Hermione came downstairs slowly around eleven-o-clock in the morning, having been upstairs reading since breakfast. Severus looked up from where he was doing one of Poppy's sewing cards. Hermione looked lost, like she didn't know what to do with herself. There was a gentle crease in her forehead.
"Severus?" she said slowly.
"Yes?" Severus asked.
"I - I have to go somewhere today," she said softly. "An owl just came to my window with a letter from Professor Dumbledore. It says that ... that my parents' ashes are ready for burial. He's finally managed to arrange a small graveside service for today. Just me ... and a few relatives, to keep it safe. Tonks and Mad-Eye are going to accompany me there."
"One-thirty," she whispered, sinking down into the sofa.
"I cannot say I am surprised. Dumbledore sent me a quick note the other day saying he was trying to get something arranged, informing me that you would probably have to leave for the funeral in the upcoming days."
Severus continued to fumble slightly with the sewing card, expecting Hermione to get up and leave.
"Is something else bothering you?" he asked slowly when she did not, trying not to let the worry show on his face.
She frowned, then let out a shaky breath.
"My parents' will was examined," she muttered. "And now I know for sure where I'm going to live, I guess. Although .... Although I knew it before anyway. They had to change it at the start of last year."
"You do not sound overly pleased," Severus said. "Are you unhappy with the arrangement?"
"Well ..." she said slowly, "It's not so bad ... I guess. See, up until last year I was supposed to go live with my dad's friend Maria, but last August she went overseas to do some more schooling, get a second degree. So, seeing as it was only a year or two before I was old enough to live on my own - sooner if I want to live in the wizarding world - we decided that if s-something was to happen ... I would go and stay with my Great Aunt Isobel. She is really the only person available."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"Well, I don't really ... like her much. I mean, my parents and I considered that, but we didn't ... we didn't really t-think -" Her words dropped off, and she wiped her eyes.
"Does she know you are a witch?"
"Not yet, no," sighed Hermione. "I honestly don't know much about her, either. I guess we'll talk things over today."
"Do you need someone to come with you ... to the burial?" Severus asked softly.
"Well, Tonks will be there," muttered Hermione. "We've always got on well. Why, do you want to come?"
"If you want me to, I will," Severus replied, hesitating slightly before continuing. "Nobody should have to go to their parents' funeral alone."
"Did you have to?" Hermione asked, wiping her eyes again.
"No, Lily came."
"That was good of her."
"Yes, it was," Severus said quietly, trying to keep from thinking about that day, because it still made his chest hurt. "And I will go with you, if you would like me to. It is up to you."
"I ... I think Harry needs you here more," Hermione said, sounding a little sad. "I don't think he'd do so well if someone else came to look after him, even if only for an hour."
Severus nodded and muttered, "You are probably right."
"Thanks for ... for offering anyway," Hermione said, and Severus could tell that she genuinely appreciated it. He was suddenly quite sure she probably would have said yes had Harry not been around.
"I would have gladly come," Severus told her. "I would have."
"I know," she said, a ghost of a smile evident upon her face. She looked at her watch and sighed. "Well, I guess I had best start getting ready."
Severus turned back to his sewing card as Hermione walked slowly toward the bathroom to get cleaned up.
Suddenly unable to sit, Severus tossed down the sewing card and got up, feeling that there had to be a more interesting way to practise coordination. He walked over to the bottom of the stairs, and slowly, he began to go up them. It was easier now than it used to be, but Severus was still out of breath by the time he got to the top. He took a moment to catch it, and then he went over to Harry's room and peered into the room through the open door.
"Up for a game of catch?" he said casually to Harry, who was lying on his belly and colouring, the stuffed lion next to him.
"Can I bring Buttons?" Harry asked, looking up.
"Sure," Severus said, trying to keep his lips from twitching with the desire to laugh. "We can roll the ball to him."
Harry grinned, and quite suddenly he bounded out of the room and down the stairs.
Hermione was ready for her parents' funeral with a fair bit of time to spare. By then Harry and Severus had come in from a game of catch, and had just finished eating lunch. Hermione had told them that she had eaten earlier, but in reality she had barely been able to stomach a mouthful from one of the chicken and ham sandwiches Dobby had brought by. Now, it seemed that Severus had settled down to read a book, and Harry had skipped off down to the beach with his tin pail in hand. Wishing to be with neither one for fear that she would start crying, Hermione sat by herself on the porch while she awaited Mad-Eye and Tonks.
