It started with that little second year girl in Hufflepuff. Then there was the fifth year boy who collapsed at breakfast at the end of the first week of school. There were others. There had always been others. But this year there seemed to be much more, but that was only because the few who knew of these cases had always kept quiet, had spoken comfort and lent strength in silence. But not this year. This year secrets came out. This year Poppy had had enough.
Harry shuddered, and poked at his eggs. It had been three days. Three days. He should be over it by now. Everyone knew. Of course he wasn't the only one. There were at least one hundred others. But he was the one. The-Boy-Who-Lived. It was incomprehensible that he was one of them.
He remembered the silence. Silence after Poppy had burst into the Great Hall, the third Monday into the school year. Tears had been streaming down her face, and her magic swirling around her. The force of it had whipped harmlessly over the amassed students, but had slammed into the Headmaster with the force of a speeding locomotive. He had been stunned speechless, just like everyone else in the room, save Madame Pompfrey. She had hobbled in, unsteady in her grief, screaming at Dumbledore that she had had enough. She had had enough and she could take it no longer, she would break either her silence or go mad within the castle. He had sworn her to secrecy, she said, but she could no longer hold her peace because her children were dying, dying, dying, and she sobbed her way to the floor before the head table.
The spell had been broken then, at least over one person in the Hall, and Professor Snape roused himself to hurry to the matron's side. Once there he enveloped her in his arms, as a son would do to an elderly mother in pain, an action which shocked the entire assembled body to its core. Minutes passed in which Poppy sobbed and Severus rocked, one thin, pale hand occasionally carding through steel gray locks that had fallen loose sometime during her wailing.
When the lady was once again composed, the Potions Master rose gracefully to his feet, and then helped his fellow staff member to hers. Harry had thought, then, when his brain was again capable of thought, that she had vented and was now intent on heading back to her domain, because obviously this breakdown was a completely random event. He grimaced at his own stupidity, and pulled the cowl of his hood lower over his head. Poppy had been anything but finished. She turned to the Headmaster, who was still pinned with her loose magic, and began a rant at him unlike any Harry had ever seen. She knotted her skirts and cried again, all the while screaming at Albus for her children, the children past that had turned to the dark because of his own blind supremacy, the children who now fought greater battles than many would ever know, she berated him for turning blind twinkling eyes from their pain, only paying attention to those he chose to. She raved for Severus, who she called by name, for Daniel and Paul and little Abigail Rossett who had just passed in her hospital bed not half an hour previous, succumbing to injuries sustained the morning of September 1st, mere hours before she boarded the train for school.
"Not every family cherishes their children, Albus!' she had shrieked, in a voice so taut with pain and fury it made Harry wince. Everyone had winced. Even if the implications of what she said didn't fully hit them till she announced that the entire student body would undergo a complete and intensive sweep, to find, heal and place with a proper family those students whose own relatives were unfit.
When he understood, Harry's stomach had roiled.
Much like it did now. Groaning, he pushed his plate away and made to rise.
"Not gonna eat, mate?"
Harry did not have the heart to ignore his best friend. Keeping his head down, he could make out the blurry form of Ron sitting across from him. Hermione, he could feel, had looked up from her book, and was gazing at him intently. He shook his head negative. "No appetite, and truthfully, I'm beginning to feel a bit ill."
Three days ago he had wept with happiness when Ron and Hermione, who had ignored McGonagall's additional rule that no one visit the hospital wing (on top of curfew and regular rules for fifth years being out after dark), snuck in under his invisibility cloak, and, ignorant of Professor Snape hiding in the shadows, and told him that in no uncertain terms was he allowed to blame himself for his abominable relatives, feel guilty about not telling them, or try to push them away out of shame or do "some other dumb thing you might think makes sense," in the words of Ron. Then, while he was still struggling for words around the lump that suddenly had a home in his throat, they had climbed onto the bed Poppy had confined him to, and proceeded to hug the life out of him, at which point Harry gave up all attempts at stoicism and clung to them for dear life while sobs racked his frame.
And when he had cried himself out, they hadn't released him. Instead, they tilted themselves just so, and toppled onto the hospital bed's mattress. With a flick of Hermione's wand, they were covered with the blanket and within minutes, Harry was asleep, content in the arms of the two people he knew loved him beyond reason.
Hermione gave him a concerned glance, and stretched her hand towards his face. Instinct he had long since suppressed caused him to shy away, but then he righted himself, apologized, and gritted his teeth in frustration.
"Sorry, Harry." The girl set about assembling a sandwich Harry knew was for him, even as she continued speaking. "I was just going to check your eyes. You have not looked at anyone all morning. Has Professor Snape's charm worn off?"
