Severus shook his head. “That's just the mechanics, Sirius. What you gave me was the courage to be someone else, to pick up and move beyond. Don't think I don't know that. And you're coming to Stockholm with me.”

“Too bloody right. I look rather good in white tie.”

“You do,” said Severus. “You also look good in no clothing, if memory serves.”

“Ah, yes. The long-forgotten memory of naked Sirius in bed, eh?” He grinned. “Let's refresh that memory. Though I'm concerned that this morning has already faded from your consciousness.”

“Wasn't there something about 'pounded into oblivion'?”

“Why, yes, there was.”

Severus took Sirius's glass and put it down on the table. “Use your wand, would you?”

“I've every intention,” said Sirius, pulling it out and using it to undress them both.

Severus was in his office two days later when someone knocked.

“Come!” he called. The department secretary had been doing a bang-up job of keeping the media away from him so anyone who knocked was probably someone he wanted to see. But he was surprised when Harry and James Potter walked in. He stood, nervous, behind his desk.

“Mister Potter,” he said, “James.”

Harry Potter walked around the desk, his hand extended. “Congratulations, Professor,” he said. They shook hands, and Severus remained silent. “I bullied James into getting me here. I wanted you to know that the Ministry are in an uproar, even worse than over the knighthood. They seem to think that, instead of being punished, you've flourished beyond anything anyone could have expected.” He seemed amused.

“Ah,” said Severus.

“Except maybe Dumbledore?” It was inflected as a question, but it was also an answer. Severus understood that, though he hadn't met Dumbledore that terrible day, Potter thought he should have and was acknowledging it. Acknowledging, too, the good work Severus had done with his second chance.

Severus's speech in Stockholm that December was entitled "The Mind Alive." Sirius was desperately handsome in white tie, Severus looked as regal as he did in robes, and after the banquet they danced together for the first time.

----- ∞ -----

Severus was there with the family as James took the Hippocratic Oath, and nobody questioned that he would be coming to dinner with them, though he did try to avoid it. Hermione looked worriedly at Severus. Sirius noticed and dread gripped him. He'd thought Severus had been slowing down in the past few months, but hadn't wanted to admit it. Severus refused to let Hermione examine him, and, since he was taking potions, refused to see any Muggle doctors, either. He glared at James when the younger man suggested he do a quick exam, though Sirius couldn't blame him. James had wanted to investigate the cause of his dizziness, and Sirius had refused even to hear him out.

But he sat at the table in the large Indian restaurant, across from Severus who was sitting between Al and Hermione. He cheered for the new doctor. He clapped when James and Scorpius announced that they would be married the following December and when Al and Rosie said the same. There would be a double wedding before Christmas.

Again the senior Malfoys ignored Severus, and he didn't acknowledge them, either. They were definitely a drag on the joy of the occasion because, Harry had whispered to Sirius, they kept hoping that Scorpius would “outgrow his infatuation” with James. They had been pleased when their son had announced that he was going to film school in California for a year, hoping that time apart would split up the young couple, and finding out that he was coming back halfway through the year to marry his lover had dashed that.

After the Malfoys left, Rosie turned to Severus. "You'll come to the wedding, won't you, Professor?"

"I..."

"We'll arrange it," Hermione said.

"Healer Granger..."

Holding Al's hand, Rosie said, "Professor, it's because of what you did that I have a life at all, really. I understand something now about being a werewolf. Eight years ago, I thought it would be a lark—oh, I'll be dark and powerful and scary. Now I know better. I've never said thank you, but I am very grateful, and Al is, too, and it would make me happy if you came to my wedding."

Sirius wanted to reach out to him when he saw Severus's eyes fill. "Thank you, Miss Weasley," he said. "I'd be honoured to be there."

She grinned at him. "Please call me Rosie."

"We'll see you in December, then, Professor," said Harry.

"A word, Mr. Potter?" said Severus.

Severus wouldn't tell Sirius what was said, but Harry did. Severus had told him that, if Harry had any objection, please to say so. "Sirius. I don't like him—or I didn't—but he's been so good to the kids. And I'm glad the two of you are getting along. I told him it'd be great if he came."

