Severus was plunged into the memory like a raindrop into a river, and was swept away immediately into darkness. The only thing visible for a long time was Dumbledore beside him, and when they finally found their feet on solid footing, they could barely see each other in the gloom of whatever small space they seemed to inhabit. They had to bend down slightly, for overhead the shadow of a misty ceiling could be seen.
And then they heard the singing.
"Twinkle Twinkle ... little star," a child's voice sang ponderously nearby, the words soft and almost too quiet to be heard.
Severus knew that voice. Oh, how he knew that voice.
Then, as the quiet song filled the cupboard it was illuminated by a soft light. Taped to a shelf was a drawing in crayon of stars, and a tiny, bespectacled boy of no more than three (or so Severus guessed, as Harry seemed to be just a mite younger than Severus had known him to be) lay in his bed and stared with amazement at the paper. It shed light on all the surroundings, illuminating the shelves of cleaning products and the door to the cupboard. Severus shuddered as his eyes took in bottle after bottle of floor polish, bleach, and other toxic products. He never thought he would think it, but he was suddenly grateful that Harry had some amount of sense in him. He turned his eyes back to the little boy before him, who was eagerly standing on his saggy mattress and feeling the scribbled crayon stars with his fingertips. He was even smaller than when Severus had known him as a child.
"Twinkle Twinkle little star ... how I wonder ... what you are " he whispered in a broken tune, now hugging himself tightly and smiling in the soft glow of the stars, which seemed to grow brighter as he sang.
"Up above the world so high ..." He fell silent for a moment then whispered. "With Mummy, and Daddy"
Beside him, Severus thought he heard Dumbledore's breath hitch, but the sound was cut off by Harry's careful singing as he tried to continue the song.
"Like a dia- day ... sparkle in the sky ..."
Severus smirked slightly, but his mind was quickly taken from Harry's song, for he was wondering when everything was going to go wrong. This memory was pleasant, but he knew it couldn't last, that there was something in this moment that made Harry give this memory up. And as footsteps sounded outside the door, as little Harry kept singing as though he and the stars were the only things in the world, as the light in the hall flicked on, Severus suddenly wished he did not have to know what shattered this peace.
The cupboard door opened with a thwap, and Harry froze. The light from the stars continued to trickle innocently into the dim lighting of the hallway. A man whom Severus could only assume was Harry's uncle stood in the doorway, his bushy moustache twitching as he stared at the stars. Harry had frozen, and was now staring in horror at his uncle. For a moment, the man seemed speechless as he stared with alarm at the glowing stars, but when he regained his voice it rose to a terrifying height. It was so loud Severus jumped badly, and had anyone been able to see him in the gloom they would have seen his neck grow hot from embarrassment.
"WHAT IS THIS FREAKISHNESS, BOY?" Vernon had shouted, and the man's words still seemed to echo in Severus' head as he roughly pushed Albus' hand from his shoulder, where it had reached in an attempt to calm him after he had been startled so badly.
Harry backed up, staring at the stars and then to his uncle, clearly hoping they would go out. Severus watched in horror, wishing he could do something.
"I - I d-d-didn' do it!" Harry squeaked, his wide, emerald eyes filled with tears.
Vernon opened his mouth to bellow more, but, bravely, Harry cut him off.
"I didn', really! T-T-They must b-b-be m-magic!"
Vernon froze, his skin now the colour of newsprint. Then, he squared his shoulders, his meaty fists clenched.
The stars flickered and died as he made a grab for Harry, who backed away with a small cry.
"What was that word?" hissed Petunia, who had come downstairs with her dressing gown a few moments ago, although Severus supposed he hadn't noticed her initially.
"What w-word?" whispered Harry. "I didn' swear."
"You know what word boy!" hissed Vernon.
"M-Magic?" whispered Harry, his eyes tearful again.
Uncle Vernon roared, and Petunia shrieked with fury, seemingly speechless.
"Daddy, what's wrong?" said a sleepy voice down the hall. Harry, Petunia, and Vernon all turned their heads. The two adults immediately changed their posture, going from menacing to loving in a second. It was so fast that if Severus had blinked he would have missed it. He caught a glimpse of the toddler standing at the end of the hall, plump and well cared for in his brand new pyjamas, which contrasted greatly to the ratty pyjamas Harry was wearing.
