He first met Benjamin Jink on a rainy Monday morning at the Caddy Cafe in Victoria. The drizzle had turned to earnest showers, driving even the hardiest of locals off the terrace and into the confines of the little coffee house. Every table was full, a jumble of conversation battling for space with the clink of cups and the hiss and bubble of the coffee makers. It was half-eight, and the morning salary crowd was still parading through, letting in the draught.
The whole of an ocean and the breadth of a continent away, Horace mused, and yet this might have been any wet December day in London. The rain tapped cosily against the windowpane, obscuring his view until the glistening cobblestones and blurry storefronts could nearly pass for Diagon Alley in lieu of Merlin Square. Only the fashions gave it away: the men and nearly all the women in trousers, the palettes muted and plain and doing little to enliven the grey weather.
This was in fact the first time he had patronised the Caddy in the month since he had arrived in the city. The entrance was tucked away in one of the square's innumerable narrow alleyways, with only the occasional queue alerting the eye to the presence of a business. Today, however, Horace had been caught without an umbrella and had discovered to his happy surprise that despite the dubious sea serpent decor, the cafe did a lovely Turkish coffee and offered a selection of beignets besides.
He made a French breakfast of it, savouring both cup and pastry at a corner table, idly eavesdropping and watching the bleary-eyed customers slink in for their morning pick-me-ups. That was when Benjamin Jink made his entrance. Of course, he did not know that was the young man's name at the time, nor could he predict the way their paths were about to intersect. All he knew at that very moment was that the door flew open with a certain amount of drama, and a black umbrella forcefully pushed its way inside before snicking shut to reveal a scowling young man of perhaps thirty-five or forty.
Horace looked him over with mild interest. Then, when one look proved not to be enough, he made a more thorough perusal. Had they met before? There was something familiar about him, but vexingly, he could not put his finger on just what it was. The young man was of average height, built on the thin side. Not handsome, precisely, but certainly striking in the mildly consumptive way that used to be the fashion and that Horace still had a weakness for. His hair was collar-length and brown...or was it black? No, it was brown, as were his eyes.
Horace rubbed his eyes and looked again. Brown hair and brown eyes, half of his brain insisted. No, said the other half. Aha, he was wearing a glamour, and a good one at that! That was rather interesting, although acknowledging the cause did not stop the maddening itch behind his eyes. He had always had a formidable memory for faces, and as such was stubborn to the illusions of cosmetic charms. Why someone with money to burn on a glamour wouldn't choose something more conventionally handsome was beyond him—unless, of course, he happened to be someone of some celebrity travelling incognito.
He assessed the young man's clothing. Now when would they realise over here that monochromes did a man no favours? The young fellow wore black trousers and a black overcoat, with a white shirt that made him look washed-out and a charcoal-grey waistcoat that admittedly did acceptable things for his silhouette. The clothing was of passable quality but obviously off the rack. He looked down. Muggles seemed to wander into the square regularly, to the apparent alarm of no one but himself, but you could always tell a wizard by his boots. These were black dragonhide, not new but obviously well cared for. Square-toed, size eight. Dibs of Diagon's Reims model, if he wasn't mistaken, only...
He paused again, suddenly chilled. A connection sparked in the void.
...only with bronze buckles instead of the usual silver.
His gaze snapped up, his cup left hanging stupidly halfway to his mouth.
The young man marched up to the counter, waiting with folded arms beside a handmade sign that read: We accept Canadian Dollars and British Galleons. Leprechaun gold will be refunded where the sun doesn't shine (and we don't mean the mainland).
A cheerful, round-faced serving girl popped up behind the counter. "Welcome to Caddy's! Can I interest you in one of our fresh pumpkin scones?"
This was met with a deep sigh as the young man deposited a precise stack of coins on the counter. "I want a large coffee. Black. To go."
The sound of his voice made Horace feel as though he needed to knock water out of his ears. A fellow ex-pat, his accent faint. A hint of the north, maybe. The chill returned. No, no, he was being silly. And yet the tone of his voice, if not the timbre, insisted on its familiarity...
"Which of our twelve special brews would you like to try today?"
"Whichever one you gave me yesterday."
"Ooh, I'm sorry—we're out of the Arabian Mocha Java this morning."
"Then whichever one you gave me on Friday."
"We're out of that too."
The young man rolled his eyes. "Whichever one originated closest to the spot where we are standing at this very moment."
"That would be the Macadamia Cream. But you wouldn't like it."
"You're enjoying this, aren't you."
"Highlight of my day, Mr. Jink."
The name did not ring any bells.
Mr. Jink audibly gritted his teeth. "Then whatever. You think. Best."
The girl lit up. "I have a Costa Rican shade-grown organic blend you're just going to love!"
The young man muttered something under his breath and turned away, leaning back against the counter as he waited for his coffee. His gaze fell on Horace and narrowed in a suspicious frown.
Horace realised he was staring idiotically and set down his cup, managing an apologetic smile. Mr. Jink snorted, snatching up his drink when it arrived and sweeping out ahead of the serving girl's bright reminder to have a super day. Horace watched him go, suddenly aware that his heart was beating very loudly. Feh, foolishness, utter foolishness. Too much sugar on an empty stomach launching an old man's flight of fancy. He should have known the ghosts that had haunted him in England would catch up with him sooner or later.
So another sharp-tongued young Briton happened to wear the same unfashionable twenty-year-old boots as a man who had died two years, seven months, and four days ago. So he had also had cause to replace the original buckles with bronze. Funny old world.
He told himself these things as he ordered another coffee, and for the rest of the morning he sat in contemplative silence, looking out at the rain.
In the end, Severus Snape was left unburied.
It was a source of contention between Minerva and himself in the long days after the battle, when he and she and the rest of the staff had been left milling around the castle, mending what they could as they waited for the forms to be signed and funds to be allocated. They were still finding bodies, grisly punctuation to their aimless days, but there was nothing recognisably human to be recovered in the remnants of the Shrieking Shack. Hex-fire was hot enough to crumble even bone, and the ashes had long since scattered through the joyous streets of Hogsmeade.
