Disclaimer: JKR owns everything, but the plot.
Severus Snape prided himself on his self-control; it was what had stopped him from going to pieces over the years. Even as a young child, he had quickly learned to hide his thoughts from those who would take immediate advantage of any weaknesses. Few people had ever bothered to look beyond his walls, and so most never realized how completely his mask of unpleasantness covered his true thoughts. In truth, his mask of spite and anger was often just that, a mask, and it was rare for him to truly feel the volatile emotions he presented. Tonight, however, seemed to be one of those rare moments; Severus was angry.
Angry, and utterly, horribly afraid.
The beautiful serenity of the grounds of Hogwarts contrasted so sharply with the cold, gut-wrenching emotions stirring in Severus' body that he almost felt as though he was walking in a dream. Or perhaps it was a nightmare. Severus snorted at the thought. If only. He would gladly suffer years of nightmares to escape the situation Potter's foolish actions had trapped him in.
Severus ignored a cheerful greeting from Hagrid as he continued down the path to the entrance gates. When he'd given Black the ritual, he'd certainly never imagined the Dark Lord getting involved. Potter had dragged them both into a world of trouble, and Severus needed to find a solution very quickly. Neither Dumbledore nor the Dark Lord would appreciate his involvement in Potter's disappearance should they ever discover his actions, and both men had extremely effective ways of expressing their disapproval. He chilled slightly at the thought, but kept walking. He had faced worse than this without losing his composure, and he refused to let one of Potter's idiotic stunts distress him.
Severus reached his destination in what seemed to be a very short period of time, lost in his brooding. He stopped abruptly in front of the gates for a moment, quieting his rampant thoughts and emotions with the ease of many years of experience. Pressing his hand against the cold metal, he let his magic brush lightly against the recently strengthened protective wards imbued in the castle's gates and outer wall. The wards responded to his wordless request, lowering enough to allow him to open one gate and slip outside before springing back up to full strength. He had no idea why the Headmaster had decided to strengthen the wards now, instead of a year ago, but his inquiries had, as always, been met with platitudes and evasions.
With a spell, his billowing robes melted, transforming into a black frock coat and dark grey trousers. Turning sharply on his heel, he Apparated into a quiet muggle neighbourhood. Severus glanced around at the empty street, scowling at the identical, boring houses and then slipped into the shadows of a nearby tree, crossing his arms and tapping his foot irritably against the pavement. Several long minutes later, during which Severus' patience wore extremely thin, the sound of Apparition caused him to straighten up and glower at the old man who had appeared next to him.
"Ah, Severus, you are here early! Wonderful!" Dumbledore beamed at him as he moved over to join the older wizard. Severus kept his gaze on the nearby houses in an effort to protect his eyesight from the assault of the Headmaster's neon yellow robes.
"I do not wish to waste any more of my time on this pointless errand than necessary, Headmaster. The boy is rebelling, as all teenagers do, and will no doubt return once he believes he has drawn enough attention to himself. I see no reason why I am necessary for your investigation."
"Now, Severus, you know I would not have asked you to come with me if I did not believe it necessary. None of the Order members guarding the house saw him leave and none of my alarms informed me when he left the wards. I am truly concerned that-"
"Any fifth-year student could dismantle an alarm ward given enough time and incentive. As for your supposed guards, well, perhaps now you understand the folly of giving a child something as dangerous as an invisibility cloak." Severus interrupted him snidely as they chose one house from among its clones. Plans raced through his mind as they walked, but there were too many unknown variables, and he knew he would have to improvise and hope he could dispose of any evidence of Potter's actions before the Headmaster realized it was there. "I have heard nothing from the Dark Lord, and this is not something he would keep quiet, Albus. Potter must have left of his own accord.
"I do not believe that Harry would run away, not after the events at the Ministry." Dumbledore's voice broke through Severus' scheming as they reached the front door. The Headmaster rapped sharply on the door in front of them. "He knows his duty, and what is at stake should he fail."