Harry seemed to be having a lot of fun, and as she hated to spoil it, she did not have the heart to tell him where she was going. Such care-free days for Harry were few and far between, and today, so far, seemed to be one of them. He did not seem to have noticed anything peculiar over her nice clothing as he had run down to the beach, and Hermione was rather glad for that. From a distance she could see the flurry of sand that was flying in the air as Harry set to work with his tin shovel, seemingly determined to dig as big a hole as possible. After a while all Hermione could see was his feet and the patched seat of his jeans as he leaned into the hole and dug. Due to his preoccupation, it was with little fuss that Hermione bade Severus goodbye, who wished her luck. She then walked out to the point, where Mad-Eye and Tonks had appeared at last. Tonks held out her arm for Hermione, quickly explaining that she would be side-along apparating. Hermione simply nodded, taking in Tonks' more sedate appearance. Her hair was a darker shade than she normally wore, a more burgundy-ish purple, rather than bubblegum pink. Hermione felt a tiny, unexpected twinge of amusement, for it was clear that Mad-Eye seemed to think that burgundy was hardly a colour for a funeral, and kept shooting Tonks looks with his normal eye. Moody nodded slightly to Hermione, who tried to smile, but failed, her moment of humour having left as she remembered where they were going.
"Ready?" asked Tonks quietly, her arm securely around Hermione's.
"Yes," Hermione replied, and Tonks twisted on the spot.
Her eyes were met with darkness, and the pressure in her chest and tightness in her lungs did not feel as strange as she thought it might. Even after arriving in the familiar country lane that had once led to her Grandparents' farm, it took her some time to pinpoint the reason for this. At last, as the old graveyard came into view, she realized that the way apparition made her feel reminded her a great deal of another sensation. It was in fact the feeling she got every morning, when she had awakened enough to remember that everything had changed.
"Where's Hermione?" Severus heard Harry ask later that afternoon. He briefly looked up from his book to determine where the boy was, and was met with an interesting sight indeed.
There was a rather impressive trail of sand following Harry into the sitting room. However much he wished to point this out to Harry, he chose to ignore this for the time being, as it could be fixed later. In the meantime, the answer to the question just voiced seemed more important.
"Her parents' funeral is today," explained Severus. "She will be gone for two hours or so, depending."
"But ... why didn't she tell me?" Harry asked.
"She probably found to too difficult to say aloud," said Severus. "Or, she did not want to worry you. Most likely a little bit of both, in this case."
"I - I wanted to go though," said Harry, his distress evident. "I wanted to b-be there for her."
"No doubt she knows that," Severus said quickly, startled by the tears in Harry's eyes. "Dumbledore could not make it quite secure enough for you to go, and he doesn't want you leaving here in your present condition."
"That's no fair." Harry let out a loud harrumph and stomped his foot, his arms crossed.
"I know," sighed Severus. Harry looked at him curiously, his scowl gone, to Severus surprise. "What?"
"You agreed with me," Harry muttered.
"I did. I agree that it isn't fair that you are unable to go, even if it cannot be helped."
"People ... people just tell me life isn't fair, when I say stuff like that," Harry told him in a small voice, his eyes wide. "But ... I don't like when people do that."
"And why is that?" Severus asked, interested to hear what Harry had to say.
"Well ... ‘cause the people that tell me life's not fair usually get what's fair, so they don't really understand what not being fair is. But they think they do, and that's why they say that."
Severus was impressed. It was odd because the message sounded a little more like it stemmed from a teenaged Harry, but his posture, and the way he said it indicated that he wasn't having a teenager moment. Severus found it strange to be hearing such wise words from a four year old.
"Will you play with me?"
Momentarily taken aback by the outright request, Severus hesitated. Harry looked at his feet.
"Sorry - I know you're busy, an' stuff," muttered Harry.
"Don't be. I will play with you," said Severus, knowing he could not say no even if he wanted to, for that short question had brought back memories of himself begging his father to play before he knew not to. The crushing disappointment of being told no over and over was something he couldn't inflict on another. He did not regret it; the look of joy upon Harry's face was so radiant Severus felt a shiver go down his spine, for it reminded him in every way of Lily. "What would you like to do?" Severus asked when it was clear Harry was still lost for words.