In Ireland that summer Sirius brought up the idea of their coming out. Severus was reluctant, and Sirius asked why.

"I cheated, Sirius. I was supposed to be cast out of the wizarding world, and yet here I am, about thirty years later, happy as a man can be. I was supposed to be punished, and I evaded it. It isn't fair."

He understood that Severus was ashamed that he had escaped part of his punishment, no matter how ridiculous Sirius thought that was. He was sure almost everyone would agree that Severus had been punished enough, that his isolation, before and in the early years of their friendship, had been profound. His loss of magic almost unbearable.

The next day Severus broke his foot.

He slipped off a rock, landing awkwardly, and they both heard the snap of the bone. Sirius was terrified. Severus had taken the potions Hermione made for him, and, while Sirius knew that the pain had gradually gotten worse over the past years, he'd hoped for remission a while longer. It had been eight years, though, and he knew this break was a bad sign.

The Muggle doctors gave Severus a boot to wear and some painkillers that he'd tossed in the trash.

When they left Ireland that year they were both fairly sure that Severus would never be back.

Sirius rang Hermione. In exchange for Sirius's getting the Muggle brain scan Hermione needed to see, Severus had consented to her coming to their flat and mending the bone. When she winced, Sirius's heart sank.

She sat on the chair across from the two men on the sofa. "It's not good, Professor," she said, and he nodded.

"The bone is brittle, friable. I had a hard time mending it. I suspect—I'll increase your dosages, and you'll probably be needing some separate pain potions."

Severus shook his head. "No, that's all right."

"You'll take them," she said. "You don't need to punish yourself, and you don't need to punish Sirius."

His eyes widened as he realised what she meant. He nodded.

She stood, and they did, Severus leaning slightly on his lover, and she looked at them and almost wept. Two men much older than their years, who'd fought each other, fought for their world, each suffered grave injustice, dealt with great loss and pain, but who had, despite it all, found each other. Found love. Severus thanked her, and she reached out and embraced them.

----- ∞ -----

Scorpius had left for the United States. Since James was alone and working hard at his Muggle internship he moved back in with his parents, but often spent time at Sirius and Severus's flat, occasionally sleeping there.

One day he went into their bedroom to borrow a clean tee shirt from Sirius. He idly picked up a book on a bedside table and then abruptly put it back, stunned and scared.

Two days later he joined his parents and aunt and uncle at dinner. Over coffee he said, "There's something we need to talk about."

His mother reached out to touch his arm. "Is anything wrong with Scorpius?" she asked.

He nodded. "No. It's something else," he said, fighting back tears. He knew how important the secrecy of their relationship was to both his grandfather and Canto.

He started again. "You know Sirius has a...partner?" Everyone nodded. "I sometimes stay overnight there?"

"Yes," said his mother.

"I was there last week, and I went in to borrow something from their room."

"Their room?" asked Ron.

"They've been living together for about eight years now, I think," James said. “That flat...well, it's pretty big.”

His parents hadn't known that Sirius's lover lived with him. He could tell his dad was hurt, but also knew why Sirius needed to keep it from him. His relationship with Severus was separate from every other relationship in his life except his with James. James knew the trust Sirius had shown him when he let him into his private life.

"All right," said Harry.

"He didn't want to talk about it," James said, suddenly nervous. "Anyway, I found a book on Sirius's night table." It was as if saying it would make it real. "It's called Hospice at Home: Caring for a Loved One during the Final Days."

"Oh, no," said Ginny.

The back of James's throat ached. "I've noticed that Canto doesn't look—"

"Canto?" asked Ron.

"That's his e-mail tag. CantoXXXIV, but I've been calling him Canto for years," said James. "Anyhow, I've noticed that he doesn't look too good. And I know I shouldn't have pried, but it was there, and I'll talk to Sirius, too, but I think he's going to be needing...help soon."

He started to cry. His father put an arm around his shoulder, and they didn't say anything.

"I thought you should know," James said. "Excuse me. I need to blow my nose."

Harry glanced around the table. Ron looked stricken, and Ginny was crying.

"Hermione," he said, "you knew."

