as simple as that

Title: As Simple As That (approx. 9,000 words)
Author: busaikko
Rating: PG-13 (mention of masturbation and murder)
Pairing: Remus/Severus (mention of Remus/Tonks)
Summary: When the past Severus cannot recall starts to haunt him, Eileen turns to the man who was there when she wasn't.
Warning: werewolf cliché
Betas: mechiaeh, aunty_marion, and schemingreader
A/N: For bethbethbeth

' … there was a tiny announcement about Eileen Prince marrying a man called Tobias Snape, and then later an announcement saying that she'd given birth to a -'

'- murderer,' spat Harry.

(HBP Chapter 30)

Is love, then, so simple my dear?
The opening of a door,
And seeing all things clear?
I did not know it before.I had thought it unrest and desire
Soaring only to fall,
Annihilation and fire:
It is not so at all.

I feel no desperate will,
But I think I understand
Many things, as I sit quite still,
With Eternity in my hand.

"Is Love, Then, So Simple" Irene Rutherford Mcleod. (in Modern British Poetry)

Time and love conspire against us, but still I believe that there are victories. Small triumphs. Seeds that grow in the most barren ground. As some say, second chances.

When I was twenty-two, I bore a child.

When I was forty-five, we were complete strangers, not even a name common between us anymore. I doubt I'd have spoken to him were we to pass on the street.

In my sixtieth year, I brought my son home with me a second time. Our Ministry had broken him, left him skin tight on bones, eyes haunted. The government, may they rot, had stripped his mind bare, stolen decades and with them, apparently, a great deal of innate sense — enough that even the most bloodthirsty of them were content to let him live, thus crippled. Like the house where they'd finally caught him, the one that he'd set ablaze, there was naught left but the foundation, and that a poor one.

He knew me, when I came, and cringed where he lay on the bed. "I didn't do it, mam," he said, and I remembered then that my lost boy — the image of his father, you know — had a voice beautiful enough to make the gods weep. I had forgotten that. It had been so long.

"I'm sure you did," I said, opening the wardrobe only to shut it again when I saw it was bare. No matter. I'd bought a man's robe from the sales rack at Threadegood's on my way there, along with sturdy woollen underthings and a pair of AllSize boots. The women I work with thought it madly romantic, taking him on. I knew I was; mad, that is. "Listen to me, the crimes you committed, you've paid for now. The war's done. You're healthy enough. It's high time you stopped lying about. I could use a strong pair of hands at home and around the shop." I thrust the parcel at him and made him sit up, and open it, and dress himself.

"I don't remember," he said, as if it pained him, and I saw that the sleeves fit perfectly but the hem of the robes came only to his calves — long legs, that's what it was, I would remember that for next time. I took my wand out and lowered the hem. We looked a pair I'm sure, the both of us in our unadorned black, my hair nearly all grey now and his just beginning to streak where it was growing in again.

"You don't need to remember," I said. "Just come home, Severus."

It turned out I hadn't been lying to him after all: he didn't need to remember, he was clever enough still, once he had a few good meals in his stomach, to learn or relearn the things he needed. It didn't take him but half a year before we got him back on his own feet.

I work at a small shop called the Nagging Hag; so named because the three of us who run it are the worst kind of nags and hags. The two decades prior to Voldemort's first war had been marked by epidemics of virulent disease and inauspicious accidents, either terrible bad luck or his machinations — no one dared ask, naturally — that killed many of the witches and wizards who might have grown into enough power to oppose him. Of my son's generation, so many had lost one or both parents, and grandparents — well, Severus hadn't even one alive, and he never thought that to be unusual.

My friends and I, then, simply by being old, were a commodity in demand. People wanted to be told to sit up straight and eat their green vegetables, they needed to be taught the charms that kept hair from imitating alarmed hedgehogs (hardly a fashion, to do that on purpose, is it?). Our customers became steadfastly loyal — to us, it must have been, because the food we sold was nothing special, just the simple home cooking we'd grown up with. We sold takeaway if you brought a pot and cover and served meals in the kitchen at the odd tables we have salvaged over the years. We sold knitted goods by the till, mittens on strings and pointy caps with earflaps, and we corrupted the youngest generation with Knut sweets and naughty rhymes about broomsticks and knickers. We did as we pleased and we harmed none.

I suppose the position this put Severus in was amusing: the sole damaged chick in the care of three professional hags. But he thrived — likely in self-defence, but not to argue with results. The healers had warned me to expect permanent vagueness, and indeed in hospital he'd had the air of an addled child. There were only so many memories that could be removed and dissected, they'd said, only so many hours of Legilimency that could be endured. I imagined that it was similar to the towers of tinned goods I'd seen many times whilst in Muggle shops: one brat would yank the tins from the bottom to make the whole thing collapse, and another would abscond with whatever he could carry in the aftermath.

"He's a good head on his shoulders yet," said Cecile Blunte, who's a dab hand at pastry and whose attempts to engage Severus in circle dances were inevitably disastrous.

Lucy Cattermole agreed. "He'll fill up the empty spaces soon enough." She'd outlived four husbands and was well over one hundred. She believed in flinging herself into life, taking nundu-hunting safaris and lessons in Chinese acrobatics. She was the one who persuaded Severus do all our finances on a computer that she and he'd spelled together to work even in the small Wizarding quarter where we had the shop.

