Severus hesitated in the shadows outside of the Leaky Cauldron with a rough scrap of paper clutched in his hand. It was creased many times over by Severus' fidgeting hands, folding and unfolding the paper in his own nervousness.
That single scrap of paper that had floated into his room from a strange owl's claw had made him feel like he had been transported back to his days at Hogwarts. Receiving illicit notes from one's schoolboy crush could do that to you.
Sighing heavily, Severus leaned against the rough hewn brick wall that was nearest to him. The alley he was currently lingering in smelled like rotting food and piss. That usually would have been enough to hurry him along, but he found himself stuck in place.
'Meet me in the attic room of the Cauldron at 7. -J.'
That was all the note said. It was vague enough that nobody save himself was likely to guess correctly who 'J' was. So far as Severus knew, he and James' secret bet was still just that, a secret. He imagined if any of the other death eater's ever found out, he would have been pushed into trying to blackmail or manipulate James. If anyone ever found out on James' side, Severus assumed he would be ostracized to some greater or lesser extent.
"What am I doing here?" Severus muttered angrily to himself, smacking the back of his head against the brick wall behind him for added emphasis. A little burst of pain went off behind his eyes, but it did nothing to shake the intent to see James from his head.
Time and distance had aided Severus in seeing what happened between them at Hogwarts for what it was. For him, it started off as a chance to prove how bulletproof he was and could be. In the end, he was confused and somewhat heartsick for a boy who could only manage to be kind every once in a great while. He could only imagine what it was for James, but he assumed that it had started out as a mean stunt that had eventually been too much for his stunted little heart to handle without becoming emotionally attached.
Looking back, the whole thing had been a mess from start to finish. So, why was he going to meet the boy who had helped to create that mess with him? Most likely because was woefully self-destructive. Other facets of his life backed up that theory, so he saw no reason to deny it.
Stuffing the small scrap of paper back into his pocket, Severus flipped the hood of his cloak up over his head. The hood was large and cast his face in deep shadow. Somewhat confident that his identity was hidden, Severus wearily made his way out of the alley and around the corner to the Leaky Cauldron's front door.
Before he even got close, the sound of song and loud voices echoed out into the street. Severus tucked his tall lanky form behind a small group of drunken witches and followed them inside as inconspicuously as he could manage.
The inside of the Leaky Cauldron did everything to live up to the sound that could be heard from outside. Large groups of wizards and witches were gathered around small tables, pushing each other with their elbows and raising their overflowing mugs of ale for toasts. There was some kind of band set up near the roaring hearth. They were playing string instruments and singing, but they could barely be heard over the rumble of the crowd. Barmaids wove in between the inebriated crowd, delivering mugs full of ale and walking back to the bar with empty ones.
Severus kept to the edges of the room as much as he could and worked his way around until he could reach the narrow stairs that led upstairs. The Leaky Cauldron was primarily a pub, but there were also a few rooms upstairs where especially drunken patrons could sleep off the drink. Once he was up the stairs,, the sound dimmed noticeably. Severus could still hear the thundering of many voices below, but the thick wooden floor dulled it considerably.
As quickly and quietly as possible, Severus slipped past the doors on the second floor until he reached another even smaller set of stairs on the far end of the hallway. He ascended these steps with the same care that he had used to creep through the hallway, though it seemed that every other step creaked. At the top of the steps was an old and battered door covered in dents and chipping paint that Severus hesitantly knocked on.
The door immediately flew open inward, a ruffled looking James Potter standing on the other side. He looked very similar to how he had in school. He was a little bit taller and his shoulders seemed wider. His hair was cut a little shorter and Severus thought that maybe he had new frames, small wire gold ones.
"Hi," James breathed, running a hand through his disordered black hair. He looked nervous and flushed.
Severus' mouth curled into a slight frown and he quickly put the hand down that had still been raised to knock. "Hello," Severus replied curtly.
"Ah, come in, come in," James said hurriedly, pulling the door open wider and stepping aside to let Severus pass him by.
Severus did so, stepping around James and pulling his hood down. He had to duck slightly as he stepped inside, because he was a bit too tall to stand comfortably in the peaked room set into the roof of the Leaky Cauldron. Severus had stayed at the Leaky Cauldron on occasion before, but never in this room.
