"What," Harry asked slowly, looking around at them all and finding himself bewildered when only Snape would meet his eyes, "what's going on? Tell me what? Has something happened? Is everyone safe?"
"Everyone is safe," Arthur assured, though his voice was subdued. "The reason why we're here is, well…"
"These three," Snape said suddenly, looking oddly satisfied, "believe you to be in danger, Potter."
Harry frowned. "I'm not. I already said I wasn't."
"Not from me, though your precious godfather here believes otherwise. They mean Tuney and her delightful husband." There was a sneer playing at the corners of Snape's mouth, but his eyes were as dark and cold as the water beneath a frozen lake.
"Tun—you mean Aunt Petunia?" he spluttered, pushing his pasta aside. "She's not nice, but—she's not—"
"I've had concerns about your home life for some time now," Mr. Weasley interrupted. Snape's neck twisted to look at him with a speed that looked painful. Removing his lopsided glasses, Mr. Weasley began cleaning them jerkily, eyes fixed on the grimy window above the sink, where rain lashed and streamed. It seemed to echo the mood of the house. "Back in your second year was when it began. Molly told me Ron had given his excuses for rescuing you—he said they starving you, Harry, and that there had been bars placed on the window of your bedroom. When I questioned Fred and George, they agreed. Fred told me he'd had to unlock the cupboard under the stairs to retrieve your school supplies. He said…" Mr. Weasley faltered, before straightening his shoulders and taking a seat at the table. "He told me there had been a small cot inside."
"Why are you just now saying something?" Harry asked, numb, with his fingers twisting together in his lap. He struggled not to become angry. "I'm—I'm not saying you're right! But if you've been thinking this, then—then why—"
"There's more," Snape said harshly, arms crossed tightly over his thin chest. Snape really was rather skinny, Harry thought dazedly, now staring at the table without really seeing it. Skinny and mean—like a dog that had been starved and beaten so often it became feral. "Tell him."
"Severus has seen—things—in your memories. Although he hasn't told us any specifics, the little he has given away is…concerning."
"Don't drag me into this," Snape warned. "I have nothing to do with it. I have stated this clearly."
"Why now?" Harry asked again.
"We're worried about you," Sirius said. He took a seat at the table, swinging the chair around so that their knees touched. "When I asked you to live with me, you agreed immediately—even though you'd thought I betrayed James and Lily less than an hour before. And whatever Snape told Arthur, well…We're here to discuss it."
It all circled back to Snape, in the end. Looking up slowly, Harry fixed him with a glare, and couldn't help the fury that blasted through him when Snape glared back without a word. "What did you tell them?" he demanded. "You've never said anything before. You don't care about the things you see. I know you don't. So why are you working with them?"
"I'm not," Snape snarled, throwing his hands in the air and looking as though he was tempted to storm out of the room. "Why you all insist that I am is beyond me, however, the point stands that they believe you to be in danger. This is not my doing, Potter. You are not entirely unintelligent, though your deplorable essays suggest otherwise. You know to ask adults for help if you need it, and you know they will assist you to their greatest extent."
Only—that wasn't true, was it? Harry wondered. McGonagall had ignored their warnings about the Philosopher's Stone in his first year; and Lockhart had attempted to erase his mind when he'd—er—recruited him for the journey down to the Chamber of Secrets. Moody had turned out to be a murderer attempting (and succeeding) to bring Voldemort back.
Adults had never done anything for Harry. For Snape to suggest otherwise was laughable.
And so he did laugh, shaking his head. "That's a lie, and you know it, Snape. I've asked for help loads of times."
"About your family?" Lupin asked gently.
"No. Or, well…I s'pose, maybe once. I told Dumbledore"—Snape snorted derisively—"but he didn't really listen."
"You told him? That old coot?" said Snape. "And what exactly did you say?"
Harry frowned at him. "I said I didn't want to go back there."
It was Snape's turn to laugh now. "Is that all, Potter? Did you neglect to regale him with tales of how your family? Did you say they put cigarettes out on the back of your neck, or drank themselves into oblivion before beating you until you couldn't even dream of crawling away? Did you tell them about the belt? Did you tell them they caned you, or hit you with frying pans? Hit you with their car? Forced you to cook for them, only to be denied the food you made? Did you mention the cupboard under the stairs?"