"Diddy, darling," cooed Petunia. "Let's get you back to beddy-bye."
She made to leave, but gave Vernon a pointed look, then a scornful one in Harry's direction, like he was dirt. It was a look that filled Severus with hate so powerful he could taste it. Harry looked at his feet meekly.
"I will not have this ... this unnaturalness in my house," Vernon spat.
"U-Uncle -" whispered Harry, clearly sensing danger. He backed away. Tears started to flow down his cheeks. "I - I don't know how it happened! I ... I was singin' twinkle twinkle an' they just did that like ma ..." Harry's eyes grew wide as he realized his mistake.
"DON'T SAY THAT WORD!" bellowed Uncle Vernon, raising a hand in the air.
"N-No, p-pease!" cried Harry with his childish speech, falling to his knees and putting his face to the floor, reminding Severus absurdly of a house elf. "I be good, I p-promise!"
Vernon grabbed Harry's arm roughly. He gave a sharp cry as he was dragged from the cupboard. Severus felt his stomach drop as Harry was pulled roughly down the hall crying, his pyjama trousers now wet from fear, his eyes wide as Vernon cursed and swore and said an unintelligible mix of words and insults about no good little boys who couldn't stay in control of themselves.
Severus sprinted down the hallway after them, feeling his chest tighten and his vision blur, whether from anger or some other emotion he wasn't sure. He could feel the throbbing pulse of the destructive magic that he longed to release, and he did not even hear Dumbledore's shaking breaths as he followed Severus out into the back garden. It was pouring rain outside, and darkness had long fallen. The rain was so thick that the neighbours' houses were obscured, but clearly Vernon was pleased by this. Not a star was in sight, and the sound of the pounding rain masked Harry's cries. Severus watched in horror as Vernon tossed Harry into the garden shed.
"That will teach you not to be a freak!" he hissed. "Tomorrow you're scrubbing that cupboard! How dare you make a mess for your aunt! Do it again and you'll get something worse than this!"
Severus and Dumbledore rushed into the shed as well, and with a click they heard Vernon lock it. Severus' eyes adjusted just enough to make out shapes. He watched in numb disbelief as the tiny boy crawled into a damp corner, shaking from head to foot and drenched from the rain. His form was illuminated just for a second as lightning flashed outside, the light reflecting in his fearful eyes. Severus felt his hands shaking again, his stomach suddenly filled with acid and dread, for after Vernon's last words he knew exactly why Harry had worked so hard to keep any accident of his a secret.
Somewhere in the distance, the thunder rolled. Harry put his head to his knees, and while he shook like a leaf, he did not make a sound. Upon a sudden surge of what seemed to be instinct Severus fell to his knees and reached forward, trying to touch him, but his fingers were met with nothing but mist.
At that moment the memory ended, the word dissolving around them. Blinking, Severus and Dumbledore reappeared in the kitchen in the exact same positions. Severus' arms remained in the air for a few moments before he dropped them numbly. He got shakily to his feet, fury like he had never felt before overtaking him like a storm. He clenched his fists. He felt dizzy, and angry with himself and at Dumbledore too, angry at every single teacher who had missed it, for every single person who had not taken it seriously. Angry at the world for this injustice. Harry was sitting at the table still, his face in his arms. The way he was sitting made him look remarkably like the little boy who they had left behind in the memory. Of course, that little boy wasn't quite the memory as Harry probably wanted them to think. The fear and the uncertainty were still there in the Harry before Severus, a boy caught between a child and a man.
Severus' thoughts reached the point where they could not stay coherent any longer as the images of what he had seen flashed before his eyes. Panting, Severus made a beeline for the door.
"Severus," said Dumbledore in a low voice, "control yourself."
Severus glanced at the table, noting the teacups shaking. They stopped when he paused to focus for a moment, but when they fell silent his clenched fists began to shake instead from fury.
"Where are you going?" asked Dumbledore in a moment when Severus resumed walking to the door, Harry still not looking up.
"To kill Vernon and Petunia Dursley," said Severus, his voice shaking almost too much to be used. Harry looked up sharply, staring at Severus with his mouth open.