And it never occurred to you that maybe that is exactly why he would run away? But Severus quieted his hostile thoughts and focused on the door, which was decidedly not opening. He reached past Dumbledore and pounded heavily on the wood. Still, no sounds of movement came from inside the house.
"I was quite certain they would be home by now. Perhaps we could come back when…" Dumbledore never finished his suggestion as Severus flicked his wand lazily and blasted a mild curse through the door, causing it to ricochet off the wall and back at them. Ignoring Dumbledore's half-hearted admonishments, he kicked the door back open with one booted foot and stalked through the entryway just as a shatter of breaking glass emanated from a nearby room.
Severus followed the noise through an orderly hallway into an equally immaculate kitchen- immaculate, except for the grossly oversized muggle struggling to rise out of a wooden chair and a few empty bottles scattered on the table. A mess of liquid and glass on the ground proved to be the source of the noise. The stench of alcohol immediately informed him of the bottle's contents, and he was forcibly reminded of several of Potter's memories involving alcohol and this very muggle.
"Vernon Dursley, I presume?" Severus drawled, leaning against a chair as the muggle finally managed to stand on his unsteady legs. The man blinked at him stupidly and Severus was about to conjure a bucket of ice water over the idiot's head when Dumbledore appeared in the doorway behind him. The muggle's face reddened in blotches at the sight of Dumbledore's robes, though Severus hardly blamed him for that. He was quite certain the old man was colour-blind.
"You! You're some of those… those freaks! What do you think you're doing, breaking into my house like this? Get out, before I call the police!"
The muggle swayed alarmingly as he ranted, but steadied himself enough to take a few threatening steps in their direction. Severus whipped his wand out and under the man's many chins. A small amount of satisfaction and amusement swept through him as the man immediately closed his mouth and paled alarmingly.
"We are here about your nephew, Harry Potter." The obese man opened his mouth, and Severus dug his wand in a little deeper. "Yes, we are aware he is no longer in residence, so spare us your excuses. What we want are the details of his disappearance, which I'm sure you would be delighted to provide."
"Now, Severus, is that really necessary?" Dumbledore's disapproving voice spoke behind him. Severus ignored him and focused on the Muggle, who had sunk back down into the chair as though his fat legs had liquefied.
"I… I didn't have anything to do with it!" the muggle finally stammered out. "The little freak ran off days ago, just vanished, and not a word to any of us. I don't know where he's gotten off to, but whatever trouble he's managed to find himself in, you keep my family out of it!" The muggle seemed to have regained some of his bluster and actually had the gall to stick one porky finger in Severus' face to punctuate his statement. Severus was highly tempted to break it, but luckily - or perhaps unluckily - Dumbledore stepped forward.
"Harry is not in any trouble, Mr Dursley." Severus snorted inwardly at this, but removed his wand and retreated, letting the Headmaster continue. "We certainly don't want to cause your family any stress, but it is very important that we locate Harry as soon as possible. We only need some information, anything you can think of that may help us get Harry back to safety, and then we will leave you in peace."
This, instead of calming the muggle, only seemed to enrage him further. The considerable amount of alcohol the man had drunk seemed to loosen his tongue despite his fear of the wizards. "I already said I don't know anything about this, didn't I? I don't want to know either! The little bastard ran off days ago, and a good riddance to him. You better not bring him back here if you find him, you hear me? I won't have it! He's useless, a useless freak, always gettin' in the way an' scaring Dudders. He can rot out there, let 'im get a taste of real hard living, that'll teach 'im…"
The muggle hardly seemed to be speaking to them anymore, instead reciting what sounded like an oft repeated speech to the bottles on the table, his words starting to slur slightly. Severus sneered and turned to the Headmaster, who was eyeing the muggle with a frown.
"It is unlikely that we will find nothing useful here, Headmaster. I will check the boy's room and see if he left any clues about his destination, if you will search down here," Severus offered, praying that the man would not insist on accompanying him upstairs.