A stone had turned up in the overgrown herb garden, a literal stone, merely a rock about the size of a bludger, upon which had been inscribed:
Severus Snape, Professor
It had been chiselled by hand, and the script was too neat to be Hagrid's. He supposed it to be the work of Argus Filch and left it where he found it, tucked in tenderly amongst the hellebore.
"He deserves a proper burial," Minerva pressed, having a cup with him one night in his sitting room. The wine cellar, at least, had survived the unpleasantness intact.
Horace leaned back in his chair. "Here?" He sighed. "I won't say I knew him better than you did, but do you really think he would want to be interred here for all eternity? That seems as much a risk for a haunting as leaving his bones scattered."
Her lips pursed, but she did not argue. For fifteen years, Severus Snape had campaigned for a cursed position, one that Horace himself had, in his own way, finally delivered to him. This had never been a place for young men. Children left here, poised on the precipice of adulthood, leaping out into the great wide world with all its opportunity and heartbreak. If they returned, it was in their autumn years, as spinsters or widowers, grandfathers or world travellers, heroes or failures. Severus had never been happy here, and even the Dementors of Azkaban had the decency to throw dead prisoners into the sea to let the ebb tide carry them away from their fate.
"Nevertheless," Minerva said, "at the very least, his family will want a service."
He made an honest attempt not to pull a face. "I doubt they'd come. It's just the mother and grandfather, you know. I wrote—no reply. I gather they weren't close."
"No. I shouldn't expect they were." She poured herself another glass, and if he had expected her to get teary-eyed, he would have been disappointed; she only looked tired.
It was a feeling he knew well. The last tipple of wine went into his glass. It was boorish for the host to empty a bottle, but it was a boorish sort of hour. "He was a fine man. I wish I had taken more of an interest in him when he was one of mine."
She gave him a look over her spectacles that hovered somewhere between speculation and accusation.
"Oh, I never." He paused. "Not since Albus took over, at least."
In hindsight, he realised it was at that moment that he lost any say whatsoever in the matter. She finished her wine, and she bid him a good night, and by the time he rose the next morning, a memorial service was already in the works.
It proved to be a spartan affair. The day was uncomfortably hot and bright, the air thick with the smell of flowers and the chattering of birds. There was a large hole where the monument was to be placed when it finally arrived and a spotty gathering of the families of those who had fallen. The handsome new Minister for Magic, regal in his sombre robes, turned up to induct Severus Snape posthumously into the Order of Merlin. They did not bother with an empty casket, at least.
Horace, eschewing the opportunity to make a speech for what may have been the first time in his life, greeted each attendee personally and fondly before taking a seat on the furthest bench. It did not feel right to sit among the staff, with those who had known Severus for so much longer than he had and who mourned in a different manner. He was here as a private citizen, he decided, and listened politely as Harry Potter—looking very much the young hero—eulogised Severus Snape as a Gryffindor for his bravery, as a Hufflepuff for his loyalty, as a Ravenclaw for his wisdom. There was applause, and not a few tears, and decent catering.
Later that night, when all the visitors had left, Horace opened up a bottle of fifty-year-old single malt. He settled in his chair before the fire and raised a glass, not entirely dry-eyed. "Here's to you, m'boy."
He drank to the most cunning, two-faced, duplicitous snake of a Slytherin he had ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Horace returned to the cafe the next morning, and the next, but Mr. Jink did not show himself. He sat out on the terrace with his coffee and pastries, thinking of the more than serviceable restaurant at the hotel just across from his flat where he often hoped to run into old friends in the country for business or pleasure, or to meet new ones who might treat him to eggs Benedict and mimosas. Not even the afternoon prospect of a tour around the bookshops or a stroll along the shore excused the urge that led him here.
The encounter had left him slightly perturbed. Whoever said that time healed all wounds had either lived to an astonishing age or was in fact a gibbering idiot. Time healed nothing. Days and months and years were lazy thread work, and all it took was the gentlest flex of memory to burst the stitches open again.
Of course the young man in the Reims boots was not Severus Snape. Severus Snape was dead and gone and, logically speaking, if he were going to belie the latter and turn up anywhere, it would be as a phantom in the corridors of Hogwarts or in the rubble of the Shrieking Shack—not as a flesh and blood stranger in Victoria, arguing over coffee. No, he supposed it was not so much the young man himself who haunted him but his own reaction to him. He closed his eyes, reliving that mad flash of hope and the pang of grief that had followed when the ridiculous thought first occurred to him. Regret. It was, amidst two years of comfortable travel and rich food and expensive drink, the sharpest he had felt anything since that terrible day at Hogwarts.
That was what lured him back. Not curiosity over just who that young man was—although he did abhor a mystery—nor anything as silly as sentiment. Rather, it felt more akin to the niggling need of a loose tooth: a novel and almost pleasurable pain that he found himself driven to worry and prod at until something finally broke.
Of course, it didn't hurt that, plain or not, the young man was undeniably fetching. There was something about an enfant terrible that never failed to drive him to foolishness.
On the third morning, he spied the young man in the street. It was a quarter to nine, and he had almost given up hope when a swiftly striding figure in black caught his eye. Mr. Jink was apparently forgoing his morning coffee once more, hurrying down the sidewalk with his head down. Horace abandoned the last bite of his croissant and hastened after him. He was not built for sprinting but with a few good lopes managed to catch up with him at the corner.
"Mr. Jink—pardon, me, Mr. Jink?"
The young man froze in his tracks. Horace saw his shoulders stiffen before he very slowly turned around.
"Yes?" His voice could support icicles.
Horace offered his hand, determined not to acknowledge his own lack of protocol. This was North America, after all. "We haven't been formally introduced, I know. I'm certain you don't remember me..."
The young man glanced down at his hand but did not take it. "I saw you at the coffee shop the other day. You had powdered sugar on your robes and looked like you were having a stroke."
Never let it be said he took himself too seriously. He chuckled and surreptitiously checked his front for crumbs. "Horace Slughorn. Fully recovered."
