Harry reached the bottom of the stairs at Grimmauld Place just as Sirius stepped into the hall from the kitchen, with Kreacher looking balefully up at him, and his mother muttering to herself something about getting rid of the half-blood scum that seemed to have taken root in her once proud house. With all of the other nasty things that had taken root in the Noble House of Black, Harry was surprised she was so concerned with one seventeen-year-old half-blood boy. He was about to tell Sirius as much when he realised he hadn’t even acknowledged his presence; he hadn’t even bothered to force the hearty grin to kick start his day.
He was reading a scroll, and whatever it said didn’t please him.
‘What’s wrong, Sirius?’ Harry asked.
He watched his godfather put the fingers of one hand to his forehead and rub it, whilst the scroll sat as though forgotten in his other hand. ‘Severus,’ he said, looking at Harry for the first time. ‘He’s not at Durmstrang. He’s never been there. He never turned up at the beginning of term.’
‘Maybe that’s why he hasn’t written back to you then,’ Harry offered, knowing it was a stupid remark; Hedwig would have found him anywhere. Some days Harry thought Sirius had put the Snape business behind him, some days, and then there were days like today was going to be, when it would hang over them like a black cloud of doubt and recrimination.
Harry knew it hadn’t worked between them. He wasn’t sure why, but he suspected they had both found that neither was the nineteen-year-old boy the other remembered. Whatever it was, it hadn’t stopped Sirius drinking himself into oblivion every night for a month on end after Severus had left, not that he’d really been there in the first place. At first Harry had thought it was his fault, that he was the cause of the obvious friction between them, and he had moved out to stay with Draco and his mother in the country.
Narcissa had divorced Lucius so publicly and expensively that the “Daily Prophet’s” sales had almost eclipsed the production run declaring the war against Voldemort was over. Lucius had wasted none of his newfound freedom, and had Lupin installed as joint master of Malfoy Manor, where he had always wanted him. At least someone had got what they’d always wanted; Harry thought it was typical that it was Lucius Malfoy.
It was Lupin who eventually told Harry that Snape had left Sirius, and persuaded him to go back to Grimmauld Place before Sirius drank himself to death.
Harry was worried about Snape too. He felt he should have spoken to him, let him understand that he regarded him as being part of his family, in fact the only family he cared to acknowledge; but he hadn’t. In fact he hadn’t told anyone, not even Sirius. Harry had even considered making the trip to Durmstrang to see Severus, but he hadn’t done that either, and now it was apparent that he hadn’t been there anyway. He had an uncomfortable feeling Snape had deliberately disappeared.
‘Where do you think he is then?’ he asked, when it became evident that Sirius wasn’t going to offer any comment.
‘I don’t know, do I?’ Sirius snapped. ‘It’s a big world, and he’s a free man.’
‘Maybe he’s staying with family?’ Harry suggested, as they walked into the kitchen and sat at the table. He noticed Kreacher was becoming lax in his housekeeping again; the same grubby cloth adorned the table as had been there for a week now, marked with ash from Sirius’s cigarettes, and spilled whisky, and other things Harry didn’t want to contemplate. Today was the day he’d promised himself he was going to begin to knock Grimmauld Place into some kind of shape, and if that meant standing over Kreacher for days on end, enduring his and his mistress’s sniping, so be it. The Dursley’s house had been awful, a ghastly symphony of peach and pale green and frills and tassels and scorn and contempt, but at least it was clean; Grimmauld Place wasn’t fit for pigs, to Harry’s way of thinking.
Sirius shook his head. ‘He hasn’t got any family, not that I know of.’
‘Where does he come from?’
Sirius shrugged. ‘Up north somewhere. Bolton or Newcastle or somewhere.’
Harry didn’t see fit to point out that Bolton and Newcastle were nowhere near one another. ‘You don’t know much about him, do you?’ he said instead, failing to keep the accusation from his voice.
‘He’s not exactly talkative.’
‘Did you ever bother to ask?’ Harry said coolly.
‘Probably not,’ Sirius snarled and stood up again. He moved to the sink and opened a wall cupboard, found a bottle of amber spirit, and began groping about again.
‘There’s a dirty glass on the table, Sirius,’ Harry remarked. ‘I’m sure anything you find in these cupboards won’t be any cleaner.’
