Severus emerged from sleep in the early evening, not sure what had woken him. He felt tired, and his eyes were heavy as he lay there on the soft bed. He knew he had to start unpacking his things, but he did not open his eyes just yet. There was a comfortable weight on his chest, and in his groggy state he did not think to question it.
"Hedwig! Come here," hissed someone nearby.
"Hoo!" said an owl softly, very close by.
Severus' eyes snapped open. Huge, amber orbs stared down at him, only a few inches from his face.
"Hoooo," said the snowy owl resting happily on his chest, its face level with his.
"ARRG!" cried Snape, shock and surprise shooting through his body.
The owl, clearly alarmed at the sudden noise, flapped noisily off his chest. Severus panted noisily, his left hand over his heart.
"Hedwig," hissed someone, and the owl fluttered toward the voice. "What on earth were you doing?"
With difficulty, Severus pushed himself up into a sitting position. A tiny Harry Potter was berating his owl.
"Is this some sort of prank?" Severus asked dangerously, anger flaring up inside him. "What on earth are you doing?"
"It's not a prank sir, I swear," squeaked Potter, his voice much higher than Severus was used to. "Hedwig just flew in here - I tried to stop her, I swear! I think she was s-surprised you were in this room. See, she was using this window earlier to go outside."
Severus narrowed his eyes, surveying the small boy. He was wearing a pair of overalls and a blue t-shirt, the same faded orange Chudley Cannons hat on his head. His hair stuck out from under it every which way. Behind his glasses his eyes were wide with terror, and he was trembling. Remembering what Dumbledore had said to him earlier, Severus bit back a cruel retort.
"Leave," he said coldly. "Do not let it happen again, and close the door on your way out."
"Yes, sir," said Potter quietly.
Before the boy could leave, Molly appeared in the doorway, looking anxious.
"Harry, I told you not to bother Severus," she said under her breath, looking as though she was trying to diffuse a bomb.
"Tell that to Hedwig," he muttered darkly, scowling and stalking from the room. "It's not my fault!"
"I'm sorry, Severus," said Molly.
"Apology accepted," he said.
"Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes," she informed him.
"Quite a drastic change in Potter," said Severus now that he was gone.
"It is, isn't it?" Molly said, looking a little bit amazed upon thinking of it.
"I was worried he was going to wet himself with fright when I asked him what he was doing in here," confided Severus, a little bit bewildered after seeing Potter so small.
"Do try not to scare him, he is so very little," said Molly lightly, and as an afterthought, with the ghost of a laugh upon her features she added in a whisper, "and I'm afraid if you talk to him too sharply, he just might."
Severus let out sharp laugh, to Molly's delight.
"I won't," he said. "I will come down to dinner shortly."
"You will be fine to get there yourself?"
"Yes," he said, surprised at how little he minded the question, for Molly did not sound condescending as Albus did. "I can get around fairly well, although stairs are a bit of a trick."
With that, Molly turned and left the room, leaving Severus with his thoughts. After a moment it occurred to him that perhaps Dumbledore tended to sound condescending simply because he was so old, far older than anyone at Hogwarts. Sure it was infuriating, but maybe it was something that he could not help much of the time.
Harry stood on the chair in the kitchen, helping Mrs. Weasley do the dishes. Professor Snape had retreated into the sitting room to read a book, as he was little help in cleaning up. Harry was alright with this, however, because neither of them had said a single word to each other during the meal, and Harry was happy to get away from the tension.
"What do you think you're going to do tomorrow, Harry?" asked Mrs. Weasley as she handed Harry a cup to dry.
"I dunno," he said, shrugging and drying the cup with the tea towel.
"You know, that trunk up in the attic might have some interesting things in it," said Mrs. Weasley. "Why don't you go have a look in it to see what there is."
"I think it's just toys," Harry said rather morosely.
"What's wrong with toys?" inquired Mrs. Weasley. "It might be nice to play a little."