"Well ... I - I don't know," Harry said at last, all in a flutter and sounding as though he hadn't considered what would happen if Severus actually said yes. "I never had nobody to play with before, really."
"How about we go up to the attic to see what we can find?" Severus suggested.
"You can get up the attic stairs?"
"I think I can now," Severus replied. "Might as well give it a try."
Harry jumped up and down with excitement and reached for Severus' hand, dragging him out of his chair. Severus wrapped his hand around Harry's small fingers, which seemed so small compared to his own. They were also very slightly sticky.
Severus found himself smiling slightly as he was led by Harry toward the staircase. Slowly they went up. Harry did each stair beside Severus, gently hanging onto the fabric of one of the legs of his blue jeans, as though guiding him. They made it up the main staircase, and Severus reached up in the hallway for the rope to pull down the attic stairs. They backed up, and they unfolded with a light creaking sound. Severus took a deep breath as he stared at the steep wooden staircase. His legs were shaking slightly, partly from the first ascent, partly because he feared he could not do this. He had known very well it would be a challenge when he suggested going into the attic, but it was something he had been wanting to do for a long time. It was the final challenge in this house. It was his Everest. Harry looked expectantly up at him, waiting.
"You go first, Harry," Severus said, grabbing hold of the thin rail and releasing Harry's small hand.
"Kay Daddy," Harry told him, fumbling up the stairs.
"Harry?" he said slowly.
"Uh huh?" Harry said, turning around from where he stood at the top of the stairs.
"What did you say?" he asked faintly, hoping Harry would repeat the words he had just spoken.
Harry looked down at him, biting his lip, his eyes wide.
"Nothin'," he said quickly before running out of sight.
Severus' brow creased, but he had not entirely expected Harry to respond to his question. For the moment, he thought it best not to say anything further. He shook his head in amazement and focused on the stairs.
The shock of what had just been said started to fade away, and then suddenly, Severus found a warm feeling growing deep inside him. He smiled slightly, and began his way up the stairs. It took him a good couple of minutes, but it was only when he reached the top that he realized his legs had stopped shaking before he'd taken that first step.
"Come on, kiddo," Severus said rather breathlessly, ruffling Harry's hair and going toward the big wooden trunk, his mind still churning.
Harry helped him open it, and with a thump that left dust swirling, the lid fell open. Severus sat down on an upturned crate, his legs tired.
"See anything you want to play with?" Severus asked Harry, who was standing on his tiptoes and leaning into the box. A trickle of sand fell from the back pocket of his scruffy blue jeans as he did so.
"I don't know," Harry said, frowning.
"Hmm, I see a few puzzles, some wooden ducks, a toy train," Severus said, listing a few things to start.
Harry rummaged around a little, looking unsure.
It was then that Severus spied something that brought him back to his own childhood days. It was a helmet, a knight's helmet in fact, and a blue cape. Severus grinned suddenly, and extracted the helmet from the trunk.
"I have an idea, Harry," he said. "Look over here."
Curiously, Harry turned to him.
"You're a noble knight," Severus said, placing the helmet over Harry's head, "brave and loyal to your country."
Harry smiled suddenly. Encouraged, Severus reached for a blunt wooden sword from the trunk.
Severus lifted the wooden sword, which was held tightly in his hands.
"I knight thee Sir Harry Potter," Severus said, tapping the wooden sword on each of Harry's shoulders, then handing it to him.
Harry giggled suddenly, then grabbed the blue cape from the trunk, trying to put it around Severus' shoulders. Severus finished fastening the cape, which was many feet too small for him and had a red button to secure it.
"I knight thee ..." Harry said, pausing, the sword resting on Severus' left shoulder. He burst into a wave of giggles and continued through them, "Sir Smelly Socks!"
Harry collapsed with laughter.
"In that case, you're Sir Sandy Pants!" Severus added, making Harry burst into renewed giggles at the word pants. "If I have a funny name, you need one too!"
"Sir Smelly Socks, are we going on a quest?" Harry said.
"Indeed we are, Sir Sandy Pants," Severus told him. "But first, to the armoury! I need a weapon! What shall my weapon be, Sir Sandy Pants?"
