Juxian Tang's Fiction
 
Main Page
Slash/Yaoi Fiction
Original Fiction
[+] Livejournal
[+] E-mail Juxian
Slash and Yaoi Fiction
Title: Howdy
Author: Juxian Tang
E-mail: juxiantang@hotmail.com
Site: http://juxian.slashcity.net
Rating: PG-13
Pairing: Snape/Lupin
Disclaimer: These characters and places belong to JK Rowling. I am making no profit.
Summary: Challenge # 83: Snape and Lupin each (separately) make a decision to adopt a child. And they're both stubbornly determined to adopt *the same* child.
Author's notes: I would like to mention that fabulous Josan was the first and the best author who used one of the motives playing part in this story - my enormous respect goes to her.

HOWDY

At first there was a hand. A small hand with pink, bitten fingernails squeezed into the crack of the slightly opened door and widened it stealthily. Then there was an eye; a brown, round eye a little above the hand looking at him from the shadowy corridor. The eye blinked, meeting his stare, and then a thin voice came:

"Hi."

The ceiling was white and familiar to the tiniest chink, while the eye was alive and new. Snape had never thought he would be bored so much that he would crave for company. Any company.

"Yes?" he said in the tone that didn't quite reach his scariest.

The little hand froze, clasped on the door, but apparently he demonstrated his attainability in some way because a moment later it moved again, pushed the door open, and a small figure slid in. There were two of those who entered, actually: one tiny, brown-haired boy and one big shabby brown bear the boy dragged by its paw. Snape knew this kind of toy, it hadn't been particularly luxurious even when he was a child: the bear could only walk slowly and say a few words. This one, though, obviously had lost its abilities a long time ago, together with one eye and a chunk of its ear. Its left paw was stained with a big square stamp reading: 'Property of St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical maladies and injuries'.

The boy stopped in the middle of the ward, looking at Snape, his head tilted awry, his mouth slightly opened. His nose was leaking; he sniffed wetly and wiped it on the back of his palm. Snape frowned. The only thing that was worse than children was untidy children.

And the boy was definitely untidy. His hair was messy, curling slightly on the ends falling on the thin neck. His red chequered shirt was supposed to be tucked into his too long pants but a flap of it was hanging out loosely.

"Huh," the boy said. "What're you doing?"

For at least seventeen years of his life Snape had been the one who asked questions when dealing with children, and he had no intention changing this. It must've been killing monotony that befuddled his brain, or maybe all those potions and spells applied to him; he answered - and answered truthfully:

"Thinking."

The boy licked his chapped lips and asked:

"About what?"

That was more difficult to answer. About Hogwarts? What was going on there, without him... most possibly everything was perfectly all right, especially taking into account that it was summer and there were no students there anyway. Or about Albus? About kindness in his eyes, concern that didn't make Snape feel warm and changed nothing? Or about the war, and the victory, and losses from both sides?

"About potions ingredients," he said. It was a safe answer, and a true one.

Viper's blood and Egyptian henbane and bat wing powder... Black lotus seeds and wasp venom... three-week foetuses of white rats and roots of belladonna... He did think of them, repeated in his mind the recipes for the most advanced and least used potions that he hadn't brewed for years. That kept him occupied.

"Oh," the boy said.

Snape felt an unexpected twinge of regret in his chest. His reply disappointed the boy, now he would leave. And he, Snape, would stay alone again.

How desperate he must be...

But yes, he was desperate. Boredom caused steady, dangerous drumming in his head, driving him on the verge of insanity. Sometimes he felt he couldn't stay here, in this bed, for a moment longer. And only fear of crippling pain, the pain he had already experienced and that was truly *crippling*, killing him, made him stay put.

If only he could read, time would've flown for him. But there was no way he could sit and hold a book - and holding it magically above himself took too much power that he didn't have at the moment.

With an awful screeching sound the boy dragged his heel against the floor.

"Why is your bed like this?" he asked.

"Because it's good for my back."

It seemed this answer gave the boy something to chew on.

"And that's why your pillow is so small?"

"Exactly."

"It looks uncomfortable."

"It is."

It really was ridiculous, this entire conversation, wasn't it? He, Snape, was ridiculous. Good that his colleagues or his students couldn't see him like that - talking to a boy five years old... and wanting to prolong it. He dreaded the moment the door would shut again, and he would stay alone, with the white ceiling, and rare, brisk visits of the nurses (who he had alienated or frightened first thing after getting here, so it was his own fault after all).

The boy made a few careful steps towards the bed and poked at the mattress.

"Hard."

"I've noticed."

Dark-brown eyes looked at him seriously, the small tongue running over the lips again. Of course his lips were dry, with the way he breathed through his mouth. Couldn't his parents give him a simple potion for cold?

The boy's hand kept groping, now more resolutely. Then, with a sigh, he crawled up onto Snape's bed and heaved the bear with him.

Snape glared at him, speechless for a moment. What did the boy think he was doing? Did he have any idea how *inappropriate* it was?

And what was he supposed to do now? Call for the boy's parents? Or push him off? Snape wasn't used to children who behaved like that. In fact, any student at Hogwarts, including Slytherins, would rather commit suicide than get so close to him.

Well, the boy obviously was unaware of Snape's reputation. And anyway, they were not at Hogwarts. Snape wasn't the Head of the House here and it wasn't his responsibility to discipline this child.

So, he did nothing.

"What's your name?" the boy asked.

"Severus. Snape." He thought it was too difficult for the child to pronounce, still less to remember, but it didn't matter anyway. "And yours?"

"Howdy. And this is Mr. Andrews." The stamp-stained paw of the bear was raised in a greeting.

Great. Now he was getting acquainted with toy bears. The boy kept looking at him expectantly.

"Nice to meet you two," Snape muttered.

If someone had heard him saying it, he wouldn't have lived it out. But no one was there. To his surprise, Howdy flushed at his words and smiled widely, demonstrating uneven, little milk teeth.

"Nice to meet you... Sev-e-rus."

Just how old really was he? He looked very small but he talked clearly. Snape suddenly remembered Draco's fifth birthday. Draco was also a small child - and a very spoilt one. He had started with wiping his hands on Snape's new robe that day - and in the end of the party had puked on him, after eating too much chocolate.

The thought of Draco sent a sharp jolt of pain through his spine, so fierce that he had to clench his teeth not to make a sound. It was a bad idea to think about Draco; the recollection of the frail blonde child wrenching out of his mother's hands as Snape tried to pour anti-sickness potion into his mouth merged into the memory of the young man who threw that curse at him. The curse that had wormed its way around his spinal cord, undoing him.

Snape shifted slightly, as much as he could allow, and tried to chase the thought away. Howdy stared at him curiously.

"Does your back hurt?"

"Yes," he said. "A little."

"Did a bad animal hurt you?"

A viper, maybe. But how could he blame Draco - when Lucius was a beautiful lifeless doll in the dungeons of Azkaban, his soul sucked out in a Dementor's kiss - and he, Snape, turned out to be a traitor? Perhaps if he'd let Draco know earlier, talked to him...

Howdy kept looking at him, his eyes serious.

"No," Snape shook his head. "It just... happened."

"Ah."

The boy moved, turned, then wiggled some more, obviously finding any position on the hard mattress uncomfortable. Mr. Andrews also got resettled, now against Snape's ankle.

"Where are your parents?" he asked. "Don't they look for you?"

"No." The answer was a bit too curt. The boy didn't look at him, his head drooping. Snape disapproved of himself silently. He should've guessed - the boy's wrong-sized clothes, the ancient toy; the war had made many orphans. So many that the Ministry had even regarded opening an orphanage, for the first time in history. But eventually all children were adopted by relatives and childless families.

"I was a bad boy," Howdy said, still without looking. His little finger tugged on a small hole in Mr. Andrews's belly. "She said she couldn't let me stay because I was bad and I could hurt her."

"Who?"

"My mum."

Snape's eyes narrowed. He remembered that fear, filling all his childhood, of being left behind by his mother. It must've been something she said, about mothers giving up bad boys - and Snape was never sure he was good enough for her. So whenever they went outside, he clenched on her hand so hard that it hurt her, and squealed like a banshee every time she tried to break free of his hold. Which made him even a worse boy, of course.

"Mr. Andrews was also bad," Howdy said. "And someone bit off his ear."

"Well, maybe he lost it in a battle," Snape said.

He couldn't believe he'd just said a thing like that. This forced idleness, this immobility was truly getting at him. Next thing he would be talking to a doorknob. But yes, sometimes he felt like that.

The boy sniffed, wiped his nose - and next moment a small finger pointed at Snape's hand.

"Why is that?"

"What?"

"The colours."

His fingers were still stained. Usually the stains went off sooner; but he was in such a hurry before leaving for the hospital, had to prepare so many potions that some ingredients got mixed and ate into his skin.

"It's from the potions," he said.

"What's 'potions'?"

He hesitated for a moment. He'd never try to simplify an explanation for the sake of the children he had to teach. No need for them to get a wrong impression that potions could be easy. But he supposed that, since Howdy was so much younger, it wouldn't hurt anyone if he came up with something easier for him.

"Special mixtures. Some can stop you from wiping your nose every half a minute. Some can make your hair pink. Some can make you fly and some can make you invisible."

He must be doing it right; this version had more success than his usual 'bottle fame and stopper death' speech. Howdy looked at him with wide eyes, forgetting even to sniff.

"And can they make me stop being bad?"

Snape didn't have time to answer. A female voice reached them from the corridor.

"Howard? Where're you?"

The boy squirmed guiltily, slid down from the bed and dragged Mr. Andrews after him, his head drawn into his shoulders.

"Excuse me, sir, have you seen..." A flustered, thin-lipped face peeked into his ward. "Howard! What did I tell you about pestering the patients?"

The boy's hand was obediently reached to her to take but instead of this, she grabbed Howdy's sleeve with two fingers and pulled him after herself.

"I'm sorry, sir, I hope he didn't bother you." She talked without looking back at Snape, briskly.

"He didn't..." Snape started.

"Do you want me to lock you up already now, you little beast?" It was said in a hiss, a moment before the door slammed shut. Snape looked at the chipping paint on the doorjamb and then stared at the ceiling. Everything the same as before - the same cracks and stains of dampness there. Well, he simply had to handle it.

Skullcap and nighthawk's eyes and balmroot...

* * *

Mornings were worst of all. Even if they were not boring or lonely.

He hated being reminded of his weakness, his vulnerability - such abominable vulnerability that he was incapable to take care of simplest things on his own. 'Mobilicorpus' was always his least favourite spell, right after 'Crucio' - and now he thought that if it never got used on him again in his life, it still would be too soon.

Shame made him cranky and even more irritable than usual - which Snape didn't consider necessary to hide, even if it made him an even less popular patient among nurses.

Breakfasts were usually accompanied with such amount of potions - before meal, after meal - that everything tasted like valerian and flit's excretion. He didn't think potions did him any good. If so, he would've been able to brew buckets of them for himself, probably of much better quality. But Callaghan, the mediwizard treating him, insisted - and Callaghan was a star, after all, the leading specialist in Spell damage department.

And there was a part of Snape that wanted to get well, that didn't care for dying, even if just to spite all those who hoped he would be done with. So he decided to follow everything that was prescribed.

After breakfast there would be an examination, poking and scanning.

"Do you feel there is less pain now? Do you feel you can move?"

"No... yes, maybe a little."

Snape remembered the first time when Draco's curse revealed itself, three days after it had been cast - two and half weeks after Harry Potter had defeated the Dark... Voldemort. He remembered a wave of pain hitting him, swallowing him whole, leaving him in a shivering heap on the floor. He came round sobbing and shaking, unable to believe there could pain like this, even after all 'Cruciatus' he'd been under.

It was the first bout; the next one came soon, the third even sooner. In the spells between them Snape searched for the information on the curse and found very little. It could've made him proud for his best student - had he not been the one on the receiving end of Draco's wand.

He had dragged himself through till the end of the school year on anaesthetic potions, trying to hide it from Albus and knowing it hardly was possible. He was almost relieved to be able to get to the hospital, in a crazy hope that he would be helped there.

Well, at least Callaghan managed to take off the worst pain. And as Snape lay motionless, he almost could believe everything was tolerable, everything could be all right again.

* * *

He felt exhausted when Callaghan and his two interns finally left. Not so much with pain but with violation, strangers witnessing him at his weakest, *looking* at him. Snape lay with his eyes closed, trying to soothe his dignity, providing that he had any dignity left at all.

The door creaked. It had to be the nurse again, he thought, with more worthless potions.

The steps were light and careful, padded the floor and stopped not far from his bed. No one called his name. Snape opened his eyes irritably. The boy stood in front of the bed, Mr. Andrews in his arms. Howdy's shirt was chequered blue today but it didn't look any tidier. There were dry greenish crusts under his nose, and he kept sniffing again.

"It is impolite to stare at people," Snape said.

"Hello, Sev-e-rus."

The smile was shy, flickering on the boy's pale little face. He looked as if he never went outside, Snape thought. Well, that's what everyone said about *him* - but a child shouldn't have looked so unhealthy...

Although what did he know - it wasn't his business anyway. And why did Howdy spend time at the hospital? He obviously was sick, in some way.

"I thought you were sleeping."

"No. What would I do at night then?" Snape added grumpily, feeling awkward at his attempts of conversation and still unable to stop himself from doing it.

"I wonder... would you like to see my drawings?"

The boy's round head was tilted awry but the voice was very quiet, almost as if giving Snape a chance not to hear it.

He saw the roll of parchments squeezed between Howdy's belly and Mr. Andrews now. That was going to be riveting. Drawings of a five-year-old. And Snape *so* liked art...