"Benjamin Jink. Late for work." He began to cross the street.
Horace fell into step with him. "What is it you do, Mr. Jink?"
Benjamin—that suited him very well, Benjamin—gave him a wary look. "I'm with W.G. Moss. Look, Mister...Slugworth, was it...?"
"Slughorn," Horace politely corrected.
"Mr. Slughorn, if you don't mind, I have a busy day ahead of me. So if you'd care to skip to the part where you tell me what you're selling or how you lost your train ticket to Moose Jaw to visit your dying cousin thrice removed, I can tell you to bugger off that much sooner and we can both be on our respective ways."
There was that feeling again, a stinging, singing cut. Good God, he even sounded a little like him, an actor mimicking familiar lines. He hesitated just for a moment, and the young man turned and began to walk away.
"Wait! Forgive me—honestly, what a clod I am today—but might I take you to lunch?"
Benjamin halted. He looked Horace over, raising an eyebrow, and responded very slowly: "I believe what you're looking for is a place called The Handlebar. It's over on Satyr Lane."
Horace, still discombobulated, was nonetheless charmed. There was something very attractive about pertness. "I hope you'll forgive me for being forward. I collect interesting people, you see."
It was an unfortunate fact that eccentricity was not considered to be quite as delightful on this side of the pond. "And why should I care to be 'collected' by some lunatic I've met in the street?"
He caught the insincere note in Benjamin's voice, however, and knew he had hooked him. Truly interesting people, in his experience, secretly wanted to be reassured that they were in fact interesting and not—as the rest of the world might have decided—misanthropic bastards.
"Because you're flattered." He smiled his most persuasive smile. "And you're curious. And you seem like the sort of upstanding young man who indulges his foolish elders."
The upstanding young man snorted. Then he paused, with a look on his face that suggested he felt every bit as foolish as Horace, and finally relented as Horace had hoped he would. "I generally take my lunch at the King Egbert fountain at one o'clock. I may or may not today."
Then he swept off down the street without looking back, leaving an absurdly pleased Horace in his wake.
The rest of the morning passed in leaps and bounds. Horace did indeed browse through the bookshops and take a walk along the pier, and at precisely five to one he turned up at old Egbert's fountain and bought two very nearly authentic pasties from a nearby shop. He found an empty bench and sat down, waiting until a familiar stride in familiar boots caught his eye.
Benjamin came to join him, sitting almost primly at the far end of the bench. The breeze ruffled his hair, making him look rather less severe, and the nip in the air brought colour to his cheeks. He looked like he should be composing dour poetry on the moors. Horace smiled and offered over one of the pasties, waving off the coin Benjamin tried to foist upon him in return.
"Nonsense, your company is payment in spades."
"Mm." Benjamin regarded him suspiciously but unwrapped his pie and started in.
Horace watched him eat for a moment, admiring his mouth. "W.G. Moss—so you're in the investment game? You know, I could introduce you to Flavius Durham. I'm sure you've heard of him. Close, personal friend of mine."
"He forces me to play golf with him twice a month. I'm in the arithmancy department anyhow. 'Number botherers.'"
Daunted but not dashed, he changed tactics. "Arithmancy is a fascinating field, I've always thought." He took a bite of his pasty and hummed in pleasure. "You weren't educated at Hogwarts, were you, Benjamin? May I call you Benjamin?"
Benjamin shrugged. "If you like. And no, I was nine when I came to Canada."
Horace paused tactfully. "That would have been...1970 or so?"
The wooden expression on the young man's face confirmed the unspoken query behind it. "'72."
Three years younger than Severus Snape, a quiet voice noted in the back of his mind. "So your family came to British Columbia."
"Nova Scotia. And it was only me."
He winced in sympathy. A war orphan, not that they were calling it a war yet back then. "You had family there, in Nova Scotia?"
Benjamin narrowed his eyes. "Why do you ask? Are you with Immigration? Because I assure you, I'm here legally."
Horace held up his hands. "No, no. Only making conversation. It's all anyone talks about these days back in Britain, now that it's over. 'Where were you when...' Forgive me."
"Mm." Benjamin shrugged. "I've visited England a few times. Hogsmeade, the London Alleys. It's very...quaint."
"Have you ever considered moving back?"
"Truly?" Horace gave him a lightly teasing glance. "You know, there's a shortage of eligible young bachelors with steady careers."
"I'm quite sure."
"Real estate is immensely more affordable."
"And Gringotts is always looking for—"
Horace blinked. Benjamin had gone abruptly red, then paled, visibly recomposing himself after nearly biting through his tongue. Horace smiled faintly, afraid that doing anything else would send the young man into flight. "Oh, bother, I do tend to run on at the mouth sometimes. Don't mind me." He feigned a thoughtful pause. "Now when did I mention I used to teach?"
Benjamin shook his head, visibly forcing himself to relax. His expression flickered from full foot in mouth to one of slight chagrin. "Well, I wasn't about to traipse off and meet a stranger for lunch without ascertaining that he is who he says he is, now was I? Believe it or not, there is only one Horace Slughorn in Britain, former Potions Master at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry."
"Ah, quite right." He patted Benjamin's shoulder, very fine cogs turning very quickly. He forced them to grind to a halt. "I suppose you can't be too safe these days. So tell me, Benjamin, are you a Circean or a Hypatian?"
The young man eased slightly beneath his hand, back on steadier ground. "Hypatian. Numerology is the work of charlatans and idiots."
"Oho—we're in full agreement there. Do you know, a numerologist once told me that I would be trampled by a runaway horse at seventy. Now, not that I've yet reached such an age..."
Gratifyingly, Benjamin's lips twitched. He had a rather nice smile, slightly crooked and entirely smug.
"In fact," he said, "I often thought that if I hadn't gone into brewing, numbers would be the business for me."
The remainder of the lunch hour was spent in pleasant small talk about the utilitarian pleasure of arithmantic equations while Horace put a lid on any further ridiculous speculation. They watched the people pass through the square—out here, there was no pretending that this was home, but it had its charms—and threw the last crumbs to a pair of enormous and fearless ravens.