"This!" cried Harry, dragging a rubber chicken out of the trunk.
"A noble choice," Severus said, holding back a snort of laughter.
"Oh no, there's someone in the Garden!" Harry cried playfully, glancing toward the small window. "We have to protect our kingdom! Queen Hermione will never forgive us if we let the thieves steal her books!"
"Let us go to battle! For glory, for books, and for a red dawn!" Severus cried dramatically, brandishing his rubber chicken and bravely following Harry down the treacherous steps.
"For COOKIES!" Harry joined in, making Severus almost slip on the steps with suppressed laughter.
Harry squealed with laughter as he hid behind the tree in the garden.
"Get back, you terrible Giant!" he cried, jumping out from behind it and waving his sword. "Nobody eats Sir Smelly Socks and gets away with it!"
"ARRRGGGG!" Severus growled in a deep voice, making the fiercest giant face he possibly could. Harry cried out with delight, still surprised to find that his once scary professor was great at playing pretend. "I'm going to squeeeeze you into jelly and put you on my toast!"
"Ahh, I don't wanna be jelly!" Harry cried through giggles as he ran away from Severus' waving arms, his sword abandoned by the tree.
Severus was quick as a flash as he knelt down and grabbed Harry around the waist. Harry cried out with delight when he was caught, and before he knew it the he was being tickled mirthlessly.
When Harry was gasping for air Severus let him go, and wasting no time at all Harry lunged for the rubber chicken, lying a few feet to their left in the grass. He raised it triumphantly in the air and jabbed it at Severus. Severus let out a giant-like roar of pain and fell flat on his back, bits of dust and grass floating up in the air where he fell.
"Aarrrgg," he moaned weakly. "Sir Sandy Pants .... arrgg ... promise me you'll ..."
"Promise you I'll do what?" Harry said seriously, kneeling by the side of the giant.
"Tell Mummy I love her!" Severus gasped before taking one last breath, his dramatic spluttering cough. All of this was lost by Harry's sudden onset of laughter.
"Sev'ruuus," Harry said, "Giant's don't say that when they die!"
"They don't?" Severus said, opening one eye and frowning up at Harry in mock confusion.
"No," giggled Harry.
"And what do Giants say on their deathbed?"
"I JUST WANTED TOAASST!" Harry crowed, adding a few fake gasps as he fell back into the grass beside Severus.
Severus laughed, much to Harry's delight. Harry grinned happily.
"Oh my, look at us," Severus said with a chuckle, examining the grass stains on the knees of his blue jeans and the dirt on his arms. "You are no better than I am."
Harry looked down at his own jeans and shirt, and found that he was covered in stains and dirt and bits of grass.
"Well, I'd call the day a success," Severus said lightly as he picked grass off of his t-shirt. "How about you?"
"Yeah," Harry said, delighted that Severus wasn't upset over the stains. "You have grass in your hair."
"I am not surprised," Severus replied, straightening the cape on his shoulders. "What do you say we go inside for a glass of lemonade?"
"Yeah!" Harry told him, thinking that today could not get any better.
Harry seemed to have dawdled on the way to the house slightly, which did not concern Severus. He paused on the porch to wait for him, standing in front of the door to the house. In the meantime he brushed some of the grass off his clothes, although the stains would have to come out in the wash. He was pretty sure he had dirt on his face, and a few bits of leaves in his hair, but this did not concern him much. He could get those out later. It had been worth it, and however much he hated to admit it, he had almost as much fun as Harry. He hadn't had anyone to play with when he had been really young as well, and even though he felt silly because of it, he had greatly enjoyed the chance to make up for lost time. That, and it seemed he had forgotten that sometimes the best stress release in the world is to get dirty and make a great deal of noise.
Severus looked away from the house for a moment to see where Harry was, for the surprised cry had alarmed him. Coming nearer were two people. One was Hermione, the other an elderly woman who had Hermione's arm hooked in hers. She was an austere sort of woman, wearing long, deep purple robes in pristine condition, each curl of her grey hair resting perfectly beneath her hat. She wore spectacles of a square sort of kind, and they were perched delicately on the tip her nose, not crooked in the least. Hermione looked miserable standing next to her.