"I'm still a teenager in my mind, remember?" he said, rolling his eyes.
"Even teenagers need to play a little sometimes Harry," she said, eyes twinkling. "Everybody does. You wouldn't believe how much fun Arthur had when the kids were young, playing pretend with them. I think he wanted to play more than they did some days."
"I guess," said Harry, frowning as he accepted a soapy plate from Mrs. Weasley. "It's just ... I never really played much when I was little the first time."
"Well, I didn't have many toys, really," admitted Harry slowly. "And I was too busy doing other things to play pretend much, except when I was alone in bed, and by then I was too tired to play."
"Then what did you do all day?" asked Mrs. Weasley, sounding baffled.
Slowly, Harry answered her, throwing caution to the winds "Whatever there was to do. Chores, sometimes. I didn't mind doing them because they made it easier to avoid Dudley a lot - you know, my cousin. He was pretty mean to me."
"I'm sorry to hear," said Mrs. Weasley after clearing her throat.
He waited for her to continue speaking when she turned back to the sink.
"You know Harry, I think that this is your chance to do what you never got to. I know you still think a fair bit like a teenager, but there is a little kid inside of you, just as there is in all of us. Why don't you take this as a chance to have some fun? A little bit of play cannot hurt. I think it would be good for you. Perhaps it will allow you to release some stress."
"I guess," said Harry, not convinced. "I mean ... it isn't as though I can write to do my homework. Dumbledore left my school books in my dorm at Hogwarts for some reason."
"I think he wanted you to find other ways of entertaining yourself besides school work," she said after a moment. "Why don't you go up to the attic after we finish the dishes?"
"I - I think I'd rather just go to bed," admitted Harry, though it was only seven-o-clock. "It's been a long day. Sorry."
"That is just fine, Harry," said Mrs. Weasley. "You're right; it has been a long day. How about you go brush your teeth and I'll come tuck you in. Is that alright?"
"Um, okay," said Harry rather cheerfully, forgetting himself for a moment. "I've never been tucked in before. I mean, that I can remember."
"I put your toothbrush in the lowest drawer by the sink," said Mrs. Weasley. "The toothpaste is there too, and there is a step-stool for you.
"Thank you," he said with a little smile before rushing down the hall and going into the bathroom, which was located on the main floor by the laundry room.
He began brushing his teeth, not recalling just what he had said about never having been tucked in before. If Harry had stopped to think about it, he might have thought it had something to do with the fact that he was young again, and it had taken him a great deal of time to learn what was normal for other children. And now, it was evident that sometimes his brain reverted to its old ways. It was a good thing, however that he had not noted his slip-up, because it would have kept him awake all night. Luckily, his mind was drifting away on a quaint little fantasy of what life might have been like if he had not grown up with the Dursleys, and for once, this dream did not feel so melancholy.
Severus looked up from his book as Molly came into the room. She took a seat on the sofa, a few feet away from the armchair Severus sat in.
"Such a good boy," she muttered to herself rather sadly.
"You miss having young children around," said Severus. It was not a question, but a statement.
"You offered to tuck Potter in," he said over his book, struggling to flip the page so as to look like he had been reading rather than listening in to the conversation going on in the kitchen.
"And?" said Molly, bristling slightly.
"He may look young, but he isn't really, in a lot of ways."
"You know what he told me, Severus?" said Molly, her voice suddenly trembling, and full of an unexpected anger. "He told me that he's never been tucked in, as far as he can remember. He said it like it was normal. Normal! He has not led the existence that you, and many others, believe. That is the most he has ever told me about his home, and I do not think he even meant to say it in the first place. It is plain to see that he scarcely had a childhood, and I intend to give him one, even if for just a little while!"
"I did not mean it as criticism," said Severus, also growing angry and starting to think that Albus might have been right about him. "I just ... I was just reminding you so you are not disappointed when he does not do everything a little child would. You cannot take care of him in every way, Molly. Maybe he will let you tuck him in, but he is not going to be like your boys were when they were little. This is different."
