The screaming cut off barely a second after it had begun, but Severus was already out of bed in a sudden burst of energy, wand raised as he slid his way down the stairs and rushed out into the living room, poised for an attack—only to find the room empty.
Where is the boy? he thought wildly, scanning the room. The sofa was barren, sheets tangled and drooping off the sides of the cushions. Potter was nowhere to be found. The Calming Draught had worn off during the time he'd spent asleep, and the earlier hysteria was rising back up, suffocatingly heavy. "Potter?" he called, and then raised his voice when there was only silence. "Potter!"
"I'm sorry," came a small voice from behind the sofa. Severus stumbled his way round it and found the boy pale and drawn. He was pressed up against the wall, knobby knees hugged close to his chest, and his fringe was plastered to his face with sweat. When Severus took a step forward, Potter shrank back, spouting apologies and unintelligible explanations. "Didn't mean to wake you, I'm sorry, I was just—the—I just was—it was the graveyard and I just—I'm—sorry—"
For a moment, Severus couldn't find the strength to move or speak. He blinked hard as the floor swam beneath him; everything felt unreal. So he did the only thing he could think to do—turn on one heel, and head for the kitchen. He didn't turn on the lights. Making his way through the dark, Severus turned on the stove and found his old, dented tea kettle, filled it, and set it to boil. His shaking hands wrapped round the edge of the counter in a vice-like grip as he leaned forward and breathed heavily to ward off the spinning of the room. Then, too tired to do much more, he hooked his foot round the leg of the nearest chair and dragged it over, collapsing into it. He closed his eyes.
Severus hadn't realized he'd fallen asleep until the kettle whistled and his head jerked up out of the slump it had fallen into. Looking round blearily, he reached for the stove, only to find that someone had already gotten to it first.
"I'm sorry about before," Potter murmured, studiously avoiding his gaze as he removed the kettle and turned off the stove with a click. His eyes were fever bright and his skin was ghostly in the darkness. "I didn't mean you wake you up. Not now, but—or, well, now as well I s'pose. But before. I didn't…"
"Leave it," Severus ground out, pointing vaguely at the stove when the boy turned to him, startled. He reached up to rub at his aching eyes. "Sit."
Closing his eyes again, Severus dozed until the boy scraped a chair back, and then hauled himself to his feet and reached for two mugs. A muscle in his back protested the movement with a cramp; Severus took a moment to compose himself, wiping any signs of pain from his face before he turned back round with two mugs full of tea and stepped to the table. He set them down with a purposeful thud and fell into the only remaining chair.
"Do you need sugar?" he remembered to ask, after he'd drained half his tea in one go, burning his tongue and scalding his throat.
"Er—no, that's okay. I can drink it straight." But the boy made no move to take a sip, instead pulling the mug closer to him with a grating sound that made Severus twitch a little. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," he said shortly. He still hadn't looked in the mirror to check the damage on his face; he wasn't altogether sure if he wanted to.
Did the boy want to talk about the nightmare he'd had? Should Severus even ask him? He'd never been one for understanding the more subtle boundaries a person might have, and didn't trust himself not to cause a raging argument by accidentally overstepping.
"Was it the cupboard?" he heard himself ask as though someone had temporarily taken control of his mouth, immediately wishing he could take it back when Potter tensed like he was about to be whipped.
"I-I don't know what you're…" The boy's eyes darted about and he looked vaguely ill in a way that screamed I'm going to sick up in about twenty seconds, conjure me a bucket. "I already told you it was a closet. And—just once."
Stop talking. Shut the fuck up. Stop.
"No? Or, I mean, I s'pose but it—no. I think I should…maybe I should just go to bed." Potter laughed nervously and finally took a sip of tea, slopping some down his front. "It's late."
Severus Occluded against any stray thoughts bumbling around in his foggy head, and took a deep breath. "Have you been clearing your mind before sleeping? It would help."
This time, Potter merely shrugged, settling back down slowly. Neither of them spoke. Severus Summoned the kettle to the table and poured himself a second mug of tea with hands that shook no matter how hard he tried to steady them. He would take another nerve repairing potion tomorrow—a different one, to prevent addictive properties. And perhaps he would spend some time in the morning to focus on whatever disjoint had occurred between his mouth and brain. There would be other things to do, too…Fixing up a bruise salve for his face. Grocery shopping. The looming visit from Sirius Black to panic over. He would need to contact Lupin, and narrow down the exact timeframe of the visit, so that perhaps he could arrange a 'surprise' visit from Narcissa, or perhaps even Lucius, or—
"What was my mum like?" Potter asked.