At ten to two, Benjamin stood and brushed himself off and then straightened his tie. "I have to admit, this wasn't entirely painful. It was a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Slughorn."
"'Horace,' please. And in that case," Horace said, rising to his feet, "I would very much like to take you to dinner on Saturday."
Benjamin narrowed his eyes. "What would you want to do that for?"
Horace beamed. "Ah, progress! Now if you had asked what you would want to do that for, I'd have been in for a battle. If you're still leery, I can make you a copy of my C.v., complete with full references from the elite of western wizarding society."
"You haven't answered my question."
"Nothing gets by you." He considered it a moment and opted for honesty. "I like you, Benjamin Jink."
He did. The fellow was witty and intriguing and, while on the older side of such things, precisely the sort of younger companion an old man abroad should make himself foolish over.
Benjamin did not appear to know what to say to that.
Horace took the opportunity to draw a calling card from his pocket and summon a quill nib from the end of his wand. "I'll be dining at La Taverna at seven. Do come. I've been told I'm much wittier over wine."
Benjamin rolled his eyes but took the card, and this time when Horace offered his hand, he took that too, giving a firm shake. His hand was cold, and Horace held the connection until it warmed. Then he watched him go, the pang in the pit of his stomach warring with something lighter, something tremulous. That feeling was more familiar.
Funny old world.
Severus Snape at eleven was a graceless child, pale and pinched, with premature shadows under his eyes. He was the smallest boy in the incoming year, straggling at the end of Minerva's line just behind a bold little redheaded girl. Nonetheless, there was something about him that caught Horace's eye from the dais as he looked over the new arrivals. The boy had an alert look about him despite his hunched shoulders and the curtain of hair all but covering his face. While the rest of the youngsters gasped at the enchanted ceiling and the floating candelabras, he was stealing glances at faces, visibly picking out the heads of house, the head boy and girl, the prefects.
Sharp, that was Horace's first impression. Sharp eyes and sharp cheekbones, all over in need of a little sanding, a little polishing. He found himself watching the boy as Black, Sirius and Evans, Lily andPotter, James were sorted into Gryffindor. The boy himself proved to be the last to join the Slytherin table, and Horace noted his name, his initials, thinking fancifully that perhaps it was a good omen after a very unnerving year.
By the end of the first Potions lesson of the term, there was no question remaining as to why this one had sorted to the serpent. It was not entirely a family tradition. While it soon came out that Severus was Eileen Prince's son, Horace remembered her father August as a rather dull, stolid Hufflepuff from his own school days, and a little digging revealed that the Prince line was in fact inclined to throw Ravenclaws—not to mention, 'Snape' was not a name he recognized.
No, unlike the majority of Slytherins who made their mark on life and instilled in their children a love for success and intolerance for complacency, this was not a matter of bloodlines. This was fresh hunger, and it was in that very first week that Horace subtly but deliberately cut back on calling on the boy when his hand was raised in class, even though he had arrived nearly ready for second year Potions.
Severus Snape, a sad little sight in his second-hand clothes...his temper ran far hotter, a world apart from those brief moments of chilling emptiness behind blue eyes, and yet Horace could not help but be reminded of that other boy, that other hungry little half-blood, the boy he had once loved, the boy who had ruined him.
The attacks had begun eight months ago, but those with an ear to the ground had heard rumblings long before. A year, or ten, or thirty. The papers were still speculating on what foreign powers lay behind the threat, but Horace had his doubts, and so did Albus Dumbledore (or so he suspected—who knew what lay behind that infuriating smile?).
Thus he put old memories and the whole bad business out of his head, and he turned his attention from diamonds in the rough to rising stars. Lily Evans, now she had the right attitude, as did charming little Evan Rosier. They were bright, promising, uncomplicated children, and he basked in their fledgling glow for as long as blissful ignorance allowed him.
They met for dinner on Saturday and over good wine and an exquisite veal parmigiana talked of things polite and innocuous, such as the new radio drama on the WBC, and the state of the market, and whether there would be snow for Christmas. The consensus was, in short: atrocious, tolerable, perhaps.
"No more Inquisition?" Benjamin asked, expertly dissecting the last roll and lavishly applying butter. "Have I ceased being interesting?"
Horace chuckled. "Not in the least. But I've learned my lesson."
"Pity. I was going to spin you some tall tales. Possibly involving international espionage."
"Is that so?" Horace topped up both their glasses. "I would put good money on the truth being even more interesting."
Benjamin smirked and took a sip. "It really isn't."
"If you say so."
The challenge lay between them for a moment before Benjamin glanced briefly heavenwards and gave in. "I was born in a little village outside of Manchester. My father was a wizard and my mother was a muggle. After they died, I went to live with my Great-Aunt Constance in Cape Breton. I attended a muggle school—Riverview—tutored on the side by Aunt Constance and one of our neighbours. When I was sixteen, I secured an apprenticeship with an arithmancer in Halifax. Then, two years ago, I accepted a position here for better money. After that, little of interest happened until I was one day accosted in the street by a mad chemistry professor."
Horace had received a letter that very morning in reply to a request sent to an old friend. Besides the short note from Phineas, the envelope had also included a newspaper clipping and a set of notes in Minerva McGonagall's hand. He had already decided that he did not wish to know how the latter had been obtained. According to the paperwork, however, a Benjamin Jink had indeed appeared in the Hogwarts book in 1963, though his name disappeared in 1972, two years before he was due his letter of acceptance. Around the same time, the Daily Prophet had announced that the Dark Mark had been cast over the household of one Francis Jink of Bolton.
'The extent of the attack is of yet unknown.' There had been no follow-up published.
This of course proved one of two things. Either Benjamin Jink was exactly who he said he was, or he wasn't. That was not the most helpful clarification. If he were an impostor, of course, he was clearly one of high intelligence and remarkable diligence, although that was hardly a revelation. The young man had a delightful brain.
"You look sceptical."