If only the boy didn't look as if he expected nothing else but a negative answer.

"Come here," Snape said.

"Nurse Ingrid, she let me use the pencils from the tea-room." Howdy's voice, becoming bright at once, sounded louder as he efficiently crawled up onto Snape's bed.

Mr. Andrews fell into its familiar position, propped against Snape's ankle, and Howdy unrolled the parchments awkwardly.

Draco had drawn quite well for his age, Snape recalled. Or maybe it was what Narcissa said, after all, her son was supposed to do everything best for his age. Snape didn't know much about it; he didn't remember drawing himself.

"Here, see, it's Mr. Andrews."

The parchment fell, rolling up. The boy huffed in exasperation and tried to crawl closer to Snape, holding the parchment over him.

"If you fall on me, I'll kill you," Snape warned.

The threat seemed to go over the head of the little brat; it must've been the tone of the voice. Very determined expression on Howdy's face didn't change as he held the drawing up for Snape.

The parchment showed Mr. Andrews holding hands with a small boy.

"Me," Howdy said proudly pointing at him.

"I figured this much," Snape muttered. The boy kept looking at him as if expecting something else. "Hmm... very nice?"

"Really?"

"Yes."

It didn't kill him saying that, and Howdy looked positively delighted.

"And that's Mr. Andrews, too."

On another parchment Mr. Andrews sat in front of a very big birthday cake set with candles. There were so many of them that they decorated not only the top of the cake but poked also from its sides and bottom.

"It's because Mr. Andrews is old," Howdy said mournfully.

"What's in the box?" There was a yellow-coloured box with a bow, next to the cake.

"His eye. He gets his eye back for his birthday."

"Ah. Great."

The boy unrolled the third parchment, and Snape froze.

There were two main colours in it: red and grey. The red of blood spilled around - and grey of the creature, distantly reminding a wolf, sitting on its hunches. Its jaws, full of long, bloodied teeth, clenched on the arm of the boy. A woman with long hair stood covering her face with her hands - and a man in a dark robe pointed the wand at the creature.

For a few moments he just stared, feeling cold spread through his body. Howdy wiggled, sniffed and wiped his nose. It's probably a fairy-tale, Snape thought, just a story the boy heard.

In the right upper corner of the picture there was a big yellow disc of the full moon.

"What is it?"

"Howdy was bad. Howdy didn't obey." The boy's speech suddenly reverted to more child-like patterns, different from the way he usually spoke. "Bad animal bit him. Bad animal made him bad, too."

Snape saw the boy rubbing on his arm, and the gesture struck him suddenly as unbearably familiar, similar to his own as he rubbed the mark on his left forearm. The mark that was almost gone with Voldemort's death but would always be here for him.

"You turn bad at the full moon, don't you?"

He knew what the answer would be; everything snapped in place. The reason why the boy stayed at the hospital, his mother's cruel words, his own words about wanting not to be bad. Snape bit his tongue, tasting blood.

The little werewolf on his bed nodded:

"Yes."

There was apprehension, vulnerability in Howdy's eyes as he looked at Snape - he must've noticed Snape's tone, the coldness of it, the rippling of his face - and the boy looked somewhat hurt. Well, the nurse called him 'little beast', he should've been used to people treating him this way.

Or if he isn't used yet, he should be, Snape thought.

The thought was cruel, as much as the way he kept looking at Howdy, coldly, and Snape knew it, and knew he was hurting the boy, was ruining the weak link that had appeared between them in those two meetings.

But that was the thing, wasn't it? He had allowed this link to appear, despite himself - something he hadn't let happen for ages until now. And it hurt finding out Howdy's secret.

He wasn't afraid of werewolves; well, not in their human form. He *was* prejudiced against one particular werewolf, Lupin, but it had as much to do with Lupin's little circle of friends as with his nature.

It's just... something made him feel too strongly for the boy. And he didn't want to feel it.

He kept staring and didn't say a word.

The boy didn't look at him any more, rolled up his parchments awkwardly and grabbed Mr. Andrews's paw, made a movement to slide down from the bed. Right, let him go, it would be for the better - let him get used to the fact that life wasn't fair, that no one would treat him kindly. Snape particularly wasn't someone you could expect kindness from.

He felt his hand clench on the blanket, so hard it sent a jolt of pain through his back. But he knew he was doing the right thing, it was all to the better. He couldn't deal with anyone else's problems now, he had too many of his own.

The boy's boots thumped on the floor as he jumped down from the bed.

"Howdy." The boy didn't look up. "Howdy, open the upper drawer of the nightstand."

He spoke in a crisp, business-like voice, and a moment later the boy obeyed.

"See small change there? Give me something, a knut or a sickle."

Now Howdy's stared at him, widely and wonderingly. The small fingers handed a coin to him.

"And give me Mr. Andrews."

He took another gaze at the bear's blunt muzzle, at the remaining glass button eye, focused and changed the coin into the other one like this. Well, not quite like this; Transfiguration had never been Snape's favourite subject. But at least it was something glassy and button-y.

He put the eye on its place and cast a quick sticking spell. Here, it should hold. Using his wand, even for such a tiny bit of magic, made him feel drained and exhausted, black points dancing in front of his eyes. For a few moments he lay, trying to reacquire control, and then handed Mr. Andrews back to Howdy.

"No birthday wrapping but he does get his eye back."

Howdy looked at the bear, his eyes huge, and then his gaze turned to Snape, so rapturous that Snape felt uneasy, and angry - couldn't someone else have done it sooner? The boy's finger carefully touched the button eye.

"It's real."

"Of course it's real," Snape said haughtily.

Howdy made a strange sound and suddenly his forehead pressed to Snape's shoulder. Snape hissed in pain, the impact was a little too much. For a few moments the boy stayed like this, his face hidden - and then he grabbed Mr. Andrews and ran to the door, as if afraid that Snape would change his mind and take the new eye back.

"Tell the nurse to give you something for the cold, is it a hospital or what?" Snape shouted following him.

"Okay!" he heard the boy say back.

The drawing with the grey creature stayed on the floor, the parchment half-rolled.

* * *

At night, Snape lay looking at the yellow circle of the moon in the opened window. The moon was three quarters full.

What do they do to the boy when the time comes? The first floor specialised in creature-induced injuries, they probably treated werewolves there as well. They must've had some facilities for such occasions.

Howdy lived here, didn't he? Did he have no other relatives who could - or would - take him? Probably not.

Snape felt a deep-buried fear resurfacing in him suddenly - the fear mixed with ingrained knowledge he had carried with himself all his childhood: that no one wanted him except for his mother, not even his father - and his mother didn't want him particularly either. And if she had left him, he wouldn't have belonged anywhere at all. It was an irrational fear because it had never happened, his mother had never left him, and anyway, she was long dead. And now it was his own choice to belong nowhere, to estrange everyone in his life.

Yes, it was his own choice, all those lonely days at the hospital, with no one visiting.

Howdy didn't make any choices; they were taken away from him.

Strange... With Lupin, Snape was secretly sure, deep in his heart, that being a werewolf was somehow his own fault. Lupin was a false person, pretending to be nice and ganging up with his awful friends whenever a chance came. So, if he turned into the beast every month - it was what he deserved, in a way.

He couldn't think about Howdy like that. The boy didn't deserve it.

* * *

Next time Howdy finally appeared without a cold - and with another drawing, of a small house with thick smoke clouding over the chimney and two big people, a woman and a boy, standing in front of it.

Snape praised the picture, feeling that the words didn't stick in his throat so much any more. With things going like that, soon he would be able to be nice to little children without batting an eyelash. Howdy looked pale and with bluish shadows under his eyes.

He didn't come the next day - the day before the full moon night, and Snape actually didn't expect him to. He felt crankier than usual; the day seemed to drag incredibly slowly and staying motionless was virtually unbearable.

He even regretted he'd forbidden Albus to visit him - maybe seeing the old man would've made the day shorter. He resented Albus - because Albus had been right all the way about Draco, that the boy was not possible to save, and Snape was wrong when didn't agree with him until it was too late.

Howdy was absent for four days. Snape felt it was driving him out of his mind. He expected the boy's absence - but it was too long, too long. What could happen? Didn't they lock him well and he escaped? And got hurt, or hurt someone, or got killed... It made him feel queasy, to think about it. He ordered himself to stop.

He barely knew the boy, didn't he? For Merlin's sake, hundreds of little brats went past him every year, with his only concern how to terrify them best. There was no reason why he should've changed his modus operandi and start *caring*.

Definitely, he didn't care for the boy. He was just bored and desperate for entertainment. And Howdy - he wasn't annoying, or whining, or noisy, or dirty... well, he was a bit dirty - but not like other children, was he?

Besides, he had good six years before the time he would enter Hogwarts and become something Snape should be potentially wary of.

If he enters Hogwarts at all, Snape thought. Since Lupin, there had never been any werewolf student there, he didn't know whether because their parents didn't apply or because Albus had learned his lesson, for once.

On the fifth day in the evening the brown-haired head poked into his door.

"Sev-e-rus."

"Come in." It came like a snap. The rush that went through him surprised Snape; he suddenly felt annoyed and angry that he couldn't get up, couldn't see the boy better, in the dull light. Howdy filtered through the door and stopped, smiling shyly.

"I was afraid they let you go, Sev-e-rus."

The boy looked like no child should - so pale that his skin seemed bluish, circles under his eyes huge and dark. He looked even skinnier than always, his arms like twigs.

Snape couldn't quite place the emotion he felt. As if his throat was constricted, making it difficult to breathe.

"Not yet," he said grumpily. "I'm stuck here for eternity."

Perhaps it wasn't true. Callaghan assured him everything was going well, that he *was* healing up. And in fact bouts of pain came less frequently now and were of a muted, fuzzy kind. He just felt weak and tired all the time, tired even when not moving.

The boy sneezed and wiped his nose.

"Why do you have a cold *again*?" Snape asked menacingly.

"I dunno." Howdy looked remorseful. "It was cold there."

"Where?"

"In the cage."

"In the..."

He cut himself off. What, did he expect anything else? Where would they keep a werewolf on a full moon night? Didn't he always say that it was where Lupin and such like him should spend their transformations?

"I don't like the cage," Howdy said. "It's boring there. And it's dirty. I have to pee there. And I wanted to see you but they didn't let me out. They didn't let me out after I stopped being bad, too, I don't know why."

"After you... But don't you..."

It suddenly dawned on him. Why they boy hadn't come for so long... But it couldn't be possible, could it? Oh yes, it could. Those bitches of nurses were angry with him or just feel too lazy to let him out. He could imagine it.

That was the worst - he could imagine it too well. The boy in the cage - *for days*, cold and dirty. Anger streamed through his veins like icy flow, blood drumming in his temples. Snape clenched his hands on the blanket again, his spine protesting the effort.

He had to do something. He would go down and give them a talking-to they wouldn't forget for all their life. They didn't have the right to treat the child like this, the child who wasn't to blame for anything. They didn't know what he, Snape, was capable of...

"Hey." Howdy was calling for him. The boy's stare was slightly wary as he looked at Snape, his head tilted slightly. "Are you angry, Sev-e-rus?"

"Not at you," he said. He didn't want to frighten the boy, Howdy had enough to be afraid in his life as it was. "Open the nightstand," he said, "and take what you find there."

There was a chocolate frog he asked a nurse to buy for him in the hospital shop. She gave him a weird look but did what she was told.

He heard a delighted gasp of Howdy. And next fifteen minutes the boy chased the frog - very obviously not for eating it but enjoying the process. Then Snape read the card to him, which was about Maria Halldorsdottir, a Norse witch of the 11th century.

All the way, cold anger kept seething in him but Snape kept it at bay. He'd do something for the boy; he had to.

* * *

At night a very simple thought came to his mind. He could do something, indeed - something he wanted to do. And it was not putting the fear of his wrath into the hearts of the nurses.

He didn't want to part with Howdy. He didn't want the boy to have to go away once someone called for him. He wanted...

Snape never wanted anyone in his life before. Well, at least since childhood, since he stopped being a dependent weak boy. He knew he was the only one he could rely upon. Everyone else could betray him, or use him, or hurt him. Even Albus, who came the closest to being a friend; he couldn't be sure in Albus as well, at least not when Snape's necessity as a spy was in the past.

He liked it this way; he didn't want it different. During the war, it would've been madness to think about some affair, some bond. He could've died any day, and, in fact, he had thought it would happen.

Well, he survived, more or less.

And the realisation that he could think about accommodating someone else in his life was striking... the realisation that he could want to do it.

But it was the truth. In a moment of sleepless clarity Snape understood that he knew it.

He wanted Howdy for himself.

No one else could love him. But the boy, he also was lonely, no one loved him either. And they went along well, didn't they? It was as if Howdy really liked him - didn't notice what a kind of person Snape was, ugly and mean and disagreeable.

It all would be different then. The boy wouldn't need to be locked for days in a cage. Snape would brew Wolfsbane for him, and Howdy wouldn't be a danger for anyone. He wouldn't have this cold any more... wouldn't wear those ugly clothes. Snape remembered how it was, to have unfashionable, poorly fitting clothes than made other children laugh at you. He could dress the boy smartly; well, not so smartly as Draco was always dressed because it's not good to develop vanity in the child. But at least Howdy wouldn't feel inferior to other children, wouldn't need to feel defensive because others could pick at him as at an target...

He could buy toys for Howdy; some educational toys, of course. And books. The boy apparently couldn't read yet but he'd teach him, no problem. And until then Snape could read to him. He could tell him things, about what he liked to do, about potions, could teach him. He was certain Howdy would be willing to learn, unlike Hogwarts students.

