"Well, I s'pose no one's home. We can leave now, can't we?" The dark-haired boy glanced hopefully at his parents, brown eyes squinting from behind a pair of rectangular glasses, attractive features scrunched up into a small pout.

"James, dear, knock again," his mother said firmly, clutching her purse. Her thin figure was hunched slightly beneath a smart blue suit jacket, and she glanced nervously from left to right, as though expecting something large and dangerous to come ambling round the smoke-stained brick building at any given time. This place made her anxious. It was filthy and grey and inhabited by dour-faced people in colourless clothing. Not the sort of place one ought to be raising a child in, she thought with a grimace.

At his mother's stern beckoning, James extended his arm and reluctantly tapped at the worn black door. He eyed the tarnished knocker warily, hoping, fingers crossed. Don't open. No one's home. Don't open. Don't open... There was something about this neighbourhood that James did not trust, no matter how many reassuring half-smiles his parents threw at him. Knock... Persistent, the sound shocked its way through what had previously been an eerily silent little street. Knock... Surely that would be enough to satisfy his mother.

"Again, James."

He looked to his father. Frowning, Mr Potter ducked his head and winked discreetly at his son. James sighed. His parents were sadists. Had they no sympathy? It was impossible they really wanted to meet these people any more than he did. They had seen the smoky mill town, the dull people, the grime. They could not possibly expect -

"Yes?" The door need not be knocked on again, for a lanky creature with greasy, black hair had all but torn it from its hinges, his pallid face twisted into a snarl, beady eyes glaring fiercely. Protectively, almost. A snake protecting its nest from a family of mongoose. Half-startled, half-wary of the boy, Mrs Potter stepped back onto the edge of the front step, her pursed clenched in a white-knuckled grip, arms locked round the elbows of her husband and son.

"You must be—" she began kindly, extending her hand.

"Snivellus," the boy cut off, glaring down his hooked nose. He moved like a puppet controlled by a novice puppeteer, all long limbs and abrupt gestures. Floppy and unwashed, his greasy hair tumbled over the mountain of a nose, tickling the hook, just touching the twist of his pale, thin lips and sharp chin. He brushed it aside with a jerky flick of his long hand.

"Oh, well..."

James took this moment to step up, his hand extended in a gesture of mock-courtesy, a sickeningly polite smile on his handsome face. "Snivelly."

"Snivellus" spun crisply and twitched a sallow finger. This was his only welcome, for as soon as the skeletal back was turned he strode purposefully into the little house. The Potters followed silently. Somehow, it seemed almost necessary to maintain silence in this house.

The inside was, if possible, even worse than the neighborhood it resided in. The grimy cobbled streets and dingy brick buildings of the streets outside were fields of wildflowers in comparison to the shabby interior of the cramped parlour. A sofa with a missing leg was propped up against one wall, opposite an old armchair and ottoman, a dusty wooden table, a bookcase with missing shelves.

The Potters stayed relatively close to one another, their brown eyes darting about the room like flies, taking in the place. Mrs. Potter kept her arms around James and her husband. She was unused to such mess and glanced piteously at the dusty table and decrepit furniture. What a place to raise a child, her mind tsked. Almost on instinct her right hand flew to the wand tucked neatly into her skirt. Just a quick tidy - too soothe James's allergies. He did have allergies, she imagined. To dust and - The hand ruffled back down, disappointed. It would be rude to touch someone else's home, no matter how depressingly....

This boy, Severus, (she eyed him carefully, as one might a mysterious carpet stain or a broken pie crust) while he was hardly the looker her James had turned out to be, was probably a fairly nice boy underneath the glower and grease. Unclean, perhaps. A tad misguided. Her may have killed his share of small animals in early childhood and certainly did not look the type to have many friends, but there was a silver lining in every storm cloud, she knew, no matter how heavily dark, grey and dreary the cloud. His parents obviously weren't doing a very good job of taking care of him, nor did they seem to care very much about happenings at school. Come to think of it, his clothes could have used a decent wash (and his hair). He was much too skinny for his height, the type of child she could imagine growing up on meagre portions of beans on toast and recycled tea bags.

