Regulus dropped his bag on the floor and draped himself over one of the empty chairs in the centre of the common room. He moved to kick his shoes off when he slowly realised that Avery, Mulciber and Rosier were all staring at him.
He ran his hand through his long hair self-consciously. “…what?”
“Well what?” Regulus looked at the eager faces crowding around him.
“Is he all right?”
“Is who all right?”
Rosier grimaced. “Bloody hell, Reg, where’ve you been all afternoon?”
“The library,” Regulus said, lifting his bag in explanation. “McGonagall’s essay was-“
“Forget McGonagall’s essay! Your brother set the school alight again.”
Regulus slumped back in his chair, his interest immediately lost. “Is that all?”
He was sick of hearing about his brother, the party boy of Gryffindor. At home, his parents were endlessly whining about their disgrace of a son, and he’d rather hoped that escaping to Hogwarts would be the end of him hearing Sirius this, Sirius that.
If anything, it was worse. It seemed that Sirius had charmed half of the school, kids and teachers alike. They grouped around Regulus, remarking that if he was anything like his brother, he’d be an asset to the school. What they didn’t know was that growing up in Sirius’ shadow meant that Regulus developed one coping method: Everything that Sirius did, Regulus didn’t. Everything Sirius didn’t, Regulus did.
“So he’s not with you?” Avery asked.
“Sirius? What would he be doing wi-“
“Not him,” Mulciber snapped. “Snape.”
“Snape?” Regulus sat up hurriedly, piecing things together. “What’s Sirius done to Snape?”
Regulus looked around at the three, panic rising in his chest. “Where is he?”
“We thought he was with you,” Avery explained, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “I mean, we-“ He looked back at Mulciber. “We weren’t actually there, so we don’t know where he ended up.”
“What did my brother do?” Regulus yelled.
In the end, it was Rosier who spoke. “He stripped him.”
It was a joke. It had to be a joke. Regulus stared at Rosier, his blood running cold.
“It was Potter as well.”
“…they stripped him?” Regulus’ voice was small, as he looked around at the gathered students, each of them staring at the floor. “They stripped him? Why didn’t someone stop them?”
“None of us were there,” Avery muttered, kicking at an invisible scuff on the stone floor. “You know what he’s like. He’d stuck his head in the essay paper and gone wandering off by himself to the lake.”
“We’d gone the other way,” explained Mulciber. He snorted. “You wouldn’t catch me reliving that awful exam over again.”
“…and you don’t know where he is?”
The three boys all chimed together: “We thought he was with you.”
Regulus sighed. “I’d best go and find him.”
Three hours later, and Regulus was at a loss. It was almost curfew and despite roaming the entirety of the castle, right up to the Astronomy Tower, he hadn’t found Snape. He’d been to the edge of the forest, and walked around the lake. He’d been down to Hagrid’s, and peered around the door of the hospital wing whilst Pomfrey was talking to Flitwick. He even paused outside Gryffindor tower, debating whether he should knock on the door and have it out with his brother.
“Not another Slytherin loitering outside?”
“There was another Slytherin here?” Regulus asked, hopefully.
“For a while. For all the good that it did.”
“Who was it?”
She peered at him. “You Slytherins all look the same. He was like you, just scrawnier and not as well groomed.” She huffed. “Not very eloquent either.”
“What did he say?”
The Fat Lady rolled her eyes. “He made a nuisance of himself for a long time, and then when she came outside, he kept saying he was sorry.” She sighed, and lowered her voice. “I’d be gone, if I were you. She wasn’t in the mood for forgiving him, and his threat to sleep outside rather wound up the house. You don’t want to be found out here.”
Regulus slumped back down to the dungeons. He didn’t get it: why would Snape go to Gryffindor tower and say he was sorry, when they were the ones who stripped him? Regulus shoved the door of the common room open angrily, and he saw Rosier, Avery and Mulciber at the back of the room, playing wizarding snap and joking loudly with a group of sixth and seventh year girls that Regulus didn’t know too well.