‘You’re developing a really smart mouth, Harry, you know that?’
‘Yeah,’ Harry replied. ‘Are you going to drink all day?’ he asked, standing up from the table.
‘I may very well,’ Sirius growled back, and seemed to realise Harry was on the point of leaving. ‘Hey, where are you going?’
‘To find Severus,’ Harry replied as he pulled on his cloak. ‘Get this tip cleaned up for when we come back.’ He gave the kitchen a sweeping look. ‘No wonder he walked out.’
‘Don’t bring him back here, Harry,’ Sirius warned. ‘I don’t want him.’
Harry turned and gave him another cool look. ‘Obviously not,’ he said. ‘You’re not the only person in the world though.’
‘What’s that meant to mean?’ Sirius said dangerously. ‘Come back here, you selfish little pup; I’ve not finished.’
Harry turned again. ‘Selfish? Me? Take a long hard look in the mirror, Sirius. Scrape the grime off it first though.’
He got out into Grimmauld Place and breathed deeply; he wasn’t proud of himself. It took all of his control not to go back inside, but he had to start somewhere, and if that were giving Sirius a wake up call, so be it. He should have done this a long time ago.
Lupin was reading with his feet up at the fire; he hadn’t found it nearly as difficult as he had thought to slip into a life of comparative leisure. Lucius was at the Ministry, pretending to work; Lupin wasn’t really sure why he bothered, unless it was just to make the rest of the people he shared the fourth floor with uncomfortable. He knew Lucius had designs on the Minister’s job, in fact he was just trying to work out a way of ousting Scrimgeour, so he could claim the big prize for himself, and be the first Slytherin to hold the post for five hundred years. Lupin didn’t bother to point out that he would also be the first ex-con to hold the post; he wasn’t going to get the job anyway.
He looked across at the elf as it strode across the polished floor, as though it had more right to be there than Lupin, managing to look up at him and down its long bony nose at the same time. ‘A half-blood has called to see you,’ the elf remarked. ‘Shall I show it in?’
Lupin laughed to himself. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘And while you’re at it, you can leave your attitude at the door, or I shall tell your master all kinds of terrible things about you.’ The threat was enough; the elf straightened its shoulders and nodded curtly to him. Lupin knew it was only because the first and last time he had complained to Lucius about an elf, Malfoy hadn’t even asked which one had insulted him, but had set about kicking them all, so that they rolled around the kitchen floor like so many felled skittles.
He was quite pleased to find the half-blood in question was Harry; he didn’t want to admit it to himself just yet, but Lupin was becoming a little bored, not with Lucius, just with life.
‘I confess, I don’t know an awful lot about him, Harry,’ he said, after he’d listened to the tale of the missing Snape. ‘He was always very introverted in some ways. Not that he was shy, but he always seemed to be hiding his past.’
‘I don’t mean when he was with the Death Eaters,’ Harry replied. ‘I mean when he was young.’
‘Yes, so do I.’ Lupin nodded. ‘I think he may have come from an abusive home, Harry. I mean, I know I didn’t have much, but there was about him a stamp, not only of poverty, but of neglect too … or the wrong kind of attention.’
He watched Harry shake his head in frustration. ‘Did nobody give a fuck then?’ he asked. ‘Is that what you’re telling me?’
‘Hang on a minute.’ Lupin held his hands up. ‘Severus wasn’t the easiest boy to get on with, you know. He was hostile and aggressive, and he gave pretty much as good as he got. Anyway,’ he said, ‘I thought you didn’t much like him yourself. You always gave me that impression.’ He watched Harry try to find a way to explain himself, and then give up. ‘What’s wrong, Harry; what’s changed you? Snape’s a big boy. If he hasn’t gone to Durmstrang, he must have gone somewhere else.’
‘Yeah. I suppose so,’ Harry replied, dropping his own hostility. ‘Anyway, how are you getting on?’
‘Fine,’ Lupin replied with a smile he truly felt. ‘A bit bored, but I suspect that’s just not wondering how to pay the rent, and not looking out for the full moon.’
Harry laughed, and then returned to what he had called about. ‘What about Malfoy?’ he asked. ‘He would know if Snape had a family home, wouldn’t he? They were always quite close.’
