Severus sat with his morning coffee, scowling at the letter Dumbledore had sent back to him, phrases bouncing around in his head.
... too busy to come talk to you during the next week ... mean to say you are concerned? ... Harry's relatives have provided him with a home ... is true they may be hard on him, but ... Would it be possible for you to voice your concerns in the next letter? ... no way for me to answer your request in person in the coming days, demand or not ...
"Bloody old coot!" Severus growled, slamming his mug onto the table, fuming.
Unable to sit any longer, Severus got up and began to pace around the kitchen. Potter had risen long before him despite the late night, being on the clock of a child, and Severus glanced out the window to see that the boy was sitting on the swing again, with his head down. Potter was acting listless again, and it was not what Severus wanted to see. For a little while Potter had been acting as a young boy should, which had been rather good for him, in Severus' opinion, despite the extra work it created. Now, however, Potter had fallen back into his gloomy, apathetic demeanour. Fury coursed through Severus' veins again, but not because of Potter.
He snorted slightly, unable to believe that Dumbledore's reply had made him this angry. It occurred to Severus only now that it was not so much curiosity that had made him write that last letter to Dumbledore, demanding answers about Potter's home life. It was in fact, very real concern that had made him do so, and this thought made him question for a moment just who he was and what he'd done with Severus Snape. Frowning, Severus shook his head slightly. The way he saw Potter just wasn't the same anymore, and it was at this moment that he finally saw just how much his view had changed. Thinking of how he saw the boy at the end of the school year, to now, was astounding to him. He almost didn't mind the boy. In fact, he almost liked him sometimes. And it had gotten to the point where he was worried enough about Potter that he was losing sleep over it. It was strange to think that things had changed. His hate of everything Potter had grounded him over the years. It had been the only thing that never changed, but now that that was gone, Severus did not know what to be sure of.
He had thought that Potter was a brat. Disagreeable and spoiled beyond belief and now all he could see was a boy not unlike the one he used to be. It scared him, however much he hated to admit, and it brought on a whole wave of confusing feelings.
Severus sighed, walking back to his chair and sinking down into it again. It had taken some getting used to, but he was at last willing to admit to himself that he was worried about Potter's living arrangements, not because Potter was a former student of his, but because he actually gave a damn what happened to him. He was sure the boy had been about to tell him something last night during the storm, when Severus had shared that his father used to drink. Had Dumbledore seen that look last night, Severus doubted that he would push the issue aside again. But what on earth could he do, though? He wanted to march right up to Dumbledore and interrogate him, but it was clear from the phrasing of the letter that Dumbledore was skirting the issue. Sure, he was a busy man, but he had always made time for matters concerning Potter in the past. Not this time, however, and Severus was sure the he knew something about this.
Severus lifted his coffee cup again, wondering how he could get the answers out of Dumbledore. A moment later he felt his mouth open with shock, and the mug almost slid from his slack grip. He tightened his fingers on the handle just in time, his brain whirring.
Who says I have to go to Dumbledore, anyway? he thought to himself.
He could still apparate. He was sure he could. There was no wand movement required. One only had to have the wand on person, and perform the simple twisting motion. It was mostly concentration anyway.
Severus stood up immediately, heart hammering from the exhilaration of stumbling upon the answer to his dilemma.
He glanced out the window and frowned. But how would he get past Potter? He would have to go to the point to disapparate. He would be seen by Potter if he was outside, and the last thing he wanted was to have Potter ask him where he was going, or worse, send a letter to Dumbledore saying he knew Severus had left. Severus would much rather spring the news of his excursion on Dumbledore after he had returned, lest someone try to stop him. But the boy was outside, and would undoubtedly notice his absence, even if he was only gone for a few hours. Severus frowned deeply. There had to be something that could be done to distract the boy.
"Good morning, sir," said Miss Granger, coming into the kitchen, looking weary. She poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down, staring into it. There were shadows under her eyes.
"You look exhausted," Severus told her, shaken roughly from his thoughts by her appearance. "Then again, I suppose none of us got that much sleep last night, what with the storm."
"Well, I couldn't fall asleep, even after the storm," sighed Granger, her eyes flicking up to Severus for a moment.
Severus nodded, not knowing what to say, but hoping a look of understanding was enough. She looked like she wanted to say something more, and for a moment she opened her mouth as though she was going to, but then she closed it, and looked down at her coffee.
Severus sat back down at the table, across from her. It was obvious she needed to talk, and despite the fact that he was quite sure there were millions of people on earth that would likely do better than him at this, Severus knew that he would have to do for now.
