It was hot. The sun was baking the sidewalk under his bare feet, burning his soles like the asphalt was tattooing markings into his skin. Severus swiped his hair out of his eyes and raised himself up onto his toes to avoid the heat, shoes swinging in his free hand.
He was running late. He'd been due at the playground a half hour before, but Mum hadn't let him leave without an argument. Lily would be worrying. (Not that she didn't always, when he came late.) After a moment's hesitation, he dropped back down from his toes and quickened his pace, keen on getting there before Lily lost patience and left. She never had before, but Severus could feel a change in her lately. They weren't as close as before.
It was that fucking Potter's fault, was what it was. Potter and his stupid friends. Lily acted like she hated the pompous prick, but Severus knew better; he'd seen them bantering at their House table at dinner, when Lily thought he wouldn't notice. He'd seen.
She was getting tired of him.
And if he wasn't careful, Severus reminded himself, she was going to tire of waiting for him. He gripped his shoes tighter—he'd left in such a rush, there hadn't been time to shove them on—and broke into a light jog; enough to shorten the distance, but not enough to draw the attention of the owners of the neat little houses lining the streets. They already didn't like him. He saw the way they squinted at him suspiciously from behind their drapes. Severus saw all of it. He had to be aware.
Better to see a slap coming and brace yourself, than to be caught off guard.
He took a shortcut through an underbrush of leaves, snagging his coat on thorns as he forced his way through. The playground was in sight now, and—there was Lily, looking round like he would materialize out of the early morning mist at any moment. "Lily!" he called, waving his shoes in the air.
"Sev, you're late!" she shouted back, jumping off her swing and racing towards him. They met in the middle of the playground, panting in the heat. Gesturing to him, she asked, "What was it, your parents again?"
"No," he lied, dropping to the ground to tug on his shoes. She settled herself in the grass next to him. "I overslept."
"Oh, but I thought—" And she stopped, suddenly, with her hand halfway raised in the air. "Sev, your eye…"
Severus twitched his hair in front of his face, like a curtain, and rummaged through his pockets for a cigarette so that he could turn away from her to smoke it. "It's nothing."
"It's not—nothing, Sev, that looks really bad. What happened?"
They weren't as close as they used to be, and Severus could feel her withdrawing further and further as they aged. Best friend or not, this was not something he could tell her about—tell anyone about—because he knew what it would do. It would not help. It would only push her further away.
They weren't… close like they used to be.
He breathed in slowly and deeply, forcing his worries and fears to sink deep down, and detach themselves from him into a world of fog. Severus smiled at Lily. It felt almost real. "Nothing happened. Don't worry about me. Now, you were going to tell me what Tuney said to you yesterday…"
"Here," Severus muttered, shoving the door open as far as it would go, automatically switching to breathing through his mouth so that he wouldn't have to smell the musty stench of mothballs that always seeped from the room. The others lacked the foresight; Black's disgusted expression was almost enough to make him smile, if not for the anxious thoughts racing through his head, pushing out all else. "Feel free to explore to your heart's content, so long as you don't destroy anything."
"What the bloody hell is this?" Black said, looking round with a grimace. "I thought you said this was a storage room."
"And I did not lie," he said flatly, throwing a jerky gesture at the books in the corner. "There is my storage."
"Did Harry follow us here?" Lupin asked suddenly.
Potter had managed to edge his way in behind the group before the bookshelf had snapped shut; Severus could see the faint outline of him at the bottom of the stairs. Waving his wand, he shut the door with a sense of foreboding and cast a silent Muffliato. "Unless he knows to listen through the venting, he won't hear you."
"I want him out of that house," Weasley stated without preamble. "His relatives aren't fit to raise a child of any kind, let alone a magical one."
"And where do you propose we send him?" Lupin said, and though his voice was wary, his eyes were nothing but alert, studying each crevice of the room like he was peeling away at an ancient mystery. Severus's skin crawled at the sight of it. He wished suddenly, desperately, that he'd had the forethought to Banish most of the room's contents before they'd come to interrogate him.
"The boy is correct in that there aren't many places to put him," Severus said as slowly as he dared, hoping to keep their attention focused on Potter's plight as long as he could. "The blood wards are—"
"Fuck the blood wards," Black spat. "My godson is more important than some goddamn blood wards."
"Those 'goddamn blood wards' are the only thing keeping your precious godson safe," Severus snarled back.
"All we're doing is riling ourselves up," Lupin sighed, looking round again, as if searching for someplace to sit. "But I suppose that can't be helped. Severus, we need to talk. I know you don't want to, but this can no longer be avoided."
"There's nothing for us to discuss," he said dismissively, staring at the linens spilling out of the wardrobe to join the rest of the mess on the floor.
"This was your childhood home," the werewolf continued like he hadn't said a word. "I know that much. Did it always look like this? Or has this been a recent development?"