Lupin nodded; he was feeling the first stirring of alarm himself. ‘I don’t think Lucius knows he’s not at Grimmauld Place,’ he admitted. ‘Sirius asked me not to mention it to him; he didn’t want Lucius poking his nose in where it wasn’t needed. You know what he’s like,’ he said, and smiled affectionately. ‘And it hasn’t really arisen anyway. Lucius hasn’t really mentioned him, and come to think of it, I don’t think he’s had an owl from him either.’
‘I think something’s wrong, Lupin,’ Harry said. ‘When will Lucius be home? I think you should tell him. If anyone knows where to look for him it’ll be Lucius.’
‘Not until tomorrow. He’s staying in London overnight.’
‘Damn,’ Harry said with feeling. ‘Look, I’d better go.’ He gave Lupin a long look before breaking into a smile. ‘If you’re bored, you could always get a job.’
‘I’m not that bored,’ Lupin replied with a laugh. ‘Do you want me to come with you?’
He watched the boy shake his head, and he knew there was something else. ‘Harry, what are you not telling me?’
Harry made a quick decision; there was no real reason for it to be a secret, and he’d always felt comfortable with Lupin. He sat back down and told him everything Minerva McGonagall had told him, watching carefully as the ex-werewolf nodded his acceptance, instead of the denial he had expected; he felt as though some weight had been lifted from him.
‘There was always something about him,’ Lupin said quietly. ‘Let’s just say, I’m not terribly surprised. Do I take it you’re going to tell him?’
Harry nodded. ‘Yeah, I want him to know,’ he said. ‘And not just for himself, for Sirius too. He’s a mess, Lupin; he needs him back. I just don’t think they gave it a proper go.’ He looked down and felt compelled to tell the rest of the truth. ‘I want him back for me, too. Is that bad? Am I being selfish?’
‘Of course not,’ Lupin replied, and seemed to think for a moment. ‘Minerva would know. Hogwarts must have a record of where he came from. I’m sure he left over the summer holidays; he must have gone somewhere.’
Harry felt himself brighten at that; of course Hogwarts would have a record, he had been stupid not to think about that.
‘There’s one other place you could try,’ Lupin said. ‘The safe house. It’ll still be there.’
‘I’ve already been there.’
‘Oh, Harry,’ Lupin replied, and put an arm across his shoulder. ‘You really are worried, aren’t you?’
‘I’m sorry, Potter,’ McGonagall said, ‘but that is privileged information.’
‘But I need to know,’ Harry argued. ‘He’s disappeared. He never went to Durmstrang.’
‘That is not the point, Potter,’ the Headmistress replied. ‘I cannot hand out personal information on any member of staff,’ she said firmly, holding up her hand as Harry began to object again, ‘past or present. That is my final word on this.’
‘He might be ill, Professor,’ Harry said. ‘Are you saying it’s okay if he’s lying in a pool of blood, and nobody bothers about him because his address is privileged information?’
‘No, Potter,’ she replied, wondering just when the boy would notice that she had pushed the relevant address so far across her desk that it was almost under his nose. ‘I am saying that I am not permitted to tell you.’ She wondered if she should look down, or even hand him the ruddy piece of parchment.
‘You told me there would be a right time, Professor,’ Harry blurted out. ‘Remember when I realised who he was, and Draco gave you the line of that poem? You told me there would be a right time for me to tell him.’
‘Yes,’ she agreed, and nodded so vigorously that a few hairpins slipped from her bun. ‘I remember.’
‘You said I would be the one who knew when that right time was,’ he flared, smacking his hand off the desk, not even noticing that he had hit Snape’s address with the palm of his hand. ‘This is the right time. I know it is.’
‘I agree with you, Potter,’ she said, and looked at the desk; she wasn’t sure how much more obvious she could be. ‘This would appear to be the right time.’
She watched him look down in frustration, and then saw his shoulders tense, then relax. When he looked back up, she saw he had understood, at last, in truly Gryffindor form. He gave her a half-smile, and pushed his glasses up on his nose. ‘Well, thank you, Professor. I think I’ll just go now.’ He gave her another brief smile, and handed her the few hairpins that had landed on Snape’s address.
McGonagall watched him turn towards the door. ‘Remember, he can be a little difficult sometimes, Potter. You may have to persevere.’