"What have you got on your mind?" he asked quietly.
Miss Granger looked surprised for a second, but she just sighed, and rested her chin on her fist, stirring her coffee absent-mindedly. Some of her dark hair fell onto her cheek, making her seem paler.
Severus let her be silent for a moment, hoping that she would say something.
"I miss them," she whispered finally, her eyes glancing up from her coffee cup, filled with tears.
"I know," he said quietly, not sure what else to say.
Miss Granger took in a shuddering breath, letting the spoon go so that it sat in her coffee. It made a soft clink against the ceramic.
"Sir?" she whispered, her voice barely audible.
"Yes?" Severus said, not realizing he was whispering too.
"Will ... will it ever stop hurting?" she whispered.
The first word of his answer slipped from his lips before he could think. It was the honest answer, but he feared it was the wrong one.
"No," Severus had said heavily, sighing. He paused for a moment or so before continuing with care, knowing he had to properly explain such an answer. "You will always miss them, if that is what you mean. But ... it will get better, and after a while the pain will dull until you can think of the good times had with your parents. Still ... there are some wishes people never let go of, and the wish not to have lost someone is one of those."
"Do you still miss your parents?" asked Miss Granger slowly, cautiously.
"I miss my mother a great deal," Severus muttered, knowing that Granger needed honesty right now. Besides, what did he have to lose? He was not going back to teaching. Who cared if she told the whole school this? Yet, even if he had been going back to teach, Severus had a feeling Miss Granger would not broadcast anything he said. She was not that type of person, and it made his words flow easier when the time came.
"What about your father?" she asked.
"He was a piece of work," Severus said, scoffing slightly. "I do not understand what my mother saw in him. Whatever that was, he lost it pretty quickly, I think."
"I am sorry to hear," muttered Miss Granger.
Severus shrugged, then said, "I guess it was not all bad. I learned how to look after myself, mostly, and how to stand my ground."
Severus frowned as Miss Granger looked at him. She had straightened up in her chair, and a curious expression had fallen upon her face. He was just about to ask her what she meant by it when she spoke.
"You probably don't want to hear this," she told him slowly, "but strangely enough, you really remind me of Harry sometimes."
"I do?" Severus asked, bewildered and a little bit defensive. "How?"
"Well," she began carefully, wrapping her hands around her coffee cup thoughtfully, "neither you nor Harry are what you seem. On the outside both of your manage to make it look like you have it together, but ... well, forgive me for saying so, but you two play that role better than you live it. I hope that doesn't offend you, at all. See, now that I know you a bit better ... you really aren't what I expected. Of course, Harry is often not what people expect either. I think that he has surprised you as well, in some ways."
"No offence taken," said Severus, shaken at how well her words had described him. He still didn't much care for being compared to Potter, though, but he was careful not to show this, as he did not want to distress Miss Granger. Dumbledore's letter swam in front of his vision quite suddenly, and he knew that now was the moment to swallow his pride. "However much I hate to admit it, you are quite right that Potter has surprised me. I am ... afraid that I was wrong about him. Very wrong. Which is why I need to leave today."
"What, where?" Miss Granger said, sounding panicked. "Will you come back?"
"It will just be for a few hours," Severus assured her, surprised by her concern. "I believe that Potter's home situation isn't as ideal as many think. I need to talk to his Aunt. Dumbledore has been skirting the issue, which is a very bad sign indeed, so I am going to go pay her a visit. I knew Petunia. The Evans' lived a few neighbourhoods over, and Petunia was very jealous of her sister. I have reason to think that she may have carried that grudge a little bit too far."
"Rather like your grudge against Harry's father?" blurted Miss Granger suddenly. She went red and pressed her lips tightly together once she'd said it. "I'm sorry sir, I didn't me-"
Severus closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then opened them.
"No, you are right," Severus admitted slowly, his heart sinking, feeling his neck grow hot from shame, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice. "I did see only James Potter, but I was wrong. I owe it to Lily to ensure her son's safety, to whatever cost, a role I have only partly filled as of late. But now I have a chance to do this properly, and I would greatly appreciate it if you could distract him for a few hours. Two, perhaps, just until I am back. Claim I am ill, or something of that nature if he asks about me. Can you do that?"
"Yes, sir," said Miss Granger, her eyes ablaze with determination.