"Yes," she said. "Sirius consulted me years ago, and I've been giving...Canto potions since then. We can't cure the disease permanently, but they gave him time."

"Is it—going to be soon?"

Hermione sighed. "I don't know, Ginny. He's been in partial remission for over eight years now, which is more than I expected. I'd like to say a year or so, but I can't be sure."

Harry's voice was hoarse. "Are they…are they happy together?"

James nodded, and Hermione said, "Oh, yes. It's so obvious. They care about each other, and it shows."

"Sirius told me he wasn't sure if—Canto—loved him?"

Hermione hesitated. "They may not have said the word, but they love each other. I'm sure of that. They're good together."

They talked about the help Sirius would need, what they could do. James was going to ask to move in. He knew they had the room.

"Canto," mused Ron, late in the evening. "I wonder what that means. What number did you say, James?"

"Thirty-four," answered James. "It's about—about sinners who betrayed their masters. Really awful tortures and Judas Iscariot. I can't imagine why he picked it. He's, you know, such a poppet."

James talked to Sirius and Severus about his moving in that weekend. Sirius was reluctant, but Severus strongly in favour. "Sirius, if you really want to be able to keep me here, rather than sending me to hospital, you are going to need help. And he's good to have around."

"And I'm a Healer," added James. “And a doctor. Thanks to you.”

Severus gazed at him. "You come near me, Healer Potter, I'll—I don't know, but it won't be pretty." They all laughed, but they knew that James's help would be needed, both medically and for the tasks of daily living.

Sirius, as he'd promised, allowed Hermione to go with him to a Muggle hospital for a brain scan. With Muggle diagnostics and Healer knowledge, she said, great progress was being made in treating some diseases.

The brain scan showed lesions on his brain. Neither the Muggle doctors nor Hermione or anyone else at St. Mungo's knew what they were. Sirius shrugged—Severus's gesture of "I don't care"—and ignored it.

Aside from the dizzy spells, which were, he admitted to himself and he knew Severus knew, getting worse, he felt fine. He was more worried about Severus. As autumn turned to winter, as he saw his lover getting more and more frail.


----- ∞ -----

"Sirius?"

Sirius looked at Severus over his glasses and put down The Anatomy of Melancholy. He could tell that whatever this was wasn't going to be fast or, perhaps, easy.

Emmy padded over to Severus and settled in his lap. He started petting her, gentle with her frail body. Sirius wondered which of them would die first, and the pain of that thought tore through him, incandescent.

"You said, many years ago, you said that Emmy was like me, that she only loved one person..."

Sirius inhaled and nodded.

"That's not true, you know. I've been...blessed to love two."

The silence was palpable.

Severus studied his hands. "I love you," he said. "I've loved you for a long time, and I'm not sure why I've never told you."

Sirius closed his eyes, in pain and joy. "I love you, too," he said.

He took Severus's thin, cold hand. His hands were always cold now.

"I wanted you to know, Sirius. I wanted to tell you."

Sirius carefully moved Severus toward him. Severus's head was on his shoulder, and he leaned his cheek against Severus's hair.

"I'm going to miss you."

"I'm sorry, Sirius. You've been...a wonderful friend, the best I could imagine, and a perfect lover. You've made me so happy all these years."

"As you've made me, Severus."

"I'm sorry I didn't say it before."

Sirius smiled into his lover's hair. "I think we both knew."

Severus nodded. "I did, but I wanted to tell you...other than as orgasmic cries."

He was silent for a while.

"It's been a better life than I'd ever thought I'd have, certainly better than I deserve."

Sirius tightened his arm a little and delicately pressed Severus's hand. "No. You deserved happiness. You did much that was hard and brave, Severus, and enormous good. You saved Harry, over and over, so that Harry could save the world."

Severus shook his head and disengaged himself, wincing as he moved. Sirius asked if he needed more pain potion. He shook his head and shifted so he was looking into Sirius's eyes.

"There is one thing I need to ask and one thing I want you to promise me."

Sirius nodded. "Tell me."

"Emmy. Will you take care of her?"

"Of course."

"She does like you, you know."

Sirius grinned. "Right. She hasn't disemboweled me, so therefore she likes me." He reached out to touch the cat's head and she let him, something she rarely did.