"So you don't want me to get hurt, is that right?" said Molly, still angry.
Severus caught her eye, and then looked at his feet.
He shrugged slightly, remaining silent, although Molly easily read him. Her expression softened.
"There is truth in what you say," said Molly kindly. "I understand where you are coming from, but I think will be fine."
"I will not mention it again," muttered Severus, wondering why he bothered to open his mouth in the first place.
"Mrs. Weasley?" called a quiet voice from the top of the stairs.
"Coming, Harry," said Molly, brightening suddenly.
Severus watched her go up the stairs and put down his book, wondering how it was that everything he said was wrong. Perhaps that was why he had really only had one proper friend, and even she had been offended enough to leave in the end.
Harry lay down on his bed, and Mrs. Weasley lifted the covers from him to get under them. She smoothed them over as he lay beneath them.
"Was it an okay first day here, Harry?" she asked softly.
Thinking for a moment, Harry nodded.
"I guess," he said, taking off his glasses.
"Well, tomorrow will be better; I promise," said Mrs. Weasley taking the glasses and putting them on the side table for him. "Would you like to hear a bedtime story? Or are you too tired?"
Harry let out a huge yawn, and Mrs. Weasley chuckled.
"Too tired. That's alright, we can read another night if you would like. Would you like that?"
"Yes, please," whispered Harry, his eyes drooping.
Mrs. Weasley sat there for a few more moments, and then smoothed the covers once more before getting up to turn off the lamp in his room.
"You'll be alright with just the night light in the hall?"
"I'm not afraid of the dark," mumbled Harry, a touch of defiance in his voice as he rubbed his eyes.
"Alright then, goodnight, Harry," she said. "Sleep tight."
"Goodnight, Mrs. Weasley."
Harry closed his eyes, and the light left the room. For a moment, tired and groggy, he opened them.
"So this is what it's like," he mumbled, mostly to himself. He was surprised when Mrs. Weasley spoke, for he thought she had left.
"What what is like?" she inquired curiously.
Harry paused, but replied, despite knowing that he would be telling her far more about him than he normally liked to share. Yet, in his sleepy state, he found he didn't care all that much and that he was too tired to stop the words spilling out.
"This is what it's like to be loved," he said quietly, closing his eyes for the last time, and drifting off before he could see the look on her face. Although, he thought for a second that he heard a soft sniffle.
When Harry came downstairs the next morning, dressed and ready for the day he found Snape sitting in the kitchen and drinking coffee rather clumsily with his left hand. The other hand was struggling to flip a page in the paper. Harry reached up and flipped it for him as he got onto his chair.
"I can do it, thanks," said Snape coldly.
"I know, but I wanted to see what was on the next page," said Harry, backtracking quickly. "I thought it might be comics."
"Did you two sleep well?" asked Molly as she bustled into the kitchen to take out the bacon.
"Very," said Harry, while Snape merely grunted.
"I take it you slept badly, Severus?" she said, sounding halfway amused at the way he had responded to the question.
"Yes, but no surprises there," he replied irritably at the oddly stern look she was giving him.
"And why is that?" she asked. "Couldn't get comfortable?"
"Something like that," he muttered training his eyes on the paper and starting to read.
Mrs. Weasley seemed to know not to press the issue, and Harry did not dare ask what Snape meant by his last statement. So, he busied himself with his breakfast as soon Mrs. Weasley put it before him. Snape stabbed at his own breakfast rather mutinously, although his aim wasn't all that great, as he had to eat with his left hand, and it too, while much better than his right, appeared to be slightly affected. He missed the eggs and his speared his toast instead.
"Blast," he muttered, pulling the fork out and hitting the eggs this time.