"I will be leaving in about twenty minutes," said Severus. "If you could have Potter upstairs at that time and away from the windows, that would allow me to disapparate without his knowledge. And before I go, you should know that there is a single silver sickle in the drawer of my desk. If something happens while I am gone, hold it in your closed hand for fifteen seconds and Madam Pomfrey will be alerted that you need help. If you keep it in your hand until thirty seconds have passed it will alert Dumbledore as well. You will know someone has gotten your signal when it emits heat. Only summon Dumbledore if it is absolute emergency. I give you permission to tell him where I went in such a situation. Is that clear?"
"Yes. Good luck, Professor."
"And to you as well," he said, turning to go to his room and prepare for the trip.
"Wait, sir," Miss Granger said, "why don't you just ask him? Just ask Harry, I mean?"
"Well," he said thoughtfully, "there is always two sides to every story, and this way, I will have more proof. Beside ... do you really think he would tell me?"
Miss Granger looked thoughtful and then said, "I do. If you asked right."
"The problem is," said Severus after a moment of hesitation, a ripple of fear going through him, "I do not know how to."
She nodded, silence falling over the two. Severus spared her one last glance, then turned on his heel and retreated into his bedroom to gather the necessary things for the excursion.
Severus crept from his room. He was wearing his robes, for full effect. It had taken him a good fifteen minutes to do all the buttons up, but oddly enough, it was easier than the last time he had tried. Feeling slightly elated, and also wanting to puke at the same time as he thought about what he had to do, he shuffled out of the cottage. Miss Granger so far seemed to be keeping Potter out of the way, and he saw no trace of him as he walked over to the point to apparate to Privet Drive.
His heart was hammering as badly as it had the very first time he had apparated, because Lily had been only a few hoops over. She had been deliberately ignoring him, but he had wanted so badly to be the first in the class to apparate, so as to impress her. He'd been reading books on technique for months, and practising without his wand, wanting to prove himself to anyone who was watching. Especially Lily, whom he was careful to position himself near each class.
"Come on, Severus," he muttered to himself, standing on the outcrop of rocks, looking over the endless sea, trying to keep his knees from shaking. "You have come a long way since then."
He thought with a wince back to the time he had first achieved apparition. Sure, thanks to those endless months of preparation, by the end of the third class he had managed to become the first to apparate. Or at least most of him had. He'd left a leg behind because he was distracted by the wave of Lily's hair at the last moment as she twirled on the spot.
"Just have to hold the wand steady, Sev, and that's it," he muttered under his breath, knowing he'd have to get a move on before Potter looked out his window.
Lily swam before his vision again, but not as the memory of the girl who he had wanted to impress, but as the woman he owed everything to. And the thing that had been everything to her was not Severus, but her son. So, thinking of everything he had yet to do, of all the ways he had failed her, of how much he wished he could take it all back, he felt his nerves turn to steel. He took a deep breath, let all else but his the thought of his destination fade into the background of his consciousness, and let himself fall into nothing.
He appeared in an alley not far from Privet Drive, and the first thing Severus did was check to see he had all of himself there. Thankfully, he had. Pride swelled in his chest for a moment, but the dread born from knowing what he had come here to do replaced it quickly. With a sigh, he reached into his pocket for Potter's Invisibility cloak, which Molly had thought it best to put away for the time being. Thankfully, Severus knew exactly where she had put it - high up in a box in the Laundry room.
It was around noon, and he walked along the streets as quietly as he could, the summer sun making it hot under the cloak. He was panting by the time he reached number four, and even though he knew it would be a relief to get out of the sun, he faltered on the front steps, staring at the gleaming door knocker.
Oh how he hoped Petunia had gotten fat.
Of course, this was not the reason for himself pausing on the step. It was not that he wanted to savour the moment where he could choose to believe that Petunia had been run over by the freight train of middle age (although he enjoyed this anyway). Quite frankly, it was the fact that he wasn't sure he could pull this whole act off. What had he been thinking? He could threaten her all he liked, but he couldn't even make her hair stand on end if he wanted to, what with his total lack of wand waving skills.
Then, of course, a more frightening thought occurred to him. What if he just snapped? What if he lost control of his magic? It had happened earlier with Potter. Who was to say it couldn't happen here? Besides, Petunia always found a way to wind him up. While with Lily it had been love at first sight, with Petunia it had been hate from the moment he had seen her bouncing brown curls. Severus feared that the very same thing that fuelled the childish hope that her looks had gone south would betray him, and cause him to do something he couldn't fix.
Fear festered in his gut, and his shoulders slouched. He turned on his heel so that his back was facing the door and stared down Privet Drive, the cheerful sunshine mocking him.
Who was he kidding? He couldn't do this. How on earth could he fool her that well?