Harry looked at the street sign again; it couldn’t be right, Snape couldn’t live here. One or two of the houses in the mean shabby street were boarded up, and the potholed pavement was scattered with deep dirty puddles. The few households who had bothered to dress their gardens looked oddly out of place, as though even the flowers were staggering under the general dreariness, and longed to be anywhere else.
He found the house he wanted and walked up the short path, avoiding the berberis that had encroached halfway across the weedy gravel, unchecked from the wilderness of the unoccupied next-door house’s garden. Harry hesitated as he reached the door; he didn’t know how to start or what to say. He was suddenly sure that Snape would be angry with him for being here, for once again witnessing the side of his life he kept hidden from view. It didn’t occur to him to wonder if Snape were there; Harry knew he was.
He took one deep breath and knocked on the door. If he hadn’t known the man who answered was Snape, he would never have recognised him. He had three or more days of unshaven growth on his face, and the hair, which had always been a tangled mess of black, was dull and lank, as though it had been abandoned and had decided to untangle itself in an attempt to be noticed. He was still dressed in black, but his clothes were dishevelled and looked as though he’d been wearing them for more days than the beginnings of the beard he was sporting. He reminded Harry of the way Sirius was neglecting himself.
It was the eyes that had changed the most though; they had always been alight in some way: with scorn, or anger, or malice, or any number of emotions, always alive and bright. They weren’t now; they were flat and uncaring, as though nothing really mattered any more. He’d done what he had set out to do with his life, and now he was just marking time until it was over.
Harry only realised he had stuck his foot in the door in a reflex action when he felt Snape try to close it. He gave one shove and his ex-Potions Master was flung back against the wall, and Harry closed the door behind them. He been wrong about one thing; Grimmauld Place wasn’t quite the most horrible house in Britain, Spinner’s End was.
Severus couldn’t think of a single thing to say. He had been halfway through counting the hours of another day when Potter had called. He’d got to four in the afternoon; four was good, it was the hour he allowed himself to begin drinking. He didn’t allow himself the luxury before that; he couldn’t really afford to. Snape had never concerned himself much with money; his pittance of a salary as a schoolmaster had always stretched itself to whatever his meagre needs were: cigarettes, admittedly expensive books, whisky. He didn’t want for much, and he had always considered that he had no future to concern himself with. But now he was struggling, the little gold he had amassed over the sixteen tortuous years at Hogwarts was depleting at an alarming rate; that was the problem with gold, if you didn’t replenish it, it ran out.
He looked across at Potter again. ‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘Because I didn’t realise you already knew.’
‘Of course I knew,’ he replied. ‘And it was just so typical of you not to join Slytherin, when even the Sorting Hat tried to tell you it wanted you to go there.’ He found himself remembering his shock when Harry had joined Gryffindor, his envy that he had had to spend his school years in Slytherin, pretending to be something he was not, and Potter had walked right into Gryffindor, and taken the hero’s crown while he was at it. He pushed back the childish resentment he felt; it was of no value to him. He just wished the damn boy wouldn’t look at him the way he was doing. ‘Did Black send you?’ he asked.
‘No,’ Potter replied, looking away for a moment. ‘In fact he told me to make sure I didn’t bring you back with me.’
Severus felt something warm spread through him at last, something to do with the truth. He knew now that whatever Harry was telling him wasn’t a pack of lies; that was exactly what Black would have said. He tried not imagining Sirius’s parting shot, but couldn’t deny the obscure pain he had hoped he’d left behind; Harry might not have been lying, but he knew Black had been. But then again, Potter had never lied to him, apart from the day he had denied being at the Shrieking Shack when he’d scared the living daylights out of Draco, but not about anything important. He tried to stop the pang of nostalgia creeping through; in some strange way he had enjoyed the years that Potter and Draco had been at Hogwarts, they had been the only ones that had rewarded him in any way. ‘Perhaps you should just do that, Potter,’ he said. ‘Go back to where you came from … on your own.’
‘You don’t understand, do you?’ Harry asked. ‘He needs you to go back, Severus. And you need to go back too. Just … just remember you’re not nineteen any more, that you’ve both changed.’
‘I think that just about ends this conversation, Potter.’ Severus stood up slowly, disappointed for some reason he couldn’t think of. ‘You may let your godfather know not to concern himself on my account, and I shall not concern myself on his. I think that satisfies the requirements of terminating whatever relationship either of us may have thought we had.’