"There is something else." Severus dropped his eyes, then spoke, keeping as much emotion as possible out of his voice. "You remember, years back, when we spoke of death and what happens after?"

Sirius nodded.

"If I'm not there—if your wild speculations about Dumbledore were, in fact, wild—when your time comes, please promise you won't reject them because of me."

He forced down the pain and didn't speak, trying to collect his thoughts.

Severus spoke again. "Maybe I'm presuming too much."

Sirius's eyes widened. "Presuming too much? That I owe some loyalty to you, the man who has been my lover and my companion and my best friend for thirty years?" He breathed deeply several times. "Severus, if it's important to you, I'll try. But, if you think that this afterlife thing means anything to me if you're excluded and, worse, that these people who should know better don't value you for who you are and what you've done—one of those people being my former best friend and another someone you gave everything up for—"

"Lily..."

"Not Lily. Dumbledore. You did everything he asked, submitted, gave him...you cared about him, and I refuse to believe he wouldn't have the decency to help you on. There was a mistake. You'll be there waiting for me. I believe that."

Sirius wept, and Severus put out his arms, and they rocked together, friends, lovers, former enemies, and forever bound.

Sirius blew his nose. "Sorry," he said, "I'm sorry. If there's a there, I don't want to be there without you."

"Shhh....It's all right. I'm sorry."

"I promise." He started to cry again and felt less tension in his lover.

"Severus?"

"Mmmm?"

"There's a chance I...I could go first."

Severus gripped Sirius's forearms. "No! Don't even suggest it. No, I mean...how could...no!"

"But—"

"Oh, Sirius, no! How can you think about that? There're Harry and the children, you're young, there may be someone else for you..."

"I'm seventy-two, Severus, just like you. And...it's going to be over. I'm happy with what my life has been, the second part, anyway.

"Please! Please, no. I can't bear the thought."

"I don't know—how am I supposed to live without you?"

"It's strange, isn't it? We each lost the person we loved but found each other."

Sometime later Severus fell asleep, and Sirius held him for a long time before slipping away to the living room to sob without disturbing the other man.


----- ∞ -----

Much changed in December.

Sirius was shopping for wedding gifts at Diagon Alley, and, not having found what he wanted, he took a taxi to Marks and Spencer. He'd have Disapparated, but he could tell one of his dizzy spells was imminent and didn't want to risk being splinched. He was on the escalator to the first floor when the world stopped and he passed out.

He heard voices first, not clearly, but as if he were underwater. He tried to concentrate, to identify them. It took a while. Hermione. Her higher voice was easier to make out than the male ones, but eventually he recognised Harry and James. He wasn't sure who the other person was.

He wondered where he was and why. He tried to focus on the words, but he was still under too much water. Each time a wave passed over him, he lost sound, and he was missing too much. He thought he should be scared, but he wasn't. He felt rather refreshed.

He heard Hermione say his name. "Sirius? If you can hear me, squeeze my hand." He tried. When she repeated her request he knew he hadn't managed it, and he concentrated and tried again.

"Good. I'm going to explain what's going on, all right, Sirius? Can you open your eyes?"

He heard her tell James to lower the blinds and turn down the lights. He hadn't known his eyes were closed. No wonder he hadn't been able to see.

Opening them was hard, but he did it. The room felt bright. Hermione, James, and Harry, looking worried. A man he didn't know, dressed in green...pyjamas. He remembered the doctors wore them at the Muggle hospital, and James had said...James had said they were called scrubs. There was a plastic tube going into his hand, and he wondered what it was. He saw screens with jumbles of letters and lines and numbers on them and heard beeping.

"Sirius, can you talk?"

He tried, but no sound came out.

"Listen, you were at Marks and Spencer," she said, "and you passed out. They rang for an ambulance and brought you to hospital. You apparently have some form of epilepsy."

Epilepsy. That made no sense. It was a Muggle disease.

"You're going to be all right. This is Doctor Campbell. He's taking care of you."

He tried to nod, but the dizziness overtook him again. He heard a bell, and Doctor Campbell said, "He's seizing again."

