I despise Muggle London. I have always despised it. I despise the sheer number of people who walk in its streets, jostling against each other without making eye contact. I despise this mad rush of a crowd. I hate the intermingling of smells: in one breath, I take in the scent of bodies, machines, foods, and flowers. I detest the noise of it, the cacophony of voices, vehicles, and music against the backdrop of a myriad of other sounds that blend to form an underlying buzz. I'm offended by the sight of it, the vivid splashes of color against the grey of disuse and neglect. With all of my senses, I am frightened by it, because I can control none of it. For a few short hours I will be at the mercy of it, and I am acutely aware that I am out of my element here.
I've traveled magically as far as I can, but now am reduced to traveling the last part on foot. I've shunned the London underground as being too confusing to warrant deciphering for such a short distance. I can read a map, however, and have only several more blocks to walk.
It is humbling to have to come to him at all. It would have been so much easier had he just taken a room at the castle, or in Hogsmeade for the day. But he has not offered to amend our agreement, and I certainly will not ask. I do not expect that he would ever consider anything that might make it easier for me. He's probably enjoying the mental picture of me making my way there. So, I resolve not to mention it at all.
I wonder, for not the first time in the past two years, why he has chosen to live like this. Oh, I am not surprised that he did not want to become an Auror, or work for the Ministry. I would have been surprised had he chosen either of those paths. But the pendulum has swung entirely to the extreme, for he has consistently and methodically tamped down all offers and efforts from the entire wizarding world to help him find a future and a fellowship. So thoroughly has he done this, that although he will always be a household name and hero in Wizardom, it is now almost as if he were dead. The most popular wizard to be found on a Frog card, to be sure, but still gone for good. Or so it would seem.
He told me last year that this is how he wanted it. I did not take him seriously then, thinking that eventually the insatiable Potter need for attention would drive him out of hiding. But so far, I've been proven wrong. I know where he is at the moment only because he owled me a fortnight ago with directions for today. His friends tell me he occasionally drops in to see them, but has chosen not to share any more of his life than that. I admit I am curious, and knowing how complex the boy is, I believe there must be some illogical explanation for his isolationist behavior.
Finding his building, I discover that there is no lift. I walk the five flights up, then locate his flat at the end of the hall. It is a corner unit, and I wonder if he has chosen it for its strategic and tactical advantage. I smile at the thought, then sober quickly. The war is over, but rare and deadly skirmishes still occur. I am living proof of that.
As I prepare to knock, I note that it is only 11:45, not quite midnight. I refuse to play the childish game that he did last year, so I announce myself early.
The door opens and I blink in surprise. For a moment I am speechless, and a small smile plays across his face. Ah. He wants a dramatic reaction, so I make a point of depriving him of one. "Potter," I drawl at the hairless boy, "the scar is a dead giveaway. If you're working at incognito, you really should address it." I push past him into the room, and drop my shoulder bag. Turning, I take my time in looking him over. He still says nothing, but as I continue my inspection, becomes uncomfortable. He is not entirely hairless. His head is shorn like a sheep, and the single earring has turned into two. The combined effect of the smooth shaven head and the unnatural green eyes is almost unsettling. It conveys a fragility and delicacy that I would not normally attribute to the boy. But then he speaks, and I am in familiar waters once again.
"So, Professor, I'm surprised you decided to show up early. I was hoping you might get a little lost, actually."
I cannot help myself, so I sneer. "Come now, Potter. You don't really think I'd betray our promise to our dear, departed Headmaster, do you?"
The ghost of the smile fades at the mention of the old man. "No, no...I suppose not." Picking up my bag, he nods and says, "Well, come on, then."
I follow him through a short hallway and into what should have been the sitting room, but he has made it into a large workroom. I am pleasantly surprised at the size of it, having thought that flats were usually small, closed-in spaces. But this is a room of space and angles and light. Along the outside wall is a sizable sliding glass door that opens onto a balcony that runs the length of the room. Positioned next to the glass wall is a desk with a tilted top, a lamp secured to the upper edge. There is a long black couch in the center of the room, facing the interior wall which houses a computer workstation and television. It makes sense that he would have these things - he has chosen to live in their world, after all. But the huge bookcase covering the other exterior wall does give me pause.