It was large compared to the other rooms, but the varying height of the ceiling greatly restricted where in the room he could stand at his full height. Other than the ceiling, the room itself was very simple. There was a large low bed set into the middle of the room with white linens and light brown bedside tables. There was a trunk at the bottom of the bed and a small desk set against one wall, under one of two windows. The other window, on the opposite side of the room, held only a well used arm chair and a small foot stool.
That was the part of the room that James was standing in, only having to stoop a little to fit under the low ceiling.
"I didn't really think you'd come," James said hesitantly, ringing his hands for a moment until he seemed to notice himself doing it. He then stuffed his hands into his pockets.
Severus sighed, a little put out that James was acting so meak. "Neither did I, yet here I am."
"That you are," James agreed awkwardly, walking forward until he could take a seat on the edge of the bed. He patted the spot right beside him to indicate that Severus should take a seat beside him. Severus' frown deepened and, rather than taking James' proffered seat on the bed, he perched on the edge of the over stuffed armchair that faced it.
A brief look of hurt flashed across James' face, but he quickly smothered it. Stiffly putting his hands in his lap, James glanced away as he said, "You're probably wondering why I asked you here."
"Primarily, yes," Severus responded. "How you knew where to find me is also something I'd like to know."
A roguish grin spread over James' face, sending Severus back into his school days in a flash. "Ha," James laughed shortly. "Trade secret."
Severus huffed out a frustrated sound. "Of course," he replied.
James' self satisfied grin simmered down into a more chastised one at Severus' less than enthusiastic reaction. "I assume you still work for," James coughed into his fist briefly, though in such an affected way that Severus was sure that it was just an excuse to stall for time. "... for you-know-who," he finished.
Severus glanced away for a moment. It wasn't as if he didn't think it would come up, but it wasn't a subject he was exceedingly comfortable with.
"Yes," he answered shortly, deciding to stay succinct.
James frowned earnestly at that reply and gave Severus a searching look. Severus sat still and surly under James' searching gaze.
"Still loyal? No doubts?" James asked hopefully.
It was framed as a joke, but the underlying tone of hope and desperation under it belied how genuine it was. Severus didn't understand why he would even bother to ask and so couldn't help snapping.
"That's none of your business," Severus growled, showing a little teeth in a childish display of aggression he would have thought himself better than.
"You know you're better than the rest of them," James said, his eyes flashing. Severus imagined that was the same look he got when he smelled a lead.
Severus snorted. That was certainly rich, coming from James fucking Potter. "Yes, you certainly made me feel that way in school," Severus replied sarcastically.
James grimaced as if he was just struck. "I was a real shit in school. But, I don't think anybody is at their best as a teenager."
"I'll toast to the shit part," Severus said wryly, causing James to grimace again. Severus understood that everyone made mistakes when they were teenagers. He certainly had made his fair share. But, he thought what James had done to him was quite a bit farther than just a mistake.
"I may not have said it back then, but I always thought you were better than the other stuck up kids in your house," James continued on, trying to ignore the jab."I still think it. If you're having doubts and you need some place to hide out while you sort things out, I can help," James said urgently, sitting forward until he was just on the edge of the bed.
He looked desperate. Severus wasn't charitable enough to James or himself to think that expression was for him alone. Perhaps James felt somewhat responsible for pushing him toward the dark lord. It wasn't as if he was a pureblood himself, but James and his friends had made it very clear he wasn't welcome on their side. That didn't leave him many options.
Severus also didn't much relish the decision that he had made fresh out of Hogwarts to join the Deatheaters. At the time it had seemed like the obvious thing to do. Looking back, he wished he had done something else. Even so, he felt he was in far too deep to try and escape then.
"Thank you for the offer," Severus replied as neutrally as he could. "I'll keep it in mind."
James' whole body seemed to sink in on itself with Severus' rejection. James turned his head down and stared intently at the space between his feet while Severus did his best not to fidget. He wondered vaguely if this was the only reason James had called him there. If it was some attempt to redeem himself by helping Severus, he would be very disappointed.
The two sat in silence for a long time and Severus was getting ready to suggest that he might leave when James finally spoke up.
"I've been thinking about the past a lot," he said faintly, still staring at the scratched and worn floorboards beneath his feet.