For Sirius there was a pleat in time.

"Hermione...is he...is he going to be all right?" asked Harry.

She sighed. "I hope so. They're having a hard time stabilising him, getting the seizures stopped. Late onset epilepsy. It's called status epilepticus." She did not add that the on-going seizures could lead to brain damage or death.

"Can we help?"

She shook her head. "Our treatment is about as effective, and he's here now. I'd be doing similar things."

Harry closed his eyes.

James looked at his grandfather, so pale, seeming smaller than usual. He turned to his father and aunt. "I'm going to get Canto," he said.

Hermione blinked. "I think you should, James. Bring him. He should be here."

Using a cane, Severus followed James through the hospital corridors, hating its white brightness, its chemical smells, the overall chill. James opened a door, and he went in. Sirius was in the bed, looking weak, his eyes closed. He could hear monitors beeping and someone gasped.

Severus paid no attention. He sat down in the chair by the bed and took the hand that didn't have the IV line in it in his.

"Sirius," he whispered.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. "I think he can hear you, Professor," said Hermione. "He was able to hear earlier. Sirius, if you can hear us, squeeze...Severus's hand."

She looked at Severus. He nodded. "Good," she said. They were silent, Hermione wanting to give Harry time to compose himself, if necessary. Severus was stroking his lover's hand.

The doctor spoke from the other side of the bed. "You are, sir?" he asked Severus.

"His...partner. Severus Snape."

The doctor's eyes widened as he recognised the name, and he was about to say something, but then seemed to realise what was happening. "Ian Campbell. Stay here as long as you can," he said. He pointed at the monitors Sirius was hooked up to. "Everything quieted down as soon as he heard you." He turned to Hermione, who, for some reason, he felt was a peer. "I'll be in my office," he said. "Call someone if you have concerns or if you need anything. The monitors will warn us if something is wrong."

After he left, James cleared his throat, and Severus turned around, not letting go of Sirius's hand. Harry was staring at him, and Severus felt both ashamed and apprehensive. He tried to stand, but Harry's hand on his shoulder kept him seated.

"So Canto is Severus Snape?" he asked.

Severus nodded.

"Sirius said it had been years."

He nodded again. "We had a drink once a month and talked about old times," he said. "We became friends. Eventually..." He raised one shoulder, but didn't continue.

Harry nodded. The silence in the room was not uncomfortable. The two of them were feeling their way through this conversation, Hermione realised, each afraid of hurting the other or scaring him off.

Severus spoke again. "I'm sorry, Mr. Potter," he said. "I...violated, knowingly, the trust of the wizarding community for selfish reasons, I..."

Harry cut him off. "No, don't say that," he said. "I should have done more.”

"No, don't, please..."

"Blah blah blah..." said Sirius faintly. "Can you two pleease ssstop and can sssomeone get me food?"

They laughed, relief flooding through each of them. Hermione pressed the button to ask about lunch.

Severus turned again to Harry. "I hope you aren't too...upset," he said, "about Sirius and me. I know this is one of the most painful choices I could make, if trying to hurt you. I didn't mean to, I..."

"You've been his friend and lover for over thirty years, Professor," said Harry. "Everyone should be so lucky as to have that kind of love."

----- ∞ -----

Two weeks later, at Scorpius and James's and Rosie and Al's weddings, they stood together in front of the wizarding world for the first time, in dress robes, holding hands, as a couple. Sirius felt absurdly proud and happier than he'd been in a long time. Lucius and Narcissa didn't dare snub them, and James, Rosie and Al were thrilled.

When Sirius and Severus arrived at The Burrow that morning, Severus was carrying a plain white box. It contained a bouquet and headpiece of orchids and frangipani and pale pink roses for Rosie and boutonnières for James, Al, and Scorpius. Ginny and Hermione glanced at each other, remembering beautiful flowers at their own weddings.

After the ceremony and the cake cutting, during the dancing, Rosie cornered James and got a good part of the story from him. She nodded. "I'm going to force the issue," she said.

"What?" he asked, concerned.

"Don't worry," she said. “Where's your dad? I need to talk to him.”