"Mrs. Weasley," said Harry when he had swallowed his mouthful of bacon, "can I go look for starfish in the tidal pools today?"
"It's a bit rainy to do that, isn't it?" asked Mrs. Weasley, surprised. She opened the curtains hanging over the kitchen window just a little further, and sure enough, rain was streaming down the windowpane.
"Oh," said Harry, expression downcast. "I guess not then."
"Why don't you go up to the attic?" she suggested. "You can look through that old chest for something to do."
"I guess so," said Harry glumly, knowing there really was little else for him to do but that.
So, after breakfast Harry let Mrs. Weasley pull down the folding staircase to the attic. He climbed up, Mrs. Weasley following close after him with a lamp. There were various pieces of furniture scattered about, covered in sheets to protect them from dust. But in the centre of the attic sat a wooden chest, the very same one Dumbledore had rifled through for the pail and shovel. It looked a lot like the one that held shoes in the sitting room near the front door, but this one was bigger and much heavier. Mrs. Weasley lifted the heavy lid while Harry stood and watched. It stayed propped open and Harry rushed forward to peer inside. He could easily have fit three of himself in the chest comfortably, and the colourful contents intrigued him more than he could admit.
Mrs. Weasley went over to the small diamond paned window and pulled back the dusty curtains. A beam of rain-washed light hit the floor near the trunk, making it light enough for Harry to search through the trunk without the lamp.
"Will you be alright if I leave to go back downstairs and keep Severus company?"
"Uh huh," said Harry, still standing on his tiptoes, his arms folded over the edge of the chest as he peered into it. He listened for her footsteps retreating, and glanced over his shoulder to make sure he was gone.
Then, he plunged his hand into the chest. He pulled a string, and attached along it were little wooden ducks that quacked when you pulled them along the floor. He set these aside then reached in again, this time coming up with a small red quaffle, perfect for little hands. He grinned suddenly and tossed it in the air to try to catch. It fell with a clunk when he missed it, and it rolled off to the side. He did not bother to retrieve it however, for he was drawn back to the chest. Rummaging through it he found what looked like some dress-up clothes. There was a dark blue cape with a big red button on it to fasten it under your chin, a knight's helmet, and a wooden sword among them. Harry dug deeper. He pulled out a floppy stuffed lion, which looked worn, but loved.
"You look sad," he said to it, sitting down on the ground and smoothing its mane. The lion was about the size of Hedwig, and its black button eyes were scratched with age, the fuzz on its nose all gone and its yarn mane was a bit frizzy. Harry smiled a little at it, and set it on the rocking chair beside the trunk. He smoothed its mane again, and the fuzz around its eyes. It didn't look so sad now.
Into the chest he reached once more, pulling out two baseball gloves and a ball, a little tea set packed safely in a box, a toy train and a few pieces of mismatched track, a dragon figurine and a few knights, a princess too. There was a puzzle, and a bright red kite with a blue tail, and a few little tins of powdered paints. Then, at the bottom of the trunk sat a stack of storybooks, faded from the years. But they were not the only things hiding at the bottom of the trunk, for right there, next to the storybooks was what interested Harry the most. A big glass jar rested on its side, the lid still on tight. Inside was a collection of shining, multi-coloured marbles. Grinning from ear to ear, Harry stepped up onto the small stool he had pulled over from one of the attic corners, and reached far into the trunk. It was difficult, but he got his fingers around the jar, and was able to lift it up and into his arms. He stepped down, and put the jar on the floor.
Having learned from Aunt Petunia at an early age that it was not good to leave a mess, Harry began to pile things back into the trunk. In went the books, the kite, the cape, the knights and dragon, the train, the tea set, the gloves and baseball, the quaffle, the tins of paint, the dress-up things, and the wooden ducks. Harry left the marbles out, and glanced around the room to see if he had missed anything. His eyes rested on the lion, still sitting on the rocking chair, its floppy legs splayed out and button eyes looking at Harry. After a moment's consideration, Harry closed the big heavy lid of the trunk, careful not to pinch his fingers. It was lucky he was careful with things like this thanks to the amount of cleaning he had done as a youngster while at the Dursleys'.
