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The street he was walking down was dreary and a bit dingy. The houses, dirty brick buildings with overgrown little front gardens that seemed to hold more weeds than flowers, were about as far removed from Privet Drive’s cookie cutter aesthetic as one could get. Harry Potter found he did not mind in the least.

He followed close behind Snape as the man led the way down the dirty street. They were both dressed in muggle clothes, Snape in a close fitting black jumper (despite the summer heat) and trousers, Harry in one of the few tee shirts he had bought the summer before along with cargo shorts that actually fit him.

If Snape lived so removed from the wizarding side of Britain while not at school, Harry would need to acquire more suitable clothing. He supposed the tunics he'd gotten in Diagon could pass for muggle, but he didn’t want to spend the whole of the warm summer months in trousers.

Jax poked his head out of Harry’s satchel and looked around, hissing curiously at the sight of a small river ahead of them.

I bet there's some good toads over there.

Harry shrugged, eyeing the dirty water as they crossed a small bridge. “I don't know buddy, it doesn't look very clean. You might get sick eating anything from there.” Harry wrinkled his nose at the smell of the river. No, Jax would definitely be steering clear of anything in there.

Further along the bank he could see a watermill, but Harry couldn't tell if it was abandoned or just a bit dilapidated and the owners hadn't had the money or inclination to fix it.

One thing he noticed that was the same here as in Surrey was that the neighbors were just as nosey. Used to looking for such things, Harry caught many a twitching curtain and beady eye watching them make their way down the road.

Snape had picked him up at King’s Cross, claiming he needed the time to ready things for Harry’s arrival. He hadn’t minded the extra few hours the train ride allowed him with his friends. He was still unsure of where he stood with the Potions Master, if Snape resented him for barging into his personal life like he had or if he truly meant it when he said he was not adverse to Harry staying with him.

A scraggly looking tomcat ran across their path with a snarl, chasing a mouse into the space between two opposite buildings.

Harry was so distracted by the animals’ sudden appearance that he didn't notice they had reached the end of the row and Snape had stopped, catching himself from running into the professor just in time. They were standing in front of a slightly less run-down looking house. The front garden, while still overgrown and turning a bit yellow, was at least free of trash. Harry supposed it was hard to maintain a yard if you were gone from it most of the year. His aunt would have had a heart attack just seeing the state of it, which had Harry holding back an amused snort.

“Hold out your hand, Mr. Potter, so that I may attune you to the wards,” Snape said, breaking Harry from his thoughts.

Harry glanced from Snape to the house and back; he couldn't feel any wards, not like when they'd passed through the Hogwarts gates. Maybe because those were just so much stronger, older.

Snape was looking at him expectantly so Harry hastily held out a hand.

“What about Jax?” he asked, as Snape first touched the tip of his wand to Harry’s palm and then to the open air in front of the walk.

Only it wasn't open air at all, because a spiderweb of spellwork appeared where Snape held the point of his wand, a brilliant deep blue that quickly spread in a pulse around the entire property. Harry felt a zing go through him, making the roots of his hair tingle. It all took less than a few seconds and then the house was back to looking its normal, dingy self.

“Your familiar will be fine,” the man said, motioning Harry to follow him up the short walk to the door, which he then opened with an ordinary muggle key. “The wards are mostly to keep out those with ill intent and to dissuade muggles from noticing my presence. I do not care for visitors. They also notify me of anyone coming and going, which I assume given your penchant for wandering about, would become tiresome after a while. Therefore I am trusting that you will notify me personally about your intents to come and go, at reasonable times.”

He eyed Harry seriously before gesturing him inside with a sardonic smirk and a mock bow. “Welcome to Spinner’s End, Mr. Potter.”

The inside of the house was dark, and even when Snape flicked on the lights it still held a slightly oppressive dimness. The front door opened into a cramped sitting room made even more so by the floor to ceiling bookcases that lined every wall, filled with leather bound tomes interspersed with worn paperbacks and what looked to be a plethora of journals.

Harry walked cautiously forward, as much to stop blocking the entrance as to get a better look at the room. Although it was free of dust, the single window was only letting a modicum of afternoon light shine through the grime that covered it. Harry itched to clean things up but thought it might be rude to mention the state of things to the man letting him stay there.