"No," said Dumbledore firmly, "Stay here."
Severus glared at Dumbledore, only to realize that he was not the only one shaking with rage.
"Let me rephrase that," muttered Dumbledore quickly, almost recklessly, "Not yet."
"Albus," said Severus, scandalized, but somehow pleased all the same.
"Don't!" said Harry in what could only have been described a squeak. "They're not worth it."
Dumbledore seemed to have realized what he had said. He sunk into the chair and put his fingers to his temples, looking ashamed.
"Forgive me, Harry," he said, his voice having lost that wild edge it had acquired a moment earlier, a weary, sad tone replacing it. "I did not mean what I said. What I intended to say is that they will be punished for what they have done, in whatever way is deemed fit. What they did was very wrong ... and it has pained me very much to know that you had to suffer like that."
Harry looked rather relieved, but Severus was intrigued by the way that Dumbledore was employing Legilimency to prevent Severus from reading into his thoughts. What was he planning? To kill, certainly not, Severus was quite certain, but he thought that either Albus had considered it a moment at least, or had other methods planned to make the Dursleys sorry. Why else would he block Severus out?
Severus smirked darkly, a taste of his old ways in his mouth.
"Severus, I expect you to think rationally about this," said Dumbledore sternly, gesturing to the remaining chair. "Promise me you -"
"- will be a good boy and not get myself thrown in Azkaban for murder?" said Severus with a rather alarming grin.
Severus looked from Dumbledore, then to Harry, who seemed to implore him.
A dull sort of heaviness settled in his chest again, a sort of shame at his previous thoughts, he supposed. Or perhaps a sense of duty, of doing what was right even though it was not easy, because Harry needed it. Whatever it was, he knew he owed it to Harry to follow his wishes.
"Alright," said Severus. "I promise."
Harry gave him a look that made it clear Severus had said the right thing, and for a moment that twisting pain inside Severus lifted. Despite the fact that his anger was justified, he supposed that to avoid going to Azkaban he would have to wait for Vernon and Petunia to get what they deserved by other means.
He turned on his heel and threw himself into a chair. Harry didn't need another person who cared for him to go to Azkaban. One had been enough.
"I am sorry, Harry," muttered Severus after his breathing had slowed, to Albus' apparent surprise. "I got carried away."
"'S okay," whispered Harry.
"Thank you, Harry, for trusting us with that memory," said Dumbledore gently. "It was a very brave thing to do.
Harry just nodded.
"Do I have to say anything else about it all?" whispered Harry after a moment, his eyes now filled with tears, the shadows beneath them evident.
"No," said Dumbledore, his eyes too looking surprisingly damp, his voice a little raspy. "You have shown enough courage for one night. If you have anything to add to the matter, you may tell me or Severus another time, but for now, I think this is more than enough to justify you going to a new home."
"And I can stay with Severus?" whispered Harry, seeming almost afraid to say the words too loud in case someone contradicted them.
"Yes," said Dumbledore.
Harry looked to Severus, who nodded.
Harry lowered his head to the table again, exhausted.
Dumbledore left soon after to go alert the Order and find a way to deal with the situation without the help of the Ministry. He left Severus and Harry in the kitchen, and in a few minutes Severus led Harry to bed, who could barely stay on his feet. Harry put his pyjamas on, and a few minutes later Severus came into his room. He sat on Harry's bed, and neither said a word. Severus smiled slightly (however tiredly), hoping it would encourage Harry, who had fallen back on the bed.
It must have set Harry at ease, for his eyes fluttered shut. Severus removed his glasses, because he was already asleep. Harry was not awake to feel the gentle hand run through his hair, or the blankets being tucked around him.
Despite this, Severus knew that in the morning Harry would notice these subtle changes. Most wouldn't pay any attention to such tiny details, but the neglected always did. And if there was anything that Severus was sure both he and Harry knew, was that it was the little things that made all the difference. That was all Severus had ever yearned for, really, those little things - those small acts of love, whether it be the chance to give or receive them. Yet, as Severus tumbled into bed and his sleepy brain lost the battle to wakefulness, one last thought drifted across his mind, the thought that maybe, those small acts of love were bigger than he had ever realized.