Severus enjoyed the computer enough that he took a course at the Muggle university across the river. He rode the bus there and back and muttered about buying a car, and I had to laugh at myself because I'd been so glad to be rid of him during his teenaged years, to be free of the back-breaking hard work needed to raise a child up properly, and here we both were, starting from where we'd left off. Then, we'd been living as Muggles and he fled to the Wizarding world; now it was the Muggle world, simple and new, that gave Severus solace.

From the Wizarding world he had naught but nightmares.

Most of his memory beyond childhood was gone, Vanished, Banished; but he was determined to recover what he could. I didn't like it, thought it was asking for nothing but trouble, but he has my own stubbornness. He didn't dare venture into any of our major bookstores, but everything is available by owl these days: the speculative histories written by Ministry lackeys; back issues of newspapers and magazines; the unauthorised biographies of Potter, Dumbledore, Voldemort, and others — including one of Severus himself, penned by a former student, no less. His room soon overflowed, and he typed endless notes on the computer. He learnt who his acquaintances and colleagues had been, what his personal and professional reputations were, and what he had done, or what others said he had done. A few months of this and the shadows never lifted from his eyes.

We didn't talk about what troubled him, of course — he had the courtesy not to mention when I woke screaming, and I returned it — but I knew. Everyone knew. Everyone knew that he was a traitor, a murderer, a spy, a monster of the sort used to frighten children. To bed, now, or Snape'll get you. It terrified me to think what would happen if anyone realised who he was, that the odd quiet son of old Mrs Dover (which was the name I went by) was Severus Snape.

I thought about what to do for a few weeks. Severus needed to know the truth: I could see that he was drowning in speculation and malicious half-truths. I had nothing to give him — as I said, he'd been a stranger to me.

I still had the letter that had been owled me, asking wouldn't I at least visit Severus in hospital, saying that past spites needed to be put aside for Severus' sake. It had galled me then and still did, that I would owe anything to Remus Lupin. I despised the man; I didn't doubt that he likewise had no love for me. I'd never answered his letter, just went round and collected Severus. I had hoped that Lupin would be hurt that he'd never had a chance to say goodbye.

The joke was on me, then, because I'd kept that connection from dying — and Lupin would have let it die, if I'd said it was for Severus' good. I put off writing for another week and then finally dashed off an invitation in three minutes before breakfast, flinging the owl out the window with a guilty haste, so as not to be caught or questioned.

We had been in a quiet place, neither moving forwards nor backwards. Now there would be motion and commotion. It terrified me. I loved him — I would never tell him, we were not that sort — but I did, and because I did, I had to let him go, back into the darkness.

In my memory it was Christmas, or perhaps Solstice or New Year's, our first midwinter together, anyway. I was sitting by the fire, as I still do, mending my balaclava. Severus had twisted round in his desk chair. His arms, thick from one of Cecile's ambitious woollen jumpers under his robes, were folded over the chair back as he explained the exploits of some tricky algorithms as if they were naughty but precocious children. He'd just begun adding pie — who can say what for — when I caught his eye.

I felt like I'd fallen off a broomstick. That's how it is when ghosts intrude. I could even smell the past, the musty, damp stink of the rot in our kitchen, the oily smoke from the lantern, and over it all the stale alcohol that encompassed the roar:

Lena, shut that brat of yours up or I swear this time — ; and I remembered the soapy, slippery way my face felt, as I hoped this time the pain and darkness for him, not me, not me this time. And the rage would go right through me, seeking someone smaller. When one is a coward it is the small and vulnerable who make the best targets.

Severus had frozen in his seat — why couldn't that accursed Umbridge woman have stolen these memories as well? But they had nothing to do with Voldemort's wars. Severus watched me with the wide-eyed look he'd had in hospital

I made my hands keep moving, working the thread around the corner of the rip. The thread was violet; you can see my stitches there yet, small and even, like the ticking of the second hand around a clock face. It might have been a full minute before I could speak.

"Well, go on then," I said; perhaps it would have been more reassuring had I smiled, but I am not a smiling sort of person. "You were at the bit about the pie." Severus blinked. "I'm listening," I said, and he took a deep breath, let his shoulders drop, and stopped looking afraid.

There now, I'm censoring myself. He stopped looking afraid of me. That means something different, doesn't it?

I was sixty years old, but I remember how I felt at that moment so clearly. I was proud of myself — I was learning how to help him — and proud of him, for surviving.

That was the moment I fell in love with him. Perhaps I ought to be ashamed that it took me thirty-nine years, but if I punished myself for what is in the past I'd never escape.

So I sat there, face pink from the fire and a rushing sound in my ears like a flock of pigeons taking wing, and simply loved him.

I never did ask what kind of pie it was, but I thought, well, if there is love, perhaps he'll forgive me.

For not understanding the pie, and all.

"Eileen," Remus said, and I stood to greet him; after all, I was the one asking the favour. I knew what he was, he knew that I knew, and it was hard not to imagine that we were circling each other like wolves; we moved with the same cautious courtesy.