Severus's hand froze on the way to his mug, hanging suspended in midair a beat too long, before he managed to compose himself and take a sip of tea as though the boy hadn't spoken.
"I know," Potter continued, "that you probably don't want to talk about her. Not with me, anyway. You don't even—like me. Not like you did her. A-And you did, didn't you? You were friends? Right?"
He bit his lip unconsciously, winced at the jolt of pain in his face, and took another sip of tea to hide his reaction.
"Professor Lupin didn't seem surprised. That night at the playground, I mean." The boy clutched at his mug, fingers tucked round the jagged edges where the handle had once broke off. His knuckles were white and his shoulders were tense. "So I guess he knew all along. Just like he knew my dad, and never told me…and no one ever told me about Sirius. And now you've been hiding this, and…and that makes me angry. Don't I deserve to know about my parents? No one ever tells me about them. Sirius told me about my dad, a bit, but no one ever tells me about Mum. Just that I have her eyes. I don't…I don't even know what her favorite color was."
Severus took another sip of tea, and made the mistake of making eye contact; he was horrified to find there were tears in the boy's eyes.
"Tell me about her," Potter begged, pushing his untouched tea away. "Tell me. Please."
"I…" He trailed off as the words died in his throat.
He didn't speak. He could not.
"Please. Tell me," Potter choked out, now wiping furiously at his eyes. "Please. Why don't you understand how much I need this? I don't know anything about her. Just her eyes. I don't know what she was like. I don't know what her handwriting looked like, or what her favorite color was, or if she liked to sing. I just know her eyes, and you won't tell me more. I never knew what her voice sounded like until the Dementors, and it was only her dying—"
Severus pushed his own tea away, gripping the edge of the table hard enough to make his joints creak. "I'm," he tried, but the words wouldn't come. He forced them out, with an effort that drained him to the depths of his soul. He owed the boy that much. "I'm not—right. It's not right for me to tell you, it's not…I'm…"
—the reason she's dead. I'm the reason you don't know.
And he was a coward. He'd always been a coward. Too afraid to tell the boy, too afraid to bear witness to his judgement and his rage. Too afraid to earn his hatred in the only way that truly mattered anymore. He was a failure, in all things good and just. That would become all the more apparent the moment Harry Potter discovered who had truly murdered his mother fourteen years ago.
"You were friends? Right?"
She was a friend. I was just a failure.
"You should ask Hagrid," Severus finally managed to say, in a voice that refused to rise above a whisper. "Not me. Ask somebody else."
"Hagrid wasn't her best friend," Potter ground out, rubbing a hand over his cheek. He sniffled wetly. "You were. I'm asking you. I'm not asking Sirius, or Professor Lupin, or Hagrid. I'm not asking them, because they weren't her best friend."
"I can give you the names of her old school friends." He pried his fingers off of the table; they felt stiff, like he'd shoved his hands in a bucket of ice and had left them there until… "You should owl them."
"Just forget it!" Potter stood up with a force that toppled his chair and knocked the table forward, sloshing their tea over the rims of their mugs. Severus made no move to clean it up. "Just forget it! Forget I even asked, if y-you aren't going to t-tell me—anything—"
"Potter," he said, or perhaps he hadn't, because the boy had already stormed into the bathroom and slammed the door shut. Severus remained seated at the table and fought to control his unsteady breathing. He waited until the tap turned on in the bathroom to put his face in his hands.
Sometimes, he couldn't quite help but blame Lily for this mess. It was wrong. It was wrong of him to think that way. He knew that. But it didn't make it any less true. If she hadn't—hadn't gone and—
What was he supposed to do? What was he supposed to say to the boy, to the son she'd left behind in her sacrifice? He wasn't a father. He wasn't a brother, or even someone half-decent, or remotely prepared for the mess he'd found himself in. He wasn't the sort of person Potter should have been going to for clues to his mother's past. Not after she had so forcibly expelled him from that past twenty years before. He didn't know any details about the years she'd spent in between fifth year and her death. He didn't know if she'd ever found that perfect book she'd always fantasized about, if she'd still coveted stories of the Hogwarts Founders, or even if she'd still preferred to keep her hair loose and free instead of confined in a twist. He didn't know what her favorite color had been; because what if it had changed? He didn't know, he never would know, and…and now Harry was asking questions as if he of all people held the secrets to a universe neither of them would ever know or understand again.
