Disclaimer: Harry Potter and his world belong to J.K. Rowling. This story belongs to me.
A/N – Hi! So, yet again I find myself having to apologise for another unforgivable delay. I've written and rewritten this chapter so many times, and from a few different viewpoints as well, but I just couldn't get it to work the way I wanted it to until now. Some of you may be wondering about this chapter title and where it could possibly fit into the storyline given that the last chapter ended with Harry giving evidence in the Dursley trial, but it isn't just a convoluted metaphor, I promise! Hopefully it will make sense when you read the chapter. It's an intense one (aren't they all?), but I hope you enjoy it anyway!
~Strength in Weakness~
From the moment Potter was shuffled back into the small waiting room– looking skinny and pale and far younger than he had any right to look at fifteen - Snape knew something was wrong.
The boy's muggle social worker, Bernadette, had told them beforehand that for a child in this type of situation, often the reality of being cross-examined by the defence was as traumatising as the abuse itself. Being forced to talk about what had happened to them was bad enough obviously, but to be confronted about it, challenged even, was worse in some ways, mainly because it often solidified some of the self-doubts that had already been festering within the child for years.
Potter, Snape knew, would be no exception to that part of the process, despite how brave he was; the boy simply didn't have a great deal of self-worth thanks to those detestable relatives of his.
When Bernadette had first mentioned the difficulty Potter might experience when giving evidence, Snape had held back his own biting comment at the sheer obviousness of the social worker's statement, but now that it was over, and he was left with Potter in his current state, her comment didn't even seem to go far enough.
Snape frowned. The Gryffindor was shivering slightly – despite the room itself being warm and stuffy - as James, the court-aide, directed him into the plastic chair opposite Snape. The teenager's eyes were fixed firmly downwards, and there was something else there as well, in the little glimpse that Snape had caught of those green depths, something that concerned Snape more than anything else about the boy ever had.
Defeat, he realised. It looked like defeat.
Snape didn't even notice James leave the two of them alone, so focused was he on Potter. He looked more closely, not even bothering to hide his close scrutiny of the boy, but Potter was oblivious to the extra attention. Or perhaps, Snape conceded, he just didn't care…
"What happened?" Snape asked sharply, regretting the harsh tone immediately when Potter jumped slightly in his seat. Still, his gaze was fixed on the teenager, as was his question. He would have asked someone else – Stoker for example – but now that James had left the room, he and Potter were alone.
Unfortunately, it appeared that Potter was in no frame of mind to answer either.
Snape stared at the teenager but for once it made no impact. He steeled himself and began again, this time careful to keep his voice calm and low.
"Potter…what happened?" he asked.
"I'm fine," Potter said, his words barely a whispered, his eyes open, but nothing looking at anything. "Just…can we go now?"
"Potter…" Snape growled, trying to get a rouse out of the boy. His tone had no impact. Potter was a shell. He wanted to shake the teenager, but he was worried that it would do more harm than good.
What in Merlin's name had happened in that courtroom...?
"Harry!" came a voice from the door, and Snape groaned internally.
"Hi Sirius," Potter said dully, his voice a little mechanical, but he did lift his face long enough to force a smile in his Godfather's direction as the man strode into the room. Black faltered, obviously having immediately realised that something was wrong with that smile, but Snape couldn't even feel a smidgeon of pleasure at the sight of Black being put on the back foot.
Snape turned back to Potter and narrowed his eyes, studying the boy's pale face again as if it would reveal his secrets.
As Black stepped towards Potter, acting almost as if he was approaching a wild animal, Snape ran through the possibilities in his head. The boy had been giving evidence. Stoker had promised that he and the judge would protect Potter as best they could, but he would have been cross-examined regardless. Bernadette's words came back to him as if they were from a dream.
Being cross-examined about the abuse can be almost as traumatising as the abuse itself…
"What happened?" Sirius asked, glancing round as Dumbledore, Weasley and Lupin followed him in. Already it felt like too many people were crammed inside the room, and it clearly wasn't helping Potter as the boy seemed to fold in on himself in reaction to the intense scrutiny coming at him from all quarters. Snape hated their presence himself, and the focus wasn't even on him…
"Harry?" Dumbledore said softly, but Potter flinched. The boy's breathing began to quicken…
"Where's Stoker?" Snape asked. It felt more urgent now. Potter's shakes had increased and his eyes had taken on a glassy quality. Was he in shock…?
"He's talking to one of his colleagues," Dumbledore replied with a frown. "He said he would be along in a minute. I didn't have chance to speak with him so I'm not sure…"
"Can we go now?" Potter asked again, apparently oblivious to their growing concern. "I'm tired."