He swallowed bitterly, sick that this had become his problem and the others had washed their hands of the situation. It was his own fault for being one of the only Slytherins – one of the only students full stop – to really engage with Snape. He wouldn’t have ordinarily given him the time of day, greasy halfblood that he was – but Snape fitted beautifully into the rules that moulded Regulus’ life: Everything that Sirius did, Regulus didn’t. Everything Sirius didn’t, Regulus did.
Besides, Snape was strangely close to Lucius Malfoy. There had been talk in the family of the Black and Malfoy families from joining together – perhaps with cousin Bellatrix, but nothing had been sealed so far. Regulus knew that Malfoy’s patronage was worth its weight in gold; certainly worth tolerating Snape for.
If Snape was no longer at Gryffindor tower, and he wasn’t elsewhere in the castle, there was only one place he could be. Regulus pushed open the fifth year dormitory door, but to his dismay, the hangings on Snape’s four poster were open, and although the bed was unmade, it was most definitely empty. Just as he turned to leave, Regulus stopped and turned back. Each morning, the house elves would place clean towels on the stand next to each bed – and Snape’s was missing.
Regulus bolted back through the dungeons, and floor by floor, burst into each of the boys’ bathrooms. By the time he reached the top floor, he was sweaty, exhausted and no closer to finding Snape. He stepped back out into the corridor and stared out of the window across the grounds. The lake was rippling gently, and the flags on the Quidditch pitch were moving slowly in the slight breeze.
The Quidditch pitch.
Regulus charged down the stairs, and to his delight, the staircases seemed to sense the urgency of where he needed to be and helped him along. Within minutes, he was sprinting across the grounds and over to the Quidditch locker rooms. With a swift Alohomora, he let himself in to the Slytherin rooms, and sure enough he could hear the soft pounding of the showers.
There was no response. Slowly, Regulus inched forward, aware that if Snape had already been exposed against his will today, he’d be in no mood to be seen naked again.
And then he heard it. It was muffled, but just above the pounding of the water, he heard a short sob. It was fleeting, as if the owner had pulled it back in and dampened it down.
Regulus’ chest tightened.
“Severus? You in there?”
This time, the wail was heart wrenching. Regulus couldn’t bring himself to stand outside and listen to it, so he pushed the bathroom door open, and in the steam filled room was Snape – standing beneath the torrent of hot water, dressed in just his sodden greying underwear.
Regulus winced as he took in the sight of Snape. His alabaster skin was bright pink from the heat of the water and the older boy’s harsh scrubbing. His arms and torso were adorned with deep red scratches, as if Severus had drawn his nails down his body again and again and again. His wet hair covered his face, and when Severus realised someone had entered, he clutched his arms tightly across his scrawny chest.
His whole body heaved, and he sobbed again, his open mouth spluttering against the sudden intake of water.
“Severus-“ Regulus started, taking a step closer. Snape didn’t look up, but sensing Regulus’ movement, he stilled, clutching his arms even tighter around his body – and this time, Regulus saw the tip of Snape’s wand grasped against his forearm.
Regulus did not know what to do.
In the end, he pulled Snape’s clean towel off the peg on the opposing wall and held it out at arm’s length, whilst he shielded his eyes with his free hand. “Come on,” he said. “I’m not looking.”
He couldn’t say how long he stood there, but eventually, the water snapped off and Regulus felt the towel being dragged from his hands. He stood there, unmoving, until Snape slunk past him, his wet feet slapping against the tiled floor. Regulus counted to a hundred.
A few minutes later, Regulus peered back into the main body of the locker room, where Snape was seated, fully robed, on one of the hard wooden benches. Regulus sat next to him.
Severus didn’t speak.
“Heard the exam was pretty difficult.”
At this, Severus turned and glared at the younger boy. “The exam was not the problem.”
“My brother was the problem.”
Severus gave a slight nod.
“Nobody likes hi-“
“Shut up! You’re not-” Severus held his head in his hands and muttered. “You’re not helping.”
Severus lifted his head. “If they don’t like him, and yet they’re all happy to watch him and Potter strip me naked, in front of the whole school and…” He paused, as if he was in sudden sharp pain. “And they laughed. Then what do they think of me?”
He stood, and swept out of the locker room, leaving Regulus to stare helplessly after him.