The woman and Hermione stopped on the porch, and Harry came to stand beside Severus, who was only just realizing he was still wearing the childish blue cape, and holding a rubber chicken loosely in his right hand. He dropped this and hoped she did not see it. Harry's helmet was on crooked, but he seemed also to be worried by the stern woman's glare, and he straightened it.
"So you're Severus Snape?" said the woman in a disapproving sort of way.
Hermione seemed to have just noticed his appearance, and Severus reached up to pull a leaf out of his hair, sure that he looked like a deer in the headlights, blocking the way to the front of the door to the house as though he had forgotten what he was doing there.
He cleared his throat.
"Yes, Ma'am," he said, chagrined by the fact that his voice seemed to be deciding it wanted to crack slightly. "And who might you be?"
"This is my Great Aunt Isobel," Hermione said, clearly trying not to sound apologetic. "She's a witch too. I never knew until today."
"I thought I should come and see what kind of company my grandniece is spending her time with. She's talks most ... highly of you."
She surveyed him over her glasses, taking in the grass stains and the dirt.
"It's nice to meet you," Severus said, smiling hesitantly and hoping that Hermione could tell just how sorry he was for his appearance.
Just then, he felt a tugging on the leg of his jeans.
"Sev'rus," Harry said in a stage whisper, his tone urgent. "Can you move? I have to pee!"
Severus' lip twitched.
"Go on, Harry," he said, stepping out of the way of the door so Harry could go inside.
Great Aunt Isobel looked scornfully in Harry's direction. It was clear to Severus that she preferred children to be seen and not heard.
"Why don't you come inside," Severus said, opening the door for her.
"Thank you," said Great Aunt Isobel stiffly before glancing sideways at Hermione. "Come, along now. We shall have a cup of tea."
Hermione had no choice in this matter, for her arm was still locked in Great Aunt Isobel's. The moment that the two were in the kitchen Severus practically ran for his room, threw on a different set of clothes (a long sleeved shirt to cover up the Dark Mark, which thankfully, he had managed to keep hidden from her during their brief meeting) and opened his wardrobe to examine his appearance. He watched as the colour drained out his face when he noticed the smudge of dirt under his eye and the twig in his hair. He quickly rubbed the dirt away with his hand and combed his hair with the fingers on his left hand. He straightened his best shirt (the robes would have taken too long) and left for the kitchen. He arrived to find Hermione bringing out the good teacups for tea.
Great Aunt Isobel had removed her hat and sat with her hands clasped in her lap, her posture ramrod straight. Just then, Harry entered the room. He still was covered in grass stains, and he was trailing bits of dirt as he walked. Taking advantage of the moment where Great Aunt Isobel was distracted by Hermione asking if she took cream and sugar, Severus grabbed Harry's hand and steered him out of the room.
He grabbed a wet flannel from the bathroom and knelt by Harry.
"I don't wanna get my face wa-ummph," Harry said, his words cut off as Severus cleaned the dirt off of his face. He picked a few pieces of grass from Harry's hair and then sent him firmly up the stairs with the order to change.
"Best behaviour, alright?" Severus called as loudly as he dared after Harry, who was pouting for having to go and put on clean clothes. Severus was worried by his mood. Harry had played hard today (in fact, they both had) and he knew well enough from having taught Harry that he was not pleasant to deal with when he didn't get much sleep. A four year old, cranky Harry Potter was the last thing they needed right now. Severus crossed his fingers that Harry would take his words to heart.
He re-entered the kitchen with as much grace as he could, and Hermione poured him a cup of tea as well, Great Aunt Isobel supposedly having used a spot of magic to boil the water so they did not have to wait so long. He quietly thanked her and then took a sip despite the fact that it was scalding hot.
"Come join us, Hermione Jean," said Great Aunt Isobel, her wrinkled hand gesturing daintily toward the chair across from her.
Seeming irked by the usage of her first and middle name, Hermione sunk down into the chair. Severus noted that it seemed to be with deliberate clatter. Hermione smiled stiffly and began to put liberal amounts of sugar in her tea.
"Ah, ah, set the spoon down on the saucer," Great Aunt Isobel said, noting that Hermione had been about to set it on the table.
Severus looked at Hermione when Great Aunt Isobel was preoccupied with adding cream to her tea from the small pitcher. He raised an eyebrow, and Hermione gave him an exhausted sort of look.
