OK, here we go with another glimpse in the life of Severus and Zoe. This is another story from Zoe's eighth year and takes place in the summer after Christmas Eve Justice and, perhaps, a few weeks after Of Gnomes and Dark Magic. Reading those two stories isn't necessary, per se, but I think reading all the stories leading up to this one will help in understanding my characterizations. Also, pay attention. I am going to return to some events that take place in this story later in my full-length fic of Zoe's first year at Hogwarts.
Lastly, I need to post a shout out to 1066AndAllThat for chatting with me about Severus and all things British. You really are the best!
Chapter 1: From the Attic to the Cellar
It had started out like any other Saturday.
Severus had awoken as early as he normally did and had been surprised to find Zoe already at the breakfast table when he entered into the kitchen. The girl had seemed distracted, he noted, especially once he had informed her that, due to him needing to get some work finished, her lessons would be pushed to the following day, but that he wished for her to read ahead in her English text. He had expected some form of rejoice on her part. Instead, the eight-year-old had given him a rather annoyed, but resigned look, nodded her head in understanding and then almost immediately asked to be excused.
Severus had allowed her to go, but the incident had distracted him all morning. Of course, that had made it difficult for him to concentrate on the mountain of paperwork he needed to finish before he could even begin to brew the potions for which his clients had optioned him.
What had had Zoe so…preoccupied? Surely, she was glad of her extra free time this morning? After all, though Zoe was an excellent student overall, it was like pulling teeth to get her to settle down and actually do her schoolwork, to sit through an entire lesson without a rebuke.
Zoe was a brilliant child, but with a certain amount of cleverness came unending curiosity. For Severus, that curiosity was an ever-present throbbing in his temple and the development of a few errant gray hairs along his scalp. The girl just couldn't seem to stay out of trouble. He'd done everything he could think of: given her things to read (she'd devoured them and then was in trouble again), he tried threatening her with everything he'd always used on his students, but this was her home and there wasn't exactly detention in which he could banish her. Even his stern glares only went so far in stemming her troublesome ways.
This morning, Severus had assumed that she would take her freedom to the back garden or perhaps to the park down the road, especially considering how fine a spring day it was. However, the time was after ten in the morning now and he had yet to see her pass by the open door of his study on her way outdoors.
He had just resolved himself to focus when, suddenly, Severus was pulled from his musings, as a resonate boom issued from the floor over his study, causing the entire house to shake. He looked up as if gazing at the ceiling and heavy beams over his head would reveal the root of the chaos above.
The attic had always been Zoe's bedroom—since she'd began toddling, anyway—and, though Severus enjoyed the peace having his daughter on a different level of the house often gave him, she was never where he could easily keep an eye on her. He had learned the hard way more than once that, predictably, the girl would find whatever trouble there was to be had if he didn't keep a careful watch over her.
Severus rose quickly from his chair and navigated himself through the first floor to the door and narrow stairwell that led to the attic. As he climbed, a putrid, spicy smoke stung his nostrils and made his eyes water. He came to a halt on the top step, surveying the room with its shortened walls and slanted ceiling.
Zoe kept her bedroom relatively tidy under normal circumstances, yet the accumulation of furniture in the tiny space always made Severus feel that there was more she could do to clean. At the moment, however, the entire attic was a wreck. Something like rubble scattered the hardwood floor and had left a fine dusting on Zoe's daybed and the strange, turquoise-colored papasan chair in the corner. At the far end next to the small window that looked out toward the river, he could see her small desk where the unmistakable remnants of an exploded potion cauldron were evident as a slimy, taupe-colored mess covered the ceiling, walls, and nearly every other surface in varying degrees.
But where was Zoe?
The smoke had already cleared significantly allowing Severus to see most of the room, but she was nowhere in sight. He stepped up fully into the room and was about to investigate more when a messy, ponytailed head of dark hair suddenly peeked out from behind the daybed against the wall and eyed the desiccated cauldron on the desk. The girl had apparently dived out of harm's way when the situation got out of hand. She looked like she was all right, but she didn't seem to have noticed her father standing there as she crawled over the bed and picked up a smoking book from the floor.
Putting aside his initial relief, Severus approached her, suddenly incensed by her carelessness.