Late in the evening, while butterbeer was poured and bite-sized cakes passed around, Hugh and Lily, who had stood up with their siblings, made short speeches, and then Harry stood up.

“My sons and my brand new daughter-in-law have asked me to make this speech,” he started, “and my only regret is that it's so late.”

They saw him take a deep breath.

"Some years ago," he said, "my niece almost made a terrible mistake." He told of the werewolf attack and the potion that had saved Rosie's human life. "She asked me, tonight, to tell everyone that she owes her happiness to Professor Snape, to his courage, his wisdom, his scholarly achievement. And that potion is only a small part of what he's done for our world, for the Muggle world, the human world."

Severus blushed and, at Harry's gesture, Sirius helped him to his feet despite his protests, and finally the wizarding world clapped and said thank you, thirty-five years late.

Harry continued. "With the Professor tonight is his long-time partner, my godfather Sirius Black." The two of them sat down, not hearing the suppressed murmurs from Kingsley Shacklebolt and Hestia Jones, who remembered the terrible animosity between Severus Snape and Sirius Black all through Hogwarts and both parts of the War. Hestia said to Kingsley, "I'm not surprised. They hated each other with such passion there had to be something there."

"Not expecting it, each found love, a partner to spend his life with," said Harry. "We're happy and proud to welcome them as a couple to our family, and I have a request to make of them. Earlier today, they stood as part of our family to witness as Al and Rosie joined their lives and James and Scorpius joined theirs. What we'd like now—if they'd like it, too—is for all of us to stand with them while they make that same promise to each other."

There was the sound of indrawn breath, and everyone turned to look at the two men who were sitting in shock.

Sirius recovered first. "Would you?" he asked Severus.

It was as if they were alone. Nothing mattered to Sirius except Severus and his answer. He knew that this would be another step away from Lily, but Sirius hoped.

"I would," Severus breathed. They sat for several moments, collecting themselves, then stood, hands held.

James took Severus's other hand and Harry Sirius's and urged them to the center of tent. Though it was mostly a blur, Sirius saw a circle of Potters, Weasleys and Lupins draw around them, and the less closely related witches and wizards form an outer circle. Lucius Malfoy, abandoning Narcissa, broke into the inner ring, leaned over, and spoke to Severus for the first time in thirty-five years. "Be happy," he said.

They slipped their rings off and exchanged them to return to each other during the ceremony, and then they affirmed their love and bonding, happy and shy, and each wondering how they'd come from walking the streets of Bristol in the twilight to a magically heated marriage tent at The Burrow over three decades later.

Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health, and, forsaking all others, keep you only unto him so long as you both shall live?

I, Sirius, take you, Severus…

I, Severus, take you, Sirius…

…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.

With this ring I thee wed; with my body I thee worship; and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.

Bless this ring, that he who gives it and he who wears it may abide in peace and continue in favor to their life's end.


----- ∞ -----

Severus died two months later on a cold morning in February.

He had been getting weaker. After the wedding, he slipped rapidly and was barely able to get out of bed at Christmas. Rosie and Harry had gone to the Wizengamot after Boxing Day to petition for him, and, while Minister Davies was fairly sure that Harry's threats to challenge him were empty, he wasn't sure if those of Rose Weasley, a rising star in the legal department, were. So he cooperated as, finally, did the Wizengamot. When Harry visited Sirius and Severus that evening, he handed Severus a scroll. A full pardon. Sirius was jubilant. Severus seemed subdued, though he thanked Harry and Rosie when they visited on New Year's Day.

He started doing magic again, and the joy it gave him made Sirius want to cry. Severus created flowers and bubbles and things to make Sirius laugh. He teased Emmy with ribbons of light, and she tried to rouse herself enough to play. Frail as he was, he seemed complete.

They spent all their time together, sitting, holding hands, listening to all the music they'd loved so long. James was an unobtrusive presence, doing the domestic chores so Sirius could devote his attention to Severus and helping with his caretaking, too, when needed. Hermione had left pain potions, with the instructions that Severus could take as much as he needed. They all knew that addiction wasn't going to be a problem.