Horace blinked. "Do I?"
Benjamin absently rubbed the tines of his fork over his lower lip. It was a surprisingly arresting gesture. "Out with it."
He paused, considering. Then he laid his cards on the table. "You wear a glamour."
Now that proved unexpectedly fruitful. The fork froze, and Benjamin's gaze flickered to the door and back again. He sucked in a breath and regarded Horace guardedly. "I do. Most people don't notice."
Horace spread his hands apologetically. "If there's such a thing as the opposite of a blind spot, I seem to have it."
Benjamin slumped back in his chair, regarding him sideways.
Now he felt terribly uncouth and attempted to rectify it. "Would you like to come to a Yule party with me the Friday after next?"
That earned him a startled look. Benjamin's voiced dropped. "Just what are you playing at?"
He gave that serious thought. At the moment he was playing at several things. He decided on the most immediate. "I'd like to see you again."
Now it was Benjamin who looked sceptical. "Mm-hm."
"Is that a yes?"
Benjamin put his fork down and worried at his glass instead. "Tell me, Mr. Slughorn, are you always this way with men you allegedly like, or is this some sort of new and exciting post-mid-life crisis?"
"It's Horace. And do you know, I'm not really certain." After a moment, he quietly admitted, "You remind me of someone, actually. One of my students. Someone I wish I'd got to know better."
Benjamin snorted. "Ah, there it is."
"You said you liked me," Benjamin said flatly. "But in truth I merely remind you of someone else."
There was a little chink in the armour, baring a soft spot underneath. It endeared the young man to him on the spot. "Can't it be both?"
"Not in my experience." Benjamin's mouth quirked humourlessly. "I was never popular with my teachers."
Horace shook his head, picturing him a little younger, absently brushing a quill across his lips as he sat at his desk. It was a thoroughly charming image. "I find that hard to believe."
"I was a little delinquent. Ran with an unruly crowd."
"Is that so?" He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, a youth not misspent is hardly worth spending."
Benjamin downed the rest of his wine in one gulp. "That was almost witty."
"I try. Now was that a yes?"
"Yes, yes, fine. Maybe."
It was perhaps the most satisfying maybe he had ever received in a lifetime full of ambivalent responses. "I'll pick you up at eight."
"You'll give me the address and I'll meet you there," Benjamin countered.
Horace chuckled. "My dear boy, I'd almost think you didn't want me to know where you live."
That was met with another snort. "When I'm satisfied you aren't an escaped mental patient, we'll talk."
Horace beamed. "Progress. Would you like dessert?"
Later that night, as they left the restaurant and were about to go their separate ways, Benjamin caught his sleeve. Horace halted, retreating with him out of the light drizzle and under the shelter of the awning. The night had cooled just enough for him to see their breath in the air. He wondered if his young companion was going to be so bold as to steal a kiss.
Benjamin regarded him seriously, however. "Tell me something, Horace."
"Anything." Within reason, of course, but affairs did best with absolutes.
"Were you a good teacher?"
It was not what he'd expected to be asked, and it gave him pause. He took half a step back, regarding Benjamin intently, but those dark eyes gave little up. He scratched his chin. "In the scheme of things...no. No, I suppose I wasn't."
It felt surprisingly good to say it out loud, as if a weight he hadn't even been aware of had been lifted from his shoulders.
Benjamin only nodded, more to himself than anything. "I—when my parents were killed—there are scars. That's why I wear a glamour."
The admission bruised his heart. An apology would have been trite—there was nothing he could say to that. So, loathing an awkward silence, he took Benjamin's hand and raised it to his lips, brushing a kiss across his knuckles. Just softly, just for an instant, but it warmed him straight through nonetheless.
Benjamin huffed a faint, incredulous laugh before recovering his hand. He seemed to hesitate for a moment before turning and slipping away up the street. Horace watched him until he had disappeared around the corner, then turned around and whistled to himself all the way home.
On Monday afternoon, he was waiting at the fountain when Benjamin arrived, and every day after that for the next two weeks.
Severus was eighteen years old when he left Hogwarts, a thin, pale young man with a permanent worried wrinkle between his eyes. He seemed to belong to a different time, his used robes of a better class than they once were but of a cut that suggested they had belonged to his grandfather, and he wore his hair long when the fashionable young men were favouring short. He had nearly grown into a classical Roman face, his cheekbones and nose and chin unobjectionable on their own but utterly too dramatic in summation. He slumped over his desk in class and walked with stooped shoulders. Bad posture was far less forgivable on a youth than on a boy; it gave him an air of shiftiness.
He was first in his class in Defence Against the Dark Arts, Herbology, History, and Arithmancy, second in Potions, Astronomy, and Ancient Runes, and third in Charms and Transfiguration. Despite his standing, he had never been made prefect and had not even made the first list for Head Boy. According to rumour, he had no offers pending from the Ministry or from any other sponsor.
Horace found him in the library on the night of the year-end party. He was in fact merely sneaking through on a shortcut to the wine cellar, but he paused when he saw the boy at the furthest study carrel and smiled broadly as if he'd come to seek him out.
"Ah, Severus, there you are—you're missed at the party!"
Severus looked up with a frown, closing his book around his index finger. "I rather doubt that, sir."
It was a rude reply, but it struck Horace as a sad one too. The boy was not completely friendless—he saw him often with Evan Rosier, Werner Wilkes, and Rodolphus Lestrange, and he had attended last year's dance with Bellatrix Black—and yet there was something lonely about him nonetheless. He simply didn't fit in, whether for what he had been born or what he was clumsily trying to be.
In that moment, Horace wanted very much to tell him to put his books away. He wanted to take him to the wine cellar, and uncork a good aged Nebbiolo, and drink it there with him straight from the bottle. He wanted to tell him to stand up straight, and that he would look stunning in a muted shade of aubergine, and that Magnus Robertson in Edinburgh was looking for an apprentice brewer.
He also wanted, upon consideration, to bring the boy to his bed. He strongly suspected that Severus Snape was a virgin, and if there were any excuse for missing one's own end of school party, it was an inaugural tumble. He pictured him, pale and charmingly awkward, nervous at first but then melting into passion as bookish young men did.