Would Albus let the boy stay at Hogwarts since he was so little? Snape would find a handle on Albus if the old man resisted. And if not - then Snape would resign, no big deal. His life debt was paid, he would be free to find another job, there would always be people who needed services of a good potions maker.

But he thought Albus probably wouldn't mind, would just smile and twinkle infuriatingly.

They could live in his quarters in the dungeons together, he and Howdy.

He just needed to get well. He *had to* get well. Snape suddenly wanted it as passionately as never before. He would get well, and then he would take Howdy with him. No one else cared for the boy, no one would mind.

They could be happy together.

* * *

"Breathe in. Breathe out."

Firm fingertips probed his ribs. Lupin took a deep breath and let it out obediently. There was slight pain, like a small blade twisting somewhere deeply, but it wasn't really strong and he knew it wouldn't go away.

The crescent scar on his side was wide and jagged, ugly looking. But he knew he was lucky; had the knife been turned in a different way, he would've been dead. Silver knife.

"It's healed well." The mediwizard snapped off his thin gloves and smiled amiably. Even better than I expected."

"A nice surprise, isn't it?"

The man, Morney, silver-haired and slight, had that special conspiring-confiding way of talking, as if he and Lupin shared some kind of secret between them. And Lupin found himself compelled to answer in the same way, as he often did.

"Unfortunately the scar hardly can be removed."

"I don't care." He smiled. "It's not like I'm going to model shirtless."

"Besides, it will always remind you that you got an Order of Merlin for it, right?"

Lupin's smile didn't fade. He'd trained himself a long time ago to give no outward signs of his feelings if it was necessary to hide them. Morney treated him kindly and was a damn good mediwizard, one of few who dealt with werewolves with minimal squeamishness. It wouldn't kill Lupin if he stayed polite to him despite anything.

But it hurt even more, maybe, because in a way Morney was right. It's not his work for the Order, not participating in the battles that got him the award - but the stupid wound and Quibbler's correspondent that visited him at the hospital and made a huge fuss out of 'the fighter for the side of Light wronged and forgotten'.

"I would've preferred a job," Lupin said flatly.

If Sirius hadn't left him the contents of his Gringotts vault, he would've been in dire straits now. As it was, he didn't even have to work for living. It's just that idleness didn't make him happy.

"Sure, sure," Morney said light-heartedly, making a gesture as if to pat Lupin's hand and not quite finishing it, recalling he'd taken off his gloves. "But times change. I wouldn't be surprised if they revoked the decree against werewolves sooner or later."

"I hope it'll happen in my lifetime." It sounded dryly, and Lupin softened his words with a smile, seeing the apparent relief it brought Morney.

"You can dress now. Everything is fine - as much as it can be, taking into account the situation, your age and the stress transformations put on you."

"I know."

"And now - to more pleasurable things?" Morney asked winking.

"Yes." Lupin straightened, buttoning his robe, and feeling that now his smile wasn't forced. "Can I see him?"

The door opened into a small room, and he felt unexpected short fluttering of his heart at the sight of the little boy at the table. The boy's messy hair fell over his eyes and his tongue was stuck out as he scribbled something with a pencil on a parchment furiously.

"He's usually is such a vagabond - no one knows where he wanders," Morney said. "But I told him you would be visiting."

The boy raised his head and jumped down from the chair.

"Remus!"

Lupin squatted, opening his arms. It'd taken him weeks to get Howdy used enough to come to his arms - but now the boy ran up to him almost without shyness.

"Here, it's for you." Lupin pulled a bar of chocolate out of his pocket.

"Thanks." It came with Howdy's mouth already full, little streaks of chocolate on the boy's chin and even his nose. Lupin chuckled.

"How do you manage to get so mucked up so quickly?"

Howdy wriggled a little as the handkerchief was applied to his face. "Did you see - did you see my drawings? Look, aren't they nice?"

The little hand clasped on his palm, pulling him. The drawings were all done in two pencils - lilac and green.

"Others broke," Howdy explained off-handily.

"Shall we sharpen them, then?" He felt Morney's gaze on him as he busied himself with the boy, the mediwizard's gaze approving and a bit condescending. Like someone would watch two pets play, Lupin thought wryly.

"Draw me, you know, a bird," he asked. "A parrot, like in the book I brought you. Can you?"

Howdy looked at him with round eyes and nodded seriously.

Lupin got up from the floor when the boy submerged into drawing once more.

"There is some more chocolate," he said handing it to Morney. "I don't want to give it him all at once."

"All right, I'll give it him later. It'll be better this way, or he'll eat everything immediately, you know. So..." Morney's gaze was expectant. "How is it going, with the papers?"

"Quite well." Lupin nodded. "At one moment I thought I was stuck. But now things are moving again, and fast."

"I'm glad to hear it."

He probably was, Lupin thought, he wasn't an unkind man and he did want the best for the boy.

"I met Howdy's mother yesterday," Lupin continued. "What a woman..." A chuckle broke from him, mirthless. "She signed the papers. Now there are mere formalities left."

"Wonderful."

"I hope the next change Howdy will spend with me," he said firmly.

"Don't you want to tell him now?"

"Don't you want to tell him now?"

"No." Lupin shook his head. "If something goes wrong... I don't want to disappoint him. He doesn't deserve another pain."

* * *

"See," Callaghan virtually beamed looking at Snape. "You're cured! I told you we'd do it. No sign of pain, is there?"

He moved carefully, awkwardly, feeling his body as if it was alien to him. It was probably because he'd lain flat for so many days.

"No," he agreed.

"Great!" Callaghan looked as if he was going to applaud. Snape winced. There was something in the man that seemed oddly familiar, although Snape couldn't quite pin it down.

"No inconveniences when moving?"

"No."

"Great! Professor, your students will be delighted to have you teach them next school year."

Idiot. His students would've been overjoyed if he'd rotten at the hospital.

And one of his students had done it to him... Snape chased away this thought.

"I'm going to write an article about your case," Callaghan continued babbling. "The most interesting curse - and cured so brilliantly."

Oh yes. Suddenly Snape knew who the man reminded him. Lockhart. Callaghan could be short and stocky but there was something in his awfully cheerful manner than was uncannily similar to Gilderoy's.

"I appreciate your help," he muttered, trying to stop the flow of words.

Well, the truth was he did appreciate it. He had looked forward so much to being out of hospital. Now he could start doing what he was going to. Now he could start building a new life, for him and Howdy.

On the shelves there were monsters that looked at him with glass button eyes and squealed, howled and barked their names when pointed at them. Snape repressed a wish to huddle.

"This *cat*..."

"Actually, sir, it's a piglet," said the salesgirl, who at first tried to be helpful but now looked plainly harassed. Snape gave another disdainful look to the blue fluffy creature and shook his head.

"Whatever. What do you think a boy five years old will like?"

She perked up; he probably should have started with this question.

"Would you consider this bunny, sir?"

Bunny, right. It did have long ears, after all. The girl reached her hands, and the creature jumped down into them awkwardly.

"What is your name?" she said in a clear voice.

"Charlie," the bunny peeped.

"You see you need to talk loudly and distinctly to it," the girl said, "but once it gets a master, it can be easily spelled to recognise the child's voice. 'Charlie' is a very advanced toy, a real friend, one can say, it follows up to a hundred commands, answers questions, dances..."

"Fine, fine, just pack it and shrink so that I can..."

"I'm sorry, sir," she looked downright remorseful, and Snape supposed it was because she was afraid not to be able to get rid of him for another half an hour. "It's a *very* advanced toy, shrinking might spoil it. I can put it in a nice box for you."

The bunny was about three feet tall; Snape eyed it warily and then nodded. The smell of new toys and the sound of children squealing in delight as they looked around were giving him headache from hell.

"What are you doing, woman?!" He couldn't stop himself, and the girl jumped up, nearly dropping a brightly coloured box. "Don't you have any proper wrapping material, black or grey?"

Finally, holding the huge box under his arm and trying to look as if he didn't know where this package was from, Snape emerged from the shop.

At least he hoped Howdy would like Charlie... wasn't one of Weasley's children called like that? Well, Howdy would better enjoy it, Snape thought menacingly. Anyway, they would hardly let him keep Mr. Andrews when leaving St. Mungo's, although Merlin sees they should - the bear was falling apart, no discerning child would've played with it.

He pushed the door of St. Mungo's first floor department when it suddenly opened right into his face. He barely managed to step away in time. Two figures nearly ran into him, so preoccupied with the conversation that they didn't notice him.

"And do you have a cat?"

"I don't. But our neighbours have two - who always visit our garden. So you'll be seeing a lot of them..."

Remus Lupin brushed frazzled strands of greyish-brown hair away from his face and looked at Snape.

"Severus? Sorry. We didn't knock you off your feet, did we?"

"Sev-e-rus, Sev-e-rus! Do you know? Remus is taking me home!"

Snape was aware of Lupin's words, even his presence here as if through a blur. And then Howdy's words said in a high-pitched, excited voice slid into his brain with sharpness of a blade. Howdy stood at Lupin's side, his hand clasped tightly in Lupin's palm. Well, 'stood' was not a correct word - rather bounced up and down unceasingly.

"You know each other?" Lupin asked pleasantly. "That's a surprise."

He brushed Lupin's words away. What the werewolf said was insignificant, it didn't matter... he shouldn't be there at all, should have nothing to do with Howdy.

The mist and the blade in his mind became one suddenly as the meaning of what Howdy said dawned on him. He looked at Lupin frowning.

"What does it mean?"

He could easily see through the thin veil of politeness covering antipathy in the werewolf's gaze. Lupin's voice was calm but there was a note of metal in it.

"If you explain what *you* mean, Severus..."

Snape choked on his next words, anger surging through him, making him see red. "What're you doing here?"

"I'm not sure how it concerns you, Sn... Severus." Light-brown eyes met his gaze without faltering. "But I'm here to take my son home."

He must've been hearing it wrong; Lupin couldn't say it. He couldn't *mean* it. It wasn't what Snape thought. Howdy kept rolling from his toes to heels, smiling - the shy, happy smile that Snape had seen so rarely on his face. Lupin took his hand more conveniently.

"Remus says he'll buy me a robe, Sev-e-rus! And a broom! Remus, can Sev-e-rus come visit us?"

"It's... it's nonsense," Snape managed finally. "You don't have any right."

"Oh, please rest assured, I have all the rights." Lupin's other hand slid into his breast pocket and took out a neatly rolled pack of parchments. Blindly, Snape reached his hand.

Lupin handed the papers, without a word. He unrolled them. Lines of blue ink blurred in front of his eyes. 'Howard Ian Denning, legally adopted by Remus J. Lupin on July 12, 19..." He couldn't read further. It was some kind of joke, a prank. It couldn't make sense.

His fingers clenched on the papers were bluish-white.

"Albus told me you stayed at St. Mungo's," Lupin was saying, apparently in another attempt to be polite. "I'm glad to see you're well again."

He barely understood what the man said, still less planned to exchange pleasantries with him. Another line jumped at him from the paper. 'In reply to the application of April 11...'

"You planned it all," he said raising his eyes at Lupin. He still couldn't see clearly. His voice sounded quite dead. But if he didn't keep control, he would be screaming. He couldn't let Lupin - let *both of them* know what he felt.

Howdy kept smiling, leaning with his weight on Lupin's arm.

"Of course I planned it," Lupin said calmly. "Adoption is a long process, with all the papers our bureaucrats require to fill in. Now, Severus, is your curiosity satisfied?"

He didn't say a word, just shoved the papers back to Lupin. Howdy looked up at him, his brown eyes shining.

"Sev-e-rus..."

His eyes slid over the boy, with mixed disgust and pain. Snape barely saw Howdy's smile fade. Lupin's smug face was a blur in front of his eyes. He turned and walked downstairs without looking back.

He shoved the box with Charlie somewhere on the armchair in the tea- room, without really seeing where he put it.

* * *

By the time he got back to Hogwarts his palms were wet with blood, in the pockets of his robe, as he ground his fingernails into them. It seemed someone tried to talk to him on the way, McGonagall or Filch, or both - but he walked past them without stopping. Only when the door of his quarters locked behind him, he felt a tightly wound spiral unfold in him.

His hold slipped off. It felt as if his bones turned into fluid, his muscles paralysed. He couldn't keep himself upright. But the good thing - the only good thing, he thought with a tiny half- hysterical chuckle - was that he didn't have to. He slid on the floor, his back to the door, holding his hands in front of him.

His hands shook and were smeared with blood, crescents traces of his fingernails bluish and swollen. He looked at his hands dumbly, as if not recognising them. There was a single thought drumming in his brain.

Lupin took Howdy away from him. Lupin took Howdy away.

He came to the boy but it was too late, Lupin was already having him. Holding his hand, letting Howdy call him by his name... calling Howdy *a son*. Merlin. How could it be? It couldn't settle down in his mind - just because it couldn't, he wouldn't believe it.

Only he did believe. And there was nothing he could do.

Lupin took Howdy. Like he took everything from Snape's life, everything that ever mattered - Albus's affection, the position of Defence teacher, the Order of Merlin. Lupin and his friends, they always took everything away from him. And now Lupin took the only thing that Snape wanted.

Howdy looked so happy, so excited, standing next to Lupin. He was asking him about cats. He said Lupin would buy things for him, a robe and a broom. He didn't need Snape to do it all for him. He never needed Snape at all.

It was all a lie, an illusion, deception. Maybe he'd deceived himself but it wasn't easier to handle because of knowing it. And Howdy - Howdy made him believe he needed Snape, he had no one else.

But Lupin came and took him away.