Looking at him incredulously, Severus said derisively, "No, this used to be a vast palace. It was only after I turned thirty that it split apart like Pangaea and attracted all sorts of unsavory families. In fact, the Richardsons next door are merely a figment of your imagination. I've Confunded you all. Welcome to Snape Manor."
"Pangaea?" Weasley muttered under his breath, brows furrowed.
"So it looked the same as it does now, if not worse," Lupin said, raising an eyebrow. "Is that right? That doesn't sound like the sort of environment a child should be raised in."
"It seems as though we have very different ideas on the sorts of environments a child should be raised in."
"Are you implying Harry is fine with his relatives?" Black spoke up, looking thunderous. "They've beaten and starved him, Snivellus, and you're saying there's nothing wrong with that? This is exactly what I was fucking trying to tell Albus, Remus—he couldn't give a damn about Harry. I know these two think you've turned a new leaf, but I haven't forgotten who you are. They think you know what Harry has been through, but I know better."
"Sirius," Lupin said warningly, but Severus interrupted before he could go on.
"What the boy has been through has not killed him," he said, clearing his mind to rid himself of the sick, shaky feeling in his gut. He'd long since ground his cigarette to a pulp between his fingers. "Missing a meal once or twice has never killed a child, and a single beating will not destroy his life. He'll recover from this. Potter is resilient, if nothing else."
Black shook his head. "You're sick. Are you saying he deserved it, then? And if he hasn't told us the truth, and it happened more than once?"
"You," Severus ground out, "are twisting my words. Get out of my house. We're done."
"Everybody calm down," Weasley ordered, stepping forward to put himself between the two of them. "We're accomplishing nothing here. Severus, I know full well you see this as an invasion of your privacy, but truthfully, Remus and I are worried there are other children at Hogwarts who have shown signs of abuse but haven't gotten the help they need. And seeing as how you spend more time with them than any of us, and have first-hand experience in the matter—"
"First-hand experience?" Severus said softly, stepping uncomfortably close to Arthur. "Would you care to elaborate, Weasley?"
"They think the poor prat unfortunate enough to sire you was a Voldemort supporter," Black said.
"Do not say the name," Severus burst out, flexing his left hand.
"As for me," the mutt said airily, waving a dismissive hand at him, "I think you jumped at the chance to join your master, if only to keep Lucius near so you could continue sucking his cock."
Severus's wand was out in a flash; Lupin grabbed his arm before he could fire off any spells, wrestling it back down to his side with mortifying ease. "Don't," the wolf muttered in his ear when he made an embarrassing noise in the back of his throat, and attempted to wrench himself free. "Don't do it. Calm down, now."
"We're getting nowhere with you here. Sirius, go comfort Harry." Weasley mopped at his forehead with an old handkerchief and pinched the bridge of his nose. "He's likely worrying about us, and you're wasting time spent with him while you're here with us."
Severus waited until Black stormed out of the room and down the stairs to yank his arm free. He rubbed his shoulder forcefully. "Don't fucking touch me," he snarled when Lupin reached for him again. "I'll curse your tongue from your mouth if you so much as look at me again, werewolf."
"Would you rather our visit become an outright brawl?" the wolf snapped back.
He'd dropped his cigarette somewhere in the carpet of old clothes. Itching to break something, Severus nudged at a pile of stale-smelling sweaters and didn't respond. He was breathing as heavily as if he'd just run a kilometer.
"I know you don't like this." Lupin ran a hand through his greying hair and lowered his voice. "Neither do we. It's an invasion of your privacy. Upsetting you isn't my intention."
"I'm not upset," Severus muttered, though he was, even through the slate-gray mist of Occlumency shielding him.
"All right, then I don't like angering you. Though I'm not as uncomfortable as I'm sure you are, I'm not enjoying myself in the slightest."
"Why must you insist on doing this?" he demanded, pushing at another mound of clothing to reveal the scuffed floorboards beneath. The neck of an old bottle glinted out at him, caught in a ray of light; he covered it back up again. "Haven't you had enough?"
Lupin was too close. Their shoulders brushed together. He could feel the heat radiating off of him, raising goosebumps on his arms and the hairs on the back of his neck. "Harry might not be the only one you've missed, Severus. There may be other students."
"Would you like a detailed account of each bruise and scraped knee I've seen in the years I've worked there?" He shifted away from the pressure of their shoulders touching. "Or would a simple list of names do?"
"Can…you make one? A list of names, that is?" Weasley asked haltingly. He leaned carefully against the empty bedframe, putting his full weight against the post once he seemed to decide it wouldn't crack under pressure. "How many are there, Severus?"
"None so severe that they need to be removed from their homes."
"And what, for you, would constitute a home removal?" Lupin asked in a low voice.