"Yes, perhaps that is best. I will see if I cannot get anything more out of Mr Dursley as well." Dumbledore waved him out of the room, and Severus held in a small sigh of relief. He slipped through the disturbingly neat house and up the staircase, moving gracefully and silently despite his height.
As he reached the top of the stairs, he heard scuffling coming from the room to his immediate left and lightly pushed open the door. He lifted a brow at the sight of another fat muggle, this one obviously Potter's cousin. Armfuls of clothes ended up on a large bed while the muggle dug frantically through a chest of drawers, obviously looking for something. Severus considered for a moment before quietly slipping back out and continuing down the hall. He highly doubted this muggle would be any more helpful than the one downstairs.
Severus scowled as he reached the end of the hall and faced a battered door covered in heavy padlocks and a cat flap. Unlocking them all with one flick of his wand, he entered Potter's room warily, glaring at the bare walls and scruffy furniture.
Somebody had obviously tried to clean up the evidence of Potter's actions, as Severus could see no physical signs of the ritual. He could still feel it though, remnants of Dark magic brushing against him as he walked around the room. He was lucky the Headmaster had not come up, as the man would have sensed it immediately, and would likely be able to identify the type of magic used.
He murmured a quiet spell to locate any magical items inside the room and opened the closet to find Potter's open school trunk, minus a few very obvious items. He frowned in confusion and looked around the room. Potter couldn't have taken anything with him, so where was his wand and the famed invisibility cloak? For that matter, where was the trunk Black had used to store the materials?
A slight cough near the door had him spinning around, wand out, as he cursed himself for becoming so careless. The younger muggle stood petrified in the doorway, piggy eyes fixed on Severus' wand like a mouse staring at a cobra. Severus lowered his wand and glared at the muggle irritably.
"Well, don't just stand there, boy! What do you want?" Severus' growl seemed to wake the muggle up, and he flinched before stepping into the room, staying near the desk beside the open door while Severus remained near the closet. The boy pulled something out from behind his back and placed it on the desk, eyeing Severus warily the entire time. Severus recognized the silvery cloth of Potter's invisibility cloak and blinked in surprise as the muggle shakily lifted the cloth to reveal a book, a letter, a trunk the size of a matchbox, and a very familiar wand.
"I…h-he left this stuff on the ground. Harry, the night he…well, you know. Dad w-would've destroyed them, so I picked them up. I think they're important, if you're trying to find him." The muggle was clearly afraid, refusing to look at Severus and twitching like a skittish colt. Or perhaps a piglet. Severus narrowed his eyes in suspicion as he took several quick steps forward and the muggle wobbled a laborious retreat back to the doorway.
"Yes, they are important, though I am surprised that you were willing to touch them. Do you not share your father's opinion about the wizarding world? Or about your cousin, for that matter?" Several of Potter's memories involving his cousin floated to the front of his mind, fuelling his incredulity. The muggle, after flinching ridiculously at the word wizard, actually seemed to consider the question for a minute.
"It's not…I don't like it, b-but I don't like what Dad did to Harry either. He nearly killed him this time, I think. I tried to help him get out of here, but I don't know where he went." The boy seemed to understand Severus' look of doubt and flushed unattractively. "I never liked him very much either, but he saved my life. I couldn't just leave him there."
The muggle- Dudley, if he remembered correctly- raised his head and met Severus' eyes with noticeable effort for a few seconds before swallowing nervously and taking a step back towards the door. Severus nodded in acknowledgement and Dudley waddled out of the room as quickly as he could, obviously considering his part in the whole ordeal over.
Severus watched the door for a few moments before he mentally shook himself. He wrapped the cloak back around the items and shrunk the entire package, along with Potter's school trunk, and slipped the cloak into his pocket. He walked slowly back to the stairs, where Dumbledore was waiting for him at the bottom when he arrived.
"Did you find anything useful, Severus?" Severus tossed the shrunken school trunk to the Headmaster with an air of disgust.