There won't be buying smart clothes for Howdy. Or books. Or teaching him to recognise ingredients for the potions. Or brewing Wolfsbane for him, helping him to control the beast on full moon nights. There will be no conversation with Albus whether Snape will be allowed to keep the boy here. There will be no toys on the floor in his dungeons and pencils scattered on the table.

A fool; what a fool - how could he even think it could be like that?

The boy wasn't his; like nothing was his in his life. He'd always been alone, how could he think that it could be otherwise, all of a sudden? He should've known it was only for other people, people who get everything while he got nothing.

The boy betrayed him. The thought was scalding and very clear, wiping away all others. Traded him for someone who was more charming, more affable, more tolerant - for a better person. No, surely Snape couldn't blame Howdy for it. In fact, a little logical part of his mind told him, he couldn't blame the child at all. But it made it even worse, and he blamed him all the same. Of course, how could he think the boy would choose him over Lupin? Lupin, everyone's darling, so sweet, so polite, so affectionate... a war hero. Lupin had everything. He, Snape, had nothing.

He hugged his knees, rocking slightly, aware of how pathetic this gesture was, glad no one could see him. His eyes were burning. And at the moment when the burning became unbearable, he felt wet trickles of tears slide from under his eyelids.

* * *

If he hoped he would be able to forget about Lupin and Howdy, it turned out even more difficult than he thought.

"Do you know Remus adopted a child?" That was Poppy, with a simpering smile, as he brought her a box with potions for the infirmary. "Isn't it *sweet*? He found the child at St. Mungo's hospital, where you stayed, Severus!"

"I think it's very brave of him, to take in a child." That was Flitwick, during the dinner. "Such a responsibility. Not everyone would have enough courage for it."

"To replace the boy his family..." Minerva, and: "Poor Remus, he needed someone, he must have been terribly lonely after Sirius's death."

"Remus has sent a letter!" That was Albus in the Great Hall during breakfast. "Look at that photo!"

And everyone 'ooh'-ed and 'ah'-ed staring at it. Snape pointedly gazed at his oatmeal - which never tasted particularly good and now simply seemed to be made from soaked cardboard.

"Severus, pass this to Hagrid, please." They knew better than offering him to take a look - but as he passed the picture to the disgustingly excited giant, he couldn't help it. Lupin and Howdy waved at him cheerfully from a porch of a small shabby house in an apple garden. The boy was dressed neatly, Snape couldn't help noticing, his hair combed and cut shorter. And he actually looked healthier than Snape had ever seen him.

"I think we should invite Remus and his son to visit us at Hogwarts." Of course; he should've known Albus would say it. "So that everyone could get to know Howdy."

Such a bout of cheers - as if they all had never seen a child before.

The oatmeal plainly stuck in his throat, refusing to move either way. He stood up, nodded curtly and hurried out of the Great Hall.

"He even looks a bit like Remus," he heard Sinistra's words said behind him. An apotheosis of stupidity.

Back in the dungeons, Snape retched, then sat on the floor in the bathroom, staring blindly at the tiles in front of him.

It was stupid, really, to let himself lose control like this. He should've been over it by now. It was just a boy, and a werewolf boy, come to that. He probably had forgotten Snape a long time ago, having his new house and his new family. Snape should've stopped thinking about him as well.

He would stop thinking. He clenched his fists, giving himself the firmest oath on that. No more memories, not a single thought about the round hot forehead bumping into his shoulder, about stuffed Mr. Andrews propped against his leg.

He would forget it all. He wasn't a weak person who couldn't control his emotions.

* * *

Three days later a knock on the door interrupted him from syllabus for the next year. Over his time at Hogwarts, he learned to recognise the way almost every one of his colleagues knocked. Albus's knock was polite but brisk, as there was no way anyone could stop him from entering any place at Hogwarts. Hooch pounded on the door. Minerva knocked only once and expected to be admitted immediately.

This knock was unfamiliar.

"Coming."

He opened the door - and Lupin was standing there.

The man's longish hair hung over politely smiling eyes; and the same polite smile was sealed on his lips.

"Severus. We thought we'd visit you, since we're at Hogwarts. Howard wanted to see you."

Howard? It took him a moment to understand - and because of this tiniest delay the pain, when it came, was even sharper. Strange, Snape was never for diminutive names - but Howdy introduced himself as 'Howdy' and that's how he got used to call him...

Well, it made sense that Lupin renamed his *son*.

Hearing the deafening sound of his blood beating in his temples, he looked at the little hand clasped on Lupin's old robe. Then Howdy raised his face and smiled at him.

"May we come in?" Lupin asked pleasantly.

No, go away. He wanted to do something, to slam the door in their faces - how dared they come here? Did they come to laugh at him, to rub it in? He hated them both. He hated himself even more - but in his weakness he stepped aside silently, letting them in.

Why? Why did they come? He didn't want them here, he'd just started believing it didn't matter for him, whatever was going on with Howdy. And now the boy stood in the middle of the room, staring at the shelves around him open-mouthed.

His nose isn't leaking any more, Snape noticed distantly.

"Slimy things! Remus, did you see these slimy things!"

"Close your mouth," Snape barked. "You look mentally defective."

If he had brought the boy here with himself, as he dreamed about, to live together - Snape would've revelled in Howdy's amazement, would've taken his time showing all the treasures, explaining which every one of them was for and where they came from.

This thought felt like a whip blow, cutting him open.

He saw Howdy shut his mouth quickly. Lupin in the background made an angry noise. Howdy made a few careful steps towards the shelves.

"Oh. Beautiful bottles..."

The small hands reached to the vials of cut glass and different shapes, set on the lower shelf. They really were handsome, even if impractical - Snape kept them for this reason, in a fit of vanity.

"Don't touch them."

The hand jerked away. Howdy looked back at him, questioningly - as if asking whether Snape really was angry with him or just disciplined him, as he sometimes did at St. Mungo's.

"For Merlin's sake, Severus." Lupin's voice was very sharp as he walked up to the shelf and grabbed the bottles. "You can play with them, Howdy, nothing will happen to them."

Snape took a deep intake of air, ready to tell the werewolf everything he thought about him. Howdy's face lit up as he hugged the bottles to his chest and loaded them on the floor at the fireplace.

"Are there - *potions* in them, Sev-e-rus?"

Snape realised suddenly how desperately he wanted to hear it once more, Howdy calling him like that - and hated himself for this weakness.

"Remus told me, you made such a potion for him, so that he didn't hurt anyone, when he was... he was a werewolf."

So, Lupin taught him terminology, didn't he?

"Oh I see." He felt venom filling his voice, and knew that he was saying a wrong thing, but for the sake of his own life, he couldn't stop. "So you brought him here, Lupin, to play on my feelings and coax me into brewing Wolfsbane for you? A clever plan, I would say. But I'm sorry, it didn't work. I have neither time nor wish to serve you and your werewolf child..."

He still had enough presence of mind to hiss the words, so that Howdy didn't hear. Lupin's face changed slowly, as he talked, red stains appearing on his cheeks.

"Howdy," the werewolf's voice was gentle, flawlessly level. "Would you play here alone for a moment, I need to talk to Severus?"

The boy looked up at them, his face flushed with pleasure as he kept going through the brightly coloured bottles, and nodded.

Lupin didn't touch him, but in some way Snape found himself goaded into the next room, the door slamming shut behind him. Now Lupin's face was completely white, the red stains even in sharper contrast, as he continued advancing at Snape.

He was angry, Snape realised. Terribly, terribly angry.

He'd never seen the werewolf angry before. Even when Snape had revealed him to Slytherins and he had to resign - Lupin hadn't yelled at him, just said a few bitter words but you know, sticks and stones... On the other hand, then it had happened in the presence of the Headmaster. And now Snape was alone with him.

He didn't want to feel intimidated but somehow found himself stepping away. Of course Lupin wouldn't hit him and anyway, it wasn't like Snape couldn't defend himself.

"Don't you dare to insinuate something like this, Snape. That I'm using Howdy to exploit you - as if I ever asked you to brew the potion for me."

Oh no, you didn't have to ask. Albus always did it for you.

"I came here only because Howdy wanted to see you." Lupin's voice was very level, every word clearly accentuated. His hands were clenched in fists, Snape noticed. Well, he wouldn't reach for the wand until Lupin did. "Although I can't imagine why, since you treat him worse than dirt. As for me, I would be happy never to see your face, and I hope I will never see it again. I don't care how you treat me but if you think I'll allow you to hurt the boy..."

Lupin was close now, closer than ever. Snape could feel the warmth of his breath, could see his reflection in the dilated pupils of the yellow eyes.

Yellow... like the eyes of the creature were yellow - of the creature that rose from the floor in the Shrieking Shack when seeing him. He gasped. The memory flooded him, mixing with present, scaring him as no Lupin's words could.

"Get away from me," he hissed, raising his hands as if to shield himself.

It stopped Lupin, for some reason; he stepped away. The corner of his mouth twitched convulsively but the darker stains of his cheeks faded. Snape stood pressing to the board of the bed. He felt his spine vibrating, tried to control himself, desperately hoping that Lupin didn't notice him shiver. Lupin shook his head, looking tired and confused all of a sudden.

"I don't understand. There must be some reason why Howdy got so attached to you. He really cares for you, do you know - asked me so many times about you. I know you're a callous person, Severus, and I never said a word about your way of treating your students. But Howdy is just a small child... and he suffered so much."

Snape knew it; it made shame and self-hatred wash through him. But his disappointment, his grief felt so much sharper.

"How can you do it to him, Severus..." It sounded almost like a rhetorical question - and Snape was shocked as he heard his own breaking voice answering.

"Because... because you stole him from me!"

He choked on the words, feeling mortified at saying it - but it was too late to stop. He saw Lupin's eyebrows go up, and this look of wonder was unbearable to see. Snape turned away abruptly, clenched his hands on the back of the bed.

Familiar burning was in his eyes but he knew he would rather die than cry now, in front of Lupin. Lupin was silent behind him. The only sound Snape could hear was his own breath.

"Severus. Do you mean... you wanted to adopt Howdy?"

The voice was careful, almost soft, and Snape hated it, jerked as if it was a lash hitting him.

"No."

It sounded too vehement. One would think that after so many years with Voldemort he would be able to lie more convincingly. He just wanted Lupin to go away - but he couldn't turn and face him, and he didn't trust the steadiness of his voice to say more.

He felt the werewolf move behind him - and then a hand lay down on the board next to his hand, squeezing the wood briefly - in a surrogate touch, as if Lupin knew Snape would swat his hand away had he touched him.

"Severus," Lupin repeated. Snape hated the softness of this voice, no one dared speak like this to him. "Didn't you know? They wouldn't allow you to adopt Howdy. Only werewolves can adopt werewolves. And the other way round. To prevent contaminating of species, as they say."

All the same, Snape thought stubbornly, chewing his lip, looking right in front of himself. He would've found a way, would've pulled all the strings, would've bribed - if Lupin... if he hadn't taken Howdy...

"You lie," he said.

A small rustle let him know that Lupin shrugged.

"Why would I?"

Because... because you always lie. It was irrational, and Snape had exhausted his limit for irrational things for today, so he kept silent.

"Perhaps in years the situation will change," Lupin continued. "But now - if you care for Howdy, you have to be glad for him. It's better for him to have a home than to stay at St. Mungo's... even it is my home and not yours."

No, it wasn't better... but of course it was. He still couldn't turn, still kept staring at a tiny imperfection of the cloth of his bedcover. The burning of his eyes didn't go away.

"Severus," Lupin called.

He suddenly felt a bout of fear, that Lupin would say something else now, something awful and sticking in his mind. Like Albus's words he'd once said regarding Draco: 'Your affection, Severus, turns into a painful and useless thing, debilitating the one it is directed at.'

He had to resume control before Lupin had a chance to say something like this. Snape turned and faced him. The werewolf looked at him without a smile but there was something oddly comforting in the seriousness of his expression.

"Let's go back," Snape said. "You left him alone."

He still couldn't bring himself to saying Howdy's name aloud.

"Right," now Lupin smiled. "Or your 'slimy things' won't be safe."

The boy knelt on the floor, composing bottles into a tower and humming one of Weird Sisters' song, about how difficult it is to love a vampire - then looked up at them and flashed a smile.

"Sev-e-rus, look what I've done!"

"Lupin..." Snape started and stopped, then sighed and finished the sentence. "I'll... I'll brew the potion for you and the boy. I'll owl it to you when time comes."

For a moment he was afraid Lupin would refuse - would throw this belated generosity at his face. Perhaps Snape himself would've done it like this.

"Thank you, Severus," Lupin said. "It'll be very kind of you. But if you wish - you can always visit us at our place. You'll be undoubtedly welcome."

* * *

The house-elves surpassed themselves at dinner, apparently for the sake of the special guest. But in fact everybody was paying more attention to Howdy than to the meal. Snape chewed on his food gloomily, squashing his desire to jerk the boy closer to himself and let no one touch him.

Why did Poppy and Sprout behave as if he was a prodigy or something? Even the Boy-Who-Lived had never gotten so much adoration in his time. And Minerva - he thought better about her than start pampering the boy. And how many sweets can you feed to the boy of this size before he gets sick?

Besides, Howdy didn't even know them! He was a shy boy, all this attention could unsettle him. Well, he didn't look unsettled but anyway... And Lupin watched it with such a blissful expression that Snape wanted to smack him.

Fortunately no one demanded him to participate in general folly.

"How was the last change, Remus?" Albus asked in half-voice, for only three of them to hear.

"Not too bad, thank you." So much like Lupin, his politeness sometimes going too far. "I think it was good for Howdy to realise he wasn't the only one like that."