It was then that he caught a glimpse of the book Severus had been studying. A red seal on the spine marked it as part of the restricted collection. Marten's Blood Curses: A Practical Application. In the stack beside it were 1001 Deadly Poisons and Secrets of the Venom Pact. Seventh years had sat their Defence Against the Dark Arts NEWT over a week ago.
If it wasn't his business, it couldn't be his fault. He shook his head and forced a smile.
"You have a good night, Severus."
He left him there that night, alone amidst his eldritch studies. Three years later, he would leave his comfortable position at Hogwarts, unable to face another class of fresh-faced first years, unable to befriend another upperclassman who might yet be a murderer. He had taught his students that the world was theirs for the taking, and they had taken it. He had taught them there were no odds they could not surmount, and they had stood up to terrorism, fought, and fallen.
It would be another twenty years before he would wonder what would have happened if he had imparted a little confidence to just one more boy.
The party was held at Mars and Hildegard Clayworth's city home, a well-situated three-storey affair that ably made up for its painfully modern exterior with tasteful and traditional decor within. A massive pine had been expertly dressed, and holly clung to the crown moulding, dotted whimsically with mistletoe. The guest list was a veritable who's who of the Pacific wizarding enclaves, with gossip insisting that several well-known names had travelled all the way from California and Hong Kong solely to attend the event.
Horace was in his element, circulating with a glass of champagne in one hand and the other at the offer. He had already been introduced to the Canadian Minister of Ethno-Supernatural Diversity, the president of Gringotts Canada, and the Head of Abstract Magic from Morgan Le Fey University at Kau-Lung, and the night was young yet when he realised that he had lost track of Benjamin somewhere between the crab puffs and his introduction to the new soprano with the Victoria-Merlin Opera.
"Horace—oh, Horace, you simply have to meet my nephew, Jeffrey." Hildegard Clayworth appeared beside him. "He just signed with the Vancouver Vultures."
He smiled. "I would be delighted, Hilde. But if you'll excuse me for just one moment..."
Scanning the room again turned up no Benjamin. He discreetly passed by the empty lavatories, glanced out at the terrace where a shivering few were huddled around their cigarettes, and then ventured further back into the house. A waiter in red and gold looked him over suspiciously but let him pass. A set of double doors were slightly ajar at the end of the corridor, and he approached, peeking inside.
Benjamin sat in a wingback chair with a book in his hands, the soft glow of the lamplight bringing out the warm tones in his dark hair, and his cheekbones casting shadows. He had obviously been here for some time, having made a sizeable dent in the book. Horace peered at the gap in the nearest shelf: Dickens. He knocked quietly on the door frame.
The book snapped shut. Benjamin looked up with a defensive expression, though it softened somewhat when he saw it was him.
"You're missing a good party."
Benjamin raised his eyebrows innocently. "I'm really not. I'm quite enjoying myself in here."
"I think one of your colleagues from W.G. Moss is here."
That did not appear to be a great incentive to leave the library. Benjamin opened the book again.
"I'm about to be introduced to a new player with the Vultures," he pressed. "You should come meet him."
Benjamin was silent for a moment. Then he reluctantly rose and shelved the book. "If you insist."
Horace smiled, putting a hand at the small of Benjamin's back. He was about to lead him out of the library when he found himself hesitating. He looked from Benjamin, with his faint frown, down the hall to the gay lights and soft music and lively hum of conversation in the parlour. Hildegard was likely waiting for him, as was the young quidditch player. He still needed to get Professor Ng's address, and Mr. Graham had promised to find him again to shore up a date for golf.
"Would you rather go get a cup?" he asked abruptly.
Benjamin stared at him.
"Coffee or tea. Would you like to get out of here?"
"I..." Benjamin drew back, regarding him suspiciously. "Yes?"
"All right." It was very nearly blasphemy to think it, and yet he thought it nonetheless: there would in fact be other parties. Hildegard was already engaged in a chat with her decorator when he and Benjamin stole out of the library, nipping their coats from the closet and slipping out the back door. They tiptoed across the lawn and then made a rush for the street as they tripped the ward for the security lights.
Benjamin ducked behind a tree ahead of the sweeping lights, chuckling breathlessly. It was the first time Horace had truly heard him laugh, and that if anything lifted his regrets over leaving the party without a proper farewell. He'd had just enough champagne to start softly singing "Good King Wenceslas" as they made their way back to Merlin Square. It had snowed a little, a sparse dusting of white glinting in the glow from the streetlights.
"...deep and crisp and e-ven..."
They purchased hot cider from a stand that was just closing up and ambled around the deserted square. Had Benjamin been ten years younger, he might have offered his arm, but as it was he contented himself with keeping close for warmth, their hands occasionally brushing.
He glanced sidelong at Benjamin. "I don't live far from here. As it happens."
The invitation hung in the air for several painful seconds.
"All right." Benjamin took a delicate sip of his cider.
Horace beamed. "Onwards, then."
He indeed did not live far, only a street behind the main square, in a red brick high-rise that called itself The Rosemere. Most of the building looked to be already abed, though a few windows were still lit. "And guest," he announced at the private entrance, and the wards parted, revealing the doors to the lift.
Benjamin whistled as they rode up to the top floor. "Do you rent or own?"
"I'm house-minding, as a matter of fact. An old student of mine, Gillian Bones—you might have heard of her—she winters in Australia, or summers there, depending on how you look at it. I'm watching the place until March."
He had not entirely prepared for guests, beyond the extent to which he was always prepared for guests. He hurried ahead of Benjamin when the lift opened, straightening some clutter and tucking away the letter from Phineas. "Let me take your coat."
Benjamin took some loose change from the pockets and secured his wand before handing it over. He gazed around the flat with obvious admiration, drinking in the wrought-iron staircase, and the grand fireplace, and the seemingly endless rows of bookshelves lining the walls.