I'm itching a little to step over and see what he has, when he laughs softly. He's seen my surprise, and teases, "Yes, Professor, Harry can read."
I retort, "I never doubted it, Potter, but that you actually do is another matter altogether."
Shaking his head, he drops my bag on the couch and moves into the tiny kitchen at the end of the room. "A drink, Professor?" he calls out.
Gods, I need one. "Only if you have something decent."
While he putters, I walk over to his drafting table. There is a half-completed sketch there, attached by a clamp at the top of the board and illuminated by an intensity lamp. I cannot help myself - I draw my breath in sharply. He has been sketching a pair of hands, the fingers of which are long and bony, knotted with age. It is exquisitely done, and even half-finished, he has captured them so beautifully, so painfully true.
"No," he says, switching off the small lamp. "I don't think so. I'm sorry," he apologizes as he clamps a plain sheet over top of the sketch. I back away uncertainly as he finishes this.
Handing me my drink, he gestures toward the couch, and I follow.
I am still thinking about the sketch, calmed by the familiar scotch as it slides smoothly down my throat. Looking over at him, I can't help commenting on his choice of drink. "Really, Potter, beer? When you could be drinking Glenlivit? How common of you." I know I am retaliating for his reluctance in showing me the sketch.
He flushes, and then I know why when he says, "I don't drink Glenlivit. Don't care for it, actually."
Oh. If he has procured this just for me, then we are in uncharted territory here. I'm hoping I am wrong, but he, of course, confirms my fears.
"I remembered it's what you drink, and I knew how much you'd hate being here, so I thought it wouldn't hurt for you to at least have the Glenlivit."
I'm trying to find something to say that will re-establish the old boundaries, but I take too long, and now it is too late. The first little line has been crossed, for better or worse, and I take a moment to mourn.
We make some small talk about the past year at Hogwarts. I tell him that Minerva is doing a fine job as Headmistress. He asks about something he has read in the Prophet, and suddenly we are silent, the anticipation of the evening apparently having worn us both out.
He walks to his desk and removes something from a drawer, then returns to stand in front of me, grinning as he holds out the Galleon. "Your turn, Professor."
I toss it as he calls out, "Tails," and naturally it is heads. I take the couch again, as he takes the floor, grumbling. Even though I know why I have this feeling, the déjà vu is disturbing.
The next morning we argue briefly over whether "in the room" extends to eating breakfast on the balcony. Strangely enough, this time I am the one to raise the objection. After all, turnabout is fair play. We compromise and eat in, but with the glass door open. I find that letting in even that much of London is too much, and smirk a little in triumph when he finally slides it shut.
He mutters that he has work to do, and moves off to his table. I have brought books of my own, and settle in on the couch where I spend the rest of the morning.
After a small lunch, we find ourselves once again with drinks in hand on either end of the couch. He pulls both legs up and turns to sit against one end so that he is facing me. I have an ominous premonition that something unpleasant is about to begin. It was inevitable, as we cannot help ourselves.
"So," he starts, "are you going to tell me about it? It was in the Prophet, you know."
Wonderful. He's concerned about my welfare. How touching, considering that in the past he seemed to go out of his way to make my life miserable. I finger the faded scar that encircles my neck. He watches, knowing it's there, but cannot see it under my shirt.
I decide to give him a little, hoping he will accept it and let it go. "As you read, they grabbed me in Knockturn Alley - pulled me into a shop." I pause, not wanting to admit the worst, but he is still waiting, watching me. "I was unprepared. It was inexcusable on my part." I am not inclined to go any further, but he presses on.
"What happened, Professor?" he probes softly.
I stiffen a little. This is none of his business, and I tell him so, but he refuses to give it up. I sigh and turn slightly to face him. He looks concerned, and suddenly I experience something that I haven't felt in a long while, not since Albus died. It's the certainty that I can tell this irritating boy the whole of it, and he might just understand. I know, probably more than other person alive, what agonies this boy has suffered in his past, and despite our differences, I know that he won't trivialize mine.
I ignore the little warning voice in my head, and tell him. "There were four of them. They had me in the shop before I could even get my wand out." I decide to summarize rather than go into the humiliating details. "Dragged me into the cellar, Stupefied, then tried to string me up by the neck with a wire."
