When Sirius came back, Severus wasn't in their quarters. Sirius made
himself some tea and took a bath. He sat in it for a long time, bone-weary,
heating the water with his wand over and over again. Not long after he
got out, an owl arrived with Severus' message. Sirius grabbed it quickly
and fed the bird.
'We took Stevenson to St. Mungo's. His initial reaction to the potion was favourable. He'll be monitored by the mediwizards for any adverse effects for several days.
You should be happy to know I'm going to London to submit the patent motion. Pomfrey will countersign it. I should be home early tomorrow morning.
I've left a preparation boiling in the workroom with a timing charm on it. Stir twelve times clockwise when the charm goes off, and don't touch anything else. Use the black ladle on the shelf to the left. Remember to go to see Pomfrey tomorrow for a check-up, the results will have to be appended to the patent motion.
'Your dose is in the blue vial by the bed, labelled 'Black', take
it before going to sleep. Don't forget to eat!'
Sirius twisted his lips. Yes, Mother. He didn't feel like eating. Severus was constantly stuffing him like a pig.
He stirred the foul-smelling preparation that was bubbling unpleasantly in the tiny windowless closet Severus referred to as his workroom. He fed the Shadowdweller, and cleaned up after his tea. Without Severus, the rooms seemed, paradoxically, smaller, and stifling. Only now did Sirius notice how cramped they really were--filled with battered, mismatched furniture on the verge of collapsing. The lichen-covered ceiling and spotty walls added to the general sense of oppression. He could barely take three strides without bumping into something.
He realised he was brooding, and berated himself mentally. Severus' cool, sneering attitude to life had a grounding effect on him. He noticed it only now, when his lover wasn't around to stop him from spinning out of control with one sarcastic comment.
Finally he picked a book of poems by some long-dead Muggle friend of
Albus', and spent the rest of the evening reading. One poem in particular
caught his fancy, and he read the first stanza aloud:
Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the gray twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.
"Master Sirius Black should not sit here moping and talking to himself," a reproachful nasal voice said behind him, making Sirius start and almost drop the book. Sparky. Dressed in a miniature sleeping robe, complemented with a pom-pom night-cap and fluffy slippers, the house-elf was carrying a tray heaped with food. "Master Sirius didn't summon his lunch, and it's long past dinner too!"
"I'm not hungry, Sparky."
Sparky regarded him ruefully. "Master Sirius doesn't like Sparky's cooking?" It sniffed.
Sirius cursed inwardly. "Of course I like your cooking, Sparky. I, um... I forgot it was so late. I'm sorry to have troubled you at night. Did Severus ask you to make me eat?"
"Master Severus didn't have to ask Sparky." The elf was heaping food on a plate. "Sparky is happy to bring Master Sirius delicious food. Master Sirius is not taking care of himself." It was shaking its head mournfully, looking at Sirius with reproach.
Sparky stayed until Sirius ate everything, then disappeared, taking
the dirty dishes with him.
Sirius couldn't sleep. The bed was too big. He missed the warmth and smell of Severus' body beside him. The silence in the room was making him twitchy. He spent most of the night watching the Shadowdweller out of the corner of his eye--whenever he sighed or moved, the creature would fall to the ground immediately, pretending to be a discarded set of robes, or a coat tossed by the fireplace.
He got up before sunrise and went for a walk, stopping by the owlery to see if they were any news from Severus. He had his check-up--Pomfrey was tired but energetic as always, bustling around him briskly. Then it was time to help Hagrid in the Forest. Guiltily, he realised he had skipped breakfast. Sparky was going to be unhappy.
Returning from the Forest at noon, he ran into Minerva. She was strolling through the grounds, apparently enjoying the sun.
"Hello, Sirius. I have to compliment you. Mr. Brawnes has been unblocked in the most spectacular manner." She was stifling laughter.
"What? What did he do?" Sirius asked curiously.