Embarrassed, Harry sucked on his lower lip. "Yea. I will go see him today. Soon," he amended when Ron made to open his mouth.
No matter how uncomfortable he was with the man, he knew he should ask the Professor to restore the charm that gave him perfect vision, since his glasses, which were cheap and wrong and had sent the tall, pale man into a terrible rage that same Monday, had been destroyed with a blasting curse so strong it demolished the man's desk as well.
Ron nodded. "Mum's coming up today." He gave Harry a frank look, studying him without perturbance. "You really should eat something, Harry, or she might attempt to spoon feed you out where ever she meets you."
Harry did not smile or laugh at his friend, because he knew the boy was deadly serious. He knew without a doubt that Mrs. Weasley would do just that. Moreover, underneath the red head's polite suggestion there rang an iron will that Harry knew to which he cold only bend. When Harry had gone an entire day without eating, after pretending to gorge himself at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and feigning sleep that night, and nearly passing out because his already malnourished body could hardly function, Ron had lit into him with the tenacity of a true Weasley while he lay on his hospital bed, overriding Snape's stern reprimands and Poppy's near tearful entreaties to eat, and had given him an earful worthy of Mrs. Weasley herself. (Ron had promptly turned him over onto his stomach, and swatted his backside till he was nothing more than a sobbing bundle of boy, and then held him till his tears subsided, but Harry rather liked to omit this bit of information from his memory.) The lanky boy then bid him to eat, and Harry did, because he was suddenly so hungry he could eat a horse. Ron stood over him the entire time, and Harry did not need to look up to see that his best friend had his arms crossed and that he was scowling.
Stew finished, Harry carefully set the bowl onto the tray Poppy provided, and looked nervously out into the room from under his lashes. Ron had then grasped his chin, gently but firmly lifting his head till his field of vision included only bright blue eyes. His flinty gaze softened, but he stated with resolute firmness that sent Harry's neck a-tingling, "I will not lose you, Harry. Not to some monster that thinks he can rule the world, nor to your own folly. You are not allowed to be hurt, and you are not allowed to hurt yourself, do I make myself clear?" Harry had nodded and fought not to succumb to the tears prickling his eyes, but again Ron's hug disarmed him.
Just the memory made him feel chastened and small.
Just as carefully as before, Harry took the proffered sandwich, and tucked it into the pocket of his borrowed hoodie. "I will."
Hermione asserted herself in a flurry of questions. "Where are you going? Can you see well enough to wander the castle by yourself? Should we escort you to the Professor now? Would that be – "
"Your concern is admirable, Ms. Granger, but unnecessary."
Harry ducked his head even lower even as his two best friends turned to look at the approaching professor. It had been three days, and Harry still had no clue as to how to deal with this new Snape. He was not nice, yet he was not mean either. His cruel barbs of wit had been softened to mild rebukes, though his dark, mysterious manner had not changed. He had gone from the Greasy Git of the Dungeons to the man girls from all houses and years gazed upon with open admiration. Even now, Harry could hear some third year Ravenclaws chattering about him as if the man had done some heroic act or something.
He was amused to hear the man stop and question the group as to why their little traps were idly flapping if there was yet food on their plates and did they think the house elves had nothing better to do than cook food so silly little girls could waste it because they had some sweet tidbit of gossip to turn over and over among themselves? What amused him was not the Professor's tone or question, which were mild by his standards, but was the girls' reaction, for as a whole they chorused "Yes, Professor" with broad smiles on all their faces (smiles so broad they bled through to their voices) and as one picked up their knives and forks and resumed eating. The Professor's low-enough-to-still-be-heard grumblings of "silly little girls" caused a soft ripple of giggling to pass through the group even as he stepped away from them and towards the Gryffindor table. The girls' admiration was not one of a schoolgirl's crush on a Professor, but rather of more platonic nature, like one meeting a beloved uncle after believing him dead and hearing of his terrifying adventures.
The analogy didn't quite fit, but before he could ponder the matter further, Snape was upon them.
"Good morning, Professor," the three said. Truthfully, Harry rather mumbled his, but if the Professor noticed he did not show it.
"Likewise. Mr. Potter, accompany me, if you will. Deputy Headmistress McGonagall and I have something to discuss with you."
Harry hesitated. Of course he was going to seek the man out sometime that morning, but to have the visit foisted onto him before he was good and ready made him feel trapped, as he often did when there was an adult male towering over him. A soft hand squeezed his arm, and for the hundredth time that week Harry thanked every god he thought he had ever heard of for his friends, hoping the right one would get the message.