‘You’re just closing the door?’ Harry asked. ‘You’re just going to let it all slip away as though it never happened.’
‘Yes, there is nothing else,’ Snape replied. ‘What exactly would you have me do differently?’
‘I want you to come home. If you don’t want Sirius that’s fine, but I want you to come home,’ Potter replied.
Home. Severus gasped at the word, and had to cover his confusion. ‘What are you talking about,’ he asked, looking around the room he had unwittingly converted to a prison cell. ‘I am home, Potter.’ He tried not to hold the boy’s eyes; he tried not to let himself weaken … he should never have opened the door, never have exposed himself to this. Potter was just like the rest of them, after all, promising heaven from the bottom floor of hell. He marched into the hallway and flung open the wooden front door. ‘Leave me now, and do not come back.’
‘Don’t do this, Severus,’ Potter said from where he still sat steadfastly on the lumpy settee. ‘You’re the only family I have. I don’t have another living soul except for you and Sirius.’
Snape almost laughed; in fact he would have if he hadn’t thought that the fool boy actually believed what he said. ‘Don’t be absurd, Potter. If you reach back into a thousand years of antiquity just about the entire country are related. I’m sure you can find some closer relation to you than I am,’ he said. ‘I am not sure what romantic notions you have, but let me assure you, they are not shared by me.’
It couldn’t be all there was; Harry knew it couldn’t. It couldn’t just all end like this, with Severus, doing Merlin alone knew what, all day alone in this horrible place, while Sirius drank himself to death in Grimmauld Place, and Harry was left to sweep up what was left of them. It couldn’t be all, not when he had as much to offer both of them as they had to offer one another.
He didn’t think Snape would physically throw him out, he doubted he was that strong; the injuries Greyback had inflicted on him still dragged him down. He might use magic of course, and Harry knew he wasn’t any match for him there, but he thought he would have used it by now if he were going to. Somehow Harry thought he just needed to find the right words, give him the right reason to turn his life around again; surely it couldn’t be that hard. He reminded himself of what McGonagall had said, about persevering. He’d just sit here … and persevere.
He heard the door close again, and for just a moment he panicked until he sensed that Snape hadn’t left after all. He knew he would be standing in hall, unable to come back into the mean little main room, unable to back down. Harry could understand that; he knew he needed to be very careful here, one wrong remark or action could end his chances.
He didn’t say anything at all, but he stood up and pointed his wand to the grate and lit the fire; it looked laughably out of place, but that didn’t stop its brave attempt at cheering the dismal atmosphere. He noticed there was a blackened kettle on the hob and vaguely wondered where the kitchen was; there must be one somewhere. There was a choice of two doors on the back wall and he got lucky. He took the kettle and filled it at the kitchen sink, trying not to notice the rust stains on the sink, or the miserable back yard with its patch of weeds. There was a small greenhouse at the far side of the back garden, an old-fashioned one, with green painted wood reaching halfway up its sides, a shabby but cared for little structure, that stood defiantly against the rickety wooden fence. Harry smiled to himself. Snape must grow his own herbs and plants there; he did care about something after all.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ Snape asked as Harry walked back into the room and put the kettle on the hob.
Harry felt a little flood of relief; he’d made the few steps back into the room himself, he’d found the way to do that. ‘Making tea, it’s freezing in here.’ Harry only let himself hold the black eyes for a moment, just enough to register the puzzlement. It was enough for now; at least they were alive again.
‘Go back to Black, Potter,’ Snape said as he sat down. ‘I appreciate your coming here, it was a kind thought, but you may go now.’
‘I’m not quite sure how to break this to you,’ Harry said in sudden inspiration; he couldn’t really imagine why he hadn’t thought about it before. ‘If you’re not coming back to Grimmauld Place, I’ll have to stay here.’ He watched Snape’s head snap up; that was good, a real reaction, perhaps the first one. ‘Go and get cleaned up, you’re a real mess. I had enough of that with Sirius. I had hoped you would have had more pride.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Snape flared. ‘Just who do you think you are, Potter?’
‘Yeah, yeah, let’s skip all the “you’re just like your father” stuff,’ Harry replied, warming to the spat as he hoped Snape was. ‘Just get yourself tidied up. I’ve got standards to maintain, even if you haven’t.’