"Zoe Ophelia Elizabeth," he raged. "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?"
Zoe jumped and spun around to face her father—her eyes wide—as she futilely tried to block his view of the makeshift workbench. When he towered over her, his gaze fierce, she quickly averted her eyes to the floor, embarrassed, as she mumbled something inaudibly.
Severus rolled his eyes in annoyance.
"Ridiculous child! Speak up!"
Zoe flinched, but stood solidly. She took a deep breath then spoke more clearly.
"I said I was just trying to brew Pepperup Potion."
She turned towards the desk, set the book upon it and attempted to explain.
"I don't really know what went wrong. I put in the diced mandrake root—like it says—and stirred thirteen times. I had just added the habanero pepper seed because it says that one is needed for decon— er, decongestion. It says to add only one for a cauldron this size and I did that, but then I got the juice on my hands and they started to burn so I tried to wipe it off, but flames started coming out of the cauldron and…" Zoe reached for the potions book that Severus now noticed was heavily charred on the front cover and several of the pages were still smoking slightly. "…my book caught on fire and I tried to put it out, then the whole thing started to bubble and hiss and—"
Zoe stopped babbling when she looked up and saw the furious expression on her father's face. She averted her eyes to the floor once more.
"Well, you can see what happened."
"Indeed," said Severus harshly, beyond annoyed. He leaned forward to peer in at the remaining contents of the cauldron before noticing that Zoe was attempting to pull the sleeves of her robes down over her hands. He reached out and pulled her hands up to examine them. Both her palms and most of her fingers were burned red and glistened with ooze.
"You are injured."
Zoe winced and pulled her hands away.
"It's not that bad," she said, trying to hide them from view once more, but unable to mask from her face the obvious pain they were causing her.
Severus frowned down upon his daughter with authority.
"That is utter nonsense. Follow me. There is burn paste and essence of dittany in the laboratory." Then he swept toward the stairs and out of sight, leaving no room for argument.
Her father walked determinedly ahead of her and Zoe watched as he pulled his wand from the sleeve of his black shirt and pointed it at doors to spell them open before them. She was fully aware that he tended to resort to magic for simple tasks most when he was especially irritated and she took note of the practice now. Zoe also knew all too well that she'd broken the rules and as she reluctantly followed her father down three flights of stairs to his cellar laboratory, she tried to mentally prepare herself for the impending raised-voice lecture and subsequent punishment.
When they entered into the modest lab, her father Summoned a stool from beneath his workbench and pointed a finger toward it, silently commanding that Zoe sit down on it.
Without so much as a glance over his shoulder to make sure that she had obeyed, Zoe watched as her father marched to a shelf containing a wide array of bottles, vials and beakers and began to look through them. Not daring to say a word, she sat timidly upon the stool next to the workbench where he brewed for his work and began anxiously tapping her feet against the rungs, splaying her red, burned palms on her lap.
The air in the room was palpably thick with unspoken disappointment. There was no doubt that her father was appalled by her behavior—her blatant disobedience and carelessness—but all Zoe sensed radiating from him was anger.
She was disappointed in him, too. Disappointed that he seemed more concerned with her actions than with the fact that she had now been sitting there for several minutes in quite a bit of pain and he hadn't even asked her if she was all right.
She wasn't stupid. She knew that her father could easily summon the bottle of dittany he needed—he'd been perfectly willing to use magic to simply traipse through the house, after all. Instead, he stood on the other side of the room with his back to her, looking through every vial, checking every single label as if he had all the time in the world. Zoe knew he was only drawing this out to teach her a lesson. Tough love—that's what Minerva sometimes told her.
Finally, her father seemed to find what he was looking for and Zoe watched as he unstoppered a bottle of brownish liquid and poured a generous amount into a small, wooden bowl. He picked up the bowl and walked across the room, setting the dittany on the workbench next to Zoe.
He then proceeded to open a cabinet above her head and look through it. After a moment, he pulled a small tin out and opened it, revealing a thick, orange paste, which he sat on the workbench next to the bowl.
Zoe watched as he pulled out his wand once more and nonverbally conjured a clean cloth out of thin air and dipped it into the dittany. He moved to stand directly in front of her and delicately took her right hand in his left and began dabbing the dittany-soaked cloth onto her raw skin, from palm to fingertips and back. Almost instantly, Zoe's hand burned a little less and the tingling, stinging sensation began to subside. Soon, her father moved on to her left hand.