Same way I have always done it, he thought suddenly to himself, remembering what Granger had said while comparing him to Potter.
"On the outside both of you manage to make it look like you have it together," he heard her say in his head, "but ... well, you two play that role better than you live it."
So what if he couldn't live it? So what if he did not really have the power he once had? How could he have forgotten his motto? Fake it ‘til you make it. That was always his saying, from age ten on. That was what he had learned to tell himself when his father was sneering at him as a child for one thing or another, asking him if he was going to cry. And Severus had always swallowed his pain and lied through his teeth, all the while looking up at his father with the scowl he had become known for in the halls of Hogwarts, the one that said get out of my way or you'll be sorry.
"Aww, is little Sevvie gonna cry?" he heard his father say through drunken lips.
Severus scowled, gritting his teeth. He squared his shoulders and whirled around to grasp the metal door knocker through the cloak, rapping hard on the door, wand drawn and ready for a fight ... ready to fake if for all he was worth.
Petunia was the one that came to the door, as he had predicted. It was during the day, and from what he remembered Lily saying about the scum Petunia had been dating years ago, and then married, Vernon's other wife was his workplace. So of course it was Petunia who answered.
Severus pushed past her. She gave a shriek, not seeing who was there because of the cloak, and then he slammed the door behind him. He tore off the invisibility cloak, scowling at her with all his might, trying to distract her from his fumbling hands as he stuffed the cloak in his pocket.
His first thought was of disappointment that she had remained as thin as a stick insect. The second, with a wry kind of satisfaction, was that she looked more like a horse than ever.
"YOU!" screamed Petunia.
He sneered and raised his wand, pointing it at her with his left hand. Like she'd ever know which was his proper wand hand.
"Not even a hello?" he said with a dark laugh.
"G-Get out of here!" she spat, her anger replaced with shock, and now ... fear? "How dare you! V-Vernon is -"
"Isn't home," said Severus, his wand trained on her still.
He smirked when she paled.
"If you're here for Potter, he isn't here!" she screeched, recovering quickly.
"I know he isn't, you daft lunatic," Severus spat at her.
"Then what are you here for?" she said, her fists clenched, red spots on her bony cheekbones.
"I was in the neighbourhood," Severus drawled, lowering his wand and tapping it menacingly against his leg, making it look as though it was an unconscious act. Petunia watched the wand, eyes wide.
"Crawled out of the gutter to see what high class society is like?" she spat with gusto, fire snapping in her eyes.
"If that was what I was doing, why on earth would I come to this hovel?" he said casually, pushing past her and into the kitchen as she opened and closed her mouth silently like a fish. He rummaged around, found the kettle, filled it and threw it on the stove for no other purpose but to wind her up.
"Tea, Petunia?" he said courteously.
His words were drowned out by the most unladylike assortment of curses he'd heard in a long time. If he'd had the time he might have written a few of the better ones down.
"Good to see Vernon taught you well," Severus snapped back at her, and she let out a screech of mirth, threw her hands up in the air and marched toward him, standing up as tall as she could, her face inches from his. He stood calmly and quietly, staring down at her with one eyebrow raised.
"Alright, you lowlife scum, what the bloody hell are you doing here?" she hissed. "Don't pretend you wanted to see me. What do you want?"
"What is your opinion on Potter?" he said casually, not bothered by her taunting.
She stepped back, huffing and looking surprised.
"What kind of a question -"
"Just answer," Severus said firmly, twitching his left hand so she took notice of the wand in his grasp once more.
"Lazy, rude, freakish," she listed, arms crossed. For a moment, the anger left her face, and her voice took on a rather urgent tone. Why? Is there something wrong with him?"
"Oh, I do not think there is anything wrong with him," Severus said rather quietly, surprised. "He has had a rough time, lately, if that is what you are referring to. Do you mean to say you are worried?"
"Dumbledore would kill me if something happened to him," spat Petunia, missing the barb within Severus' comments. "And the rest of your lot think the sun shines from his every orifice. Not to mention he's done something freaky again, and if Dumbledore can't fix it I don't know what we'll do."
"But you don't really like the boy, do you?" Severus said, taking on a different approach to see if it would work. "Like you said, he is rude, and very hard to live with. I have to teach him at school. Truthfully, he's a brat."
"Finally, someone else who agrees," Petunia said under her breath, latching onto the word ‘brat' like a mosquito to a fresh supply of blood.
"That is why I came, to tell the truth," admitted Severus grudgingly. "I am utterly sick of Dumbledore and his little fan club worshipping the ground Potter walks on. However much I hate your guts, you are the only one who has an accurate view of what Potter is really like."