"His school things, but neither his wand nor his cloak. There were no signs that he left unwillingly. Really, Headmaster, you should have known he would try something like this. Potter has never shown any care for responsibility," Severus lied, undisturbed by the frustrated and disappointed look on Dumbledore's face.
"I had truly thought he would understand… but perhaps I expected too much of him. I should have checked on him." Dumbledore said. Severus huffed at this as he glanced around the disgustingly perfect room. Yes, you should have checked on him, but not for those reasons.
Then again, it was possible that Dumbledore knew exactly what Potter's uncle had done and decided to ignore it. Dumbledore seemed truly sad, but Severus had lived with the man for too long to trust his facial expressions. Dumbledore led him towards the front door without another word, and he decided to test his luck a little.
"Did you manage to get anything more out of the uncle? He obviously knew something about Potter's departure, though likely nothing useful."
"No, I'm afraid I did not. He was already quite intoxicated when we got here, and was becoming increasingly violent as I examined the house, so I cast a sleeping charm on him. He will not wake up for another hour or so," Dumbledore replied. Severus bristled at Dumbledore's answer.
"And you didn't question him first? His drunkenness would have his undoubtedly weak mind even more open than it normally would be! It was a perfect opportunity for Legilimency!" A spasm of something crossed Dumbledore's face, but was gone before Severus could properly identify it. The Headmaster replaced it with a stern glance.
"It would have been entirely unethical while he was in such a state, especially as he is a muggle. I would certainly not attempt to search his mind without his full and aware consent."
Oh no, of course, not the muggles. And yet, you have no problems grasping the mind of any wizard foolish enough to look you in the eye. But Severus bit his tongue and glanced at the setting sun as they crossed the Dursleys' lawn. Could he risk it?
"Headmaster, did it never occur to you that the muggles might have something to do with Potter's absence?" Severus inquired delicately. "If his Uncle went beyond the posturing and blustering we found today, then perhaps Potter left for his own safety."
Dumbledore's expression did not change. "I am certain this is not the case, Severus. Harry would have told me, or confided in his friends. If Harry has indeed run away, it was likely because of a simple family disagreement, easily mended and forgotten. Petunia will no doubt manage to calm her husband in the coming days, and Harry can return to his family once we have located him. I believe he will run to Diagon Alley, as he did years ago, so we can start our search there."
Severus shook his head in disbelief at Dumbledore's casual response. Had it been Minerva, she would have at least investigated the possibility of abuse. The Headmaster's immediate dismissal of the topic hinted either that he was unwilling to consider the idea, or he already knew and was simply trying to distract Severus. He decided he would probably never receive the answer from the man himself.
Dumbledore reminded him of the Order meeting that night to discuss their findings with the rest of the group in order to set up search teams, and Severus agreed shortly as the aggravating man disapparated. Before Severus could decide what to do, his left arm flared with pain; Dark magic flowed out of the Mark and sank into his arm like rows of venomous teeth. He let out a nearly inaudible curse and Apparated to his home in Spinner's End.
Once inside, he hurried down into the basement, where he had set up his potions lab. Swiftly, he pulled Potter's cloak and its contents out of his coat and tossed them onto one of the worktables in the corner of the lab, then grabbed several boxes of potions the Dark Lord had requested and tucked them into a leather satchel. With a flick of his wand, he summoned his Death Eater robes and mask, and he pulled them on over his muggle clothes.
Grasping the feather-light satchel, Severus cast one last look at the invisibility cloak lying forlornly in the corner of the room before he ran up the stairs. Systematically occluding his mind as he moved, he hid any knowledge of Potter's actions and the items now hidden in his lab behind his strong mental shields. There would be time to worry about it later and everything depended on him keeping his composure. Taking a deep breath to fortify himself as he slipped out the front door, he clasped his hand over the Mark and Disapparated.
AN: Ummm… Don't kill me? *Grovels pathetically* I'm very sorry! I didn't mean to... And I've already finished most of the next chapter. It was going to be here, but I just wanted to put something up. A big, huge thank you to everyone who reviewed! You make me bounce and squeal with happiness!