"Remus." I had watched him since he entered the shop. He was still slight, though his broad shoulders gave the illusion of size. His hair was more ash than chestnut, now, grown past his shoulder blades and worn tied back. He wore unremarkable robes; he was not a memorable figure at all — until you looked at his eyes. His eyes looked as if he had seen terrible things and escaped; they were the eyes of a judge.

He sat in the seat I indicated and let me pour the tea. He was judging me.

"I was sorry to hear about your wife."

He tipped his head in acknowledgement. "I am sorry about your son. You are both doing well, I take it?"

"Passing fair," I said. "Try a scone."

"I've heard good things about this shop," he said, taking one with pumpkin cream as he looked around. "I don't get out of London much, but I'd thought someday I might visit. I didn't realize that you were… involved."

"Part-owner," I said. "Would you have come had you known?"

He grimaced. "Likely not."

"I owled about Severus," I said, not really changing the subject.

He smiled, still wary, but with a flash of humour. "I rather thought it might be."

I told him, though I'd rather not have, about Severus' life here. Remus was a good listener: quiet, attentive, and giving me the sense that he immediately understood the important things. I had to remind myself that I hated him; I made myself wonder whether his acuity were not due to some inhuman sense. I wondered if he could smell fear, the way they said werewolves did.

He let a small pause grow at the end, then said quietly, "I was surprised to find that you'd taken him from hospital."

"I knew you would be," I said, and he smiled as we played our game again: I know that you knew. "I wanted someone to hurt for what had been done to him, and I don't like you. You were as good as any. Though not, perhaps, as good as Umbridge."

"Leave Umbridge to me," he said, and I recalled that he did some kind of work battling the Ministry himself these days — child welfare, perhaps. Something bleeding-heart, at any rate. He sipped at his tea and watched me. "Why am I here?" he asked, softly. I had always disliked his direct manner of speaking, but in the years since we'd last met — well over twenty — I'd stopped — mostly — willing myself blind to the truth. I set myself firmly against the annoying suspicion that I might be better able to enjoy Remus Lupin's company, now.

"He doesn't remember who he was," I said finally. "He can't — his memories, those that survived, are locked in the Department of Mysteries. But… he does research, you know. He has found out all that he can about what he did. What kind of — " not monster, not from me, not in this company — "person he was." I jabbed at my lemon with the end of the spoon. "He can't live with it. He says — the same river, running down the same slopes, will surely cut the same channels. I am afraid — " I said, and stopped, because I could not voice what I feared. Remus nodded anyway.

"I'll talk to him," he said, and I could have slapped him for having the gall to sound reassuring to me.

"He doesn't remember who you are," I said, meaning to hurt, and I saw that I had.

"Better, perhaps, that way," Remus said, slow, heavy words.

"He should know," I said, hating to say it. "He needs to know, about himself, about you, about me."

"Not straight away," Remus said. "I won't lie, but — he would be better off — "

"Yes," I said, thankful that we agreed on this. "Not straight away."

Remus didn't reply; his eyes had fixed on the door, where Severus had just walked in.

"Is it four already," I said, stupidly; I'd half-hoped Remus would have taken insult or refused and have left by now.

"He looks well." Remus shot me a quick glance, as if thanking me. "Should I introduce myself to him now?"

I raised a hand to call Severus over; he had paused by the till, and I knew he was wondering. I don't have tea with young men every day, you know.

The introductions were derailed when Severus cut in, his chin rising as he studied Remus' face.

"I've seen you before," he said abruptly, and Remus pushed a straying strand of hair behind his ear and bore the scrutiny with dignity.

"I sat with you when you were in hospital," he said, "though you weren't very coherent. You might also recall me from school — I was in Gryffindor. Remus Lupin."

Severus blinked, and then smiled, rather wickedly. "Didn't grow up much then, did you?"

"Lycanthropy stunted my growth," Remus said with an answering smile. I was watching Severus, seeing what he made of this creature, and what I saw made my heart sink. Mind you, it doesn't bother me anymore that Severus prefers men — and I know he does, because he still acts like a child, keeping his magazines and things Transfigured under the bed and putting up tell-tale silencing spells in the night. I don't want Severus to grow old alone; but he should not think these thoughts about Lupin, of all people.

Remus must have been thinking along similar lines, because his eyebrows drew together enough to emphasize a line, and he asked, "Do you recall that I nearly killed you, sixth year?"

"I am aware that… an incident… occurred."

"And I alone live to tell the tale," Remus said, which made Severus half-laugh, and then we were all seated at the table and Remus was pouring tea as if it were the most natural thing. "To be honest," he started, and Severus cut in, dryly.

"I would settle for nothing less."

Remus nodded over his tea. "I am the last person left alive who can tell you about certain things in your past. I don't know how extensive the damage Umbridge did is, but — "

Severus narrowed his eyes and pinned Remus with a look of black amusement. "I'm not damaged," he said, the mildness of his tone a sheath for something razor-sharp. Remus must have recognized the challenge implicit, because one of his eyebrows rose in appreciation, and his smile became calculating.

"I didn't mean to imply that — and I apologise if I offended you. You do realize that if I thought you were incapable of handling the past I wouldn't be here stirring it up."

