Disclaimer: All characters and recognizable story elements belong to J. K. Rowling.
AN: I woke up today with this half-formed in my mind. Sometimes my brain delights in throwing these little sob stories at me. Thank you very much, brain. Anyway, I'm sure you have read the theme plenty of times, this is just my take on it.
Damn the old codger. He had sounded so reasonable.
"It is just for a couple of weeks, until we can find somewhere else to put him."
Him. The brat. The ungrateful, arrogant, attention-seeking, rule-breaking spawn of James Potter. And he was saddled with the Brat-who-lived for the foreseeable future. He was glumly convinced that 'a couple of weeks' would somehow become 'for the rest of the summer'.
And all because the wards on Privet Drive had mysteriously failed. Albus was still trying to find out how that could possibly have happened. But it meant that the brat had to be moved, and moved fast, and unfortunately Severus' own wards were the best after Hogwarts'. And he could not go to Grimmauld Place, oh no.
The brat was surely depressive, after the death of his godmutt. He needed watching, so nothing happened to him, and the dark and gloomy home of the Blacks would not be good for him, oh no. And so he got dumped on Severus instead. He shot the brat a venomous look. There would be rules, oh yes. And the brat would learn the consequences of breaking them, too.
Harry meanwhile was terrified. He could have told the headmaster why the wards had fallen, if he had been asked. They were supposedly powered by the love of his relatives. Love. He almost snorted. When had they ever felt any love for him? Sure, Aunt Petunia had loved having her own house-elf. And Uncle Vernon had probably loved having his own personal punching bag. He wasn't sure what Dudley might have loved about his presence, unless it was having a ready-made victim for bullying on the premises.
None of that had ever stopped the wards from working. Not until this summer. Because they had blamed him for the Dementor attack on Dudley last summer. Never mind that he had actually been the one to save his cousin, without Harry's presence it would never have happened. And so it was his fault. Everything was his fault. The chores had been a mountain this year. So had the beatings been, when he failed to accomplish the impossible goals they set him. He was used to the lack of food and being locked in, in any case. But the wards had survived even that.
But what had finally brought them down, when all the miss-treatment had failed to do so, was …
No. He could not think of it. Would not. If he did, he would start crying. Would break down totally. Or maybe he would go berserk. He couldn't do that, either. So that memory went right into the back of his mind.
Because he had gone from the frying pan into the fire. No. Thinking about fire was bad, too.
But he was still, in his opinion, now stuck in a situation almost worse than he had been in before. It was hard to imagine that was possible. Yet he was now at the mercy of the one teacher who hated him with a passion. Who delighted in insulting and disparaging him even at school. And who knew what the man would be capable of here, where Harry was not a student. Because students were protected from their teachers by the rules. Rules that said there could be no physical violence, at least. Rules that forbid the hexing of students.
But here he was not a student. The man was not his teacher. He, Harry, was now merely a burden, forced onto the other. Dumbledore had only told him that he was now in the 'care' of Snape for the meanwhile, and that he should be polite and try his best not to upset the man, because Snape had been reluctant to take him in. Reluctant. Harry stared down hard at his scuffed trainers. He could imagine what these words really meant.
So … in order to somehow survive the rest of the summer, he would have to remain in Dursley mode. Now harder than ever. Say: 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir' and 'May I, sir'. Don't look him in the eye. Do whatever you are told, without complaining. Don't react when you get called names or worse. Don't react when the man starts in on your father and godfather. That would be the hardest. He caught himself trembling. Don't do that either. Show no weakness. Show nothing at all. Be as blank as you can. This was not school, where you can let your temper show. Where you are free to react to the insults. No, this was summer, when you locked it all down.
Dumbledore was trying to talk to him. Damnation, he had spaced out, while the other two had spoken about him as if he was not there. And so he had not noticed when the headmaster started to talk to him. But he was just repeating what he had said earlier, and that he had to leave.
"Good bye, Professor," he said softy, not looking Dumbledore in the eye.
"Good bye, Harry. I hope you have a good summer here," the old man said gravely.
Are you trying to joke, sir?
"Just remember, please, that Professor Snape is doing this out of kindness and behave, will you?"
Kindness, my foot. But sure, I will behave. I have no wish to be beaten, or become potion's ingredients.
Eyes on the floor. "Yes, sir. I will do my best."