"I suppose Wolfsbane will do him even better." There was twinkling in Albus's eyes that made Snape's stomach twist. "I suppose if we ask Severus nicely, he will agree to brew the potion for both of you."

The pounding in his head got so bad as if someone mad was playing drums there. Snape looked in front of himself, sick, his gaze blurring. Damn Albus, meddling old bastard, for doing it. Using him, making him do his bidding - for his precious favourites, his Gryffindors.

And just think about it, he'd offered to do it himself. Shouldn't have bothered, really, should he? Should've known Albus would *make* him, all the same, would *ask* him *nicely*.

It was childish, to resent Albus for cheapening his decision, for taking away Snape's right to feel noble and giving, but he couldn't help it.

"Thank you, Albus." Lupin's voice reached him as if from afar, sounding calm but with a little insistent note in it. "You don't need to ask Severus. He's already offered his help."

"Oh." He could swear Albus's eyes twinkled again, even if he couldn't see it, didn't want to look. "Sorry. Why, Severus, I'm so proud of you."

And I hate you, Albus, Snape thought dully. Well, he hated the werewolf as well, of course.

He forced himself to raise his eyes - and saw Lupin brush the hair away from his face before taking a bite of a pie - his face pale and lined slightly at the eyes and at the mouth. His face always lacked colours, not the way Snape's face did, but because everything about Lupin was muted - light-brown eyes, brownish-grey hair.

But as he felt Snape's gaze and looked up at him, smiling slightly, his eyes caught the light from the Great Hall windows and turned the colour of sunray for a moment.

* * *

Snape had Lupin's invitation, so he decided to use it. If the werewolf hadn't meant it - too bad for him, he shouldn't have said it then.

There was an easy way to do it. Of course Albus would've given him a Portkey if Snape explained why he needed it. But his tongue simply refused to say that. Anyway, he had heard Lupin mention the name of the place where the cottage was, during the dinner, so he Apparated to the closest place familiar to him.

He found the cottage easily enough; it looked the same way as on the picture. The garden was beautiful, even though neglected and quite wild - or maybe exactly because of it.

When he was a child, Snape lived in a very different house, dark, with too big rooms and too small windows. He remembered burning candles even by day to be able to read. The bathroom was the scariest place, with a rusty tub that their apathetic house-elf could never scrub clean and the lavatory that flushed water with such rumbling noise it could be heard all around the house.

All right, he had to admit his dungeons were not much different, so it was better for they boy to live in a nice, light place like this, not somewhere where it was dark and cold.

His resolution suddenly wavered on the porch, and he thought he could as well do what he'd promised and owl the Wolfsbane to Lupin. For a moment Snape stood, with his hand raised for a knock, and then rapped on the door determinedly.

"Enter!" Lupin's voice, cheerful, called for him. Didn't even ask who it was, Snape thought disapprovingly and pushed the door open.

The house seemed smaller inside and as shabby as it looked. Both Lupin and Howdy sat at the table, Howdy putting details of a puzzle together and Lupin reading.

"Severus?" If Lupin hated to see him, he was good at hiding it.

"Sev-e-rus!" Howdy's round head jerked up - and a moment later he jumped down from the chair and hurried towards Snape. "Sev-e-rus!"

It felt so good, so unexpectedly good to feel the boy's arms thrown around him. Snape frowned a little, looking at Howdy's tilted up face, not knowing what to do. The boy's hands clasped on the cloth of his robe as Howdy kept looking up at him, smiling.

"Wolfsbane," Snape said, handing the flask to Lupin. "I've come because I need to take h... Howdy's measures to determine the dose."

"Of course." Lupin rose from his place and took the flask. He didn't look uncomfortable with Snape being there, did he? "Please sit down, Severus. Howdy, can you stand still for a moment? Severus needs to scan you."

The boy apparently couldn't, since he kept hopping on the place between Snape's knees as Snape ran his wand over him.

"He's undernourished. Are you sure you feed him well?"

Snape regretted his words immediately. He knew he was faultfinding; Howdy had been terribly skinny before Lupin took him, and the boy did look better now. And what if he went too far and Lupin would get angry for his words? And he wouldn't be able to see Howdy again. But the werewolf just smiled, as if finding something humorous in it.

"Try to feed him up, then, Severus. I'll see how you'll manage - when the only thing he likes eating is chocolate."

Snape recalled - or rather, gathered his courage to pull out a few chocolate frogs for the boy and an assorted number of small toys. After the fiasco with Charlie he felt a strong aversion with going to toyshops, so it was just what he'd picked up in the sweets shop. A yo-yo, a bottle with soap bubbles, something else. Howdy's little greedy hands grabbed everything.

"Do you know what you should say to Severus, Howard?"

Snape rolled his eyes.

"Thank you, Sev-e-rus! I'm, I'm collecting cards now, from chocolate frogs! I already have twenty-seven!"

"Which means he's eaten twenty-seven frogs during last month," Lupin commented. Snape almost smiled but caught himself before doing it and schooled his face into impassiveness.

"I have four Albus Dumbledores, right, daddy?" Howdy was at Lupin's side now, pulling on his sleeve.

Snape felt a little part of him die. Daddy. Howdy called Lupin 'daddy'. Right, he was his son, by law and by everything.

"You want to see them, don't you, Sev-e-rus?" A small warm palm insistently turned his face. "Don't you? Don't you?"

"Yes."

The boy rushed away. Absent-mindedly, Snape raised his hand, touching his face, still feeling the warmth of Howdy's hand on it. Lupin was looking at him; he jerked his hand back abruptly.

"So it's 'daddy' now?"

He knew he didn't have any right even to ask, still less express displeasure.

"He sometimes calls me 'Remus', sometimes 'daddy'." Lupin's voice sounded quite calm. "I don't think there is any harm here. He never had a father - a real father, anyway."

Howdy was back, with his card collection, and Snape had to look through it with him. He felt a little pang of gratitude when Lupin, for some reason, joined them. Feeling gratitude to the werewolf was not something he relished, but at least he didn't look stupid alone in this situation.

Then there was yo-yo (which Snape was far from good at) and working out how to blow the bubbles but eventually Howdy got back to his puzzle.

"Would you stay for the dinner?" It was simple politeness from Lupin's side, Snape knew it. But as much as he sought the man's face for the signs of his *real* attitude, he could find none: no boredom, no discomfort, no thinly veiled antipathy. Lupin looked as quiet and reserved as always, behind the greyish stands of hair falling on his face.

The correct answer was 'no', of course - accepting would be too much like capitulation, like making a truce with an enemy. But then, it would be good to be present when Howdy took the first dose of Wolfsbane; certainly Snape was sure there wouldn't be any side effects but it was better to check.

"All right," he said blandly. "But don't cook anything for me."

"I'll cook pasta."

There was something strangely lulling in watching Lupin move, take out products and kitchenware - unhurriedly, somewhat fluidly. Snape caught himself on the thought that there was some gracefulness in the way the werewolf was holding himself - and frowned. Stupid; he didn't care about anything in Lupin, and letting himself be pacified with deceptive calmness coming from the man was a big mistake.

Snape only had learned to live with the thought that Howdy would never be his. He couldn't allow Lupin to worm his way through his defences as well.

"Howdy's father was a much older man than his mother," Lupin told while cooking. His eyes always stayed on what he had in his hands at the moment, never turning to Snape. "A very powerful wizard. He had some strange idea about his progeny having to be miraculous. Something like being able to perform magic from the age of one or two. Since Howdy turned out to be just a normal child, the man left the family and never looked back. The mother occupied herself with looking for another husband. And when it happened to Howdy, she decided it was too much a responsibility."

The last part Snape knew about, and yet he had to close his eyes, waiting out the wave of anger against the woman. Lupin's voice came, sounding thoughtful.

"Howdy still misses her. Talks about her all the time."

"She doesn't deserve it."

For once, Lupin stopped, brushing a strand of hair away from his face. Some flour stayed on his hair, turning it from grey to white.

"Yes, probably. But... it doesn't work like this, you know. I mean not everyone gets what they deserve."

He saw Lupin move his shoulders slightly, as if shaking off the mood.

"I really appreciate that you brought us Wolfsbane, Severus." His voice sounded somewhat lighter. He normally thanked Snape for the potion but it didn't sound so heartfelt before, Snape thought. "Howdy was talking about it, Merlin knows how he overheard you'd be doing it. I tried not to let him get his hopes too high..."

"I always do what I promise," Snape said warily.

"I know," Lupin sighed. "It's just that... he already was disappointed so many times. And oh, Severus - would you like some wine?"

Lupin's cooking was passable, and the wine quite good, and resisting the quietness and comfort of this little cottage became even more difficult. Snape reminded himself he had to be alert, had to remember not letting it grow on him because getting used to something was dangerous. But as he looked at the gently swaying green branches behind the window and heard Howdy's pencils creak on the paper, he almost felt as if he would like to stay here longer, maybe for an indefinitely long time.

Howdy didn't complain about the taste of Wolfsbane, just shuddered hugely when drinking it. Lupin must've been right - he really wanted it. Lupin smiled and hugged him, under Snape's jealous gaze. He would like to have this right, too, to hug and hold Howdy after taking the potion.

But Howdy wasn't his; Snape had the right to do only few things for him. But he knew he would do as much as he could.

* * *

"You don't really want it." Irritation was rising in him, and Lupin tried not to let himself feel it - but failed.

With his hands clasped on his lap so hard that the knuckles were outlined white and his lips compressed in a thin straight line, Snape looked stubborn, hostile and completely as if he refused to hear Lupin's words. Lupin sighed.

"It is not the matter of what I want or not. I need to monitor Howdy's state during... during..."

How is he going to do it if he can't even bring himself to saying it?

"You said it yourself that a potion master who isn't sure in the effect of his potions is a bad one."

Snape's eyes were downcast, as if he hadn't seen his own hands for ages and needed to study them now.

"I need to be present during the change."

If you think it'll be something curious or funny, that werewolves, even under Wolfsbane, turn into pets... Lupin didn't say it. Snape probably knew it all. He was the one, after all, who had seen Lupin in the Shrieking Shack then - and Lupin could swear Snape sometimes saw this beast in him, even in his human form.

Didn't Snape understand it could happen with his view at Howdy as well? Didn't he think it could change his attitude to the boy, if he saw Howdy turn into a creature, ugly and dangerous? Lupin didn't care if Snape's sensibilities would be offended; but he had to protect Howdy.

On the other hand, Snape hated and despised him, Lupin, as much for their past at Hogwarts as for his lycanthropy. Perhaps if he really cared for the boy...

He really cared, didn't he? It wasn't something Lupin thought he would give Snape - but after he'd seen him with the boy, he couldn't deny it. Snape cared. It was awkward and sometimes painful to look at, as if simplest human emotions came to him with difficulty. But Howdy liked him.

In Lupin's eyes, it justified almost everything.

He looked at the boy, on his knees on the chair, sorting his chocolate frog cards, apparently playing some games with the wizards and witches that hadn't left. What if Snape was right? What if monitoring was necessary? He couldn't risk it. He raised his eyes at Snape.

"If you do something that'll hurt Howdy - I don't mean physically, I'll..."

Snape's lip curled disdainfully. "Spare me from your threats, Lupin."

Well, it was exactly the answer he expected. "I won't let you see him again," he finished his phrase.

Snape jerked, very faintly, as if stung, his black eyes seeming to get even darker on the bloodless face. He had an excruciating way of sitting very straight, as if with a ramrod instead of his spine, Lupin thought distantly. A difficult bearing; a difficult person.

"You understand me, don't you?" He said it softer, feeling almost remorseful for hitting into someone's weak place. It wasn't something Lupin used to do. But he needed to protect Howdy.

"I understand." The words were a hiss, black eyes downcast again and Snape's face shut down once more.

"Fine." Lupin reached his hand, beckoning for Howdy. "Howdy, come here, there is something I want to tell you."

The boy grabbed his hand, leaning on it, staring up with his face tilted - looking so cute that Lupin didn't manage to cope with himself, placed a kiss on his nose. The boy giggled and wriggled a little.

"Tomorrow, when we transform, Severus will be here. You don't need to be afraid, we won't harm him. You just have to remember - don't come up to him, don't touch him, even to play or to cuddle."

He took a look at Snape's face, blank, frozen, as he listened to Lupin's words. Snape knew it wasn't a joke, even a casual tiny wound could be infectious. And yet what he said was as much for Snape's sake as for Howdy's.

"We'll stay here, at the fireplace," Lupin continued, "and he'll be there, on the chair. And every one of us stays on his place, all right?"

Howdy's wide-eyed face was turned up to him, serious and rapt.

"Yes," he whispered earnestly.

The boy was much easier to handle than Snape. And in fact, Lupin didn't even know what made him try so hard, after all.

* * *

He got more than he bargained for. Of course, he should've been ready; Lupin had warned him; he had read tons of books about it. And in the beginning Snape even assured himself that everything was going exactly as he imagined it would.

The sunset came, and he settled in his chair, with the parchment and the quill. The notes he would make would be useful, even if it wasn't the real reason why he insisted on being here. Lupin had seen through him. The real reason... he couldn't explain it himself. Perhaps it was jealousy: Lupin was a part of Howdy's life in the way he, Snape, would never be. Or it was his wish to test himself, to see whether he could handle it. Memories of Lupin in the Shrieking Shack were among his least pleasant ones - but Howdy... was there something he was not ready to accept about the boy? And he had been going to take Howdy in, hadn't he?

In the opposite part of the room, in the orange light of the fire - August nights were cold - the boy undressed and carefully folded his clothes, obviously as Lupin taught him. Snape tried not to look at the adult werewolf; seeing Lupin naked was not something he dreamed about but since there was nothing he could do about it, he didn't see a reason to make a fuss out of it.