Severus didn't respond. He stared hard at the wall opposite. Then, when the silence stretched long enough that he almost couldn't bear it, he managed to say, "Sexual inappropriateness. Overt starvation. Beatings that result in a child being unable to crawl away to save themselves. Internal damage. Physical disfigurement."
"Do you think you should have been removed from your house, as a child?" Weasley pressed.
"My parents never disfigured me," Severus scoffed. He rummaged through his pockets to find a new cigarette. It was unlikely he would ever find the last one, if he even bothered to look.
"And the others?" one of them said, though he wasn't sure which; he'd stared at the wall for so long, he could no longer make out their faces in his peripheral vision, or distinguish their voices. Remus's shoulder brushing against his with each breath was all that kept him tethered to his body.
He took so long gathering his foggy, fragmented thoughts that whoever had spoken decided to move on and hopefully forget that they'd ever asked at all.
"What would you consider to be physical disfigurement?"
"I consider this conversation to be over," Severus said tonelessly, breaking his gaze away from the crack on the wall. He pointed to the door. "You've all overstayed your welcome. Our deal was that you could see the storage room, and you have seen it. Get out."
"Thank you for showing us." Lupin was smiling, but it didn't reach his eyes, which were tired and pitying. A surge of anger erupted in Severus's chest at the sight, ricocheting up and down his body like a burning firecracker.
"I don't need your thanks or your pity, werewolf. Get out of my fucking house, you disgusting, pathetic, fucking monster," he forced out between great gasps of air. He clenched his hands so hard his nails bit at his palms. "And you"—He swung his arm out to point his wand wildly at Weasley, who lifted his empty hands in the air—"you goddamn spineless Muggle-loving cunt, making your sickening assumptions, all sticking your noses where they do not belong—"
"What does it matter!" he shouted, slashing his wand at the remnants of the mattress on the floor. It exploded into a blizzard of cotton and fluff. "What does it matter what they did! You will tell nobody what you saw here! Nobody!"
For a second time in under an hour, Lupin seized him in a vice-like grip, pinning his arms to his sides and wrestling his wand from his stiff fingers. Severus yanked at the hands on him, hyperventilating, digging his nails deeper until his skin gave way. "Calm down. You're going to hurt somebody."
"Get off of me," he gasped out, tugging uselessly at his arms. "Don't—touch me."
"I don't have any choice. I'm sorry, Severus, but somebody is going to get hurt if you continue on." Then, raising his voice, Lupin said, "Arthur, I think it's time to leave. Go ahead and take Sirius back with you. I'm going to stay awhile longer. I'll send a message if I find myself running late."
"Be careful," Weasley replied (like he was a fucking savage animal) before slipping out the door. It closed behind him, leaving only Severus and the werewolf in the room.
"Breathe with me," Lupin said softly, as the arms around him suddenly became less of a restraint, and more of an embrace. "In and out."
"Let go." Each inhalation sounded like a thundercrack in the quiet. Choking back the mess of sound bubbling up his throat, Severus thrashed again, with his hair in his stinging eyes and blood slicking his palms. He wanted—he needed—to hide, to get—away, far away, cover his eyes and his mouth and stop breathing be quiet— "Let go of me."
"In and out. Severus, you're safe. You're in your house. Nobody is here to hurt you. In and out. Do you feel my chest moving? Copy me. In and out. The others have left. It's only the two of us."
Severus bit the inside of his cheek until iron burst on his tongue. Grounding himself with the sensation, he sucked in a shaky breath to imitate Lupin's, and then another, until he was breathing normally and the rage-fueled panic subsided. The wolf continued restraining him until he finally went limp and pliant. Then, loosening his grip, Lupin leaned in to murmur, "Breathe with me. In and out. Can you hear me? Do you need a Calming Draught?"
"M'fine," Severus muttered, closing his eyes without meaning to. His heart stuttered like he was having palpitations. "Don't need it."
"What do you need me to do?"
"Off," he said, too exhausted to elaborate further. He felt Lupin nod against the back of his neck. The arms released him. His wand was pressed into his hand. Stowing it away, Severus took a step forward to lean against the wall, mortification pooling low in his stomach. He was suddenly relieved he hadn't eaten anything recently. "Tell nobody."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Lupin said. "This stays between us."
"Harry will need dinner soon." He could feel a headache building behind his eyes. Squeezing them shut to stave off the pain, he exhaled sharply and said, "Stay the night, if you can. I am not…not able…"
"I'll stay for as long as you need me. I'll send a Patronus off to the others to let them know I'll be here for the night."
"I have no spare bed…"
"I think I can survive a night in your armchair. Severus—" Lupin put a tentative hand on his arm, fingers wrapping round to feel his shuddering pulse. "Breathe. It's fine. Everything is all right."
And as much as he wanted to disagree, Severus couldn't quite help but believe him, if only a little.