Head swimming with too many thoughts and too many questions, Harry eventually managed to stutter, "U-Uncle Vernon doesn't smoke. And he never hit me with a car. And I could always…run…"
"Yes," said Snape silkily, eyes boring into his own, "I know. Weasley, Lupin, I have done all that I am willing to do. This is now your responsibility."
Mr. Weasley and Professor Lupin were staring at Snape with expressions Harry couldn't even begin to comprehend, but when Sirius moved to put a firm hand on his shoulder, the others turned their attention on him—and Harry could not help but feel like a butterfly caught in a trap of pins. He swallowed hard.
"This isn't an interrogation, Harry," Lupin assured him, taking the last seat at the rickety table. He smiled softly and leaned forward on his elbows. "You're not in any trouble. We're only worried about you. Nothing you say will be used against you. Not by me, not by Arthur, not by Sirius, and not by Severus. If you'd like, you can even choose one of us to speak to, instead of us all together. We don't intend to make you uncomfortable or frighten you."
He was breathing too quickly. Swallowing again, even though his mouth was too dry and all it did was make his throat sting, Harry shook his head and muttered, "It's fine with all of you. You'd just tell each other later."
"You're right," Sirius chuckled. "We would." He sobered quickly, though, and squeezed Harry's shoulder. "Remus is right. We're here because we're concerned. You're worth our concern and our time. We only want you to be safe. You don't need to tell us anything you don't want to, kid. You're in charge here."
"You're worth protecting. We want to help," Mr. Weasley said.
Harry's breath caught in his throat. Squeezing his eyes shut to stave off the pressure behind them, he inhaled sharply and nodded once. "Okay," he breathed, and then started talking.
"He's never hit me with his car," Potter muttered, staring at his hands twisted in his lap. "And he doesn't smoke. He does drink, but not like…And he's never hit me until I couldn't walk."
"And the rest?" Weasley murmured, cleaning his glasses for a third time.
"He's only belted me once. Never again. Just once, before second year."
"When you say 'he,'" Lupin said, "do you mean—?"
Severus did not want to hear any of this. He felt shaky and weak, like he'd only just begun to get over a serious bout of illness. Breathing deeply, he ran a hand through his hair and eased his hips back against the counter, gazing out the window at the rain beating against the glass. He closed his aching eyes and wished, not for the first time, that he was still capable of tuning out the world around him as he had as a child.
"And the cupboard?"
"My Hogwarts letter had my cupboard on it. They gave me Dudley's second bedroom after that."
"Second bedroom? The boy had two?"
"Er, it was more like a graveyard. Broken toys and televisions. I dunno why they didn't just throw all of them out. I s'pose it was a way to keep me out of there, you know? If it was empty, then they'd have to give it to me. It was the only room of the house Aunt Petunia didn't want kept spotless."
"Who cleans the house?"
"Sometimes me, sometimes her. I do a lot of the work. The flower garden outside is mine, really, and I did the shopping when I was young so she could go to have her hair and nails done. I've done the cooking since I was young."
"Maybe five. I can't really remember."
Severus couldn't blame him. It all tended to blur together in the end, until one day you realized you couldn't remember how old you'd been the first time they neglected to feed you, or the first time they'd held you down and—
It had been years since he'd even tried to make sense of the fog of his childhood; and even longer since he'd wanted to remember any of it in the first place. Sometimes it was better to have forgotten the details.
Potter would not be a happy man the day it began to return to him in his dreams. God knows he hadn't been.
"Did they ever cane you?"
"O-Once or twice. It wasn't them that did it much, really, but it was my Aunt Marge. Uncle Vernon's sister; she's not related, thank God. She'd hit me round the knees if I beat Dudley at anything. There was this one time, at his birthday party…"
Potter trailed off into a story void of many details, though what he did tell painted a grim picture. Something had felt wrong, Severus thought, and now he'd been proven correct. This was no surprise. Everything he dreaded came to pass eventually. It had only been a matter of time.
He would have to tell Albus. There was no other option.