He knew what he'd see: their bodies change, their bones deform, every trace of human draining out, replaced with a beast. He was prepared for it. After all, there had been so many worse things he'd seen.

He wasn't prepared to seeing the boy fall on the floor, convulsing, to the high-pitched: "It hurts, it hurts!" - to the wrenching pain in his own heart it caused. Snape didn't remember how he got on his feet, the parchment and quill scattered on the floor - the only thought drumming in his head of having to stop it, right now, immediately.

His hands was in a few inches from the shivering boy - *changing*, he could see. He felt cold sweat trickle over his back. And then the adult werewolf raised from the floor shakily, baring its teeth, stepping between him and Howdy.

The eyes reminded Lupin's very little but Snape recalled. No touching; everyone stays in his place. How could he forget - he who prided himself on the ability to keep everything in mind?

They spent the night in the opposite corners - Snape in his place, and Lupin and Howdy together, making the sounds only they understood. Snape didn't make any notes.

And he couldn't sleep, even when the werewolves settled comfortably at the fireplace, heads on the front paws, and went quiet.

Hours later, Lupin writhed silently on the floor as the change came, and the little werewolf squealed at first and then cried, the sounds getting more and more human. Snape saw Lupin get up on his feet, with an obvious effort, and try to pick up the boy from the floor.

Now Lupin didn't have a reason to stop him - and was too exhausted to do it anyway; so, Snape came up silently, unimpeded, and took Howdy in his arms. The boy was thin and heavy and awkward to hold but he snuggled to Snape immediately, seeking warmth. He still whimpered a little, softly. Lupin, huddling in his robe, followed them as Snape brought Howdy upstairs, to the bedroom - and keeled over next to the boy as soon as Snape put him down.

"Thanks," he mumbled, closing his eyes and falling asleep at once.

After tossing a blanket over them, for a moment Snape stood and looked at them. Their faces were too pale, exhausted. It even made them look alike, as if they really were a father and a son.

He winced at the absurdity of this thought, hadn't he laughed at Sinistra for saying that, and walked to the door.

He was already on the threshold when a thin, reedy voice reached him.

"It worked, didn't it, Sev-e-rus?"

Snape turned - and in the dim room saw Howdy's glittering, dark eyes on a very pale face.

"Yes," he nodded. "Of course it worked."

"I wasn't bad. She will take me back now."

He knew who the boy was talking about; his mother. Lupin shifted sleepily, opened his eyes. Snape didn't know what to say, suddenly felt he needed help, even if this help had to come from the werewolf he despised.

"Howdy," Lupin mumbled. "We'll... we'll talk later."

"She will," the boy said. "She will, she will."

The tiny voice rose and broke, into tears, and Lupin reached, wrapping his arm around him. Snape stood, leaning against the doorjamb, feeling that he needed - *had to* - do the same, touch the boy, comfort him. He'd never been a tactile person, touching mostly frightened him - but at this moment he wanted to be able to do it.

But Howdy had Lupin, Lupin was his 'daddy', was the one who had the right to comfort the boy. He... Snape, was nothing.

Then he saw Lupin raise his tousled head from the pillow and look at him, sadly and strangely comrade-like, as if there was something between them only two of them understood. It scared Snape to think so, because, most possibly, it was just a play of shadows on Lupin's face - and Snape's own imagination, and it was bad that such a thought came to his mind.

But seeing Lupin's eyes made him stay - and he stood and watched as the man hugged and stroked the boy's hair until Howdy's crying became thin whimpering and calmed down all together.

The full moon was gone, giving respite for nearly four weeks. Howdy stopped looking so pale and tired as before, and he didn't talk about his mother taking him back any more.

"Do come back," Lupin said when Snape was leaving the cottage. "Howdy is happy to see you."

And Snape let himself get convinced. He Apparated in the garden, walked to the house, knocked briefly on the door and entered... to a burst of laughter meeting him.

Of course, no one laughed at him, even though, in his usually paranoid state of mind, for a moment Snape thought so. But it didn't make things better; in fact, it made things worse. Lupin and Howdy were not alone.

He had to know it would happen, sooner or later. Lupin, loved by everyone, and such a *nice*, affectionate child as Howdy - surely people would want to visit, other people than him. He couldn't think he would get a monopoly on this cottage, and playing with the boy, and talking to Lupin... Merlin, he almost got accustomed to talking to the werewolf, to Lupin's composure that made him almost believe there could be some balance in his life as well.

He just wanted a quiet evening with them tonight. All wasted now.

He barely noticed who was there: that annoying Metamorph, Harry Potter and, of course, his inseparable, insufferable friends... just to think that Snape hoped to never see them again - and the youngest Weasley.

He saw them stop talking and turn to him - and for once their startled expressions didn't bring him any satisfaction.

"Um... Professor," the Weasley girl finally recalled she'd have her Potion classes in autumn. "Good afternoon."

"Sev-e-rus!" Howdy ran towards him, clutching on his robe. Lupin's smile was polite as always.

"Come in, Severus. Will you join us at dinner?"

"No. Sorry." He took a step back, freeing from Howdy's grip carefully. "I have to go. Good bye."

He walked out briskly, shut the door behind himself. He tried not to think, not to focus on what was going on - just reminded he should've expected it. Howdy didn't need him; he had Lupin. And Lupin didn't need him as well - he had enough friends not to be desperate enough to spend his time with a surly, antagonistic person he, Snape, was.

Snape had never had any place in their life. It was silly even to think that he could have. Indeed, how could he compete with Potter, with others?

Should've remembered that, he articulated to himself soundlessly.

"Severus!"

The door opened and slammed shut again, the steps were hasty, following him. He didn't stop.

"Severus."

The steps were close. He didn't look back. A hand grabbed his wrist, yanking him with surprising force, breaking the momentum. Snape turned and glared, meeting Lupin's eyes.

"What are you doing, Severus?"

Was Lupin an idiot if he really needed an explanation? Well, Snape could give him one.

"Leaving, aren't I? At least I have been doing it until you stopped me."

Lupin didn't hold him any more but, curiously, Snape kept feeling the warmth of the thin fingers on his wrist. Lupin's narrow eyebrows were driven together in a frown, his eyes intent.

"Why?"

Why would he want to know? It made Snape feel uncomfortable, the way Lupin looked at him - as if he really wanted an answer. Nonsense, Lupin would never bother, other than in cases when he needed something from Snape or was afraid something Snape was doing could harm him.

"Why? Because it was overcrowded inside."

He saw a sparkle of annoyance in Lupin's eyes and felt the corner of his mouth twitch in a sardonic smirk. So, the werewolf didn't like this answer? Too bad for him. Now he'd leave him alone.

For some reason Lupin didn't walk away, hovered uncertainly. Snape wondered whether he should just turn and keep walking, since nothing delayed him any more.

"It wouldn't kill you, you know, to be nicer to people once in a while."

Snape drew in a hissing breath. Please not that. Not those stupid platitudes that Albus was so good at coming up with. Hearing it from Lupin was an insult to his sensibilities.

"What for?"

"What do you mean?"

"What for should I be nicer to your friends?"

Lupin gave out a sigh, rubbing his forehead. Great; they'd talked for three minutes at most, and he already looked as if Snape gave him a headache.

"They could be your friends, too, Severus."

He laughed. It was a bit too much, even for Lupin, to be such a hypocrite.

"Befriending the Auror, Weasleys and Harry Potter, have always been dreams of mine." He hoped it would put the end to the conversation, even if simply because Lupin wouldn't want to listen to him insulting his so-called 'friends'.

Something changed in Lupin's gaze - but not to anger, more to something softer that Snape could call pity - and it was totally infuriating.

"And what about me?" Lupin asked mildly.

"What about you?"

"Befriending me - is it a dream of yours?"

It felt as if Lupin pushed him in the chest. Snape stepped back, clenching his fists as if someone was going to attack him.

"No!"

The answer sounded wrong, too desperate, too fervent - and Snape saw in Lupin's eyes that the werewolf had noticed it, had noticed his weakness and would go for it.

He shouldn't be here, should have walked away when he had a chance... maybe, it wasn't too late now?

"Why not?"

No, he wouldn't run. He would stay and fight. He knew how to hurt, how to hit in a weak place, as much as Lupin knew.

"Why?" Snape repeated, his eyes narrowing in the way that Lupin could recognise as dangerous. "Why should I? Maybe because of the way you and your buddies treated me at Hogwarts? Maybe because your best friend Black sent me to death - and you even didn't scowl at him for it? Maybe because you always laughed at me, together with your students, when you came to teach at Hogwarts? Maybe because you're a hero of the war and I'm nothing, a barely tolerated Death Eater..."

"Severus." He didn't let Lupin interrupt him.

"What makes you think I should beg for your friendship, Lupin? Because you're so alluring that no one can resist you? Because I should be flattered you deign to associate with me?"

"Severus." Lupin winced, and Snape knew he'd gotten to him. It made him feel better, made him feel safer. If Lupin had to defend himself, he wouldn't have time to attack, to say something Snape didn't want to hear, was afraid of hearing. "You know it is unfair."

Do I, he wanted to say. Or: 'Really?'

"You can't blame me for the way the Ministry treats you. And... as for the past, you know..."

It was more than twenty years ago, right, Snape knew it, and the truth was he knew as well that the story with the Shrieking Shack got somewhat dusty, after being dragged out at every occasion.

"I was wrong, all right, Severus? I was a boy and frightened, and didn't want to lose the friendship of the only people that liked me. Didn't you *ever* do anything in your youth that you regretted later?"

Lupin's eyes flickered, for a moment, to Snape's left forearm, where under the clothes, the Dark Mark was barely a shade now. Snape felt a cold wave wash over him, shivered - and hated himself for this loss of control. He wanted to turn and walk away, silently and immediately, but felt frozen.

A moment later Lupin looked at him almost remorsefully.

"I'm sorry, Severus. I shouldn't have said it. It was a low shot."

"Truly Gryffindor-like," Snape muttered.

The quirk of Lupin's mouth was half a smile, half irritation.

"Aren't you tired of it, Severus? Slytherin, Gryffindor... do you really still think in the categories of the Houses?"

Why shouldn't I, he thought, and don't you dare talk like that to me.

"Six years later, when Howdy grows up - if he gets sorted to Gryffindor - will you be as unfair to him as you are to all Gryffindors?"

"I don't know if I still will be at Hogwarts six years later," Snape said.

He didn't know what exactly spurred him to say that, but there must've been something in his voice, something strange - because Lupin stopped short and stared at him.

"Why won't you be there?"

Snape didn't have an answer. He just shook his head, turned away and Disapparated from the brink of the garden.

* * *

He didn't know what made him say those words to Lupin then - but he knew a few days later, when pain returned, twisting him, turning into a helpless doll, throwing him on the floor where he writhed and tried to hush his screams biting his hands. He probably had felt pre-signs of it, small reminders he had ignored, hadn't wanted to notice - until it became impossible not to.

This time pain was different, locating higher and sprouting its tentacles all through his body. He paid a visit to St. Mungo's next day.

Callaghan was on vacation, and another mediwitch examined him. Snape watched her thin-lipped face as she scanned him, and with every minute her mouth became thinner and thinner.

"What's the matter?" he snapped finally. "Callaghan said I was cured."

He knew it wasn't true, yesterday's fit would've taken away any illusions he'd had. But he... he didn't want to believe it. He hoped there would be more time for him.

"See it yourself," she snapped back - and her wand displayed a half-transparent picture in the air.

The vortex was black and swirling, its darkness absorbing all other colours. And it was big - fat like a snake - and wrapped around his spine, rising higher, into the skull. He shivered.

"Yes," she said. "It affects your brain."

He suddenly felt weak, cold sweat running between his shoulder-blades.

"Accio water."

A cold glass was pushed into his hand, and he wanted to push it away, he wasn't so weak to faint at the bad news.

"We don't remove curses like this here, at St. Mungo's," she said. Damn the bastard Callaghan, Snape thought. "But," her manner became brisk, "I read Professor Blanquette's works, from France, who reported success on removing them. If you want, we can try to arrange you an appointment with him."

"Yes," he said.

At least it was some hope.

* * *

Life had taught Snape not to build his hopes too high - and it was a right thing to do. Professor Blanquette agreed to accept him, St. Mungo's had to arrange a Portkey. But he was also warned that success could be guaranteed only in fifty percent of cases... and the procedure was complicated, expensive and painful... and in case of failure he wouldn't have those two or three months he had left.

Snape signed the documents indicating his consent. Two-three months of unceasing pain and immobility - he really supposed he could risk them.

He talked to Albus about having to leave Hogwarts. The timing was very bad, the school year started in two weeks, but it couldn't be helped. Either way, he wouldn't be able to teach.

Albus's faded blue eyes looked at him tiredly and sadly - and in his weakened, nervous state Snape didn't want to wonder if the old man was disappointed in him.

"I'll go with you, my boy."

"No." What was that for? "I'm not a child to accompany me."

Albus shook his head slightly, as if Snape was indeed a wilful child, but fortunately he didn't insist.

"Please don't worry about the expenses, Severus. Hogwarts will pay for everything."

He frowned and shook his head adamantly, and now Albus looked somewhat exasperated.

"The school can bear such a cost, Severus. You've been our employee for sixteen years."

"But I can't be sure I'll be it in future."

Albus's eyes became darker - and Snape felt a twinge of fear that he somehow made the man angry. So many years - and he still was afraid to fail Albus, to do something Albus wouldn't like. He always made mistakes, no matter how he tried. Never good enough. Snape thought he'd almost put up with the understanding that he would never be good enough - but still, it was disconcerting to know he'd never have a chance to correct the wrong he'd done.