Remus shifted, and I recalled that about him, that he could never be comfortable at rest. He had finer control now, his movements almost graceful enough that I didn't want to beat him for fidgeting. I'd never actually struck him, I recalled, with the sick nostalgia all this was dredging up. But neither had I ever spoken a kind word to him. He'd rubbed me raw, pushed me into the unthinking black need to lash out: at one time, I had felt such anathema for what he was that anything he did became an excuse and a reason to let loose.

Remus picked up his scone, looked at it, and set it down again. "You and I were never good friends in school. My attempt to kill you didn't help — I'm glad you seem to have got over your fear of werewolves, by the way."

"There are worse things," Severus breathed, with a thin smile, and Remus nodded, sharply, and continued.

"We worked together during the war, and you stayed in my flat summers and holidays through the mid-eighties. I live in London," he added. "You preferred it to Hogsmeade. The nightlife, and culture, and all."

Severus tapped one long finger against the tablecloth, as if mentally reviewing his notes. "You were in the Order of the Phoenix."

"As were you," Remus countered. "At least, the second time around."

"I am a Death Eater, a murderer, and a spy," Severus said, his voice dropping to carry no further.

"Don't you want to know why?" Remus snapped back; Severus crossed his arms, obviously not having anticipated that reply. Remus took a moment and then looked straight into Severus' eyes. Which was a pity, really; he did have such tempting eyes. "You can let the past die, and build a new future — which you seem to be quite successful at. Or you can try and reclaim the past, but you can't pick and choose, taking only what you like and ignoring the rest. That," he said, issuing his own challenge, "would be dishonest."

"Who am I to be dishonest." Severus sat back. "What do you propose?"

"I am free Friday evenings," Remus said slowly. "Saturdays and Sundays I have the shopping and the washing — the week's worth of chores. But we could meet here, for dinner — " His voice trailed away uncertainly as he eyed the bustle in the kitchen as customers flowed in from the market outside.

"He can come to our house," I said. "It's no bother. I expect you'll want your privacy."

Remus looked at Severus, who nodded once. "You can owl me anytime. If you have questions, or if there's anything you want me to bring. I still have some of your clobber in the hallway cupboard," he added with a teasing smile that took some of the charge from the air. "Your records. Some books. The flares you wore."

"I never," Severus said, and Remus' smile grew.

"Oh, yes you did," Remus said, and then he made his excuses, shook hands one more time, and ducked out into the stiff wind that rises at sunset around here.

"You're devious, mam," Severus said, and I picked crumbs from my wrap.

"Do you mind?" I asked, and scowled down at the stubborn ring the jar of pumpkin had left on the tablecloth.

"No," he said, and I tapped the stain with my wand three times to Vanish it. "You mean well."

"I've never meant well in my life," I said, stung, and he laughed at me, silently.

Remus' first visit to the house was just when the devilwood osmanthus that lined the road was in bloom, and I kept the windows wide to let in the fragrance and the fire burning to drive out the chill. I live towards the end of the crooked road that runs through the high-rise estate and down to the old canal, long disused but poisoned still from the effluent of the paper mill.

It is an excellent place to be a witch: I don't mind the lack of mod cons, and the neighbourhood is mixed enough that no one looks twice at odd dress or behaviour. A witch makes a good neighbour. Those who know call on me when the gas or plumbing breaks down, though they think it merely my cleverness with twine and tape that does the trick. The osmanthus would have died its first winter had I not moved in before they put it in — what the council was thinking to plant it this far north, I do not know. It was probably cheap, like everything else.

Though I was born in the country, I've spent my entire adult life living in towns in houses like this one. As you know. It is reassuring, anchoring, to have someone living to the left and right instead of wide, empty spaces. I am content with my scrap of dirt behind the scullery: it is enough to raise vegetables and herbs and keep a henhouse. The houses all look the same from the front, but one must take care never to make assumptions. You never know just who lives there — or who is buried at the back.

Remus understood this: he was careful about many things.

That first night, I'd brought chestnut rice and the stew-of-the-day from the shop, and Remus presented me with a large bunch of cosmos that I set around the dining room in our empties. The flowers made everything cheery and homely, and we ate by the light of the fire. There was still green soot on the hearth, and a streak through one of Lupin's eyebrows that I certainly wasn't going to mention.

After the table had been cleared, Remus fetched out a box from his shoulderbag and resized it carefully. "I brought your records," he said to Severus. "I've my gramophone as well. I thought you might not have one."

"I have CDs," Severus said, the aloofness of his voice belied by the near reverence with which he touched the colourful cardboard cases. They were the first possessions of his — of his former life — that he had encountered. I certainly hadn't hung on to any mementoes of him (though there had been that photograph, the one from the party for my cousin, that I would have liked to have still: Severus aged two or three, cheeks fat and face serious), and, as I said, everything of his he'd burnt. "These were all mine?" he asked, doubtful, as he held up one in vivid yellow and pink.

"The Sex Pistols were mine," Remus admitted good-naturedly. "Anything loud and angry was. You preferred something with a good beat. For dancing," he added, and Severus flushed, slightly, something I'd not known he ever did except after drinking.

Remus summoned a water-stained album and slipped the disk out carefully, holding it by the edges as he set it on the turntable. "Do you remember Hex? The music of our rebellious youth?"

The record started with hissing and pops; after a second the noise was drowned by a trumpet fanfare and an eerie howl. Severus winced.