Driven by motherly instinct (and the slightly less noble urge to ease his fearsome glare), she approached him, her arms extended and said, "I've been so looking forward to meeting you, Severus. I'm Mrs Potter, James's mum; but you must have known - euh - my husband, Elias."

"He won't speak to you, Mum. Doesn't know how to communicate with decent people," James interrupted loudly, dropping onto the ottoman with a grimace.

Snape and Mrs Potter shared identical scowls. That was just like Potter, thought the lanky boy. His cheeks coloured pale pink beneath a tight stretch of sallow skin as he edged towards the hidden door that led upstairs.

"James!" cried Mrs Potter in dismay, though her eyes remained on Severus.

"Come now, son. Remember why we're here."

Severus flicked his hand violently, instantly lighting a pair of black tapers along the wall. They cast a pointlessly dim light in the gloomy room. Remember why you're here, Potter. The voice mocked him. Remember, Potter. Because that would really help, wouldn't it? As though he wanted to relive that moment, the most horrifyingly humiliating and unfortunate fifteen minutes of his life. Dumbledore didn't know what he was doing sending these people here. What good would it do if Potter saw where Snape lived? It would only make room for more pranks, more taunting and humiliation. I can stand that, he thought, his lips tightening. Plenty of people have gone through that sort of stuff, and they survived.

Suddenly, the Potters stiffened. There was an unsteady pounding in the walls, the clap of large feet on rotting wood as they tumbled down the stairwell out of site. "Dad's coming," Snape explained silently. He shrunk away from the door as though stung.

The entire room seemed to seize up and a tall, broad-shouldered man in his mid-forties entered, short-cropped black hair bristling in an imaginary breeze, stubble sprinkling his chin with black. He surveyed the small gathering with unveiled distaste twisting the ends of his thick moustache and bushy brows.

"Tobias Snape," the man said, nodding unconcernedly. He looked far less friendly than his skulking son, and even more menacing. Where Severus was pathetically slender and awkward, Tobias was wiry and sharp. Years of factory, construction, and railroad work had hardened the set of his chin, the deep wrinkle in his brow. Hand resting on the shoulder of the younger Snape, the elder explained in a deep voice that he had been working day shift in the mill and was only just given leave to come home. "You're them, then? The ones from the wizard school?" His black eyes dashed over the group, scrutinizing them. They didn't look like much, he noted with disappointment. Rich bastards with a bratty, spoiled kid. Nothing special or magical looking. Just the usual, snobbish bourgeoisie rubbish.

"I'm Elenia," began Mrs Potter politely. "This is my husband, Elias - my son, James. It's a pleasure to meet you, but under the circumstances, I..." She trailed off, surprised as the elder Snape held up his hand and pushed Severus onto the armchair behind James.

"That old wizard sent you after your boy gave mine a load of hell," he paused, enjoying the reactions on their faces. They bloody well deserved it. "I know the story. You're here for tea, and then you're out. Mind you don't bin the bags. We re-use them." Snape the senior paused, beckoning his son with a snap. Severus, whose blush had rosied while he pretended to study the armrest of his chair, sprang to his feet and exited promptly, disappearing behind a wooden door that Mrs Potter had missed in her survey of the room.

"Er," began Mr Potter awkwardly from his perch on the dusty sofa, "lovely place you have here. So," he glanced hopeful at the dreary decor, "economical.... I, eh, I love antiques."

James snorted and stood. "I'll just find the toilet then, shall I?" Without waiting for anyone to answer, he followed Severus out. Mr Potter cleared his throat. The remaining party lulled into a silence so uncomfortable even the dust seemed to want to break it. They allowed for a pregnant pause, each of the three adults staring in the opposite direction as the other, counting the seconds until tea time had finished. Struck by a genius idea, Snape the elder perked up, settling on the abandoned ottoman as easily as though he was sliding into a stool at the local.

"You lot watch football, then, in Wizard-land?" he demanded, pinning them to the sofa with his icy gaze. Mrs Potter shrugged helplessly.

"I - no. No, there's football in Wizard-land."