The box that James Potter held in his hand was fairly small, very old, and made entirely of tin. It had belonged to another boy, many years ago, before Severus had been so much as a thought on his mother's mind. He reached out for it desperately, his bone-thin fingers grasping at empty air. In his haste to tidy up the parlour before the Potters' arrived, Severus had neglected to lock his prize and had instead left it sitting, painfully open, excruciatingly vulnerable, at the foot of his dusty, little bed. He lunged; James dodged adeptly, racing into the corridor beyond and down the stairs, to the kitchen. Severus's descent was more a tangle of spindly arms and legs than a climb down the stairs as he bolted after the other boy. His pale face had moulded from petrified to furious in a matter of seconds; he howled and tumbled into the scrubbed wooden table like the ball in a game of tenpin bowling.
"Oh, come, on Snape, it can't be that terrible," trilled Potter from across the room, where he was sat comfortably upon the kitchen windowsill, the box tucked between his legs. "What d'you keep in here?" He shook it playfully, winking as his fingers reached the rusty clasp that kept the lid locked on.
"Accio bo - " began Severus seethingly, but he hadn't the chance to finish before James blocked him.
"Pathetic attempt, Snivelly, really. Do you imagine they made me captain of the Quidditch team for nothing?" With a low creak and a cackle from James, the little box swung open and promptly spilled its contents onto the scuffed linoleum floor. "What the - "
For once, Severus was faster. In a single, fluid motion he had summoned the items into his outstretched arms and there cradled them as one would a child. Yet, no child could have been this precious to him, for these and the box that they came in were the very first (and hopefully not the last) gifts that Severus Snape had received in all his fifteen years.
James was dumbfounded. "All that," he sputtered disbelievingly, his brown eyes wide behind the lenses of his glasses, "over a wanking Halloween costume?"
Snape glared, his eyes gleaming with a newfound loathing for the despicable creature across from him. "It is not," he snarled venomously, lip curling, "a wanking Halloween costume."
But James had not finished. All that he had seen of the bundle Snape now held was a thick, slivery set of black robes and a silver thing that was, as far as he could tell, some sort of skeletal mask. A Halloween costume, like the ones he had seen small children wear at his parents' holiday get-togethers. "Yes it is," he insisted stubbornly. "It's a costume. A mask and robes, like what kids wear when they want you to give them sweets."
But Severus was already backing away, having retrieved his tin box from where it was strewn on the kitchen floor. "Not," he repeated, stuffing both the mask and robes back into their hiding place. He was shaken, white as a ghost and trembling from the crown of his greasy head to the very tips of his toes. "But it's mine, my best, my gift. And you're not taking it from me, Potter, not this one thing. Not this one, bloody thing." He stumbled, crabwise, into the parlour, oblivious to the confused and concerned faces of Mr and Mrs Potter, hardly noticing as his rather large feet trod right across those of Tobias, who sprung up with a yelp and a vicious right-hook.
At that moment, two things occurred to Severus. The first was that he should probably duck, for the beer bottle his father had been drinking from was a swing away knocking him out cold. The second, and markedly more lamentable of the two, was that he was going to have to clean the entire parlour after the spray of glass and spilt blood as the neck of the half-empty beer bottle collided with his face. His body flew back from the force of the blow, sending him bowling into the Potters, who caught him between them.
What happened in the moments following remained a blur to both James and Severus, even after they found themselves, panting and swearing, in the Potters' tidy living room. Mrs Potter had Snape by the collar, having apparated him away from the scene on motherly instinct, while Mr Potter towed James and the school trunk he had summoned from Severus's bedroom before his swift departure from Spinner's End.
"What - " James began, glancing wildly from Snape's shellshocked form to his mother's familiar one, "Mum, what you doing?"
"I have never approved of the use of violence where children are concerned," she announced, matter-of-factly, pushing Severus onto the overstuffed sofa. "I made a decision, and now we're home, and we're staying." Her tone offered no room for disagreement, but James found he could not contain himself.
"But you can't keep him!" he cried out, terrified by the idea.
"Yes," parroted Snape childishly, "you can't keep me!"
But Mrs Potter was already off, bustling to and fro, straightening cushions and patting dust from the furniture. She hummed tunelessly to herself, ignoring both boys in favour of levitating the scuffed trunk that had accompanied them from Snape's house. "This way, if you please," she said breezily, though her jaw was set and her eyes glinted determinedly. "We'll set you up in the guest room for the rest of the summer, and then you can return to Hogwarts with James, and I'll be having words with that Dumbledore ...."
