Harry had found the attic of Grimmauld Place. Ordinarily he wouldn't have stopped to explore it. But today was the day he was supposed to tell Snape about growing up at the Dursleys', so that it could be passed onto Amelia Bones for his case. So far, he hadn't worked up the courage to go downstairs. He'd missed breakfast altogether, opting instead to wander aimlessly through the house avoiding Snape, who was presumably downstairs waiting.
Harry had avoided Sirius' room, feeling that he wasn't quite ready to go there. And when he'd explored every other gloomy room he possibly could it was beginning to look like he would either have to brave going in there, stay here in perpetual boredom, or go downstairs. He knew there was no way he would go into Sirius' room just yet, and so it had been looking like he might just have to suffer endless boredom. That was, until the solution had arrived in the form of the trapdoor in the ceiling. Harry had almost missed it in the gloom, but sure enough, it existed, and a rope had been hanging down within reach would allow him entrance to the attic. Harry had remembered with a pang that Sirius had assumed Kreacher to be hiding up there for so long.
He stood now in the dusty expanse that was the attic, which bore evidence of recent cleaning, most likely by Mrs Weasley. There were a few recently disturbed piles, re-covered with washed sheets. Harry looked around at the heaps, cleared of dark artefacts, and felt a sharp sense of relief that he would be able to spend hours up here with ample distraction.
The photo album he unearthed from a seemingly innocuous, non-Sirius related pile of objects surprised him more than he cared to admit. At first Harry's breath was stolen when he saw his own face peering up at him from the black and white moving photograph, until he realized it was not him at all. It was in fact James Potter at perhaps sixteen, and the page beside it held a photo of both Sirius and James. Both looked impossibly young, and alive in a way Harry had never seen either of them before.
Even after getting over the shock, Harry still felt like he'd received a knife to the stomach. Here, trapped beneath the surface of the shining paper veil that bridged the past and present, rested Sirius. Picture after picture of a carefree teenager painted the pages. And then came the very last picture. Before this, Harry had thought he was going to be able to keep it together. But not now. For here was Sirius, an unlit cigar in his teeth and James hovering over him anxiously as a tiny baby waved grasping fingers up at his beaming Godfather.
It was nearly lunchtime and Severus had not seen hide nor hair of Potter. Though no alarms had gone off in the house to alert him of disaster, he was still worried that Potter was doing more than just avoiding having to talk about his home life. Luckily, however, despite Potter's lengthy disappearance, it did not take overly long to locate him. The ladder up to the attic had been pulled down. Severus crept cautiously upward, worry festering in his gut. What might Potter be doing up here?
Severus felt his breath catch in his throat when he hear Potter crying. It wasn't nearly as muffled as Severus thought it would be had Potter known he was here. Severus panicked internally, afraid to say anything to embarrass the boy, but also afraid to say nothing. Potter seemed to realize he wasn't alone after a moment or two, however, ending Severus' dilemma. Harry's crying slowed, and he rubbed his eyes forcefully.
"I was going to live with him," Harry said, his words shaking. "He said he was going to get me out of there."
Severus sat down next to Potter, the panic he'd always felt with emotional first-years setting in. He didn't know what to do. So he took a leap of faith, and trusted his gut instinct. He placed a hand on Potter's shoulder, hoping it would be enough.
Potter let out a gasping breath, and Severus flinched slightly, but something told him to keep his hand there. Potter's shaking slowed down, and Severus felt relief cascade over him, knowing he had done the right thing.
"They never loved me, really," Potter said softly. "The Dursleys, I mean."
Severus gently took his hand away, pulling the photo album a little closer so he could see it. He looked down at the photograph Potter had his eyes fixed on, of Black holding him on the day of his birth. Potter was looking at it tearfully.
"How could you tell?" Severus asked gently, hoping his question would not frighten Potter into silence. It was in fact, just the opposite.
Potter gave a bitter laugh. "That's just the problem," he said. He took a deep breath, like he was getting ready to say something important. "I couldn't tell at first. I didn't understand. I ... I thought love had to be earned, that Dudley had just figured out how to do it and I hadn't. I thought if I did chores or favours around the house they wouldn't make me sleep in the cupboard like always. That maybe Aunt Petunia would put my pictures on the fridge if I made them better than Dudley's. Except that only made it worse."
It was like the cork had been pulled from the bottom of the washtub, and all the dirty water was spilling out. Severus sensed it was better to remain silent, and just nod his head as Harry talked.
"I remember drawing a picture of her when I was six, maybe," Potter continued. "She made me peel potatoes until my hands were nearly raw because she was mad I would even try to draw her as ugly as I did.
"Then, it occurred to me one day that Dudley never got hit for spilling a glass of juice, that he got h-hugs if he cried, even if he was pretending. I ... I think I was eight when I realized I could never make them love me. I was at Mrs Figg's. It was Dudley's birthday, but I wasn't allowed to go. I was used to it. Then Mrs Figg started to tell me about her kitten, Tibbles, and how she had hid a piece of fish from her dinner in a box of hand-knitted tea towels Mrs Figg's sister had mailed her.