"But she only comes around once or twice a year," Potter finished, "so it's not as if I see her often."
"Has your family ever withheld food? As a punishment or otherwise?"
"A few times. They've never starved me, but they've never let me eat until I was full. In the summer before second year, they only gave me a can of soup every day, and I had to give Hedwig half of it so she could eat too."
"That's starvation, Harry. You don't need to make light of this. What they've done to you is wrong," Weasley said firmly. "You have done nothing to warrant this."
"Y-Yeah, I know."
Did he, though? Truly?
The interrogation (they could call it whatever they wished, but Severus had never believed in sugar-coating the truth) ended shortly after, when the boy simply stopped responding, choosing instead to stare hard at the table and his abandoned lunch. The occupants of the room seemed to collectively exhale and lean back. Lupin rubbed as his eyes as Weasley dabbed at the perspiration beading his brow. The mutt gingerly wrapped an arm round Potter's shoulders and pulled him close without speaking. Severus's eyes followed the movement as though his brain was instinctively trying to commit the idea of it to memory.
"We'll have to talk to Albus," Weasley said after a time, sighing. Potter's head shot up out of its slump. "Harry, I'm sorry, but we have no choice. This is not something that can be kept to ourselves. Albus has to know. It isn't safe for you to remain there any longer. Dumbledore will be able to arrange a new home for you."
"He won't let that happen," Potter said flatly.
"And what makes you say that?" Severus snapped, tensing when they all looked round at him.
"The blood wards, remember? I have to stay with Aunt Petunia."
"Then we'll separate her from her husband," he said.
"Severus, we can't simply remove the woman from her home and separate her from her husband and child," Lupin said, pressing his fingertips into the hollows of his eyes. "Not only because it would be morally reprehensible, but I can only imagine the level of retaliation she would turn onto Harry."
"Aunt Petunia hates me," the boy agreed.
Right now, I don't blame her. "You are being purposely difficult," Severus said, "and you've allowed your tea to go cold. We will be telling Dumbledore no matter what you say."
"I've got it," Black muttered when Potter dragged his cold pasta towards him and went to take a half-hearted bite. Tapping his wand against the bowl, he patted the boy on the back when steam quivered up out of it. "There you are—like new. Have you been getting enough food?"
Potter dug in easily this time, humming around a mouthful of food before swallowing and saying, "Yeah. He won't let me cook anymore, though."
"That's good," Lupin said, and though his tone was mild and as unreadable as ever, he looked vaguely contemplative.
"I like cooking, though."
"It still shouldn't be your job. You're a child under Severus's care. You're not supposed to take care of him."
Was that the core of Potter's problems? Severus suddenly realized, looking up from the crack in the linoleum he'd been studying. His recklessness, his tendency to jump into danger at the first sign of it, without any regard to his own health or safety—his insistence on helping him up the stairs after a summoning, or to cook for him—did it all stem from the role of caretaker that had been thrust upon him from an early age? Maybe five, the boy had said. Had he grown up under the assumption that the needs of others were more important, and that his own were to be neglected and forgotten? How far did the roots go? How much of Harry's Gryffindor heroics were his personality, and how much of it had merely been hammered into him from childhood?
"Do you enjoy cooking?" he asked, too quietly; his question took a moment to register. "Or do you think you have to?"
"I like it," Potter insisted. "Really. I dunno why that's so hard for everyone to understand."
"I will be holding you to the new rule, either way," Severus said. "Two meals a week. No more, no less."
Any calm he'd managed to dredge up seemed to drain away the moment he looked away from the boy, and realized Weasley and Lupin were staring intently at him. Severus's heart stuttered in his chest. "What?" he muttered, itching for a cigarette.
"Severus." Lupin seemed entirely too grim, too quiet, and too fucking pitying. "We held up our end of the deal. The storage room, please. I'd like to see it."
He should have made himself feel more empathy during the boy's interrogation, Severus thought as all eyes in the room turned onto him like burning spotlights. He felt like a specimen pinned down for study. Resisting a reflexive swallow, he forced himself to nod and turn out of the room to lead them up the stairs, as envy for Potter burned even deeper than the eyes on him had—because no one had ever comforted him, and he should have stopped wanting it years ago.