"He transfigured all the wood in the classroom into pink jelly. And a good part of the stairwell, too!" Minerva chuckled. "He sang incantations, Sirius--with such force and intensity I didn't have time to stop him. It was a whirlwind."
"I think Caden's an Enchanter, Minerva. He instinctively does magic with his voice, not his wand--"
"I know what an Enchanter is," Minerva waved her hand impatiently. "The question is, is he going to be able to finish Hogwarts despite that?"
Sirius thought about it. "He needs to learn to control his magic, of course--I don't think he had ever received any training in directing his magic by voice modulation."
Minerva cast him a sceptical glance. "Well. I've never heard of an Enchanter who was able to work precisely enough to achieve any success with Transfigurations. He should focus on a more traditional approach, not on felling castles with the power of his voice."
"He'll learn," Sirius disagreed. "He'll be limited in many aspects, of course, but I believe he'll manage to deal with his schoolwork. That boy will not learn to cast more advanced silent spells no matter what--the alternative is to expel him. He has to work out ways around his disability, if you want to call it that, and I am convinced he can do it."
"It's fortunate he has some definite chanting talent," Minerva admitted. "It hasn't been done for more than two hundred years, but after today's performance, I believe Brawnes could get an individual syllabus." She sighed. "Let's sit here on the grass. I have to talk to you about something."
Intrigued, Sirius sat cross-legged on the ground. Minerva leaned her back on a tree and said,
"How would you like to teach Transfigurations next year, Sirius?"
"Teach? As your assistant?"
"All by yourself. I won't be here next year. I'm leaving Hogwarts," Minerva explained. Sirius looked at her in horror. "No need to be so surprised!"
"I'm getting married," she said simply.
Sirius was speechless. Married. McGonagall.
"Congratulations," he croaked weakly, collecting himself. "May I ask who is the lucky man?"
"He owns a wand shop in Surrey, a family business. We've been seeing each other for over thirty years," Minerva said. "I wasn't going to teach for so long. We intended to get married a long time ago, but one of us would have to move and change jobs, and there was always something that had to come first. The first war--many teachers died and I simply couldn't leave the students. Albus needed my help with the organisational matters as well. Then another war came, and leaving was out of the question again."
She sat more comfortably and continued. "I'm not young, and I don't want to put marriage off anymore. When you came along... It's a wonderful opportunity for me to pass my duties off to someone whose skill I trust. I couldn't retire if it meant another vacancy. I can't have my place filled by one of those miserable individuals who turn up these days thinking they can teach for a year or two, since they didn't find any other position." She grimaced wryly. "Think about it. Severus said you might be interested."
"Oh, he did, did he?" Sirius frowned.
"Are you offended?"
"No, of course not. It's just that... It's not the first time he's been trying to manipulate my life recently."
"You two seem... very close," Minerva said cautiously, sending Sirius a sideways look. He didn't know what to say.
"We are," he said finally. Let her think what she wanted.
"Well. If that's so, you may want to stay at Hogwarts anyway," she said lightly. "I think you'd make a solid teacher, Sirius. You know the subject more than enough, which can't be said of any of our current candidates." This time, Minerva's grimace was almost pained. "And you like working with children."
"I don't have any experience! I wouldn't even know where to start. It's one thing helping them with their homework, and another developing a syllabus and teaching actual classes!"
"You'll have until the next school-year to prepare. I won't be leaving until September. All I ask is that you consider the possibility."
"So, when's the wedding?" Sirius asked to change the subject.
"In mid-August." Minerva smiled. Her face looked younger, cleared of the usual stern, teacherly expression. Sirius thought that she deserved that--the chance to put herself first, finally. "You are to come, of course. Think of a suitable gift!"
"Yes, Ma'am," Sirius bowed, and she smacked him playfully. With her flushed face, twinkling eyes and black hair with only a few silver strands, she looked almost pretty. A few students passed by, casting them surprised looks.
"My students think I'm a homicidal maniac," Sirius confessed suddenly. He related the incident briefly, and to his surprise, Minerva started to laugh.