As he laid the cloth onto her skin, however, a white-hot pain shot up her entire arm causing her to hiss and recoil as new flesh grew quickly to cover the seeping blisters. Her father held her left hand firmly and forced the cloth onto her palm.
"It feels like it's getting worse," Zoe complained. "I thought this was going to make it better!"
"It's just the dittany working," her father stated plainly, struggling to keep her still.
Zoe continued to fidget and moan in pain and she knew by the deep frown on her father's face that she was aggravating him but she didn't care about anything but her burning hand at the moment.
"You have done some pretty dunderheaded things, young lady, but I must say this one really takes the prize," he lectured scathingly. "Brewing potions in your bedroom…You could have blown the entire roof off this house, obliterated the attic and everything in it. If you ask me, you were lucky. You could have been much more severely injured than you are now. You could have been killed. I would ask you what you were thinking, but judging by the state of your hands and the attic, it is quite clear to me that you weren't thinking at all. You should be ashamed of your idiocy."
Her father glared at her. She couldn't help but glower defiantly back, but as she opened her mouth to reply, her father once more compressed the dittany cloth against her palm and sternly eyed her in warning. She winced as the fiery pain shot up her arm again causing her to forget the sassy comment that had been on the tip of her tongue. She tried to pull away from his grasp, to cradle her injured hand, but her father caught her by the wrist, forcing her to remain still. There was nothing for Zoe to do but squirm on her stool and pout in protest.
"The burns on this hand are considerably more severe, Zoe. Be still and give the remedy a chance to work," her father said through gritted teeth.
"But it hurts!" whined Zoe loudly as she desperately tried to wriggle out of his grasp.
"Well, perhaps if you didn't steal supplies and secretly concoct potions, unsupervised, that you aren't qualified to brew, things like this wouldn't happen," her father sneered, focused entirely on dabbing more of the painful liquid onto her palm.
Zoe was so incensed that he was causing her more pain and essentially telling her how stupid she was, she didn't even think that it would probably be more sensible for her to simply sit quietly and tolerate his disapprobation.
"Maybe if you didn't leave your stores unlocked, I wouldn't be so tempted to steal them," she retorted boldly instead, not sure why that mattered at all, but giving in to the surge of anger that had swept through her at his censure.
That did it. Any restraint her father had been exercising before went out the proverbial window. He slammed the cloth down on the workbench causing the bowl of dittany to slosh about as he yanked Zoe's wrist toward him forcefully and lowered himself down to look her in the eyes, getting so close that his nose nearly collided with hers.
"And perhaps a well-placed Stinging Hex will teach you to obey me," he hissed menacingly.
Zoe's eyes widened and she gasped at his threat. She quickly lowered her gaze to her knees, mortified, as her father righted his posture and resumed adding the dittany to her wounds, a bit more forceful this time. Zoe was hardly even aware of the throbbing in her hands as the silence between them stretched on for several minutes.
Eventually, her father laid the cloth aside and silently added the burn paste to her raw palms before wrapping Zoe's hands in long pieces of gauze. He vanished the cloth, put the tin back into the cabinet and moved across to the sink to discard the remaining dittany.
Zoe stared down at her lap, examining her hands. There was a slight ache and residual cooling sensation from the paste, but the worst of the pain was gone; it was more uncomfortable than anything now.
Brewing the potion had been stupid. She saw that now. And she had known all along that she would be caught, but it hadn't even occurred to her that she could get hurt. Pepperup was a second year-level potion and Zoe had been reading about it, had even heard her father speak of how mundane it was for him to brew. She had thought it would be easy but she'd just…made a mistake somewhere. She thought she had been following the instructions to the letter. There must have been some other factor she hadn't thought about. Perhaps her father would—
No. He was angry with her. She had been a dunderhead—and her father hated dunderheads.
Zoe chanced a glance across the room at her father. His back was turned to her and he was being rather forceful in the way he was handling the vials on the shelf.
Why did she have to provoke him? She had been stupid and he had only been giving her a well-earned scolding and she had talked back, angered him even more. Why couldn't she have just kept her mouth shut?