"You can come with me," said Harry to the lion, wrapping one of his arms around it, and putting his other arm around the marble jar. He held them both carefully, as though they were the most precious things in the world, and he descended the attic stairs. They were steep, and it took him a long time, but eventually he reached the landing on the second floor of the cottage. Harry set the marble jar down by the door to his room, and took the lion over to his bed. He set it carefully on the patchwork quilt, and with a smile, he left the room, the button eyes smiling back at him. Then, he took the marbles down into the sitting room, where Mrs. Weasley was knitting, and Snape was reading.
"Can you open this for me?" asked Harry in a whisper to Mrs. Weasley.
"Oh my, what a nice jar of marbles," said Mrs. Weasley genuinely, surveying the jar's contents as she opened the lid. "There you go. Be careful not to lose any. We wouldn't want anyone slipping and falling."
Harry noticed that Snape scowled at the last part, even though Mrs. Weasley's eyes had remained fixed on Harry.
"I won't," said Harry, setting the jar down and pulling a few marbles from it.
He lay on the soft, braided red and brown rug by the hearth and examined each marble. They were very pretty, and looked to be handmade. Harry put the prettiest in a pile to his right and the others in a pile on his left. Molly watched him contentedly over her knitting, the rain washing softly against the windows.
After a while Harry noticed Snape get up and leave the room, but he did not pay much attention to this, for he had found a red and orange marble that glittered brightly in the light.
"Look at this one, Mrs. Weasley," he said to her, holding it up.
She peered down at it.
"I like the colours," she said. "Gryffindor, hmm?"
Harry nodded and made to put it back in the pile, but he dropped it in shock on the rug when a huge crash rang through the air. The marble bounced a little before coming to a stop by a wrinkle on the rug.
Mrs. Weasley leaped up from her chair, hastily throwing her knitting down and whipping her wand out as she ran out of the room toward the sound of the crash. It had come from the hallway. Harry, heart pounding, followed her. It took him longer to get to the source of the crash, however, as his legs were smaller, but it was soon apparent what it had been. He rounded the corner into the small hallway that led to Snape's room to find his Professor slumped up against a wall, clutching his bleeding nose, which was more crooked than ever. Harry took a step back, scared that he would be reprimanded for being there. He stayed out of sight by the staircase, and peered at the scene with as little of him showing as possible.
"What happened, Severus?" asked Molly urgently.
"I tripped," said Snape thickly through the blood, sounding furious. "I could not get my hands under me in time."
"Here, let me fix your nose," said Molly.
Snape did not move, and his eyebrows furrowed.
"Please, please let me fix it," Molly muttered, voice almost inaudible.
Grudgingly, Snape took his hands off his nose, his dark eyes watering in pain, or perhaps humiliation. The scarlet blood on his face made him look paler than ever.
"Episky," said Mrs. Weasley, waving her wand.
Snape's nose straightened, and his shoulders relaxed a little.
"I'll go get something to clean the blood off," said Molly quietly. "You stay here a moment, until we can determine if you've hurt anything else."
She bustled off to fetch something for the blood, leaving Harry staring. He pulled his head back around the corner quickly, but the image was left in his mind of the crumpled look that had fallen over Snape's face.
Harry went back into the sitting room and half-heartedly continued sorting the marbles, listening to the muffled noises of Mrs. Weasley talking to Snape. She was asking him questions, by the sound of it. When his replies reached Harry from the hall, he thought Snape sounded tired, and disappointed with himself. Harry rolled a red and green marble back and forth on the braided rug as he listened, puzzled by the feeling that was now growing within him. And as he thought back to the look on his Professor's face after he had fallen, Harry realized that this feeling was understanding.