"So, tell me, Severus," Great Aunt Isobel said in a conversational tone, "what is it you do for a living?"
"Well," Severus said thoughtfully, "I was a Potions Professor at Hogwarts."
"Yes, Hermione Jean told me. But whatever do you mean by was? I hope you do not mean you are unemployed." The scorn in her voice cut like a knife. Hermione nudged his foot under the table, and Severus continued.
"I'm switching subjects," he said without missing a beat, years of spying making it easy. "Teaching the same subject for so many years gets tiresome."
"What subject will you be teaching now?"
"Arithmancy," said Severus, thinking of all the years he enjoyed taking that class as a student, as well as his natural proficiency for it. He could at least hold to this bluff. "It is one of my best subjects, so I am looking forward to teaching it."
"How nice," said Great Aunt Isobel, seeming pleased by this answer to both Hermione and Severus' relief. "No slouching, Hermione Jean!"
Hermione straightened up so quickly Severus was amazed she didn't pull a muscle.
"How was the service?" Severus asked hesitantly, hoping to divert the conversation to something else.
"Quite nice," said Great Aunt Isobel. "But there was a girl with purple hair there. I hardly think my daughter would associate with people like that.
"I like Tonks' hair," said Hermione. "She's an Auror, so she had to be there for protection."
"Well I don't see why she has to look like such a ... a hooligan."
Hermione seemed to think it best not to argue, and she did not say a thing. This surprised Severus. He had never known Hermione not to speak her mind, but right now, she seemed to be saying as little as possible.
"Hi Hermione!" Harry said brightly, coming into the kitchen, thankfully dressed in clean clothes. He bounded over to the chair at the end of the table, next to Hermione and Great Aunt Isobel. He sat on his knees.
"Hello Harry," Hermione said, looking glad to see him.
"How was the ... the funeral?" he whispered to her, eyes wide.
Hermione's eyes became rather bright. "It was nice," she whispered.
"I woulda come if I coulda," Harry told her.
"And who is this?" chimed Great Aunt Isobel, seeming slightly annoyed that nobody had introduced her. Severus could feel his neck tightening with every word she said.
Hermione looked away from Harry reluctantly, and glanced at her great aunt.
"Great Aunt Isobel, this is Harry," she said. "Harry, this is my Great Aunt. She's the one I'm going to live with now that ... that things have changed."
Harry looked at her, shock written on his face.
"B-But," Harry said, his eyes filling with tears. Severus felt a flutter of panic in his stomach at the look on Harry's face, realizing only now that he had forgotten to mention that Hermione would be going to live elsewhere. He had thought Harry would assume this, but at the moment, he saw just how silly an idea that had been. "I thought you were staying here."
"For a few more days," said Hermione slowly, looking sad. "The rest of the summer I'll be settling in with her."
"You can't!" Harry said suddenly, standing on his chair so he was level with Hermione, the tears spilling over.
"Sit down, young man," Great Aunt Isobel said sharply. Harry didn't obey, and a look of fury crossed his face. He turned to her slowly.
"No," he said to her in as dangerous a tone as a four year old can muster, and Severus could tell that things were going to go badly.
"Harry, it would be best if you sat down," Severus said, a warning tone in his voice. Harry looked to Severus, but then he saw the look of satisfaction on Great Aunt Isobel's face, and he did not move.
"Well, friends or not, with those manners you will not be coming to visit Hermione Jean unless you can smarten up," she said stiffly. "Now sit down."
"NO!" he said to her. "You can't tell me what to do! AND YOU CAN'T TAKE HERMIONE AWAY!"
"Harry, calm down," Severus said sharply, debating whether or not to go over and take Harry off the chair himself and send him to his room. He had a feeling Harry would react badly to force, however. Instead, he added, "You will still get to see Hermione."
"Little boys should be seen and not heard," Great Aunt Isobel said sharply, paying no attention to Severus, her pale cheeks flushing and her blue eyes snapping.
Harry didn't take this well at all, and as he yelled the tears came pouring down from his face. He clenched his fists, still standing on the chair, glaring at Great Aunt Isobel.
"I DON'T CARE! YOU'RE JUST A MEAN OLD LADY WHO WANTS TO TAKE HERMIONE AWAY! I ... I WON'T LET YOU!"