"How did your testimony go, Harry?" Black pushed, and Snape clenched his fists under the table at the man's ham-fisted attempt to get his godson to talk. Honestly, did Black have no sense of subtlety…?
Potter shook his head, gaze down. "I…I don't want to talk about it. Can I just go home? Please."
"Harry…" Black began, looking at Potter with something resembling dread.
"I don't want to talk about it!" Potter snapped, banging his hand on the table so hard that Snape actually winced in sympathy. "Please just…they asked me about…and I just…please don't make me go over it again. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry…"
The sobs came first, great, gasping, desperate sobs, and then, before anyone could speak, before they could even think, Potter breaths began to come even more quickly, too quickly, until he was pulling in breath after breath at a speed that he could not hope to sustain.
Then he seemed to stop breathing altogether.
Snape was the first to move.
"Potter…breathe," Snape said urgently, immediately standing up and grasping Potter's shoulder, shaking him slightly. Potter didn't shrug it off, but Snape had no idea if that was a good sign or not. He persevered regardless. "You must breathe. You're having a panic attack…"
Potter was too far gone though, and his words made little or no impact, save on the boy's godfather…
"Get your slimy hands off him!" Black snapped, stepping forward. Thankfully, Lupin had the good sense to hold the mutt back before he did something stupid. Snape would have glared at the idiot himself but he was too focused on Potter…
"I can't…please can I…just go home?" Potter said in between halting gasps, turning his pleading eyes on to his Professor. His eyes widened when the next breath didn't come as easily as the last. "Sir, I…can't breathe…"
"I realise that," Snape said, trying to keep his voice as calm as possible. "You're having a panic attack, Potter. You need to calm yourself. Take a deep breath, in through the nose, out through the mouth."
When Potter didn't react, a little bit of Snape's own panic bled through. "Potter! Do as I say. Breathe…"
"Severus…" Dumbledore began.
"I…can't…" Potter said, his breaths quickening even more. Potter's focus was on Snape. "Please, sir…"
Pleading, desperate, panicked green eyes were fixed on his, and in that moment, Snape made a decision that he would never have made had he been in his right mind, a decision he would never have made full stop if everything between Potter and himself hadn't already changed irrevocably after everything that had happened in the last few months.
But Potter needed to breathe, and Snape knew that he wasn't going to be able to do it here, not in this small stuffy room with an audience. He needed distance. He needed space.
He needed to ecape.
Snape let his hand fall from Potter's shoulder and turned to the rest of the room, his eyes immediately fixing on Dumbledore. The old man looked pale, worried, and just a little bit proud, almost as if he already knew what Snape was preparing to do.
Still, Snape asked anyway.
"Do you trust me, Albus?" Snape said urgently. "Do you trust me with him?"
Dumbledore gave him a long, sad look that he held in place for entirely too long. Then he waved his wand once and nodded.
"Always, Severus," the Headmaster said with a solemn but sincere smile.
Snape nodded once in reply, turned back to Potter, and grabbed hold of the boy's cold wrist.
Then, ignoring the shouts of the other occupants of the room, and without even looking back once, he gently squeezed Potter's wrist, and apparated the two of them away.
They landed on a beach of wet, slippery pebbles, their bodies immediately assaulted by the strong wind and the salty water spraying up from the rocky sea.
Potter buckled slightly, and would have fallen had he been alone. Snape had been expecting the rough landing though, so he let go of Potter's wrist and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder instead, holding him firmly upright.
Snape braced himself. They were stood a couple of metres from the water, but the strong coastal wind immediately buffeted around them, taking his breath away and whipping their clothes around their bodies. Snape kept them steady. He heard Potter gasp loudly at his side, still struggling to breathe, although now for wholly different reason, but Snape held on tight. He needed to snap Potter out of it. He needed to get Potter out of whatever dark headspace he'd got himself trapped in…
He needed the boy to breathe…
"Breathe, Potter," Snape demanded, raising his voice, partly to be heard, but also partly in panic. "Breathe!"
"I…can't…" Potter gasped.
"Breathe in and out, come on, breathe!" Snape ordered. "Feel the wind, hear the water, watch the waves!" Snape gripped the boy's shoulder tightly. "You are not there anymore! Whatever had you trapped in your own mind, wherever you were, you are not there now, so breathe, Potter! Breathe…"
Ironically, Snape was holding his own breath as he waited for Potter to do as he said. He had no idea if this would work, but Merlin, he had to try something…
And then, miraculously, Potter gulped in a breath, then another, desperately, as if he had been drowning but had finally made it a life raft. It was the type of breathing that pulled in more than just air, and Snape had never been so glad to see it.
