Severus strides down the corridor to the Great Hall, his steps carefully measured, his robes billowing behind him. He has cultivated through many years of practice a way of walking and moving that projects menace and disdain in an almost palpable aura around him. It also focuses the whole of an observer’s attention on his robes and the expression on his face rather than the clothes he’s wearing underneath his robes or the body they both conceal. Severus learned long ago that most people don’t care to look beyond the surface, beyond a bit of theatrics, and those people who do are not the sort from whom he could easily keep secrets anyway.
Severus has nearly reached the Great Hall when he hears his own name amidst peals of childish laughter. He pauses to listen, the students just out of sight somewhere ahead of him, around a corner perhaps.
“I wish I could have seen it,” one voice says through an obnoxious fit of giggles that identifies her as Melissa Wainwright—first year Hufflepuff, Muggleborn, not entirely stupid.
“I know,” another student says. Snape cannot immediately place his voice. “Gryffindors have all the luck.”
“Snape in a dress,” Melissa says wistfully. “Surely someone has a Pensieve.”
Severus feels an icy clutch of fear in his gut; his cheeks flame. Someone, some Gryffindor child, probably Potter or a Weasley brat, has seen him at his most vulnerable, and soon all of Hogwarts will point at him and laugh. The blasted werewolf is even present to levitate him upside down over the teachers’ table during dinner, making the circuit to Severus’s childhood complete. A group of Ravenclaws parts around Severus, several students sneaking glances at him over their shoulders, and Severus turns on his heel, strides back the way he came.
By the time Severus reaches his chambers, he has determined from the conversations he overhears on the way that no student has breached his wards. No voyeur has spied upon in him in this final sanctuary he has been granted. No, rather Lupin introduced the third years to a boggart in Defense Against the Dark Arts—an exercise Severus grudgingly grants is appropriate to both the subject matter and the age level—and for Neville Longbottom, the boggart transformed into his despised potions professor.
Severus cannot deny a fierce satisfaction that he frightens Longbottom so. Where others might perceive a boggart as the Dark Lord or the death of a loved one or even the moon in all its terrible fullness, Longbottom sees instead a man whose power over him is far less than he imagines. Yes, Severus can take House points, and he can grade those he dislikes more harshly than those he does not, and he can intimidate students merely because to do so amuses him, but his sphere of control is limited, temporary—just another bit of theatrics, another version of his robes roiling like black smoke around his ankles. For Longbottom to believe the illusion so completely is gratifying.
But the story does not end with Longbottom cowering on the classroom floor before his potions professor. Longbottom destroyed the power he believes Severus possesses by dressing his professor in women’s clothing, by making him as ridiculous as his pitiable intellect can fathom. Riddikulus, from the Latin ridiculum—to joke—is a spell designed to rework an object of fear into one of derision, one so ludicrous and absurd that it can no longer inspire fear.
Suddenly, all the satisfaction Severus feels evaporates.
Severus stands before his mirror, a silent and static looking glass he brought to Hogwarts from Spinner’s End years ago. He removes his robe and folds it carefully, and then with a flick of his wrist, he transfigures the shirt he’s wearing into a woman’s blouse. He can remember his mother wearing a blouse just like this when he was small. The fabric was soft and clinging with just a hint of ruffle at the collar and the hem. His mother looked beautiful in that blouse—like she had always had enough to eat, like his father didn’t hit her when he was angry, like she didn’t work her fingers to the bone. Severus thought he looked something like beautiful in it, too, when she finally gave him the blouse to wear.
Severus had ripped a hole in his T-shirt, one too big and jagged to repair properly with needle and thread, and repair by magic was out of the question. The T-shirt was at least one size too small for him to boot. His mother had taken the blouse from her closet and slipped it over Severus’s head. “A shirt’s a shirt,” she had said. “It will cover a boy as well as a girl.”
Severus looks at his reflection in the mirror and remembers how safe and loved he’d felt in his mother’s clothes and how quickly his classmates had jumped to ridicule him for wearing them.
“You can’t wear that,” Lisa Fuller had said to him before class began. “That’s a girl’s shirt.” She tore a strip of paper from her tablet, chewed it into a lumpy wad, and threw it at Severus’s shirt where it hung from the scalloped edge of a ruffle.
Lisa’s friends had started laughing, and then the other students joined in until the whole room was full of hateful children giggling and chanting, “Snape’s a girl! Snape’s a girl! Snape’s a girl!”
Snape looks in the mirror again and sees himself as a child superimposed over his adult reflection. He sees the sharpness of bone beneath his boyhood skin, his collarbones like knives jutting out from the top of his chest. He sees the dark circles under his eyes, the shadow of a bruise on his forearm, his fingernails bitten to the quick. This then is what the Fuller girl and now Longbottom find so ridiculous, so worthy of ridicule, such a joke: a beaten boy, an angry man, both so terribly afraid—and covering over all Severus is and will ever be, his mother’s clothes, her love.