Severus's eyebrows had all-but disappeared into his greasy hair. He regarded Mrs Potter with nothing short of pure horror, his mouth open, fathomless black eyes as wide as dinner plates. Stay with the Potters - with James Potter - for the remainder of the summer? It could not have been possible that Potter's mother was even stupider than her Quaffle-headed son. An entire summer with Potter would be...possibly deadly, on his part. Shuddering, Severus turned on his heel towards the woman. He was going to protest, to demand that she return him and his belongings to Spinner's End, where he could handle Tobias Snape perfectly well on his own, thank you very much, as he had been doing for the past fifteen years.
She walked much too hurriedly for his liking, leading him down a bright little corridor and up a flight of stairs to a clean, white door at the very back of the house. "You can stay here, and don't bother trying to argue with me, dear," she said, without looking at him. "No on ever wins." Taking a moment to set the trunk daintily at the centre of what, Severus could see, was a much larger, cleaner and nicer room than his own back home, she continued briskly, "Loo's down the corridor just there, across from James's room, so you can bathe and do whatever else you need for yourself before dinner. You're welcome to take a toothbrush; we've got plenty. If you like, you can lock your door, but there're wards against apparition in the house and around it, unless you are me or Mr Potter. I've got all the Floo powder locked away, as James has a tendency to play with it.
You are more than welcome to send an owl to anyone you please, though, and - " Mrs Potter turned to him, her eyes the same soft, pale blue that his mother's been the last time he had seen her, "if it really does bother you to be round James, I'll be sure he keeps his distance from you." Her face hardened again, momentarily, and she left him with the announcement, "You are here for the summer, and I'll hear no arguments on the matter. I said the same thing to Sirius the last time we had him round, and I'll say the same to you: I do not abide by parents who hit their children, no matter who they are and how tough they think they might be. Dinner should be ready sometime later in the evening. I'll find you some bruise balm for your cheek."
With that, she was gone.
Though she had infuriated and annoyed him all day, Severus quickly found that Mrs Potter's lack of presence left the room a bit empty. He surveyed the four-poster bed and handsome oak wardrobe with contempt, refusing to be impressed, determined not to like them. It would not do for him to become attached to the place. It was not his. He did not belong here among these nice, expensive things, and, if he had his way, he would not be staying much longer.
Sighing deeply, he levitated his trunk to stand beneath the sunny window, staring, for a moment, almost longingly, at the expanse of green grass and wildflowers just beyond it. James Potter whisked by on his broomstick, his flying uncharacteristically jerky and amateurish. His mother must have spoken to him, Severus thought, turning from the window with a shrug. Where had she said the toilet was? He slipped carefully from the room, pausing to close the door behind him, and followed Mrs Potter's earlier directions down the corridor, across from a large, vacant room that he supposed was Potter's. The door locked automatically as he closed it. This unnerved him a bit, but he brushed it off.
Severus pivoted, his dark head swinging from left-to-right in quick succession, but the source of the "hmph" was nowhere to be found.
"Hmph," said the little voice again, with a hint of urgency.
He faced his reflection in the mirror, his hand rising to brush over the bruise Father had given him earlier. Severus surveyed himself as he might a horribly botched potion, his eyebrows raised, lips curling at the lank mass of greasy black hair that did little more than flop about atop his head, the large nose that had been rendered crooked and hooked after having been introduced to his father's solid right-hook, the thin lips, the long chin and bushy eyebrows and the pure ugliness of it all.
"Well, you could certainly do with a wash, or five," came the voice from the mirror. "And perhaps some new clothes. And a toothbrush. I suggest a very long, very soapy bath, first, and we'll sort out the rest for you. You'll be a new man!"
The exclamation had startled him. He had never met a talking mirror before and regarded the Potters' keenly as he stripped the baggy trousers and jumper he had worn every day since the summer holiday began, determined to give it another visit soon and find out what sort of incantation made it work. The bath began to run of its own accord, disturbing his thoughts and prompting him into the vast tub, where the warm water sloshed merrily round his thighs and the pleasant, breezy smell of the soap made his eyes heavy. He took a bar of soap and scrubbed and scrubbed, allowing himself for a moment to imagine that he was another boy, one who belonged in a lovely, great house such as this one. He cleaned himself with medical precision, allowing not an inch of grime to escape as he washed all that was Snape from his skin.