Horace decided there really was no harm in feeling flattered, even if it was not truly his home. "I know I have a bottle of red somewhere. One tic."
He went into the kitchen and found the bottle, two glasses, and a corkscrew. Then he discreetly checked his breath, cast a personal charm, combed his moustache, and returned to the sitting room. Predictably, Benjamin was grazing at a bookcase.
Horace set down the wine and came up behind him. "Benjamin the book-mouse."
Benjamin flipped the page of a novel. "Book-worm."
"Pardon?" He put his hands at Benjamin's waist. To his delight, he was not rebuffed.
"Books have worms, not mice." Benjamin turned another page, obviously not truly reading it.
Horace smiled. "I prefer mice." Then he let his lips brush against an earlobe, slowly, lightly fording a path down Benjamin's neck.
Benjamin shivered but merely turned another page.
"Oh, you're beastly." Horace mouthed softly at his skin, which changed abruptly from smooth to rough and back again. Yes, there was a scar—he could feel it, even if he couldn't see it.
His hands slid down to Benjamin's narrow hips, tracing the curve of his backside, then around front where he felt him stiffening. The book wavered. He pressed a palm against his placket, giving an encouraging rub, and the hot sigh he earned was one he'd been imagining all week.
The book was soon nestled back where it came from. Benjamin turned, bright-eyed and a little flushed. His mouth still tasted of cider when Horace kissed him, a touch more hungrily than he'd meant to, the rough, wet press sending a blazing arrow straight through him. Delicious.
They two-stepped away from the bookcase, aiming for the sofa but bumping up against the wall. Horace couldn't keep his hands off him, pinning him to keep him still long enough to work at all those fiddly little shirt buttons. Benjamin was quicker, nimble fingers flying down the front of his robes, then the shirt beneath, then teasing under the waistband of his drawers. They rubbed up together, the friction of too much fabric making Horace curse and redouble his efforts.
Somehow he managed to get Benjamin's trousers down, drawers following. His gaze devouring, he ran a fingertip along that handsome cock from root to tip, making him squirm, then took him in a firm grip, stroking generously. "Do you like that?"
"Mm..." Benjamin bit his lip, his eyes shutting tightly. His breath was coming harder now, and Horace worried he was too heavy to be leaning against him, but Benjamin only slung an arm around his neck and pulled him closer.
Horace kissed his cheek, his chin, his throat, feeling his pulse beat staccato and the vibrato of a low moan as his grip grew firmer. Trysts had been few and far between these last years, and perhaps not only for him—Benjamin was trembling, gasping, very nearly burning up with feverish heat as though it had been a lifetime since anyone touched him. He considered the bed, the couch, the floor, but even that was too far.
He got his hand around the both of them, stroking and eagerly frotting until Benjamin arched against him, his hips stuttering and a strangled cry on his lips. The first wet spurt against his stomach was too much. Oh, lovely Benjamin, squeezing his eyes shut and licking his lips. Dear young fellow, grasping, wanton, looking so lost and found all at once. Horace pushed him flush up against the wall, drowning himself in a kiss and thrusting against the hollow of his hip, panting as the pleasure pulled up tight inside him—releasing with a reverberating twang as Benjamin's lips hotly traced his ear, breathing words too faint to be understood.
His knees very nearly went out on him as he spent like a dragon, braced against the wall, pressed against sweetly shaking Benjamin, breathing in the wicked scent of sweat and seed. He shivered luxuriantly through the echoes of it, Benjamin gently nipping at his neck, rapid breath softly puffing against his damp skin.
"Oh, lovely..." He leaned against Benjamin, not wanting him to slip away just yet. He kissed him again and stroked his hip. Gently squeezed his thigh, fingertips smearing the dripping mess. He could feel Benjamin's heart beating hard through his chest.
When he finally had his breath back, he stepped out of his pooled clothes and staggered back with Benjamin to the sofa, where they collapsed in a heap.
Benjamin squirmed atop him for a moment, then settled when Horace rubbed his back. "Well, that certainly didn't set any records."
Horace chuckled. "Passion, m'boy, passion." In truth, brevity aside, he thought it might be the best he'd had in quite a while.
"Mm." Benjamin did not sound completely displeased himself. There was a smug note to his hum.
They lay there together for a time until Benjamin struggled to his feet and went to gather his clothing, disappearing into the lavatory. Out of politeness, Horace managed to get his wand and perform a quick cleaning charm, and then he summoned his dressing gown from the bedroom. Anything more complicated would be rather beyond him for the next five minutes or so.
Benjamin emerged a few minutes later fully dressed, looking very nearly like he hadn't just been ravished, save for his bee-stung lips and a faint flush that lingered just past the open collar of his shirt. It was a very good look on him.
Horace gazed his fill, then nodded to the wine. "Cabernet?"
He was rather surprised when Benjamin acquiesced without persuasion. He had rather expected him to bolt as soon as he had his trousers back. Note to self, he thought, Benjamin Jink is much more agreeable after a healthy orgasm.
In fact: "I'll get it," Benjamin said, taking the bottle and glasses over to the sideboard.
Horace lazily eyed the straight line of his back as he uncorked the bottle, polished up the stemware, and poured the wine as carefully as any steward. Benjamin handed him his glass and then crossed the room to sit in the armchair, ankle primly perched on knee.
"To a lovely evening," Horace pronounced, raising his glass.
Benjamin tipped his and took a small sip.
Horace took a deep breath of the bouquet. Then he paused and took a second. He closed his eyes and heard Benjamin fidgeting very slightly in his seat. "Oh," he said. "Oh my, you are good, Severus."
He opened his eyes to meet a dark, veiled gaze—one that glanced to where his wand lay on the coffee table. Horace made no sudden movements. "Lethe Elixir, tasteless but possessing of a slightly anetholic odour. You know, I'd have hardly noticed if I'd picked up the Sauvignon, but a Franc should never smell of anise. You really do have to research these things."
Severus Snape put both feet on the floor. He looked mildly insulted. "This wouldn't have been an issue if you stocked allsorts for Christmas like a normal person."