Severus saw what was going to happen a second before it did, and made to jump up from his chair to get Harry to come down, but Aunt Isobel was quicker. She had leaped up from her seat as though electrified, and reached forward and swatted Harry hard on the bum where he stood on his chair. Severus winced.
Harry let out a yelp, and then reached down to feel his backside. It was not the cry of shock that Harry made, nor the pained look, but the sudden fear in his eyes as he froze that made a sudden bolt of anxiety go through Severus. Harry remained, staring in terror at Great Aunt Isobel, who looked at him with triumph, her hands on her hips. And then, with a whimper he leaped off the chair and ran out of the room, the same terrified look upon his face as Severus had seen the night of the boggart.
"You had no right to do that!" Severus said, not caring anymore what happened, fury coursing through his veins as he got to his feet. Hermione sat in shock, staring at the scene. She looked to Severus, clearly grateful, for she too was horrified at what had happened.
"I had every right - naughty little boys should be taught when to behave," Great Aunt Isobel said haughtily, returning to her tea. "As one of his elders, it is also my duty to teach him right and wrong."
"That boy is no ordinary boy!" Severus cried, furious, forcing himself to breathe as the magic coursed down his spine. "He's been abused you daft woman! That's not the kind of punishment that helps him learn - all it does is terrify him!"
To his surprise, Great Aunt Isobel's hand shook as she set her cup down.
Before she could defend herself, Severus had left the room, off to go find Harry. He had a hunch on where to find him.
Harry tried to calm his breathing, although it was going badly. Each breath came as a sharp gasp, and as he rocked back and forth, his face buried in Buttons' mane, he focused on the slightly dusty scent of the cupboard in his room. It was a safe smell, just different enough from his cupboard at the Dursleys', and just similar enough, that it set him at ease. He couldn't believe she had done that, and as he replayed the events in his mind he could remember every shout of Uncle Vernon's, every screech from Aunt Petunia. He could feel cold hands on his neck and the sharp throb of a hand to the back of the head. The sting of a slap to his cheek.
It seemed like a hundred years later when he heard a quiet voice outside the cupboard door, but it had only been a minute. Harry tried to make his breaths obey him, and become silent, but he couldn't do it.
"Harry, can I come in?" said the voice. "It's Severus. Just me. I want to make sure you are alright."
Harry nodded slightly, then realized Severus couldn't see him, so he raised his voice slightly, and through the sobs he called "Yes."
The cupboard creaked open, and Harry heard a rustling noise. He looked up to find Severus moving aside a box of toys, and taking them out of the cupboard. He sunk down on the opposite wall, and he pulled something from his pocket. I was the phoenix night-light, and it fluttered from his hand to rest on the wall.
"Would you like me to close the door?" Severus asked softly, and Harry nodded. The cupboard door was closed, and in the cramped space the two of them sat, the phoenix fluttering its wings and emitting a golden glow on the two of them. Severus had a pained sort of look on his face. After a moment, Harry realized that it was understanding.
Harry's breaths still came irregularly, and to his surprise, in the dim light, Severus opened his arms. Harry gasped slightly, and silently, he crawled toward Severus. He wrapped his arms around his neck and pressed his face into his chest, sitting on his knees.
"I am so sorry," said Severus in his ear. "I should have protected you. I wasn't quick enough."
"'S okay," whispered Harry. "It's my fault."
"No, it's not," Severus said. "It is true that you should not have yelled at her like that, or gotten up on your chair, but she had no right to hit you without a warning like that."
Harry just sniffled.
"And neither did your relatives in the way they did," Severus told him.
Harry tensed, his stomach suddenly dropping to his toes.
"You know about that?" he whispered, pulling away slightly and looking into Severus' dark eyes. To his relief, they did not hold pity. Instead, the look of understanding had remained.
"I talked to your Aunt Petunia a few days ago," said Severus. "I got her to tell me a few things. That is how I knew to look for you in here. You feel safe in this place, don't you?"
"Uh huh," whispered Harry, pressing his face into Severus' shirt and breathing in his smell - like dust, soap, and something herbal. "Silly."
"No, it isn't silly. It makes sense. The cupboard was the only place that was only yours, the only place that only you could go into. It is completely understandable that you would feel the safest there."