"Mrs Figg had to throw them all away because the fish rotted and ruined them. I asked her where she sent Tibbles, or if she locked her up." Harry was trying very hard not to cry now, and Severus waited patiently while he took a few deep breaths. "Mrs Figg l-looked at me like I was something else, I'll tell you. And she .... she said, ‘Harry, I won't send her away. She's just a baby cat, a kitten, and she didn't know better. And I love her. I love all my kitties, naughty or nice. That's what love means. To love someone even when they're bad.'" Harry paused, and Severus didn't know what to say, his words failing him. So he waited.
"That was when I knew they didn't love me," Harry finished hoarsely. "That was when I knew."
"I ... I am sorry," Severus muttered.
Potter just shrugged, seeming as though he didn't know what to say. Or maybe he just knew there was nothing left to say.
"I am sorry, Harry, but I have to ask," Severus began at last. "Amelia Bones gave me a few things I should make sure I ask you. I ... what I need you to say outright is ... is what kinds of abuse you suffered from them."
"Like, verbal abuse and stuff?" Harry asked, looking pale.
"Yes. But that, and neglect, I think we can determine occurred by what you've said already. What we still need to be absolutely sure of are physical abuse ... and sexual abuse. Those ones. They have to know for your case."
Potter seemed to be struggling internally, but he didn't appear to be making any progress on the front. Severus took a breath. He knew this memory would have to be viewed by Amelia and a few others, but there would be no sense in sharing this talk through the pensive if Potter didn't open up. So Severus forced his panic aside, and he tried a new tactic.
"My father came home drunk a lot," began Severus quietly. "I know you know that already. I've told you ... but what I haven't said is that it made him ... impatient." Potter looked up from the photo album, puzzled, but his attention caught. "When I was six I was playing in the sitting room, and I was being loud. Too loud, I guess. My father lost his temper and tried to drag me upstairs. He pulled me so hard he dislocated my shoulder." Severus rubbed his hands together, unable to meet Potter's eyes now, his own feeling oddly watery. "Things like that were very common place in my house. My father always blamed anything on accidents. But it was ... it was physical abuse, really."
Harry was looking at him hard, his eyes full of an emotion that seemed out of place. It occurred to Severus at last that it was not pity, as he was used to seeing. It was in fact, understanding.
"My uncle ... when he got mad, he'd throw stuff at me" Harry said quietly, looking over at the old things piled in the attic, the white sheets covering them like burial shrouds. Harry studied a shape that looked like a rocking-horse, studying the shadows in the fabric as he continued. "He never threw stuff at Dudley, or Aunt Petunia. Just ... just me. I had to stay home on picture day once, because I had a bruise on my cheek from a bar of soap. I broke the hand mirror in the bathroom, and he got mad ... and ... well, threw the soap at me."
"I bet that hurt."
Harry's eyes flickered upward at Severus'. He seemed surprised by the comment. "Yeah. Yeah it did."
"How old were you?"
"Seven, I think?"
Severus nodded, and for a few seconds he and Harry just sat in silence, understanding unfolding between them. It was a comfortable silence, and only now - in the middle of this dusty old attic, in circumstances he'd never imagined - was it that Severus realized just how much of a comrade he'd gained in Harry Potter.
"Harry?" Severus cringed at the way his voice sounded, hoarse and fearful. He hated to ask the question, but it was necessary.
"Did you ever experience .... sexual abuse?"
There was only silence in the attic for a long while, and Severus could feel his insides curdle with fear. Harry's eyes were filled with tears.
"No," whispered Harry at last.
"Please, Harry, look at me, and repeat what you said."
Harry looked up, and repeated the single, simple word, and Severus felt relief seep over him. He could see the truth in Potter's eyes.
"Thank Merlin," Severus said, feeling almost dizzy with relief.
"Could have been a lot worse, huh?"
Severus felt a strange sense of loss at Harry's statement. At the way he looked so relieved, so optimistic, and glad. Like he'd been lucky. Severus felt his throat tighten, and ache. Because that was the worst part. He felt it too. Good fortune for not having had that extra dimension of abuse.
It didn't seem right to feel optimistic about that. Blessed, even. But somehow, looking at each other, it was clear they both felt that way.
"I think that's enough," Severus said quietly, knowing only a few statements would be enough to corroborate the Dursleys' veritaserum confessions. "Want to go downstairs? I'll make you hot chocolate ... if you'd like. There's some scones too."
Harry smiled, wiping his eyes. "Yeah. Thanks, I'd love that."
Severus waited patiently as Harry closed the photo album on the picture of his Godfather. "You'll be safe up here," Severus heard him mutter.
Harry then tore his eyes from the photo album, fixing them instead on Severus. Severus was going to put a hand on Harry's shoulder, and then, before he could tell himself he wasn't worthy, he placed his arm around Harry's shoulder instead. It had been one of those leaps of faith; one of those moments he trusted his instinct. To his relief, Harry leaned into him. The tension in Harry's shoulders melted, and he let Severus him lead out of the attic and into the hallways, so brightly lit in comparison to that dusty room full of things from the past.