Harry got a final pat on the shoulder, and then the old man was gone.
Which meant he was now alone with the displeased potions master. Harry waited for the sword to fall.
"So. I am stuck with you," Snape said, and his voice was dripping venom. "For the time being."
"But as you are here, in my home, there will be rules. And you will follow them, or there will be … consequences."
The words were spoken softly, but the threat was very obvious. But Harry had no intention of breaking rules. He just prayed it would be possible for him to do so.
Severus was puzzled. He was confused. He was stymied. And he didn't like being in this state at all. The brat had been here for three days now. And he was … just not behaving like Severus had expected him to. And he had to admit to himself that he was starting to get very worried.
For one, the brat had been unfailingly polite, even when Severus himself had been anything but. He never answered back. Never. He followed the rules Severus had set to the letter. He did whatever he was ordered to, without complaint. When told to do chores, he did them. Perfectly. He also didn't go sticking his nose in places he had been told to keep out of. He followed every command obediently, and whenever possibly he kept out of Severus' way. It felt, in short, disquietingly like having a house-elf around.
And he never spoke unless spoken to. Never asked questions. And he would not look at Severus, unless ordered to. When he did, his eyes and face were … blank. Where was the brat who talked back to him all the time? Who shouted, and got upset when insults came his way? Who complained of unfairness. Who wore his emotions on his sleeve, and had no control over himself? Because he didn't act depressed either. You couldn't tell from his behaviour that his godfather had gotten himself killed just recently. It was like the boy was just … not there.
Where was the arrogant, spoiled brat he had expected? Who was upset at his living situation, and ready to rebel at a moment's notice? Who was moody, and emotional and demanding attention? Because what he got instead was someone entirely meek, and quiet, and almost distressingly subservient. Worse, someone who flinched when Severus made any surprise moves towards him that could be interpreted as attacks. And whose eyes would sometimes, before they went carefully blank again, show a glimmer of fear.
What he got, in short, was someone who read in Severus' considerable experience as a possible abuse victim. Long-term, recurrent abuse, in fact. And that surely couldn't be right? Someone was bound to have noticed? Only of course the boy didn't behave like that at school. Didn't show any of the signs there. So why was he different now? What had changed?
Only the fact that this was not school. And the boy obviously considered himself to be at Severus' mercy. And clearly expected nothing good from those into whose 'care' he was entrusted. Add the mystery of the failed wards … and Severus was not happy with his conclusions at all.
He would have to confront the … boy. The boy who was seemingly not a brat at all. He needed to find out why the boy behaved like he did … and what had happened at his relatives to make the wards fail. And if there really was abuse involved, abuse which had been hidden and possibly denied for many years … the fallout would be messy. No, he was not looking forward to that at all.
Harry was starting to relax ever so slightly. So far he had been able to follow the rules, and avoid getting in Snape's way. Of course he had also noticed the increasing irritation that the man displayed. Harry blamed it on the fact that Snape couldn't find anything to punish him for, and was frustrated in his desire to lay into Harry. Which was why he was not really letting his guard down. But as long as he gave the other no real reason to punish him, the teacher would hopefully refrain from doing anything too bad. Probably.
So he kept his head down, and tried to be quiet. He got up early, showered, and made sure his room was perfect. Then he went downstairs to make breakfast. He had just set a greased pan onto the stove when he heard footsteps come downstairs. Shortly the door to the kitchen opened and Snape came in.
"Good morning, sir," he said politely. This usually got a non-committal grunt.
"Good morning, Mr. Potter."
Okay, that was bad. Never mind that the man had actually been polite for once. Because that had clearly been a 'we are going to talk' kind of voice. And nothing good ever came of that.
So he concentrated on cooking breakfast. He got the bacon out of the cooled box, and carefully put it into the heated pan. You had to be careful around … fire.
He was very aware of the tense silence filling the room. He could almost feel the man wanting to talk with him. But there was nothing to talk about. It never did any good.
Movement behind him. He tensed. But Snape had just taken a seat at the table. Harry sneaked a look back at him. And wrenched his eyes back immediately as he met the intense black gaze studying him like he was a particularly interesting potion ingredient. He stared down into the pan, gave it a gentle shake so the bacon would not get stuck to the bottom.
"It has come to my attention that I may have been somewhat … mistaken about your person."
Harry froze. What was he meant to say to that?