"You're safer than cupboards," Harry whispered in Severus' ear.
Harry felt Severus' arms tighten around him, and pull him closer. He did not say a word for a long time.
"I can make sure that you don't go back to the Dursleys," muttered Severus when Harry had stopped shaking. "Do you want that?"
"Yes," Harry said.
"Good. That's why I have been mailing Dumbledore, so I can tell him about what's happening, and make it better."
Harry let out a small sob, and clutched Severus' t-shirt, not knowing how to say how grateful he was. Severus just held him, shushing him gently. Telling him it was all going to work out.
"Where would I go?" Harry mumbled tiredly after a few more minutes.
"Where do you want to go?"
"I don't wanna go nowhere," Harry said quietly, closing his eyes and resting his cheek against Severus' chest. "I wanna stay here. With you."
"Then here is where you'll stay," Severus replied in a shaky whisper. Harry smiled softly, and shut his eyes. He was asleep in minutes.
Severus was just putting Harry's sleepy form to bed when Hermione came into the room. He looked up from where he was tucking the covers around Harry. He would wake him in a little while for dinner, after he'd had a nap.
"I'm sorry, Hermione, for everything," Severus said quickly, worried by the shadows under Hermione's eyes. "Both Harry and I made a terrible impression. It's my fault, really. We were outside, and we lost track of time."
"No apology needed," Hermione said in a low voice. "I should be apologizing, for her. She's ... just, forceful, is all. This is the worst I've seen her though ... I think she was really stressed from the funeral, and so she was trying to find control somewhere in her life. We all were pretty stressed, I guess. She felt really bad, though, about what she did. She felt awful. But ... I wish she hadn't come at all. When she found out I was a witch too, well, she sort of insisted on coming for tea. She was a bit excited about it, I think. It never crossed my mind that it would go so badly."
"She didn't know you were magical either?" Severus said in surprise as the two of them walked slowly out of the room and down the stairs.
"Well, we both sort of kept it a secret, thinking the other wasn't, I guess," Hermione said with a frown. "She went abroad for school, so I guess it isn't too surprising I hadn't heard of her."
"Interesting is right ..." she muttered. She opened her mouth, as though she wanted to say something more. But she closed it, seeming unable to speak.
They remained in silence until they reached the sitting room. It was nice and cool in here, and outside the harsh light of day was starting to wane. Severus took a seat in his usual armchair, and Hermione curled up on the sofa.
"Did you two decide when you are moving in?" Severus asked quietly, an empty sort of feeling in his gut as he remembered just why Great Aunt Isobel had come into the picture.
Hermione looked up at him.
"We're not sure when yet," she muttered, staring out the big sitting room windows.
It was with these words that he understood why his stomach felt empty. This illusion he'd been living in, the taste of what family life was like, was only ever to be temporary. Hermione would have to leave, and even though he wanted it, he dared not hope that Dumbledore would be able to arrange for Harry to live with him (if, by the odd chance, Harry still wanted to when he had returned to his normal age). Even if Harry was able to stay, Severus knew that anything more than that was for better men than he. Yet, this did not stop him from wishing that this fragile way of life did not have to be shattered, that Hermione would choose to stay here. He was so close to asking her, the words in his heart dying to be heard, for a small part of him told him there was a chance she would say yes if he just asked. But he couldn't. He tried to open his mouth to say the words, only to discover that he seemed to have frozen with the terror that she would think he was crazy for asking, that she would say she deserved better than Severus Snape as a guardian - a man that had thrown himself to the Dark Lord ... a man who had been nothing but cruel in the past ... a man who no longer had the ability to cast a spell.
Hermione got up from the sofa, shadows under her eyes. "I think I'll go read," she said softly, walking toward the stairs.
"Wait," he called after her, but his voice was not loud enough. It came out in a whisper, and Hermione was gone before he could make himself heard. He bowed his head, his hands clasped tightly in his lap. The Dark Mark upon his left forearm stared at him. He shut his eyes tightly, and rolled down his sleeves once more, wishing with all his heart that things could be different.
It was a fool's dream, and he knew it. He had he'd never deserved Lily. He had not even deserved a proper father. He did not deserve any life besides one of loneliness, and anyone who believed otherwise hadn't known him enough to understand this.