"Hecate's hat, I do remember Hex. Though I wish I didn't."

"The Wizarding world's first — and last — crossover ska band. I saw them live in Land's End on their Rude to the Ministry tour." The record started to repeat, and Remus moved the stylus carefully over the scratch.

"Whatever happened to Hex?" Severus asked, picking up the cover and studying it as if for clues — hopefully not admiring the fashion. Two-tone was bad enough in a Muggle suit; on a robe it was a visual horror.

"Hunted down and murdered, of course," Remus said dryly, and recited the chorus along with the song (he had the good sense not to attempt to sing): "Pure as the mud in your blood, mon, listen to the lie of the Dark Lord, you die."

"Deep," Severus said, smirking. He tipped the case around so that Remus could see the pictures. "Is this where I got the idea for the ridiculous nickname? 'Brussels' Sprout, Buster 'King' Towne, Bob Kettle, 'The Handle'?"

"Probably," Remus said, shrugging. He was amusing to watch: his body had adopted the rhythm of the music unconsciously, and his every movement made it appear that he was about to burst out dancing. "We all had dreadful nicknames back then." He shuffled his feet slightly, and I sat forward, hoping for him to make a fool of himself. "The last years of the war were a comedy of errors. The girl I married, Dora…. We changed places for nearly a year — she was a Metamorphmagus and I took Polyjuice. She was able to spy on key Death Eaters — being a Dark Creature was a free ticket, really — and I was able to throw monkey wrenches into the Ministry as needed. But Harry Potter asked her — when she was me — if she knew who the Half-Blood Prince was, and if I'd been myself, red flags would have gone up, but she had no idea, didn't think it worth mentioning. She was too young — you taught her, actually."

"What does she do now, your Metamorphmagus?" Severus asked, his words washed as clean as fresh laundry, and Remus paused in the midst of his reminiscence.

"She died," he said, stilling. "She was injured, in the fighting, and the curse caused her transformation ability to become neoplastic. If she'd given up magic, it might not have become malignant, but — " He spread his hands. "She died a few months after we married. She didn't live long enough to see peace."

"I'm sorry," Severus said, with the awkward discomfort that came from not knowing how to deal with other's emotions, and Remus gave him one of his reassuring smiles. I felt pleased that Severus's face showed he liked it no better than I did.

"Put something else on, I'm getting a headache," I said, though it wasn't the music but the words — the singer was chanting a list of places the Dark Mark had gone up, and the names of the dead, punctuated by more wailing horns. It had, quite terribly, a compelling beat that I could just imagine mobs of crop-headed boys dancing to, in darkened theatres with armed lookouts at the doors.

"He's just getting to the Lupins," Remus said with a smile, but he took the disk off and put it away tidily. "What kind of music do you like?"

"Traditional," I said. "But not the pap on the wireless."

"Mm," Remus said, flipping through the box. "The Pogues?"

"You are not to entertain my mother with Rum Sodomy and the Lash," Severus said, and Remus' eyes shone brilliant — enough to make Severus look away, back down at the records.

"Please count it a point for me that I am making absolutely no comment about what you just said," Remus said, his voice low and dark with suppressed amusement. "Here — Tooth Mother's first album. She does some interesting versions of old spell-songs. 'Weave a red ribbon in your hair, put the black cat out', that sort of thing."

"Fine," I said; the music was inoffensive, though the singer's voice was too reedy. "I'll go get the pie from the oven, shall I?" I didn't need to ask Severus to set the table; he summoned dishes and forks automatically, and Remus came into the kitchen to make the tea. Sometime in his youth he'd learnt proper manners, because he stopped before the threshold and asked permission to enter. In the old days, it was a sign of respect for the witch of the house, the kitchen being the heart of all magic.

The pie took a bit of doing to get from the pan to a dish, and there was the cream to whip as well. Remus kept talking — I knew I'd asked him to talk, but was the man never quiet? — more about the war, and wartime.

"You mustn't think it was just you," he was saying when I brought the pie out. "Imagine a tapestry all white, with one red thread running through it. That's your role in the war, and that's what seems most evident to you now. But all the other threads are really coloured as well. That's what you're missing." He stood to pour the tea. "Granted, it's not something I care to dwell on. The first war, when we were young, was all fear and mistrust, lies in the newspaper and rumours behind closed doors. Dead men and women walking the streets in broad daylight. The government recruiting students to fight as soon as NEWTs were done, and later, just after the OWLs. And of course, Voldemort was doing the same thing." He shook his head, as if brushing away the memories and also as a warning to Severus not to ask now, and turned his attention resolutely to the pie, which he complimented; sincerely, I thought, as he tried twice to get my great-grandmother's pastry recipe from me (you must use lard, freshly rendered).

"It doesn't excuse — " Severus began, and Remus cut him off with a look.

"Of course not." He fished out a cherry, black and steaming, and blew on it twice before popping it into his mouth. "Tell me about what you do now, with computers."

Severus leant back and gave his standard two line reply, about the computers and the models of soil liquefaction and supersaturation.