"That's it," Snape told him, relief rushing through his body as he squeezed the boy's shoulder. "Good."
Slowly, and with his hand still on Potter's shoulder, Snape waved his wand, casting a shield charm around them. It didn't stop the wind entirely, but it certainly took away some of its force, and it also prevented the spray of the sea from drenching them completely. After a moment's consideration, he also cast a mild warming charm of the boy's clothes to take away some of the chill. Potter didn't stop shivering immediately, but he did get some colour back in his cheeks, and Snape took that as a small victory in the ongoing – and seemingly never-ending - battle for Potter's sanity and health.
Silently, Snape held out a bottled drink that he'd picked up at the courthouse. It was full of sugar and would properly rot the boy's teeth, but it would help him feel less shaky and weak.
Potter sipped the drink quietly as Snape stood stoically by his side. It was not as uncomfortable as it could have been, but after a few minutes of silence – with the only sounds coming from the sea surrounding them – Snape was grateful when Potter finally spoke…
"Where are we?" Potter asked quietly. The boy's voice was hoarse and he was still a little shaky but it was a massive improvement on the condition he'd been in only a couple of minutes before.
"Dover," Snape replied matter-of-factly. Potter span around and his eyes widened at the daunting sight of the white cliffs over Dover towering above them.
In his slightly panicked state, Snape had brought Potter to the first place that had come to mind - a small stone beach just under the cliffs, inaccessible by land. They were alone, almost entirely surrounded by sea with only the cliffs at their back. He'd always found it to be a good place to ground his thoughts, and even to shock his system into resetting when the situation was particularly difficult.
He had even spent an uncomfortable but ultimately cathartic night on this little stone beach the night after Lily's death. It had been a refuge then. He hoped the same would prove true for Potter now.
"Why?" Potter asked hoarsely.
"You were having a panic attack," Snape replied with a shrug, turning his attention back to the waves. Potter followed his lead and did the same.
"I'm sorry," Potter said quietly, refusing to look at Snape. "I…er…I don't know what happened back there…"
Snape stayed quiet, willing to wait it out until Potter was ready to speak. Sure enough…
"It's just…Sirius was asking what happened and the room…it was too small and warm and I just…it was a bit much," Potter said with a flush. "I'm fine now."
Snape shook his head. "You don't have to explain yourself to me, Potter, but please do not lie."
"I'm not – "
"Something was wrong before they even entered the room," Snape interrupted. "Your Godfather did not make the situation any better, granted, but as inept as he is, he did not cause it either." Snape paused, choosing his words carefully. "If you do not want to tell me what happened, then don't, but please do not lie."
The truth was, Snape was desperate for Potter to explain, but unlike the boy's Godfather, he knew that Potter would be much more likely to talk if he wasn't pushed into it. He also recognised that Potter was still a little shaky from his panic attack, and Snape had no desire to deal with another one, especially so far away from any help. He had a feeling the same ploy wouldn't work quite as well the second time round.
"I've never been to the seaside," Potter said, quietly changing the subject. He didn't look at Snape, but it didn't really matter. "The only time I've even seen the sea was when my Uncle went mental and dragged us halfway across the country to escape my Hogwarts letters, and that wasn't exactly a holiday. Every other time, the Dursleys dumped me with Mrs Figg and went without me. "
Snape clenched his jaw but refrained from saying anything. Still, sometimes he wondered if the Dursleys' casual disregard of the boy had caused him more harm than the beatings ever could.
"I think I like it," Potter decided after a moment's consideration. This time he did turn to Snape. "Do you come here often?"
Snape saw no harm in being truthful. "Yes."
Potter nodded. "I can see why. It's…not peaceful really, not even with the shield charm, but it is sort of…relaxing."
"Yes, it is."
"Am we safe here?" Potter asked. For someone asking about his safety, Potter seemed remarkably calm. Snape didn't know if that was further proof that the boy had overcome his recent struggles and had become stronger as a result, or if it was simply another symptom of the greater problem still to be conquered.
Snape hated not knowing.
"You and I are not safe anywhere, Potter," Snape said. "But we will not be here long, and since I am the only one who knows about this place, the danger is minimal."
"Why are we here at all?" Potter asked. "Why not Hogwarts?"
"It is not possible to apparate in or out of Hogwarts, Potter," Snape replied with an eye-roll. "Have you honestly never read Hogwarts; a History?"
That earned him a wry smile. "Hermione's always nagging at us to read it, if that helps?"
"It does not," Snape deadpanned. "Regardless, the point stands. We could not go to Hogwarts without first apparating outside the grounds, and that would not have been safe."
"But why here then?"