His eyes go wide. "So, how did you...?"
I stop the question with a hand. "That's the pathetic part, and I don't know why I'm telling you all this, but I swear, Potter, if you breathe a word of this..." I am stopped by the look of disdain on his face. He is right - I know he wouldn't. "I would've died then and there had not my Auror tail seen them pull me in." I pause again, needing to nurse the Glenlivit. "So I was spared, but the perpetrators all Disapparated when the Aurors broke through." Touching my neck, I say, "I was left with this little souvenir."
He is shaking his head. "Professor, I can't believe you let your guard down like that. And in Knockturn Alley." I don't need to hear his critique on events for which I've already raked myself over the coals at least a dozen times.
"It's a good thing your Auror was looking out for you."
I choke on my drink. "Excuse me, Potter. My Auror? I never asked them to provide me with protection. Of course, in this case, it was fortunate for me that they were there." I wonder whether or not to tell him the whole truth, then decide, in for a penny in for a pound. "But no more. I've told the Ministry, in no uncertain terms, to cease and desist the Auror protection."
He is immediately indignant, and protests as I knew he would. "For God's sake, Snape, are you crazy? Are you taking stupid pills? They nearly killed you, in case you didn't notice, because you weren't even paying attention to where you were, and the fact that there's still a BLOODY PRICE ON YOUR THICK SKULL! You told them to back off? What were you thinking?"
I'm furious now, not just at his outburst, but at the utter familiarity it implies. "Careful, Potter," I hiss, "remember to whom you're speaking. How I conduct my life and my affairs is none of your business." I am spitting out the words now. "You have chosen to fall off the face of the earth, to retreat into," I gesture at the room, "this, rather than stay and fight to keep your place in the world to which you belong. I've chosen to stay and face it, on my own terms, and staying within the castle walls, constantly having an Auror shadow are no longer palatable options for me." I take a ragged breath, but still glare at him. He glares back effectively - after all, he has learned it from a master.
"Potter," I sigh. "You killed Voldemort two years ago. I've just decided to start living like I believe it. Getting caught was a lapse of judgment on my part. I'm more careful now."
He has turned away from me, and we sit in silence for awhile, the old familiar tension in the air. I find it comforting.
Turning back to me, he offers in a small voice, "I didn't choose this life because I was afraid to stay. I had to leave because in that world, who I was would always be defined by what I did in that single battle. All anyone would ever see would be Harry Potter." He adds quietly, "Not me. Even my friends just see Harry Potter. They don't even know who I am." He is silent for a moment, then almost whispers, "I'm alone here, but at least I'm beginning to find out who I am. This time, I get to choose who I'll be."
Strangely, this makes perfect sense to me, and my anger at his impertinence vanishes. I stare at him for a long moment, and he returns it without looking away. "I get to choose who I will be also, Potter. If I were to continue to live afraid, that would be letting circumstance define who I am." I concede softly, "Not a dissimilar path from your own." I must look away, then.
After dinner, he turns on the television and we watch something inanely Muggle. There are no celebrations in evidence this year, but we both know that at that very moment, someone, somewhere, is probably commemorating our contributions.
A little before midnight, he brings us both a drink - I notice that he has forsaken the beer, and understanding the moment, I stand to my feet and face him. We drink our toast to Albus Dumbldore, and I begin replacing the books in my bag. He is lurking nearby as I finish. Glancing up at him, I'm surprised by the confusion on his face.
"Professor," he starts out hesitantly, "it's practically the middle of the night. I don't expect you to...well, I know you only have to stay till midnight, but if you want to stay here till morning, it's...okay for you to stay."
I'm suddenly keenly conscious of my treatment of him last year when the clock struck twelve, and this more than anything, makes acceptance of his offer impossible. "No, Potter, midnight. Remember?" But I cannot help it that he sees my eyes soften as I say it.
I walk down the hallway to the door, then turn to look back at him.
"See you next year, Professor," he says.
Outside his building, I look up to see him watching from the balcony. Silhouetted by the light from behind, he is almost wraith-like. I decide that he belongs in this bleak landscape, and shudder as I walk away.