It was snowing that evening. Severus cast an indoor snow spell, and they sat together and watched as the warm magical flakes fell in the bedroom, covering the floor and the bed and the two old wizards. After a while Severus fell asleep. Or maybe into a coma—Sirius wasn't sure. He sat up all night, holding his partner's hand, knowing the end was coming. Emmy was at Severus's side, curled up against him. It was dark, but Sirius didn't light any candles. The glow from the magical snowflakes was enough, and the snow outside muffled any noise.

When the grey dawn came, Severus's breathing was harsh and irregular. Sirius waited, his throat a knot of pain, his eyes burning with tears.

And then Severus breathed out, and Sirius waited for his breath in, and it didn't come. He waited, but he knew. Something had changed in the room. Emmy mewed, carefully circled Severus's body, and came to sit on Sirius's lap.

He sat holding her for a long time, dry-eyed. At last he leaned over and kissed Severus's still-warm lips. He put his wand in his hand and touched his hair. He held Emmy against his chest with one arm, picked up his own wand, and, his voice shattered, cast the final spell for every witch and wizard. The magical flames burst out, blue and without heat. Emmy mewed in fear, and he held her closer. When it was done, he took the small wooden box that contained the physical remains of his lover and put it on his chest of drawers. When he died, his ashes would be added, and together they would be scattered at their cottage in Ireland and at the old cemetery in Godric's Hollow.

Still holding Emmy, he went to wake James.

Harry and Hermione came to be with him, and he appreciated that, though it didn't help. Nothing did. He gave Severus's notebooks to Hermione, and she looked through them, her eyes growing wider.

"Sirius, this is incredible!"

He nodded.

"He'll be remembered for this," she said, turning the pages. "They'll give him the Order of Merlin."

"Posthumously."

She winced. "This research is going to change so many things, Sirius. It's a scientific perspective applied to magic. It's seminal. " She paused. "Severus Snape will be remembered, not as the former Death Eater who killed Albus Dumbledore, but as the wizard who rethought the way potion making, indeed magic, works. Rosie's life is just one of the many we'll owe to him. And that's over and above the contributions he made to Muggle science."

She touched Sirius's arm. "Did he know?"

Sirius sighed, "That what he was doing was extraordinary? Yes, he knew. I tried to get him to publish it, but he always refused."

He turned to Harry. "There are some orchids. He bred them."

"Did he?"

Sirius nodded. "There are four news ones he hybridised that I'm taking to the Royal Orchid Society tomorrow. They're beautiful. One called Lily Marie after your mother," he added, "and one named for me. A pure white one called Albus, and a white one with a deep green center called Emmy."

He turned to Hermione. "It kept him going, in those first years, learning to breed orchids. And his books. He wanted you to know that persuading them to leave him his books made his life endurable."

----- ∞ -----

Emmy died less than a week later and in Sirius's arms. He wept in pain at losing her, tears that had been dammed up since Severus died. With them running down his face, he performed the spell for her and mingled her ashes with Severus's, laughing that, once he joined them, the poor cat would be stuck with him forever. Though she had loved him in the end. She really had.

----- ∞ -----

His research was published in late April, and Severus Snape was awarded the Order of Merlin, First Class, posthumously.


----- ∞ -----

James rang his father one Saturday morning in June. When Sirius hadn't appeared for breakfast, he'd knocked at his bedroom door, gotten no answer, and gone in. Sirius had died during the night, probably of an epileptic seizure, said Hermione. She palmed the full bottle of seizure prevention medication he'd allegedly been taking.

The magical cremation was performed by Harry that evening, and they were there, the other family Sirius had loved, the people who'd stood closest around Sirius and Severus when they'd pledged their bond the previous winter.

----- ∞ -----

Severus had described it as a line, a barrier he couldn't cross. It was different for Sirius. It felt like he was stepping off a wobbly boat, and James and Remus were there holding out their hands for him. Tonks was next to Remus, and Lily, and Regulus and Albus Dumbledore. He felt pain explode around his heart when he saw who was missing, but James and Remus pulled him up, and, as he hurtled towards them, they stepped aside and let him fall into the arms that were waiting for him. Severus's arms. And then he felt needle-like claws on his ankle. Death was good.

Finis