Remus' fork stopped halfway to his mouth and his eyebrows rose, showing off a wrinkle through the middle of his forehead. "Not much of a market for that in the UK, I wouldn't think," he said, his tone conveying that he needed convincing, and Severus was glad to oblige. He looked smug as he described the work he did, and mentioned the upcoming conference in Mexico. Remus on his part set his fork down entirely and leant forward, elbows on the table (begging for the tines; I had to restrain myself) and fingers laced together. He readily admitted ignorance, but his questions were clever and demonstrated that he was willing to learn. Finally, after a tangential discussion about the uses of pasta (angel-hair, not elbow) in earthquake modelling, he asked Severus what the appeal of the study was.

"I find it fascinating that it is the mud at its foundations that brings civilisations down," he said slowly, and if it were a joke it was a dark one. He shrugged. "I find the computers less antagonizing than people, as well." He fixed Remus with a glare. "Are you trying to soften me up? You needn't."

Remus' face was a study: pain and consternation mixing with bitter understanding. "I'm trying to catch up with an old friend I've not talked to for years," he said. "It's easy to forget that you — " He broke off. "You sound just like yourself. The way you always have."

"You sound inane, Lupin," Severus snapped, bridling, and I thought things might come to a head and Severus might send Lupin away; but I underestimated him. He shoved his chair back and gave Remus the sort of look one gives the tablespoon full of strong bitter medicine. "I need to take the rubbish down," he said — it was true, the binmen never drove beyond the crook in the road: we had to carry all our rubbish down to the big skips set out for the estates.

"I'll help," Remus said, accepting the implicit invitation and managing to keep a straight face when he saw that we'd only a box of empty tins and a small sack of newspapers (The Daily Prophet has no collection scheme, but it is simple enough to turn them into the local Muggle paper after reading).

I was resolved not to listen in on whatever they wanted to discuss in private. I didn't want to know what Severus had done in the wars, about Voldemort and Death Eaters and clever plans that went fatally wrong, and the dead, of course. I tried very hard not to overhear, but they stopped inside the gate, between the osmanthus and the open window. I rattled dishes at them in vain; I couldn't help it that their voices carried.

"No," Remus was saying, keeping his voice down though it didn't do any good. "You've no wives, mistresses, or lovers hiding in the attic. You're a free man — and you were gay, when I knew you. So no children, either." There was a long silence, filled only with the distant drag of an exhaust against the road; I had to put my hand to my mouth to hold a startled laugh in. They weren't talking about death, but sex — I didn't want to hear that, either. "It's all right," Remus said finally, as if responding to something Severus had expressed without words: surprise, or anger, or fear? "It wasn't widely known. Your mother knows. Knew. Are you still — ?" he asked, and Severus swore at him, curtly. "It doesn't bother me," Remus said. "It never has."

"Circe in suspenders," Severus said, and I could picture him, one or both hands tangled in his hair. "Is that what I did, visiting you at your London flat over holidays, embrace my sexuality?"

"Mostly," Remus said. "Hogsmeade wasn't very good for that sort of thing, I'm afraid. I live just a few blocks from the clubs. The flat used to belong to Sirius Black," he added. "I stole it, if one can steal a flat, though he sold it to me for ten galleons when he got out of Azkaban, with an injunction to make an honest woman of his cousin. The clubs are still there," Remus said, quite tentatively. "If you ever wanted a weekend away."

"No," Severus said in a venomous snarl, as if through clenched teeth.

"No," Remus agreed after a moment, and from across the canal the church bells began to roll off midnight. "I should go." There was a scuffling pause: Remus being restless and Severus being sullen, most likely. "Come here," Remus said, and then there was a bit of a soft noise; not really a noise at all, more like the sense of a spring unwinding. I would not stoop to spy, but I could see them, backlit by the streetlight, when I watered my pots of devil's ivy. Remus had his arms around Severus, stiffly: embracing the way footballers or brothers do. Severus was rigid, although as I was pinching off a withered leaf his head bowed, just enough that his hair fell into Remus'.

"I missed you, you bastard," Remus said, sounding the way a brilliant autumn day carries undercurrents of melancholy, or the way the sweet scent of the osmanthus always reminds me of the cold and frost. He stepped back, all fidgets again, and Severus would not look at him. "I'll leave you the music. Next time I'll bring the flares."

"Sod off," Severus said, and Remus laughed and opened the door to collect his things before Flooing home. He noticed that the window was ajar; but he said nothing.

We reached a comfortable pattern for our Friday evenings. After the dinner rush was over, if Cecile dropped in, she would insist on Remus bringing the gramophone down and dancing: he was generally good-natured about it, and didn't look half as foolish as I'd thought he would — though I still would never accept the invitations he never failed to make. I danced with Cecile, or Severus, if at all.

If it were Lucy Cattermole who came, the boys retreated to Severus' room after the washing up was done, to talk and play their records by themselves while we enjoyed back-and-forthing about our respective ailments. Remus always left at 12:05 precisely, Flooing Cecile or Lucy home first — the boy did have nice manners.

On this particular night Lucy and I were just leaving off reminiscences about boils and beginning on the woes of nostril hair — we were well past our second glass of sherry — when the music stopped in a horrible crash, not unlike that of a gramophone colliding with a wall at force.

We heard Severus first, but Remus started talking over him rapidly until both wound up shouting.