What am I supposed to do?
There was no answer, but Severus had long since learned there never was.
Harry bent over the sink, splashing his face with cold water to rid his cheeks of the angry flush staining them, and the tear tracks he was surprised Snape hadn't commented on. His nose was stuffed to hell and his eyes looked far too bright. Scrutinizing himself in the mirror, he leaned back down and splashed his face another few times, and then straightened and dried himself off before leaning against the closed door.
That had been a disaster. He was supposed to have gotten answers, was supposed to have finally broken Snape down and gotten him to speak to him. But it had been useless as always.
It was all because of the dream. He'd been in the graveyard, had watched Cedric die again—and his parents had appeared. They'd come to him, only their eyes were stained red, and their smiles were as cold as the Black Lake had been, back in February. But their voices…their voices. The soft timbre of his mother's voice came rushing back to him; Harry closed his eyes against tears pricking at them. It had been the first time he'd ever heard his mother speak outside of her death.
And now Snape refused to talk about it.
Harry shut the tap off and rubbed at his eyes, sighing sharply. A lightbulb above the mirror flickered and the room dimmed before stuttering back into…well, it hadn't been exactly bright before, either.
He twisted the doorknob slowly, until it reached the end of its rotation, and very carefully opened the door a crack—just enough to peer out for signs of an angry Snape. Harry adjusted his glasses and squinted through the gloom to find that the man hadn't so much as stood up since he'd left the table. He was slumped forward, face buried in his hands, eyes covered and hair askew. Then, as Harry continued watching in silence, Snape stood up and stumbled to the side, catching himself on the counter before he could fall. Snape reached up briefly to touch the bruised half of his face. He vanished into the dark of the living room only a moment later; Harry edged out into the kitchen as the sound of heavy, fumbling footsteps sounded overhead and then quieted. Snape's bedroom door creaked shut and the house began to settle back down from its momentary disturbance. And Harry, in response, was faintly unnerved to find that he found the sounds comforting. This house didn't feel as unfamiliar as it had at the beginning; he'd begun to learn its patterns, from how long the shower would stay hot, to the best burner on the stove. He knew how to scale the stairs without causing grievous injury. And best—or perhaps worst—of all, Harry had begun to familiarize himself with Snape's moods and daily activities. He knew the man's sleeping schedule, and what he suspected might be his favorite foods. He'd seen his mood even out when he'd had his morning coffee. Harry had even caught him stuffing the last of the Oreos in his mouth at once before hiding the package under a heap of rubbish. They'd had arguments that hadn't ended with a deadly poison in his cereal the next morning. He'd completed his summer work (with a bit of help). Snape had even allowed Hedwig to deliver mail from his friends; and he hadn't put up a fuss about it.
And now the great, ugly git was ruining it all, just because he wouldn't tell Harry about his own mum.
Where did Snape get off on that? he wondered furiously, throwing himself down onto the sofa and shoving his feet under his tangle of blankets, kicking them back up around his knees so that he could make a grab for them and tuck them around his shoulders. Did he enjoy keeping facts about his mum to his greasy self? Harry's mum. He'd known her. And refused to tell him anything!
He turned over in one jerky movement, and then had to readjust and pull a blanket out from under his elbow. Harry pulled his knees to his chest and scowled into the darkness. Snape was a bastard. A fucking bastard. (Snape wasn't the only one who could use that word.)
"Was it the cupboard?"
And what had that been about? The cupboard? He'd told Snape it had just been a one-off incident. And—and all right, he wasn't the best liar, but that should have been the end of it. The cupboard was in the past. It needed to stay in the past. What gave Snape the right to poke into his personal business, and then refuse to tell him about his mum?
Harry yawned widely and tucked his hands up under his cheek. He would just have to try again. Next time, he would wait for a moment when Snape was more vulnerable. It was Harry's mother, after all. He deserved to know more.
All he needed to do was find an opportunity.