Dinner was announced sometime in between six and seven, as Mrs Potter had promised. Severus followed Mr Potter back downstairs, past rows of photographs of a smiling black-haired boy on a broomstick, with his friends, doing homework, hugging his mum, wrestling with his father. Severus stared pointedly at the floor for the rest of the journey to the dining room, where Mrs Potter bustled him into a chair across from her son. They were having roast duck with pumpkin juice, potatoes, and some sort of stringy, green thing that Severus did not recognise. Avoiding James's violent glowers, he set-to filling his plate
"So, Severus, how did you find your room?" Mrs Potter took a bite of duck, her eyes fixed unwaveringly on his. He glanced away, determined not to fall for her pleasantries, for she was, after all, a Potter. And Potters were not to be trusted, or conversed with.
Allowing for a pregnant pause, he answered curtly, "If I remember correctly, I followed you."
But she was not put off so easily. Smiling gently, she laid her fork down and changed the subject. "Have you decided what you'd like to be when you leave school?"
This, he answered easily. "Yes. I'd like to be free of your abomination of a son." And the others, as well, he noted mentally, his expression darkening considerably. James snorted into his potato from across the table, the only indication he had given thus far of having noticed the other boy.
Surprisingly, Mrs Potter's smile remained glued to her pretty lips, refusing to waver even the slightest bit as she appraised him. "James mentioned you're rather gifted with potions. And defence against the Dark Arts. Have you thought of working for the ministry?"
"No, but I've thought of working against it."
Her smiled merely widened. She ploughed on, unfazed, "You know, I was just reading an advert in the Prophet today that said Gringott's is looking to hire another curse-breaker."
Severus considered it over a forkful of duck, his expression unreadable as he darted from Mrs Potter to James and back again. They were as different as chalk and cheese, Potter and his mother. Where James was blunt, rude, and most likely had never been capable of holding a conversation that did not centre round the subject of Quidditch, Mrs Potter continued to smile softly to herself, her tone as neutral as the colour beige as she questioned him. "I'd much prefer curse-maker," he answered silkily, sipping his pumpkin juice.
"The colour green suits you, dear," she said unexpectedly, returning her steady gaze to her dinner plate. James laughed aloud this time, though his mother ignored him. Severus allowed himself a slight smirk, considering himself to have won the subtle battle of wills, until she said, "Though, it suited me rather nicely, as well, when I was in Slytherin. You'll find that you grow out of that, in time, when the self-pity fades and you realise that the world is much, much brighter with each step you take away from your dungeon."
Dinner was eaten in silence after that. Severus could think of nothing clever to say in return, and so stuffed his mouth with duck.
Lying in bed that night, swathed in blankets, he considered the enigma that was Mrs Potter. James Potter's mother a Slytherin? He was sure it was a lie. It had to have been. No Potter could ever have been a Slytherin, or anything, really, but a Gryffindor. They were built for it, plainly and simply. Potters were bold, compassionate, and a bit thick. They didn't do subtlety. They did not wear green.
And what was that she said about his dungeon? Self-pity and some rubbish, something about the world being bright. He sneered into his pillow. What a Hufflepuffish thing to say. Severus rather liked the dim, flickering half-light of his self-proclaimed home. It had nothing to do with pity. He did not pity himself. Not Severus Snape, who was more clever than his entire year put together, with the exception of Lily. No, not him. Definitely not. Absolutely, positively, without a doubt - he did not pity himself. What was there to pity, anyways? Yes, he was Half-Blood. All right, he was a bit ugly. His robes could have done with an adjustment or seven, but that was the price you paid when you bought secondhand. He had no real friends, discounting Mulciber and Lucius, who were really only a means to an end, when it came down it. His parents had never been kind or sat down to dinner like the Potters did, and they'd never bought him nice things or bothered to ask him what he wanted to be when he finished school, but what did he want in parents like that?
He liked no having a mother, revelled in the fact that his useless lump of a father was either too busy working or drinking to pay attention to the fact that his only son had taken to practising dark magic on small animals in the back garden, thoroughly enjoyed being smacked round for small things, like tripping over the electrical cord that connected the television to the wall and accidentally cutting the power in the middle of a football match his father had been watching avidly. It was lovely, every ounce of it. It was his life, and he would not stand idly by why other's judged him for it. She had no place to judge, Mrs Potter. She had known him for but a day, had seen nought more than a brief glimpse of how fantastically he lived. She had no right, he fumed. No right to tell him that he pitied himself. Severus Snape did not even know what the word pity meant.
He tossed restlessly onto his side, his eyes open against the black of the night, willing sleep to find him.