"Don't worry. Students will always say things like that. Usually it's
the last years making up horror stories about teachers to scare the First-Year
children. Don't they say Snape makes you drink your potion if you botch
it and it's poisonous? And I am supposed to have Transfigured a student
into a mouse once and tried to eat her." She snickered helplessly. "They
also say Sprout's roses grow so well because there are mouthy students
buried under the hothouse..."
Severus was already in their quarters, bathed and rested after a short nap.
"You told McGonagall I want to stay and teach here next year!" Sirius accused upon seeing him.
"I merely mentioned you might be interested in the opportunity," Severus said mildly. "Last weekend you said you were going to look for a paid job. I thought that if you found a position at Hogwarts, we wouldn't lose contact altogether. Even if you found a house, or decided to live with Potter."
Sirius dismissed that with a wave of his hand. "I wouldn't leave you! I just meant to look through the Daily Prophet, see if there was anything... Never mind. It's not important now. What I really want to know is why you told the students I was a murdering madman!"
Snape snickered. "I thought you had been anxious that they would eat you alive? I told you I had means to get them to behave."
"They are afraid of me now! How could you use something like that as--as a joke!"
"Oh, come on, Black, you have to admit it was funny. I didn't say a word that wasn't true, like a real Gryffindor."
"It's funny to you?" Sirius felt irritated. "I've spent the last months trying to make sure you understood how bad I felt about what I did to you and you think it's funny?"
"You obviously don't share the sentiment."
"I can't treat it so lightly. I can't believe you can," Sirius said helplessly.
Snape just shrugged. They ate their lunch in silence. Severus sent the empty dishes away, but didn't get up.
"Black. I want to clarify something here," he said so seriously that Sirius froze. "Are you in a relationship with me because of some misguided sense of guilt? Are you trying to make up for the fact that you put me in danger?"
Sirius closed his eyes, willing the anger down. Working with kids did do wonders to his self-restraint, he thought, regardless of his outburst yesterday.
When he felt he could trust his voice, he said, "Yes. I'm enduring your filthy touch every night just to torture myself over and over again. That's why I'm also shagging Remus on alternate Fridays to make it up to him, and masturbating in the bathroom to ease the guilt for ruining my own life! Are you insane?"
Snape looked down at his hands and didn't answer.
"Severus... What made you think that?"
"Because you're clearly better, and yet you are still here," Snape answered quietly. He got up and leaned on the wall, avoiding looking at Sirius. "When you first started exhibiting affection towards me, I recognised it as the need to make amends, and thereby to release the sense of guilt that had been oppressing you. A lot of the feeling had been artificially induced, of course, and I'm concerned that the potion didn't dispel it completely. I thought I made it clear I don't hold a grudge against you anymore, but if you need to hear it--I forgive you. You can move on with your life now." His lips twisted in a dejected grimace.
Sirius wanted to get up and hug him, make it better with kisses and touches, but he knew words were needed here. They had to commit, one way or another. There was no way to avoid it any longer. But first, he had to deal with the past. He took a deep breath.
"Thank you, Severus. I appreciate your words," he said seriously. "You have to understand, though, that I will never be able to completely put that incident behind me. It's not a failure of your cure that I still feel the guilt.
Similarly, the fact you were able to forgive me is profoundly important to me, but it doesn't make it all go away. The sadness over my past shortcomings has become a part of me, assimilated into my very bones. It makes me who I am. You shouldn't think you are the source of my anxiety in any way, Severus. I feel the same towards Remus, if not more so. And I know he will never forget I that thought he could be the spy Voldemort had set on Potters."
Snape shrugged, as if indicating there was nothing he could do about that--or that he didn't see the point in being upset at all.