"And your … conduct in the last few days has made me wonder about what really went on at your … relatives."
No. Just … no. There was no way he would ever tell. No.
"Is there anything you would like to tell me, Mr. Potter?"
No. Not ever. Nothing to see here, moving on.
"Will you please look at me, Mr. Potter?"
No. I really don't want to. But you have to do as you are told. Conflict. He froze again.
And then Snape was getting up and moving towards him. Which made him flinch. Badly. He knew he was starting to panic. And when he finally looked up at the man, what he saw in Snape's eyes was … concern. No. This was all wrong. He felt caught like the rabbit before the snake, unable to move, unable to decide what to do. Caught by conflicting signals.
And then he smelt it. In his panic he had forgotten about the bacon. Which was starting to burn. It wasn't quite the same smell, but close enough. Close enough to remind him of … no. But he was already badly out of balance. And Snape was now right in front of him. Harry was caught. And he could not escape the memory any longer. Of fire and white feathers and the smell of burning … no. No. No.
He crumbled to the floor, slipping through Snape's grasp as the man tried to catch him.
The boy was clearly caught in a flashback of some kind. In a memory that made him go almost catatonic, reliving something that caused a total breakdown.
A couple of quick flicks of his wand had vanished the burning mess, turned off the stove. But the boy was not as easy to fix. So he did the only thing he could think of, which was to sit next to the … child and gather his slight form close. The boy was way to light and fragile, which told another ugly story. He carefully cradled Harry's head and gently forced him to look up at Severus. Fortunately the boy's eyes were wide open. And he made not even a token attempt to keep Severus from seeing into his memories.
A few seconds later he wished he had not seen them. And yet … he could not have turned away, either. Not from the horrifying vision of burning. Burnt, crisped black remains of what had once been beautiful white feathers. The all pervading stink of burnt flesh, which was what had surely triggered this breakdown. And the boy, held back by a cruel grip on his wrists, his arms all but wrenched out of the sockets, as he was forced to watch them burn his owl. While they laughed at him, mocking him for his innocent love.
The sheer grief filling the boy would have driven Severus to his knees, had he been standing. This was what had finally broken the wards. The cruel, wanton destruction of something so innocent, so pure. And done in order to break the boy, to punish him for nothing that was his fault. And yet it was grief filling the boy, not rage. Loss, not the desire for revenge. And hopelessness, because there was nothing that could bring his beloved familiar back.
Nothing that could bring back any of the dead. Who had all left him. Been taken. Because of him. Behind the grief came the guilt. The black, corrosive guilt that was eating the boy alive. This child, who had only ever gotten blamed for everything that had happened to him. Who was the victim that had been made to feel guilty for the misdeeds of the real perpetrators. Who blamed himself for the misfortune of others.
Severus could almost not believe how very wrong he had been about the boy. But who would have expected prolonged abuse behind the mask of the perfect Gryffindor? And he had not really wanted to see it, in any case. But now, confronted with the grief, and the guilt, and the overwhelming evidence of what this poor child had to endure all his life … how could he possibly turn away?
And he had thought the boy hopeless at Occlumency. Oh, the irony of it. When he had managed to only ever let Severus see the outer shell. The real Harry, and his experiences, had been hidden inside. The boy had lived behind a perfect mask. Gave nothing away. Now, in his state of shock, he was no longer able to hide those memories. And they were bad. As bad as anything Severus had endured in his own childhood, and worse in many ways.
Because there had been no-one to redeem and soften the abuse through love. Severus had a mother, and later his friend Lily. Harry had no-one, not until he came to Hogwarts. It was not surprising he defended anyone who offered him any kindness. The boy had not only been starved of food, but also of affection. The real miracle was that he had not yet given up, and turned to destruction.
And he was Lily's child, whom he had sworn to protect. At which he had failed, oh how he had failed. They had all failed him. And the grief, the guilt the boy felt was now matched by the helpless feeling of Severus himself.
Because he had no idea how to repair this child. Nothing could undo what had happened to him. But he could not be left to deal with it on his own. Yet the child had virtually no-one left. His godfather was dead, and now he had even lost his familiar. Right now, the only one who could even attempt to help him … was Severus himself. Who felt woefully inadequate to the task. But there was no-one else.
Only Severus. So he would do what he could. And as he held the fragile boy close, he could only pray it would be enough.