"Hm?" Severus replied faintly.
"Back then, I know..."
Severus raised an eyebrow at James' faltering words, but decided to remain silent and let him work out what he wanted to say on his own.
"Back then, I know I treated you very badly," James tried again. "Both with the bullying and with, ah," James faltered again, glancing up at Severus this time as if for help, but Severus only stared expectantly back. "With the, ah, fooling around we did."
"I guess fooling around is one way to describe it," Severus muttered.
"I wasn't kind to you any step of the way," James said.
Severus grimaced. "You had your moments when you could be sweet. Though it was rare," he added in wry voice.
James flashed a quick smile and hurried on. "I guess it was because I always thought you were so tough. And, also, I guess, to some extent I didn't really care if I hurt you."
Severus had to glance away at that to try and hide what he felt was probably a raw expression, but James hurried on.
"But, that changed! Not fast enough, maybe, but I did care for you. That night on the tower..."
James faltered again and this time Severus did prompt him. "What about that night?"
"That night ... I wish I had given you a different answer," James answered, his voice croaking slightly with emotion.
Severus had to look away again, tears misting up despite his best effort to prevent them.
"You didn't, though," Severus replied, mortified that his voice also sounded ragged when he spoke. He cleared his throat and kept speaking. "No amount of second guessing will change that."
"I know!" James said, sounding downtrodden, but resolute. "I was just a kid and I didn't really understand what I felt. What I feel."
Severus eyes flashed at that, but he didn't say anything. 'It was a slip up,' he thought fiercely, both for himself and for Lily. He didn't want to think about what he thought James might be angling at.
"Is this what you called me here for, Potter?" Severus asked fiercely.
"I-" James started, his eyebrows drawn together angrily. But, the anger quickly fizzled out and he dropped his head despondently. "I don't know. I don't really know why I called you here."
"I risked a lot coming here to meet you," Severus snarled, already angry at James and getting angrier with every stupid word that left his mouth. "If anybody knew that I was coming here to meet you, that would be the end for me. I would be labeled a traitor and hunted until dead!"
"I know!" James shouted, sounding frazzled. A hand reached up into his hair and he pulled at one large chunk. "I know how dangerous it was for you to come here. And, maybe I shouldn't have asked you, but I couldn't help myself!"
Severus' nose wrinkled in distaste. This wasn't like the James Potter that he knew. He never knew him to be so uncertain, though the impulsive part was definitely in his repertoire.
"James, calm down. Just be straight with me. What is bothering you?" Severus asked in a quiet tone.
James blanched and looked away, rubbing his hand roughly over his head as he appeared to cast around for something to say. Finally, he heaved a sigh and seemed to resign himself to the truth.
"Lily is pregnant," he said in a defeated voice.
Severus felt a shock rush through his system at the news. On one hand, he found himself happy for Lily, despite not having spoken to her for years. On the other hand, that really didn't answer why James had called him. He assumed that a baby was a cause for celebration for a young couple.
"Congratulations are in order, I suppose," he muttered, allowing himself to fidget in his seat.
James' head snapped up and he glared at Severus like he had insulted his mother. "You don't understand," James accused, standing up and pacing in agitation.
Severus followed him with his eyes. "Obviously," he said in a deadpan voice. "So, enlighten me."
James paced for a few more repetitions before he finally burst out, "What if I'm a terrible father?"
Honestly, the thought somewhat tickled Severus. He could only assume that James would be the kind of oppressive father that he sometimes heard his Slytherin classmates complain about. Great at everything and expecting the same unequivocally of his children. Severus did his best to muffle his laugh, but it snuck out the corners of his mouth and out from behind his hand.
"See?" James exclaimed, turning toward Severus. "You understand! Everyone else I talk to just tells me that everyone feels that way, everything will be fine old chap, blah blah blah!" James threw his hands up into the air, or tried to anyway, and hit his hand on the ceiling instead.
"Shit!" he exclaimed, pulling his hand back and cradling it to his chest. This induced a hearty laugh that Severus couldn't subdue in time. "It's not funny!" James shouted, whirling on Severus with an infuriated expression. Obviously the pain and the laughing were only making his anxiety worse.