Severus made sure that his voice was absolutely dripping with disdain. It was what Petunia had come to expect, and it would have clued her in if he acted any other way. Of course, he was quite happy to profess his hate for her.
"Something's been wrong with him lately," said Petunia distastefully, oddly set at ease by the acidic comment. "I am happy to have him gone while Dumbledore sorts out that stupid accidental magic of his ... but he was acting strangely, even before that. Of course, Vernon chalked it down to laziness, and he might be right. Whatever it was, Vernon thinks he had no right to act the way he did, moping all day long. That I definitely agree with."
"His Godfather died," said Severus before he could stop himself, barely reminding himself to keep the ice from his voice.
"Well, that explains that," she said, looking a little unnerved. "I thought he was trying to kill himself by starvation."
"Didn't you ask him why he was not eating?" Severus said before he could stop himself, disgusted. Petunia seemed to think that his disgust was regarding Potter being foolish and refusing food.
"After a few weeks I asked," said Petunia, to Severus' surprise, actually looking concerned for a moment. "I will admit I was a little worried. I told Vernon to lay off him a bit."
"And normally you do not say anything?" Severus said, trying not to grind his teeth.
"Oh no, it's good for the boy to have his ego taken down a notch occasionally. His freakishness gets out of hand otherwise. I daresay that was why he did that stupid thing with his magic. I never should have told Vernon to leave him alone. I don't know what got into me."
An ounce of decency, probably, though Severus wryly. Oh well, better squash that right away. Next thing you know you might start feeling charitable toward others, let alone your own flesh and blood!
"Well, goodness knows the boy deserves it," said Severus, hating to say it but sensing Petunia was enjoying talking to another Potter hater. Her attitude toward the boy made Severus' insides boil quite suddenly, even though he knew he was a hypocrite, considering the way he used to treat Potter. He clenched his fists together, for he could feel the magic tingling down his spine, the way it did before something bad happened. "What do you normally do to keep him in control? He's a menace in the classroom."
"Well, Vernon yells at him a lot, and gives him plenty of chores. The best thing to keep him out of the way is to give him a good scare. Shout at him suddenly, stage a bad mood to drive him out from underfoot, try to catch him with a pan or something. Things like that."
Severus clenched his hands tighter. He did not have to open his mouth to prod her into continuing, because Petunia was just dying to tell someone about all this, for she was obviously sick of Potter's lot taking his side.
"A good wallop to the back of the head smartens him up. He's pretty quick though, and hard to catch, but the lesson sinks in all the better when you finally do get him."
"Interesting," said Severus, counting slowly to ten in his head as he felt the crackle of magic at the tips of his fingers. "Do you mind showing me what his room is like? I'd like to get a sense of how he normally lives."
She looked at him suspiciously for a moment, and then Severus continued.
"I would really appreciate if you didn't mention this to Dumbledore," said Severus in a conspiratorial tone. "He seems to think the boy can do no wrong. I trust you can keep a secret?"
"I will not say a word," she said smugly, all suspicion forgotten at the thought of a juicy secret. "This way. His room is upstairs now."
"Where was it before?" Severus asked, trying to forget the pounding in his heart at the thought of trying to go up the stairs quickly. He was still quite slow.
"The cupboard," said Petunia, pulling open a door under the stairs as they passed it, revealing an old mattress and a couple of shelves with cleaning supplies. "He was horribly destructive. We had no choice but to make this his room until he could smarten up and treat his living quarters carefully. When he started school he got a little better so we moved him upstairs to get him out from underfoot. He's so hot headed. Sometimes when he got really upset he'd try to barricade himself in here -"
Severus stopped dead in his tracks, her words continuing but not registering.
The cupboard ... the cupboard. Where did Potter go when he had that first accident and thought he was going to get in trouble? Small space, heavy door. The wardrobe.
"Damn, look at the time," said Severus, feeling his stomach drop when he saw that the picture frames on the walls shaking ever so slightly, unnoticed by Petunia. "I have to go. Perhaps some other time. I appreciate your insight on the situation, Petunia. This will help immensely with my plans."
"What are you planning on doing with him?"
"With Potter?" Severus said breathlessly, pushing past her and going to the door, pulling the invisibility cloak from his pocket.
"Oh, no, with you," he said, sneering mirthlessly at her before throwing the cloak over himself and slamming the door behind him, leaving the horror-struck look on her face permanently burned into his memory.
He only wished he could have enjoyed that.