"Yes, sir." He rose from the bench, aware even as he did that he was angling his body away from Snape, as was the most effective way of avoiding an upper cut when with the Dursely's over the summer. Snape watched him openly, but made no comment. With a nod to the other Gryffindors, Snape turned on his heel and walked away, though slower than usual, so that Harry could catch and keep up after he had said his goodbyes.
"You'll be in the Common Room?" he asked his companions softly.
"Yes," Ron answered as Hermione squeezed his fingers in comfort. Drawing strength from them, Harry heaved a sigh, and hurried off to where Snape was nearing the Great Hall doors.
He walked behind the man, following his softly whipping robes and tried, yet again, to discern his feelings for the Professor. At the end of last term, after Harry had appeared out of the maze clutching the portkey trophy and Cedric's still warm dead body, after the chaos had worn down and people had stopped asking him to recount how Cedric died again and again, Professor Snape had called him into his office. The meeting had not been anything he was expecting, for what he got was an apology and an explanation for the man's abominable treatment of him over the years.
Harry did not know if he believed him yet, even after all this time. The possibility of being bound by an oath to act a certain way until some evil dark lord just happened to resurrect himself seemed a bit farfetched to Harry, and he wasn't sure if he wanted it to be true or not. Either way, Snape's attitude towards him had changed drastically, and so far this year there had been no snide remarks, no unfair loss of points, no detentions awarded, fairly or un-. Most of him was pleased with the change, but he could not help but be a little suspicious that this was all a trap.
They reached the office past the Potions classroom and Harry slipped in under the watchful gaze of the subject master. When he was fully inside, the door closed, and he saw no sign of his Head of House, Harry instantly tensed. He did not like being alone with adult males. He did not. It did not help that the last time he was alone with this man, in this very room, he had laid all of his secrets out in full.
He stood just on the inside of the office door, one finger keeping it from closing completely, trying to will his heart to slow down. Snape had looked at him with those inscrutable eyes and said, "Whenever you are ready, Mr. Potter," but Harry couldn't bring himself to sink into the soft looking chair before the desk.
After long minutes of standing and breathing, Harry released his hold on the door, and nearly fell sick when the soft 'snick' the door made sounded behind him. His heart raced anew as he pushed himself towards the chair and, resisting every instinct that told him to run far away and hide forever, sat in it.
"Very good," Snape murmured, dark eyes never fully leaving Harry's face. Just as watchful and twice as wary as the summer had taught him to be, Harry watched as the man motioned to three triangular vials lined across the desk. "Calming Draught, Bolstering Elixir and Diluted Children's Veritaserum are here to ease the process of answering questions, if you should so choose to use any. The Calming draught you know reduces the body's natural fight or flight reactions down to where they are nonexistent, while the Bolstering Elixir is used in place of a Courage Potion, which is addictive and dependent on another potion to work properly. The Children's Veritaserum is a specially brewed variant of the original truth potion, used in trials where children serve as witnesses. Because children are easier to sway to the will of another because they are so young, there is a compelling agent that forces them to tell the truth as they saw it, without any embellishments or omissions."
Licking his lips, Harry asked, "Isn't that just like regular Veritaserum?"
"No," Snape had answered. "Veritaserum takes away one's ability to hide the truth from the right questions. This version used for children is slightly more specific and general at the same time. Say a child watched her mother steal something of great importance, and is called upon to bear witness to this fact. While children may be inherently honest, someone, say the child's father or another accomplice, could twist what the child saw so that what happened and what the child now thinks happened are two different events. Questioned under Veritaserum, the child would recite what she holds as truth, and not necessarily, the truth of what happened. Do you understand?"
Harry swallowed, and nodded. "So the Bolstering Elixir just makes it easier to talk?" he asked.
"Easier to say what you usually may not because of fear or shame or what have you."
"And the Children's Veritaserum is diluted so I can tell the truth, but not be an open book, right?"
Professor Snape tilted his head to the side, his hair obscuring some of his face. "It lends you a measure of control, yes."
"And there aren't any side effects for mixing two different potions, sir?"
The use of his first name had startled him, as it had that evening last term. He swallowed past the soreness of his throat. "Are these potions normally used when, um, asking these kinds of questions?" His voice had grown soft at the end, like what was happening was some taboo that was continually being broken.
"Are you stalling, child?"
After that, Harry had no more questions. He instead requested the Bolstering Elixir and the Diluted Veritaserum for Children, and struggled through Snape's questions much as he had struggled with Voldemort that past June.
Harry blinked, and found that he was the only one standing, and that Snape was sat in a chair on the far side of the room, a tray of tea and biscuits on a short table beside him. "Would you like to sit?" the man asked. Harry shook his head. Besides the fact that he could not see too clearly in the semi-dark room and was not yet ready for Snape to renew the charm, he preferred not to be on even footing with the man, and was quite happy to be the one standing, especially so close to the door. It did not help that the Professor seemed agitated, the lines across his forehead deepening to ridges that cast shadows over is sallow face.