"Dear," Lucy said, alert as a bloodhound on the scent, and hopped up on the chair in her bunion-support stockings. Her Chinese calisthenics proved to have actually worked: she stretched all the way up on her toes and rapped her wand smartly on the ceiling. The muffled voices came as clear as the wireless.

" — and you didn't think it important — "

" — I was concerned for you, you thick — " Remus shouted back, and there were more crashes and shatterings.

"You lied to me," Severus said, his voice so low and vicious that it held more weight than a bellow.

"I had a schedule," Remus said, sounding weary and old and defeated. "Obviously I hadn't prepared for the contingency of you developing feelings for me."

I made myself look at Lucy, made my hands relax their white-knuckled grip on the table. "Once, they were lovers," I said; at the same time, upstairs, I heard the scuff of Remus' pacing even as Severus said, in a tone no one could mistake for rational, "When, on your schedule, did you plan to tell me?"

"April," Remus said firmly. "We'd an anniversary of sorts in April, though we parted ways just before our ten-year milestone."

"No," Severus said, angry and lost. "You had your wife. And I had men I met in clubs."

"Yes," Remus snapped. "In 1986 she was still in school, and I had finally had enough of your parade of lovers."

"No," Severus said again. "No." There was an explosive crack above that made the herbs drying along my ceiling rustle.

I cast a quick finite and stumbled up to make tea.

"Lupin is a werewolf," I said, spooning leaves dumbly into the pot, momentarily unable to find my way to the next step. "Wandswear me this — it goes no further, Lucy."

Cattermole summoned the teapot impatiently and added boiling water from the flask. Tea brewing, she held her wand up and traced an X in the air over her heart. "You're such a child sometimes, Lena. I suspected about young Lupin — they have a look. He bears it well. Not that it's really our business."

"When they were sixteen," I started, keeping my voice low even though the argument upstairs still raged on, "at school, they found each other, somehow. Found out that they were, they were — "

"The only two gay boys in all Scotland?" Lucy suggested, waggling one bony finger towards the cupboard. I took out cups, two, and tried not to think of the destruction upstairs or to listen to the voices.

"It was neither talked about nor tolerated back then," I said, sitting back down stiffly.

"Something to be beaten out, perhaps," Lucy said, with a knowing smile. The tea scalded my tongue and gave me something else to think about, distracted me from all my instincts that shrieked, these things must not be spoken.

"Lupin's friends tricked Severus into going to where he transformed. He could have been killed… he hated them all, Lupin the most, but he wouldn't let him go. Severus found an old spell that it was said werewolves used, if they wed, to keep their natural viciousness from turning on each other. When brides were traded between werewolf clans it was cast to prevent any possible betrayal. It made the object of the spell more desirable than life itself, it was said. Werewolves died to protect that object — or killed themselves, if it were lost. So it was written, a long time ago…. Severus asked Remus to cast it, as penance or revenge or — who knows? So that Lupin wouldn't ever be able to turn on him again."

Lucy sipped, and I held onto her calm like the centre of a cyclone. She set her cup down finally with a decisive clunk. "Werewolves mating for life is an old wives' tale."

"That it is," I said, almost laughing at the absurdity of it all; not laughing, because laughter was too close to tears. "It might have been psychosomatic, it might have been self-delusion, but Lupin followed Severus like a dog. Sit. Stay. Beg." Severus had been proud of his power, until he came to find it tedious. I had a litany of names for Remus Lupin back then: Fool, half-wit, madman, beast. Selling his freedom so cheaply, and for what? Debasement, not respect; fear, not love. But I never hated him more than when he finally slipped his collar.

"It might have been love," Lucy said, and that made me laugh, my control cracking like a nut in a vice.

"They were sixteen — they were children. The school's Headmaster did what he could to keep them apart when he found out — oh, he was furious, he had us all up to his office yet again. It was so outrageously illegal. I thought Severus would be sent down. Tobias — " I said, and flinched though I'd not spoken your name in years; decades — " blamed me. Severus never came home again — it would have ended in bloodshed." Well — it did end in blood shed, but not Severus', as you know. I wrapped my hands around my cup. "It was the death of my last hope, that he'd take me away. Instead he left me to find my own way free, as best I could." My face, I was sure, was ghastly. "I do realise how selfish I was. I am."

Whatever comments Lucy might have had went thankfully unspoken, as Remus came down the stairs two at a time, flushed and full of apologies for the noise and reassurances that all was fine, really, and maybe this hadn't been the best of ideas after all, he was very sorry, and my, look at the time, we really ought to be going.

I watched the soot settle in the fireplace and then took the teapot upstairs in one hand, two cups in the other, which meant that I was unable to rap at Severus' door and had to bump it with my knee instead.

"I've tea," I said, and the door opened by itself.

Severus was seated on the floor surrounded by a sea of black plastic shards, with an intense look of concentration. He didn't even look up, but kept his gaze on the two pieces beneath his wandtip. As I watched, they twitched slightly and ran together.

"It's a nightmare," Severus said conversationally, though he looked like death. "Every record looks exactly the same. It's the fine grooves that make the difference. Get just one wrong, and the whole thing is ruined."

I cleared a space with my shoe and sat down near the empty case of the gramophone: all its gears and wires and fiddly bits had been eviscerated and strewn here to there. I handed Severus his tea. He looked at it as if it were alien to him.