Severus made a calming gesture with his hands as he fought to get himself under control. After he did so, he took a deep breath and formulated a response that he hoped would be suitably reassuring. He wasn't sure why he wanted to calm James, but did so on impulse.
"I find it hard to believe that you're going to fail at being a father. I haven't seen anything attempt anything and wholesale fail at it. It was part of why you were so popular in school," Severus said. "What's the real reason you're upset and turning to me of all people for answers?"
James ran a hand roughly over his face and paced a few more times before he took a heavy seat back on the edge of the bed.
"It's just that," James faltered again, waving his hand as if he could pluck the words he was looking for out of the air. "I thought I had more time."
"Time for what?" Severus asked, confused. He didn't think he was at all ready to be a father either, but the chances of him becoming one were next to non-existent. How does one one marry a woman and not realize these chances may rise somewhat significantly?
"I don't know!" James breathed out heavily. "More time to run around with the lads. More time to do reckless things. More time to stay late at work and take the jobs no one else wants. More time to fix things up with you," James looked up at Severus with an intense look and Severus struggled not to avert his eyes. "Not even just with you. There are a lot of burnt bridges behind me that I always had intentions of fixing."
Severus sighed and allowed himself to glance at the peaked ceiling. He thought to himself that James was definitely being a drama queen, which is perhaps why he couldn't express this to his 'lads'.
"You can still do many of those things," Severus said. "I suppose many of them would preclude you from being considered a 'good' father, but you would still be a father. Nobody's perfect James."
James frowned, but tried to cover it up with a smile that looked more like a grimace. "Does that mean we can still patch things up."
"I said many. Patching things up with me was not included."
Severus stood up and moved to gather his things, but realized there was nothing to gather. He had pushed the hood of his cloak down, but had otherwise brought nothing but his wand with him. Hesitantly, he reached up and pulled his hood back over his head.
"You came when I called, though," James said to Severus. Severus was already turned toward the door, but he paused at James' words. It was true. It was foolish of him, but he did it anyway. A statement that could be applied to most of his decisions in relation to James.
"I won't come next time," Severu said, both a warning to James and a promise to himself.
"I really do regret it," James said. His voice sounded tortured and Severus very much wanted to turn around and judge for himself how true that statement was, but he couldn't allow himself to do so. If he did, he was worried his strength of will might falter.
"As do I," he said gravely, before stepping through the rough hewn door and down to the uneven steps below, pulling the door shut behind him. He stopped for a moment on the top step, but there was no sound from the room behind him. Just the faint sounds of the unruly bar on the bottom floor.
Severus didn't know when he and James would meet again and it scared him, he realized as he walked down the steps and turned a corner into the second floor hall. He didn't know if they would next meet on a battlefield or in a court. If they would pass each other on the street or see each other across a crowded room.
Or, perhaps, they would never see each other again.
Firmly, he told himself it didn't matter. It didn't do to dwell on what ifs and maybes. James had made his decision, regardless of how he felt about it later. Severus had done the same.
Severus hugged the walls of the slightly more subdued bar below until he could slip out the door unnoticed. As he did so, he realized that James' proposed meeting was most likely an attempt to possibly rekindle what started back in school. The offers to help him transition sides, the heartfelt apologies both made Severus' heart pound and his head spin.
Regardless of all the history James and he had together, regardless of how Lily felt about him, she was still the best friend he had ever had. It was his fault he had messed it up, not hers. He could never betray her like that. He never should have slept with James, even when they were just dating and there was nothing romantic about the sex.
Once he was far enough away, Severus apparated back to his home with a sharp twist. He ended up in the foyer of his childhood home.
It was empty now, his mother had died a few years ago. Without her presence, the house felt indelibly cold and empty. It was dark and raining, the water coming down heavy outside and making the inside of the house feel damp.
Severus lit a fire in the hearth and settled into a chair by the fire. He opened a book, but gave it up as a bad job after a few minutes. He couldn't focus, not after the encounter with James. His mind just kept going in circles, questioning whether or not he had done the right thing.
Eventually he fell asleep in the chair, never coming to any consensus on what he should have done different.
Months later, James and Lily Potter were dead leaving only their infant son behind.
Severus would always question if he had done the right thing that night. He possibly never forgave James for settling that kind of regret on his shoulders in the first place.