"But most importantly, I would never be able to forget myself," Sirius continued, grasping for the right words to express what he had understood about himself during the past months. "I can't just discard my past and start over. I tried to make it clear when I first came to you that I didn't come for absolution. I wasn't looking for your help to ease my conscience then. I told you that I wanted to give you a chance to put it behind you, to try to snap this cord of hatred that's been binding you to me for all these years. I didn't come to you to shirk he the responsibility, I came to accept it."
It was much easier to speak about the past now, Sirius noticed. His mind was clearer. He could choose his words calmly at last, and he hoped that what he was saying made more sense now.
"There are other things in my life I feel guilty about," he went on. "James' death. All those Muggles that died when I cornered Pettigrew in a crowded street. That boy, Neville, not being able to walk again. Harry's unhappy childhood, because I couldn't be there for him. You can't absolve me of that guilt, Severus. No potion will ever do that."
He got up and crossed the room to his lover, trying to look Severus in the face.
"What you did instead was to teach me it was possible to accept the guilt and live with it. Look at me, Severus! Think of what I am now, and what I was then. I came to you as a wreck, hating myself more than you hated me." He paused, looking for words. "I wanted to be an animal, and you were willing to fight for me to be human again. It wasn't just your potion that helped me heal, and you know that. You've found courage to live with things you can't forgive yourself, and I respect you for that. You walked me through the hard time, and now I'm getting better. I have my friends back, I have a job, I have a lover to live with. I have future again. You are a part of that future. An indispensable part. Understand that?"
He took Severus' face in his hands and kissed those tightly clenched lips. "There's no hidden agenda, no noble sacrifice, no catch. I love you. I want to be with you."
Severus seemed to finally unclench. He let out a tiny sigh and pushed away from the wall.
"You are the first thing I've allowed myself to love after my father killed my raven," he said hoarsely. "It would be... painful if you left. I was trying to--" he stopped and shook his head. "To be prepared, I guess. As much as I seem indispensable today, you may meet someone tomorrow who'll turn out to be the same and more. I'd like to know in advance where I stand."
"I guess you'll have to trust me," Sirius said quietly.
"I guess I will," Snape sighed and hugged Sirius lightly. "So, do you really shag Lupin on alternate Fridays?"
"I was just being sarcastic, don't tell me you believed that!"
"What, and no wanking off in the bathroom either? Where's the legendary Gryffindor stamina?"
"Idiot," Sirius said affectionately and kissed him. "Come on, let me show you where all the legendary stamina goes."
Severus allowed himself to be dragged towards the bedroom.
"Say, did you write down that little courage and respect speech? It sounded awfully like a rehearsed piece," he asked, as Sirius helped him out of his robe.
"Slimy ungrateful bastard," said Sirius, who had done exactly that. "I was going to write you a letter. Thanking you for your help and all that. I didn't expect to have to actually say it in person! And it doesn't make it any less true, you know," he added. "Just embarrassing."
"Embarrassing, yes, I can see how that could be," Severus murmured, stroking Sirius' naked hips and leaning forward to lick a nipple. "Mawkish, too."
"Oh, shut up." They were undulating against each other, sweating already, stroking and kissing. "Like you would do better."
"Mmmm," Severus moaned contentedly and trailed his fingers in an infuriating tease over Sirius' inner thigh and along his balls. "Are you going to accept the teaching position?"
"Yes," Sirius mumbled, nibbling on Severus' jawline. "But only if I can live down here with you."
"But of course... Although, it won't be the same as having a kept man. I was feeling so dashing..."
"One... of these... days," Sirius managed between gasps of pleasure
and laughter, "I'm really going to kill you."
~ END ~
Well, this is it--the end. I'd like to thank once more to everybody who reviewed, especially to those of you who stayed with me throughout the whole story and provided feedback and encouragement after every chapter. I hope you aren't too disappointed by the ending. I spent the past week trying to rework it, but to tell the truth, I couldn't. I guess the story became too entrenched in my mind the way I wrote it, and resisted any change.
Coming soon: "Like Him" -- epilogue to "Shade More Than Man"
from Severus' point of view.