Nonetheless, his threat had scared her. He'd never threatened to use magic to punish her before. At least not in such a way that she would have taken him seriously, not really. Nevertheless, he had definitely seemed serious this time and as that thought crossed her mind, she was suddenly aware that she had asked her question aloud.
"Papa? Would you really…you know, hex me?"
Her father stopped replacing vials to the shelf instantly. He hesitated, and then slowly turned to look over his shoulder at her. Zoe thought she saw a tinge of remorse on his face, but it was gone before she could be sure. Her father frowned and seemed to consider her for a long time then he turned his back on her once again to tidy the potions on the shelf.
"It will be an hour or two before those burns are fully healed after which you will be expected in the conservatory to prune herbs and dig up roots to replenish my stocks as punishment. If you can't show common sense in handling volatile potions ingredients, you will stick to harmless ones." He turned and walked back to her, a tiny crystal vial filled with a cloudy liquid clutched between his fingers. "Is that understood?"
Zoe nodded, figuring that was his way of answering her question. "Yes, sir."
"Drink this. It will assist with the pain."
Her father handed her the vial, which she downed in one gulp and gagged. It smelled rancid and tasted awful, but Zoe didn't feel she should complain about it as she handed the vial back to her father. The pain in her hands was already starting to subside considerably.
Then, without preamble, her father put his hands under arms, lifted her up and sat her on the edge of the workbench. Zoe looked up at him with mild confusion as her feet dangled above the floor. He positioned himself directly in front of her with each of his hands resting on the surface of the high table on either side of Zoe, his face not only almost completely even with hers, but very close. When he spoke, his words were exceptionally stern.
"There is something that you are going to understand."
Zoe fidgeted a bit, but her father stilled her with a hand on her thigh. She knew that tiny dose of lecture a few minutes ago had been too good to be true.
"The theft of potions ingredients will not be tolerated," he said with finality. "First of all, you know better. Despite the items being stored in your own home, what you did isn't any different than taking a sweet from a shop without paying for it. The substances you took are used for my work and they can be very costly. This had better not happen again."
Her father stared into her eyes intensely. Zoe tried to hold his gaze, to let him know that she was listening and she was penitent, but soon, she couldn't hold it any longer and she looked down at her hands.
"Look at me, Zoe, this next part is more important."
Zoe obeyed, raising her head back up. There wasn't anger on his face, but there was definitely a solid resolve, as if he had been thinking about what he was about to say to her. It was as if he had made a difficult decision.
"As for brewing without supervision, you are never ever to do so. Not until you have proven your proficiency, which, I assure you, will be several years from now. Brewing is highly dangerous, especially for the inexperienced. You could have been killed in that explosion, young lady. That sort of senseless risk-taking is unacceptable. If you come across a potion you are interested in and wish to try it, you will ask me for assistance. If I feel the potion is both within your abilities and worth my while, then I will make sure that the ingredients are obtained and, together, we can attempt it. If there is a repeat of this or a similar incident…" He eyed her sternly, sighed heavily and paused, seeming to steel himself. "…I can assure you that a few burns on your hands will be the least of your worries."
Zoe absolutely believed him. She didn't know what he had in mind, but she had no desire to find out.
"Do you understand me, Zoe?" he asked after she had remained silent a bit too long for his tastes.
She nodded her head emphatically.
"Yes, Papa. I won't ever brew by myself again."
Her father inclined his head and then lifted her off the workbench, placing her on her feet on the stone floor.
"Now you may go and clean up the mess you made in your bedroom. Ollie will not be helping you," he said sternly, looking down on her.
Zoe nodded and started to make her way out of the laboratory. As she reached the doorway, however, her father spoke behind her.
Zoe looked back, her bandaged hand on the door handle.
"I also expect you to understand exactly where you went wrong today. I don't want to hear any wild speculations. You will be brewing that potion again—with supervision this time—and not in your bedroom; there is neither adequate space nor appropriate ventilation."
Zoe quirked a smile, nodded, and exited. Maybe he isn't so angry after all, she thought. Her father had said he would brew a potion with her and Zoe couldn't have been happier.
Don't judge Sev too harshly yet! At least wait for the full story... Please review.