"If you insist, Severus... if something happens, the cost will be deducted from your belongings."

Strange, as cynical as it sounded, it was exactly what Snape needed to hear.

"Please stay at the hospital as long as you have to." The next phrase was added almost gently. "Your place will be yours. I'll take over your lessons myself temporarily."

* * *

He didn't care for dying, and he certainly hoped he wouldn't die. But he still made all necessary preparations, just in case. There was little he owned, and there would be even less after paying for the treatment - but he still made a will leaving it all to Howdy. The boy could use some money anyway, it was not like Lupin was rolling in it.

He brewed the next batch of Wolfsbane slightly in advance and Apparated to the cottage again.

"Sev-e-rus!" Howdy jumped from the chair and threw himself at him. The impact jarred through his body, excruciatingly painful. Snape couldn't help it - he cried out. He cursed himself immediately, for scaring the boy, tried to squeeze out a wan smile, which didn't come off successfully. Howdy looked at him with wide eyes.

"Does your back hurts again, Sev-e-rus?" The boy's arms were put carefully around him, head tilted up, brown eyes huge and serious. There was no point to lie.

"Yes," Snape nodded weakly - and saw Lupin look at him with the strangest expression, as if something struck him.

"It's this serious, then?" A little while later, when Howdy busied himself with new chocolate frogs and a basic potions kit, Lupin brought two cups of tea. Sitting was almost unbearable, last days Snape had spent just lying flat on the floor of his dungeons, cold stones seeming to quench the pain. He looked at the dark-brown tea in his cup, steaming.

"Is it why you said then you probably wouldn't be at Hogwarts?" There was insistence in Lupin's voice. It was too painful to shrug, so he managed just a small movement.

What was the point of this conversation anyway? Snape came here because he wanted to deliver the Wolfsbane and because he wanted to see Howdy once more. It had been done; he didn't need to stay.

"Oh Severus." Suddenly Lupin's voice raised, acquired a distorted, devastated quality. "Damn it. Damn it."

Snape saw him slump on the chair, as if his back was broken - burying his hands in his hair, pulling it over his eyes. He looked... genuinely upset, Snape thought in surprise. What about? Lupin couldn't really care what would happen to him, could he? On the contrary, he should be glad if something went wrong, then Snape would stop hanging around - and Lupin would have Howdy all for himself. Or...

"If you worry about Wolfsbane, then Albus..."

"Shut up! Just shut up!" Lupin's face distorted. He looked as if he wanted to slap him. And it was strange, Snape couldn't understand what he'd done wrong. He stopped talking and looked at his tea gloomily.

* * *

He took the Portkey to France Monday morning. Several days there he spent being checked and tested, and finally Snape felt so exhausted with all those strangers' hands on him and currents of magic going through his body that he just wanted it to be over as soon as possible.

When they finally started removing the curse, he had another thought coming. Perhaps he would've been safer with those two or three months of life... and it certainly would be less painful.

He saw Draco's face, in half-delirium - as the boy looked at him from the floor, so pale, his cheek scraped and bleeding, his eyes glittering with tears and hateful. Snape thought he was in a body-bind but the boy obviously faked it, and when Snape turned his back...

He remembered the voice: "You'll regret it, traitor."

He hadn't been able to answer then.

"You don't understand, Draco," he whispered in a voice hoarse with screaming. "I didn't betray *you*."

Finally everything was over and he thought it would never get back again.

But it did; Snape opened his eyes, eyelids feeling as if made of iron. The light that hit in his eyes was the harshest he'd ever seen. He wanted to moan.

"Nox," someone whispered next to him. Snape slipped into unconsciousness again.

Next time the eyelids were a little easier to raise. But something wrong was with his vision - or with his brain. For some reason it seemed to him that there was Albus sitting in the chair next to him - Albus who got up and looked down at Snape, smiling. It was as much as he managed to see.

He didn't know how much time later he came round again, and this time consciousness was less elusive. It stayed for enough time for Snape to realise that his throat felt parched - and try to lick his lips with a dry, raspy tongue.

A little spoon was brought to his lips, and liquid trickled into his mouth. He wanted more but got almost nothing and tried to glare. It was still Albus he saw, so probably it was not an illusion in the first place. Snape touched his lips that felt just a little less dry with his tongue and whispered: "Am I at Hogwarts?"

Albus smiled, tilting his head awry with the usual amused expression of his.

"No."

"Then why are you here?"

"I thought I'd drop by, dear boy. Glad to see you're getting better." His eyes twinkled annoyingly. Am I getting better, Snape thought. He didn't feel like that at all. He felt as if a huge stone fell on him and crushed him.

"You should go back, to your responsibilities."

Albus's twinkle became almost unbearable. "I will, I will, my child." The tips of his fingers touched Snape's cheek, feeling warm and soft. He didn't remember when anyone had touched him like that. Probably never. For a little while he had an unbearable wish to yield into this touch. "Sleep now," Albus whispered.

* * *

"You?" He frowned and closed his eyes for a moment, in hope that when he opened them again, the vision would be gone. Tough luck. Lupin still stood in the doorway, pushing his greyish-brown hair away from his face and smiling. Snape straightened, board-like rigid, sitting upright against the pillows. "What are you doing here?"

"Um," Lupin said and walked in. "Here."

There was a big bunch of flowers in his hand and he reached it to Snape, then apparently figured out it was not going to be taken, conjured a vase and stuck them into it. By the time he finished Snape thought he would get sick.

"Albus said it was permitted to see you," Lupin said.

Oh no. Now Snape recalled: Albus twinkling and saying in his impossibly benevolent voice: "You'll have more visitors soon, dear child." At that moment Snape didn't pay attention, Albus always said various laughable things, like: "Everyone wishes you to get well" or something like that.

"Go away!" Straining to sit up hurt but he couldn't make himself relax. If he couldn't get up to make Lupin go, at least he hoped he had enough authority to drive him away.

The look Lupin gave him was strange - sad and serious and mild - and it was even more infuriating. "I'm glad you're feeling better."

He felt horrible. He had to do something; but the thing was he couldn't do absolutely anything. His hair was even more unwashed than ever - and these awful hospital night-shirt he had to wear... Why didn't Lupin leave?

"Well," Lupin sighed, "I always did want to see France. And then I thought you could use some company."

"What?" It took Snape a few seconds to process that - the seconds that Lupin used to walk up to his bed and sit down on the chair. "You thought... Howdy! Where is he? Did you leave him with someone?" With that awful Tonks girl?

"No." Lupin smiled again, what was so funny about it? "We both came here. I just wanted you to get a bit more stable at first, you know how Howdy is."

"He's here?"

He didn't know why this thought shocked him so much. The door creaked softly, and a small hand slid in carefully. Snape realised he couldn't tear his eyes away from it, staring greedily at it.

He'd been so afraid he wouldn't see Howdy again; only now he admitted how much he feared it. But no, better not, the boy shouldn't see him like this. Too scary, too weak, too pathetic.

"Please, Lupin." He didn't even care that he had to *beg* the werewolf. "Please don't let him in."

Lupin turned, sighed and walked up to the door. "Howdy, what did I tell you?" Snape watched him as he pushed Howdy's hand away carefully and closed the door softly.

How long and thin his fingers were, wrapped around the dark brass doorknob... Lupin returned to his place, his eyes strangely intense looking at Snape.

"Do you think it would scare him off?" His voice had the same expression, sad and earnest. "Or that he would think less of you?" Snape frowned, shifting uncomfortably. Was he so easy to read? He hated it. "Howdy probably knows more about being weak and vulnerable than you."

It might be true but it didn't change things.

* * *

"He won't agree, Albus." Lupin said it shrugging, trying not to admit there was some bitterness in his words. It still surprised him that he felt bitter or disappointed at all - or would feel, when Snape would turn down his offer.

There was no even reason why would he be so anxious about Snape accepting it. It would mean another responsibility, and Lupin had enough of them as it was. But something made him come up with this idea. The idea that Snape would hate, he was sure about it.

Well, Lupin was used to it - had learned how few people tolerated a touch of a werewolf, literal or metaphorical. And Snape was always like this, what's new?

"Trust me." Albus's eyes smiled. "I'll convince him."

Lupin clasped Howdy's hand a bit tighter, as the boy kept bouncing in place, pulling Lupin towards the door of Snape's ward impatiently. "Severus, let's go see Severus..." He'd learned to say the name without splitting it into syllables during last weeks.

If Albus said he would convince Snape, Lupin knew he would. He'd seen him doing it before; no matter how stubborn Snape seemed, he always backed away under Albus's pressure, wounded and resentful. The thing was Lupin wasn't sure he wanted Albus to pressure him. Not at this moment when the man already was vulnerable.

But he wanted Snape to accept his invitation. That was the truth; he wanted him to accept it.

The man sat propped against the pillows when they entered the ward, a book on his lap. He still looked terrible, Lupin thought with a feeling he wasn't quite sure he wanted to experience; so thin and haggard that it seemed so easy to break him. Snape would be furious if he knew how visible his weakness was, Lupin thought, would run away from here and hide until he got well, given half a chance.

"Headmaster. Not at Hogwarts again, I see. I wonder who carries out your duties now."

Nasty as always. Good for Albus he didn't pay much attention to those jabs.

"Why, Minerva, of course. They let you go tomorrow, Severus."

Black eyes flashed.

"Finally. I was afraid they would never do."

"Severus," Albus's hand lay on his lightly, squeezed. Snape shook it off, suddenly looking strained, apprehensive. All of a sudden Lupin felt a pang of pity. "Severus, Professor Blanquette insists that you need at least a month more of full rest."

"Unacceptable. The school year has already started."

"I told you," Albus said patiently. "I'll cover for you for four more weeks."

"You have your own responsibilities."

"I can handle them." Now Albus looked exasperated.

"Severus, Howdy and I," Lupin said quietly, "we want to invite you to spend this month with us, in the cottage."

"Idling while everyone works? Thanks but no thanks."

"We don't discuss it." Suddenly Albus looked genuinely angry. "You'll take your rest, Severus, period. It can be with Remus and Howdy - or at the sea, alone. Choose."

That's it. Albus's 'I'll convince him'. Lupin almost smiled. And then the smile faded as he saw Snape's expression.

He looked scared, and desperate - and like he had nowhere to go, and Lupin felt pity twist inside his chest, felt like saying something comforting to him, like he said to Howdy - that everything would be okay, they wouldn't hurt him. Ridiculous; of course they meant no harm to him.

He remembered Snape as he was at Hogwarts, during school years - an angry, difficult child, so reserved it hurt to look at it. He seemed just to beg to be teased, to try to bring him out of his shell. For a while Lupin thought it was what his friends were doing. Only later he started understanding that Snape didn't take it like that at all - and that maybe James and Sirius were not so innocent in their pranks. But it was too late to change something by then. And after the Shrieking Shack Snape plainly hated him.

He hated him when Lupin came back to Hogwarts, too - was terribly mean to him, despite Lupin's best attempts to be agreeable. And he was too tired of life by then to try harder. And then Snape revealed him to the Slytherins and he lost his work...

"Severus will go with us!" Howdy bounced up and down, and something in Snape's eyes changed. "Severus will live with us!"

* * *

The early autumn was beautiful. The smell of ripe apples was rich and almost constant, felt even inside the cottage. Snape used to sit in the garden by day, reading. It took Lupin a while to convince him to do it but finally he seemed to start enjoying it. He still looked... as if death touched him, Lupin thought, and he knew this look would probably never go away.

He was very quiet mostly but he did smile when Howdy talked to him - and never turned the boy down as Howdy demanded him to see something. Lupin told him not to pester Snape, and Snape said something about being able to take care of himself.

It still bewildered him sometimes to think that Howdy was probably the only person in the world Snape touched on his own accord - little touches, like holding the boy's hand when they walked to the house, or re-buttoning his shirt that Howdy often failed to button right. Snape seemed to be extremely touch-wary - or so it seemed to Lupin. And taking into account how many people would never touch a werewolf...

With Lupin, Snape was civil. They talked when Lupin came out and sat on the porch.

"I've never wasted time like that before. The whole summer, and now. The whole lot of lost time."

"Maybe you just need some rest, Severus."

"I don't care for rest." Then: "What're you reading, Lupin?"

"Defence." Snape's eyes narrowed at this answer; he must've remembered it was him who'd driven Lupin away from this position. "I was a damn good teacher, wasn't I?" Lupin added. "Maybe one day I'll teach again."

There was no comment.

Tonks arrived in the third week of September, right after breakfast - Apparated in the yard, and threw her arms apart for Howdy. The boy ran to her, and she, in her manner, Morphed her face for him as he laughed.

There was something in Snape's eyes as he looked at her - jealousy, Lupin thought. He was so possessive of Howdy, couldn't stand anyone next to him. It could be almost funny if Snape hadn't taken it so seriously. A good thing Tonks was not someone who could be put off with strained atmosphere. She stayed for dinner, played and talked with Howdy. Snape went upstairs and tried to skip the dinner all together. Lupin insisted - and felt sorry about it later - when she said in the course of conversation, talking about Auror events:

"Draco Malfoy was captured a few days ago. He refused a lawyer."

Lupin saw how Snape's face went very white all of a sudden - and then he got up and walked upstairs without a word. Tonks covered her mouth.

"Oh. Did I say something wrong?"

Snape didn't come down this day, even after the girl had left. Lupin felt sorry. No, he felt vaguely guilty, even though it wasn't his fault in any way. And Howdy didn't make things better, with the way he looked up at Lupin, unhappy and worried. The boy was so attuned to the feelings of others, no wonder, of course, taking into account his past. And he was attuned to Snape's feelings especially sharply, Lupin had to admit it.