"Did you have to smash it all?"

He let out a small huff of air; not quite a laugh. "You've no idea how satisfying it was at the time."

"I know exactly," I said, and Severus scrubbed the back of his hand against his forehead. I picked up two pieces at random and tested their edges, like a puzzle. They didn't fit, so I tried two more. Again. And yet again.

"I should just bin the lot," Severus said.

I finally found two that fit, and held them in the palm of my hand as I cast reparo. I set the mended pieces on the floor and picked up two more. After a very long minute, Severus reached out himself, and I let go of the breath I'd been holding back.

It took us until well past five, but we finished. Some of the records were beyond repair, not so much shards as dust and splinters; Severus set those aside carefully along with their cardboard covers. One was the Hex album that Remus had played on that first day. Severus traced the triangular gap that marred the rim with his finger.

"The piece has probably gone off stuck to Lupin's shoe," I said, after sweeping beneath the bed and the rug with my old FireStar.

"It's irreplaceable," Severus said, setting it carefully on the top of the stack.

"He won't come back here, you know," I said, tying the curtains back and throwing the sash up to let in the crisp fresh air. The stars were brilliant over the old paper mill. "You need to go to him."

"I hurt him," he said, and narrowed his eyes at me to keep me from commenting. "Not tonight. Before. When we were — when we — "

"When you were lovers," I said; it really did become easier to say with repetition.

Severus twitched. "I don't remember," he said, "but how bad must have it been that he refuses to talk to me about it, when he's held nothing else back? He says he loved me. I don't remember. I think… even if I had my memories back, I would not remember love — only slights and suspicions. Only poison." He was pale and swaying slightly: it was also true that sometimes a river running over the land cuts an entirely new channel. Sometimes the rocks and impediments that thwarted it before are gone. Sometimes what was the barest trickle becomes a raging torrent, bound for the sea. "I'm sorry," he said. "Out of it all, it's the failed relationship that I don't even remember that I'm most sorry for. Pathetic."

"Useful," I said, reversing the broom to get down the dust on the ceiling. "You can't bring the dead back to life or wipe Voldemort's mark from your arm or undo what's done. You can tell the man that you're sorry. If you go now he ought to be at home yet."

"The sun's not even up."

"Take him something — cut some flowers from the garden, or bring tea, or — take him a record." I looked at the bed, quilted in albums. "That French one sounds impressive."

"You're mad," Severus said, still sounding defeated. I needed something sharp to prod him with.

"I know I am," I hissed at him, drawing myself up and putting my shoulders back. "Every day of my life I tell myself so, but I never felt it more true than when I walked into St Mungo's to fetch you out. 'Eileen Snape,' I said to myself, 'you're absolutely barking.'" I looked at him through the haze of dust. "I could have got a cat instead, you know."

Severus snorted. "I can't imagine Remus with a cat." He looked at me, and I was very much aware of how many questions he had never asked of me. "Whatever bond we formed — Remus and I — he has to care for me. He says he still feels it, a… compulsion, or an addiction. I don't know if you can call that love."

"I don't," I said. "He doesn't, either. You'll have to earn the love — and it'll be twice as hard, because he'll distrust every emotion he feels for you. You won't be able to rest. After all, he's proved he can live without you."

"You have strange depths," Severus said, so blandly I was not sure if it was a compliment or an insult — most likely the latter, the sort of primordial depths monsters crawl up from — so I gave him the teapot and the first record off the nearest stack and shooed him downstairs with the broom, into the Floo.

So I sit here this morning, tired but full of a restless energy that makes my knitting quite eccentric. I have made a pie but don't dare set the table. Superstition disguised as practicality. I am waiting for the fire to corkscrew up widdershins; I am waiting to welcome Severus home although I know he is moving on. Cecile has always admired my osmanthus. I might offer her his room if he leaves. He has to come back at least once, I tell myself, if only to return my teapot.

Nearly fifty years ago my great hunger for love led me down the dark path to its slow poisoned strangulation, to the point where all I could see of my future was the sure simple fact of your death. You were wrong, you know, to treat me as you did; I was wrong — childishly selfish — to not just walk away. My thoughts of you are to this day red with violence. We can never reconcile or part ways now, though I might wish otherwise. You are a part of me.

For twenty-odd years I survived as if in a desert devoid of emotion, my body finding satisfaction in the dull daily rituals that kept me alive in the absence of love, the betrayer. I ate, slept, worked, planted gardens, and knitted when I had a free moment.

Last year, my desert became a wilderness of green life, stems and leaves driven twisted from seed to sun by some power beyond me. It hurt to hope again; it hurt to love something wild and free and not give in to the asphyxiating fears.

Next year — now, there's the puzzle. Will they come for Christmas dinner? Will we take holidays abroad, sun on the beaches in Mexico, climb mountains? It makes me giddy to think that nothing may be impossible. Give it a few years and I might even let Remus Lupin put his arms around me and kiss my cheek, though I shan't let him call me Mother. I might — someday — tell your son where you are buried.

The flames roar up emerald slightly before noon, when I had almost dozed off. I stand and brush down my apron; and when they both step through, the one after the other, I smile in welcome.

the end

Psst! The epilogue is here! Enjoy!

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