Horace pulled a face despite himself. "Do you know, I don't care for the coconut."
"Well, that's just lovely."
"Oh, don't be like that."
Severus pursed his lips, his hand hovering near his hip where Horace could see the haft of his wand protruding. "How long have you known?"
Horace slowly straightened up in his seat, keeping his hands in plain sight. "Known? Honestly, not until this very minute. But that first day in the coffee shop, that first day, do you know what I thought to myself? I thought, 'Severus Snape once had those very same boots.' Of course, I only thought I was going a little mad."
Severus's mouth opened, then abruptly shut. His hand flailed gracelessly for a moment before finally pinching the bridge of his nose. "They're good boots."
Horace knew the sort of people he came from. You didn't just go and throw away a perfectly serviceable pair of boots, even if you were leaving the rest of your life behind. "They're dull boots. You would look much better in a Cuban heel."
"You are mad."
"Maybe," Horace said, and he toyed with his wine glass. He licked his lips reflexively, tasting salt. His heart was hammering, and Severus looked like he was about to die of nerves about two inches beneath that frosty surface. He thought about him trembling against the wall, hot and clutching him. He thought about him in the Clayworths' library and dodging the end of year party all those years ago. "Maybe. Do you know, I think I'll drink this if you like."
Severus frowned, immediately looking to his own glass. "Have you dosed mine too?"
Horace laughed aloud, a strained sound. "No, but that would be marvellous, wouldn't it? Two poisoned glasses at opposite ends of a table—that's every brewer's secret dream. I very nearly managed it once, you know, but the house-elf broke the decanter."
"There's enough in that cup to wipe out the entire last week." Severus appeared unconvinced. "Why would you want to drink it?"
"Don't misunderstand me, I wouldn't care to forget it all, not least tonight." He paused, folding his hands over his stomach, weighing options and discarding them in the course of a breath. There will be other parties, a little voice whispered. But there would not be another moment quite like this one.
"Don't misunderstand me," he said again. "But I rather like Benjamin Jink, and if he has some mad notion that he has to leave the city, I don't think I'll ever see him again. Maybe I still won't if I take my medicine, but I like the odds better."
He smiled. "He's a fine young man, you know. Done very well for himself, all on his own. I'd like to get to know someone like that better, and if he wanted to be mysterious about what his life was like before he came to Victoria, I just might learn to stop pestering him to find out. And if he ever wanted to tell me, I'd assure him that I've kept secrets in my time that would turn even his worldly head white.
"I'd like to think I might have a thing or two to offer in return. I could introduce him to a proper tailor, for one. Promotions have been won on ties alone. I think we might have a rather good time talking Potions—he really does have an excellent grasp of the field for a number-botherer, if this dose is anything to go on—and I would very much like a second chance at properly seducing him. I can do better. Especially if I abstain from the champagne beforehand.
"And most of all," he said, "I would like to have him over for the holidays. Otherwise, I'll be alone, and there's nothing sadder than an old foreigner alone at Christmas. I've already bought him a present, in fact. I shouldn't like to see it go to waste."
Severus stared at him, mute for several breaths. Then he said, "I could always steal it on the way out."
Horace's lips twitched. "You could, but I don't think you would."
Severus crossed his arms. "Go on, then. Drink."
His spirit sank, but it was, perhaps, only understandable. He picked up the glass, pretended it was mid-rate American Sauvignon, and tipped it back.
"Oh, all right, fine!"
Horace paused, the wine barely touching his lips. He raised a querying brow.
"Put it down."
He did so.
Severus stood up and paced the floor. "You're infuriating."
"Nobody's perfect." He spread his hands helplessly. "I've become something of a believer in second chances lately, though. It's a funny thing. Old dog, new tricks, all of that."
Severus only glared.
Horace cautiously picked up a white doily from the coffee table and gave it a little wave of surrender as he got to his feet. "I did miss you," he said and then slowly approached until he was close enough to kiss his cheek.
Severus held very still, only the slight quickening of his breath giving him away. They stood there together silently until Severus finally cursed under his breath, brushing past him and picking up the glasses. He carried them into the kitchen where there was a brief splash and then the sound of water running. Horace refrained from making any comment whatsoever about what a waste of good wine that had been and settled for smiling hopefully at him when he returned.
"Now, if I could ask just one question..."
Severus halted in the entrance to the kitchen, leaning very slightly against the jamb. He looked exhaustion personified suddenly, as if the strangeness of the evening—of the last two weeks in their entirety—had caught up with him all at once, leaving him trampled and a little ill.
"Ask," he said, though the look he wore warned him to tread carefully.
Horace could not resist. After tonight, he would curb his nosiness, but there had to be a certain period of amnesty. "Was it Minerva who wove that glamour? Because if she did, I do have to say she missed her calling on the stage."
"No." Severus paused and then, with a tired look that suggested he supposed he could always kill Horace later, admitted, "It was Madam Pomfrey."
"Poppy? Oh, I'm impressed. But then, she always did have a soft spot for you."
Severus shrugged, hovering uncomfortably.
"Will you at least come sit?" Horace recovered his seat on the sofa. If a drink wasn't in the cards, they at least deserved to sit down.
"No," Severus said, but he did, walking over and sitting stiffly, leaving the gulf of a cushion between them.
Horace regarded him with the utmost fondness and tried very hard to suppress a laugh at the absurdity of them both. "What a pair we are, Benjy, m'boy."
This was met with a snort and a numbly mumbled, "Don't call me Benjy."
That was met with a glower.
Ah, yes, he knew this one. "Benjamin."
If he looked his very hardest, he could very nearly make himself see black hair and black eyes, an aquiline nose, a terrible scar. It was a ragged face, one that wore twenty years of heartbreak in every line. Then he blinked, and there was brown-haired Benjamin Jink, him of the arithmancer's squint. A little bruised, a little battered, but young still, with a lifetime ahead of him.
Benjamin rolled his eyes, but his voice was soft and only feigned resignation. "I suppose I can live with that."
Horace beamed. The world was full of happy coincidences.