"Coming here has helped me in the past," Snape said quietly, refusing to expand on that. "I thought it might help you too."
Potter turned back to the waves at that point, but he did nod once, and Snape was satisfied enough with that for now.
Potter, however, surprised him once more…
"My testimony didn't go well," Potter admittedly quietly as he stared out at the choppy sea.
"Oh?" Snape said, careful not to push too fast.
Potter rolled his eyes. "Like you hadn't already guessed."
"Potter…" warned Snape.
"Sorry," Potter muttered, flushing slightly. Snape let it go. "Anyway, the prosecution bit was fine. I was nervous, but it went exactly like Stoker said it would. It was the cross-examination that…got to me."
"That is….understandable," Snape admitted.
"I knew it would be hard," Potter continued. "I'm not stupid. I knew they'd ask difficult questions to get a rise out of me, or at least put doubt in my story. I knew that…"
Potter trailed off, but Snape remained silent, a stalwart supporter standing beside the boy as he tried to find the right words.
"They asked me about Cedric," Potter admitted quietly.
"They asked you about Diggory?" Snape asked incredulously. "How in Merlin's name did they even know about Diggory?"
"Dudley told them," Potter replied with a flush. "During the summer I had nightmares, and since Dudley's room is next to mine, he heard me crying out sometimes."
"What exactly did they ask you?" Snape asked with a little urgency in his voice.
"They asked me what had happened to him," Potter replied. "I told them that he died during a school competition last year. I tried to tell them that it wasn't my fault but…"
"They tried to blame you anyway," Snape finished. As much as he detested it, it was actually a rather clever ploy by Dursleys' solicitor. Still, Snape knew from their own conversations that Potter had been struggling with the guilt – unwarranted or not – in relation to Diggory's death, and for them to use that for their own gains, to make Potter seem like a deranged and dangerous boy instead of an abused one, was absolutely disgusting.
"That must have been difficult," Snape commented. The understatement of the century.
Potter snorted bitterly. "Yeah, you could say that. They made out like it was my fault, obviously, and kept saying that I'm a danger to anyone I meet, and they just went on and on and on about it, and all I could think about was that green light and Cedric falling…"
It was no wonder that Potter had experienced a panic attack. It was a miracle it hadn't happened on the stand. Despite their many conversations, they had only touched on Diggory's death briefly, and he knew Potter was still struggling with it. Of course he was still struggling with it.
"I'm sorry," Potter muttered, his tone full of self-disgust. The boy bent down and picked up a small stone, lobbing it angrily into the water. "I messed up."
For a moment, Snape thought he'd misheard the boy. "Excuse me?"
"I let them get to me," Potter said angrily. "Now I look like a murderer. The jury are never going to believe me now, and it's all my fault. They'll get away with it...and I just…I'm sorry…"
The boy bent over as if he was going to be sick. He was pulling into great gasping breaths and Snape hoped they weren't going to have a repeat of earlier.
"Potter, calm down," Snape said, and he waited until the teenager had taken a couple of calming breaths before he continued. "First of all, I doubt very much that anyone on that jury thinks you're a murderer, regardless of what Dursley and his solicitor have been suggesting. Secondly, as we have already explained many times, the case does not hinge on you. You have not 'messed up' anything."
"Thirdly," Snape interrupted with a stern look. "Diggory's death was in no way your fault. We have discussed this before and we will discuss it again if necessary, as many times as it takes to get it through your thick skull. What you witnessed that day was awful, there is no denying that, and it is understandable that it is still affecting you even now, but it was not your fault."
After a moment, Potter gave a jerky nod before fixing his gaze back on the waves. It would take a few more conversations before Potter truly believed it, Snape knew that, but he hoped that today would go some way towards starting that long process.
Potter had had a panic attack at the mere thought of what had happened in that graveyard; it was a difficult situation and one conversation on a beach wasn't going to change that, but it hadn't hurt him either, and that would have to be enough for now...
"Thank you, Sir," Potter said quietly. "For bringing me here."
Snape glanced sideways, but the boy's green eyes were fixed on the sea. He seemed calmer now though. More in control.
Snape pulled his gaze away. "You're welcome, Potter."
Then he allowed his eyes to fall back on the choppy waters of the English Channel. Man and boy, side by side.
Surrounded by chaos.
A/N - So was it worth the wait? I actually wrote the end of this chapter first - I just really liked the image of them stood together in front of the sea, side by side. I hope it didn't seem to out of place in the context of the story? This was supposed to be an interlude chapter before we move on to the conclusion of the trial, but I hope it was okay and that you liked it anyway. Please let me know your thoughts! Until next time though, and as always, thanks for reading.