"You said Professor McGonagall would be here, sir?" Harry enquired from his place by the door.
"I did. She is late."
They fell into silence again, and Harry tried very hard not to panic, or look at the weird things floating in those jars on the professors walls.
Minutes passed in silence, both men lost in separate thoughts. At length, Snape spoke.
"You've been placed with a family, I assume."
It was not a question, at least no by its tone, and Harry felt a bit out of place. "No sir." He didn't want to be talking about this with him! "Mr. Belby says I'm proving to be most difficult –" He cut himself off, the lump in his throat making his words unintelligible anyway.
The Potion's Professor was silent.
Harry shifted nervously, and tugged on the sleeve of the hoodie he was wearing.
"DO you have a preference?"
The question came a bit suddenly, but Harry had been becoming too restless for his jump of surprise to be of notice. He still thought the man might have seen though, if he was looking. He took a breath. "Not really, sir?"
The man turned toward him, he saw through his blurry eyes, but Harry could not see his expression. "You don't?" Snape asked, sounding unconvinced.
Harry shifted uncomfortably. "I did," he amended nervously, "but the Weasley's weren't eligible."
"I see." There was silence, and Harry shifted again. He could feel his professor watching him, and while he knew he was safe, knew this man would not hurt him, he could not help the chills that ran down his spine.
"Perhaps you and I should begin, in case Deputy Headmistress McGonagall never makes it here. Her schedule has become dreadfully full." He paused. Are you sure you are comfortable standing?"
"Yes, sir," Harry answered, nodding.
"Very well." Harry imagined the man nodded once, and folded his arms in front of him in preparation to speak. "It was my intention to speak to you today with the aid of your Head of House in regards to your placement." His words were crisp, though strained, Harry noticed. Before he could puzzle what the man meant, Snape had continued. "While it is hardly ideal, or, even to you a possible option, I am prepared to offer my home to you, for as long as you need it, as yours. It is hardly the most glamorous option, considering our… history, but it is that: an option. Minerva would have simply been here ot deliver the technical aspects if you agree, and for moral support, as it were."
Then, he stopped talking. Harry wished he had not because now his words had a chance to sink in. Snape…..Snape wanted him. Snape wanted him around, wanted him in his home, didn't think he was a nuisance, a burden, a good for nothing whelp…..Snape wanted him. Out of all the displaced kids at Hogwarts, Snape wanted him. Not some Slytherin or some bookish Ravenclaw; Snape wanted him.
Truthfully, he did not even know why exactly he was sitting on the floor of his potions professor's office crying like a baby, but he was, and he could not stop. Maybe these were the tears he had not gotten a chance to cry all those years living with the Dursely's. Maybe these were the tears he could not shed three days ago when he had bared his soul and found acceptance. Whatever they were, those tears fell unceasingly, rolling down his cheeks, his chin, dripping onto his chest, wrenching themselves from the deepest, darkest part of him to free themselves of their painful captivity.
After what felt like hours later, Harry attempted to open his eyes. They felt scratchy, and swollen, and for a minute he was disoriented enough to begin to panic. A page turned somewhere in front oof him, and Harry calmed.
He was with Snape.
His eyes, now open, took in the office from an odd angle, vertically rather than horizontal. Snape was sitting across from him, on a cushion, on the floor, reading what looked like a potion's manual. Shifting, Harry saw that he was resting on a transfigured cot, and even then he was slightly more elevated than the older man. He relaxed, and took stock of the situation.
He still had not given the man an answer. It was not that he did not know what he wanted to say, it was that he was terrified of the consequences. He screwed up his courage, and decided to get it over with. He was not a Gryffindor for nothing.
Surprise flickered in the dark eyes that rose to meet his briefly before it was gone. "Yes?"
Tears prickled the back of his eyes. "Yes," he repeated, nodding for good measure.
The professor gave a sharp nod in return. "Very well." Harry held still while he was being studied. "Arrangements shall be made."
Harry nodded again, resting his head on the pillow beneath him. "OK." Arrangements would be made. Details would be discussed. He would be taken off the list. Mr. Belby would stop giving him that pathetic look whenever he came around.
Harry sighed, fighting sleep. He was one of the others now. One of the kids who had someone to turn to, someone to live up to, make proud, someone to hold and call your own. Whatever issues and uncertainties he had about this man had been forgotten, at least for the moment. Because Snape wanted him. One lone tear slid across the bridge of his nose, and into his ear. He had someone, finally. Someone to hold.