In the evening, after taking Howdy to bed, he stood in front of Snape's door, listening. It was very quiet behind it. He reached his hand to knock and didn't, knew it would be a wrong thing to do. Snape wanted to be alone - and this evening Lupin was going to give it to him.

There would be other time for what he wanted to say.

* * *

"How are you?" There was something forcedly cheerful and anxious in the werewolf's voice. Snape gave him a tired look and reached for the coffee-pot.

"Fine. Whatever prompted you to ask that."

He felt cranky and light-headed with sleepless night. He did try to fall asleep but couldn't, lay quietly, silently and awake. He didn't want to think but he couldn't help it.

Draco; in Azkaban... probably soon would be as dead as his father.

The child so spoilt - and it was his, Snape's, fault. It was his fault Draco ended up like this. Snape told himself he could have done nothing else, pampering Draco was what Lucius expected from him - but the truth was it was easier this way. Earning Draco's affection not by being strict and fair but by playing favourites. And this affection was short-lived.

What if the same happened to Howdy? He, Snape, had failed one boy like that; what right did he have to want to be a part of the other boy's life? Albus said the truth: his love was a poisoned thing. Howdy would be much better off without Snape in his life. He had Lupin, and Lupin was the right person for him.

"If you ask this to hint that I overstayed your hospitality," he added before Lupin could say anything, "I'm ready to leave at any moment."

"What? What do you..." The werewolf looked startled, frowning, staring at him, a cup of tea frozen in his hand.

Well, Snape didn't mind to tell him; to put the end to it, once and for all.

"I won't cause problems for you and Tonks any more."

"What?"

"Howdy needs a mother. And you need a..." He couldn't bring himself to say it. "I don't want to mess under your feet while you court her." He felt ashamed with his own words, they sounded so old-fashioned. "Three's a crowd, right?"

Lupin still frowned, as if he, Snape, had said something completely indecipherable. Then he shook his head, greyish strands falling on his face, and Lupin pushed them away. His face was very serious as he talked, his voice very insistent.

"I assure you, Severus. I'm not going to court Tonks. Not any other woman, come to that," he added.

Nonsense, Snape wanted to say, and a lie. But the werewolf kept staring at him with these very serious - *honest* - eyes, as if wanting to say more.

"Severus?" The voice was unacceptably gentle. "Do you understand me?"

He didn't - and he didn't want to... or maybe he wanted too much. Snape shook his head and turned away abruptly.

He didn't want to look but still saw with his peripheral sight that Lupin moved quietly, very slowly, as if around a wild animal he tried not to scare. His thin, long-fingered hand rose, hovered in the air before slowly reaching to Snape's face, entwining in his hair, holding the back of his neck. Lupin's fingers were warm but Snape felt cold run through him. Just as slowly Lupin closed his face to his, pulled his head slightly closer. His lips were half- parted, and Snape knew what he was going to do and still couldn't - didn't dare - believe it.

"Severus," Lupin whispered, and Snape felt the warmth of breath on his lips. And then the warmth became heat, and wetness, and Lupin touched Snape's mouth, at first carefully and a moment later, when his own lips parted, a tongue slid into his mouth, commanding and insistent.

He didn't know how it happened. He didn't know why Lupin's hand on his neck made him so helpless, took away any chance of his resistance. It incapacitated him worse than the curse - and Lupin's mouth, so fervent - where did he learn to kiss like this? - made everything in his body melt, made him forget and ignore everything else. Lupin tasted with tea, chocolate and mint. And Lupin's tongue caressed his, gently, and it was warm and wet, and so strange how something this simple could feel so good...

Snape felt a bit disoriented when it ended - just stood and blinked, and vaguely thought that Lupin's hand still was on his neck, in his hair. Finally the consciousness snapped on its place. Snape twisted away, jerked back, hitting his thigh against the corner of the table.

He still was short of breath, and his words came jumbled, stifled. "What do you think you're doing, Lupin?"

The werewolf looked slightly hurt, incredulous.

"And what do you think I'm doing?"

Snape took a deep breath. Definitely, these questions sounded ridiculous. And worst of all, he couldn't see a way out of it. Snape always could find a way out, he wasn't a weak, stupid person who...

"Was I too fast?" Lupin said very softly. "I thought I gave you enough time to step back... before I kissed you."

"Exactly that," he almost spat. "Why did you do it?"

Lupin's eyebrows went up nearly into the hairline.

"Why do people do such things? I thought... your obvious lack of interest in women... but if I was wrong, I'm sorry."

Snape shook his head, dismissing it. Didn't Lupin understand? Did he have to spell it?

"I don't care for women. The question is - why would you do it to me? Some kind of joke?"

Now there was a worried expression in Lupin's eyes.

"A joke? Why would you say it, Severus?"

What was with the way Lupin said his name, that it made him lose composure, feel so vulnerable? And what was with Lupin that he was so daft? Did Snape have to tell him in details?

"For Merlin's sake, Lupin, don't pretend. For one thing, I'm ugly."

There were more reasons, the most important of them that he couldn't be good to anyone in the long run. But who said Lupin wanted him in the long run?

"You're not, Severus." Yes? Didn't he and his friends spend *years* laughing at every detail of Snape's appearance? He remembered it all. "I don't think I notice how you look. You're... like you're supposed to be."

Snape frowned. Lupin's face was wistful, a little crease fluttering between his eyebrows.

"It's like, you know, at some point you stop noticing how one looks like. You just see him or her... as a whole. Like with Howdy. You can't say if he's handsome or not. He just is."

"Howdy is handsome," Snape muttered. And so are you, he thought.

"I like you as you are, Severus," Lupin said quietly. And the tone of his voice, that calm, completely convinced sound of it was doing something to Snape, much like the hand had done - and he came closer, as if under 'Imperius', and Lupin smiled openly now, putting his arms around him.

The feeling of Lupin's hard chest against his was amazing, and his legs turned soft, refusing to hold him - but Lupin held him well enough. He closed his face to Snape's, stayed like this for a moment, and then proceeded kissing his eyelids, one and the other. Snape felt uncomfortable, because he had to close his eyes for it and he couldn't see what if Lupin laughed at him, but at the same time there was something intoxicatingly good in feeling it.

Lupin's arms wrapped around his waist, pulled him closer, hand running over Snape's back - and he barely realised at first that the strange sensation coming from his spine was not pain but pleasure. He leaned into this touch and got ashamed of himself but then Lupin's other hand cupped his face, and he told himself he could live with this shame. Lupin's lips touched his again, warm, and Snape opened up to them wildly, meeting the entering tongue with his.

"Daddy, did you see..."

They jumped away from each other - but still not fast enough. Howdy stood in the doorway, a jar with a big butterfly in his hands.

"Did you see what I caught?"

"Oh. Great."

Lupin was flushed and dishevelled, looking obviously debauched - and Snape supposed so did he. But maybe Howdy was too little to notice or understand.

Then the boy decisively put the jar on the table, walked up to them and threw his arms around them both, as much as he could - and there was something so incredibly relieved in his face, almost an adult feeling of a burden removed.

"Hold me too," he whispered. "Hold me too, hold us all together!"

Lupin hugged him - and at the same time his palm slid over Snape's upper arm, in a gesture that was so obviously consoling, so promising that Snape felt weak and helpless again. It made him want to run while he still could - but at the same time he knew it probably was too late.

"All right, Howdy," Lupin said, "shall we let your butterfly go now? Shouldn't hold it in captivity for too long."

* * *

They spent the day as usual, not talking any more about what happened. After the supper, Howdy played and then rocked in the rocking chair until falling asleep. Lupin got up.

"I'll take him to his room."

Snape kept staring at the book on his lap but the potions text he used to enjoy so much had little meaning for him. From upstairs, he could hear Howdy's sleepy voice and Lupin's calm one, the cadence of it steady as he was reading Howdy's obligatory bedtime story.

He got up and walked upstairs, using his index finger as a bookmark.

"He's asleep." Lupin emerged from Howdy's room, whispering, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up. He looked so cosy, so young... so unlike anything Snape could ever be. He felt his throat constrict, could just nod, without saying a word. Lupin's eyes seemed worried as he searched his face. "Are you going to sleep?"

"No..." he started and his voice broke. "No, just..."

"Perhaps..." There was something in Lupin's voice that made his heart lurch. He told himself to get a grip on himself, it couldn't be what he thought - and even if it was, it didn't mean anything. He stood still and waited. "If you're well enough... I don't know if you're allowed, already..."

He answered before it came to his mind that it might be a way out. "I'm perfectly healthy."

"Oh."

He pushed a small word through his teeth, expecting the answer that would ruin everything. "So?"

"Severus."

And then Lupin's arms were around him, and he felt so overwhelmed, with this touch, with this heat and closeness - that he must've blacked out, realised only when he was in Lupin's bedroom and heard quiet 'Lumos'. No, he wanted to ask, no light, I'm not that good to look at - but Lupin's mouth covered his, drowning the protest.

Lupin's mouth was warm and sweet, and his arms were like iron and yet so gentle, lowering him on the bed, and Snape gave away control again. He knew it was silly, he shouldn't have - but at that moment he could do nothing else. And Lupin's body was over his, thin and strong, his fingers deft with Snape's clothes and his own - and then Lupin's skin was heat and silk, curls of thin hair on his chest wispy, his tongue moist and warm running over Snape's sternum.

He sobbed quietly, but it built and built, unlike pain but as intense - and eventually he cried out and covered his mouth in fear of waking up the boy. Lupin kissed his hand and kissed his mouth and said it was all right - and it was. And they were close again, and there was more pleasure, more *everything* than Snape had ever known.

He knew he would remember it forever.

And when he feel asleep, in Lupin's bed, because Lupin didn't let him go and he didn't particularly want to - he felt the heat of the body spooned behind him, and Lupin's breath warm on his hair, and Lupin's voice whispered some meaningless things that were so good to fall asleep with.

* * *

He woke up to Lupin looking at him. Lupin's eyes were very bright, the sun reflecting in them, and grey and brown of his hair was turned into some special colour by this light. Snape saw a hand reach to him carefully, felt the tips of the fingers touch his face.

"Sorry, I woke you up," Lupin whispered hoarsely.

His fingers brushed over Snape's face, over his lips - and his lips felt tender and slightly sore, and a sudden realisation hit him, of them being this way because he had been kissed, and kissed back so much yesterday. And all these strange feelings in his body - the feelings he'd nearly forgotten...

Lupin smiled. "What are you thinking about?"

"What?"

"You've had such a puzzled look."

Oh no. He couldn't answer this. How do you say that you thought about being thoroughly fucked?

"Now you're blushing."

And you look good enough to lick you, Snape thought. He wanted to say it aloud and bit his lip, and felt like squirming away from under Lupin's scrutinising gaze. *He* didn't look good, did he? In the mornings worse than ever.

Fingers were plaited into his hair, rubbing his skull as if he was a cat, and there was something mesmerizing in it because he couldn't move, just wanted it to go on and on. Then Lupin leaned towards him and their lips touched.

"Daddy, do you know..."

Lupin leaned back against the pillow with a groan. Howdy stood in the doorway, staring at them with round eyes. Snape grunted, feeling terribly compelled to hide under the blanket. Lupin sat up.

"What time is it?"

"Time to eat breakfast!" Howdy announced proudly.

"Sorry." Snape stared at Lupin, unable to believe he could behave like that - as if nothing happened. "Come down to the kitchen, Howdy, I'll be in two minutes and make you your cocoa." He turned to Snape as Howdy disappeared. "It's better to behave naturally, so that he didn't suspect anything. I'll tell him your room was too cold at night or something."

Snape grunted again.

"Daddy, Severus!"

Snape yelped and threw the blanket on himself.

"What?"

"Are you going to marry?" It was developing from bad to worse, Snape thought - and even Lupin looked disconcerted. "Like her... when she slept with a man, she said she'll be marrying him. Only she never did."

"I'll see you downstairs, Howdy."

This time the boy finally was gone. Snape reached his clothes, wrecked between the wish to get dressed and shame to do it in front of Lupin. He really had horrible underwear. Yesterday it didn't matter, or he forgot about it, in haste to shed it, assisted by Lupin. But now he was going to die of shame if Lupin saw it.

And the damned werewolf didn't look away.

"So, Severus?" And this voice, what was it doing to him...

"What?" His voice was gone, his defences ruined.

"What do you think about what Howdy said?"

"I don't understand what you mean..." Again this feeling of his body turned into fluid, of his brain refusing to work, under 'Imperius'.

"Marry me?"

"It's absurd."

"Why?"

"It's scandalous... we don't know each other... we can't know whether we want to stay together, a few years later..."

The hand touched his thigh. He could let Lupin talk him into anything. Apart from such a silly, unheard of thing, of course. Then he saw a flicker of humour in Lupin's eyes and sighed with relief.

"You're joking."

"I thought you'd jump at the chance." There was some strange wistful expression in Lupin's voice, softened with a smile. "It'd let you legal guardianship over Howdy."

Snape frowned.

"Well, we can always keep living in sin, right?"

He couldn't resist, leaned into the touch of this palm sliding over his hipbone.

"Can we, Severus?"

It was as if for Lupin his answer meant something, and he wasn't sure why but he answered, quietly: "Yes."

"Good."

It sounded as if Lupin took it as promise - and made a promise in exchange. Snape knew promises could be broken and one should never count on them. He thought it was all so brittle, it would pass soon, Lupin would find someone better, someone for him and Howdy. And Snape would be prepared for it.

So maybe there was nothing wrong to cherish it while it lasted.

THE END

[+] Back