There were two worn armchairs but no sofa, both facing a modest fireplace. Squeezed into a corner was a small telly, which was odd enough to make Harry realize that the room was lit, not by the usual candles and lanterns he had become accustomed to at Hogwarts, but with regular muggle electricity.

“You are welcome to read any of the books, save those on the top two shelves. I expect you to treat them with respect and to place each back in the precise spot you took it from.”

Harry nodded, mind still whirling over the juxtaposition of a telly and light bulbs in his Potions Master’s home. Jax slithered out of the bag and went to explore the room, hissing in delight at all the new smells.

“Through there is the kitchen.” Snape nodded at an open doorway. “You will receive three meals a day, but if you require more, make certain you clean up after yourself.”

Harry hesitated a moment, unsure.

“Do you want me to do the cooking, for letting me stay? I know how, I'm not bad at it.” He met Snape's eye determinedly; he was willing to do it, if he had to.

Instead of the nod he expected, the man just looked briefly pained and shook his head. “No, Mr. Potter. I do not expect recompense of any kind from you, other than the expectation that you don’t make a mess or set fire to the premises.”

Harry figured that last part might be a joke and relaxed a little. He was still unsure of what he was meant to do here, if not cook. Maybe clean? He followed Snape into the kitchen, where the man put on the kettle and went about the ritual of making them both tea. It seemed to be his default response whenever Harry said something he found odd.

Harry sat at the small round table that dominated most of the space in the room. It looked scrubbed within an inch of its life, but that did little to hide the ring stains and shallow scratches. It was something his aunt would never have let within a mile of her kitchen, but Harry kind of liked it. It felt used, lived in.

The tiles that covered the floor were discolored, but Harry thought with a little attention they could be good as new. The same with the windows and cupboards that lined the walls. He was already making plans to do just that when Snape set a chipped purple mug in front of him. The tea smelt a bit like anise and cinnamon and there was a faded picture of a bubbling cauldron on the side with the words POTIONEER’S EXPO ‘85 circling it slowly. The motion was a bit jerky, the movement charm obviously wearing off after so many years.

They drank in awkward silence, neither of them really knowing what to say. Jax appeared from the other room and slithered over to poke at the fridge, tongue flicking out as if he could smell through the heavy door.

Are there eggs in there? That’s where your bitch of an aunt kept them.

Jax!” Harry sputtered, spraying tea all over the table. He looked up at Snape guiltily, shrinking down in his seat and waiting for the yelling to start.

Snape just raised an eyebrow and flicked his wand, clearing away the spilled drops. “Do I even want to know?” He sounded amused rather than angry and Harry relaxed, confused but not wanting to question it.

“Ah. Jax was just wondering if you had any eggs.” He nodded to where his snake was still poking at the fridge. “He knows that’s where Petunia would keep hers.”

“And this warranted such a volatile reaction?” Snape’s eyebrow rose impossibly higher.

Harry flushed and mumbled into his mug. “He may have also called her a bitch...”

“Ah.” The man took a sip of his own drink. “I have said he was an uncommonly intelligent serpent.”

Harry managed not to spit a second time, barely. He could see Snape hiding a smirk in his mug.

There were eggs, as it turned out. Snape had apparently done some shopping before collecting Harry from the train. Jax happily gobbled down two of them, the greedy thing.

After they finished the tea, Snape led them to the back garden through a door in the kitchen. It was much better tended than the front, with marked pathways and thriving plant life. A lot of them Harry recognized from Herbology as magical in nature. There was even a small greenhouse tucked away in the corner. It made sense that Snape would grow his own ingredients, to be sure of the quality. Harry wondered if he'd be able to use any of them for his own potions. If Snape would let him brew during the summer, that would be fantastic.

“If you are careful, I will let you help me with the plants. But you must never go into the greenhouse without permission, there are dangerous and fragile specimens in there. Otherwise, feel free to spend time out here, the wards hide it from prying eyes.” Snape glared at the low stone wall separating them from the neighbors.

That would be nice, to spend time outside without worrying about who would see him or Jax. And though he didn’t care much for gardening after taking care of his aunt’s flowers for years, he thought he might enjoy helping Snape with his plants. They all had a use and it wasn’t as if the man expected him to do all the work himself.

“I’d like that, sir.” It would at least help with easing this feeling of debt.

They went back inside. Jax had wanted to stay and explore the garden, but Harry felt uneasy leaving the snake out there on his own and promised they could return later, after the tour.

There was a narrow hallway off the kitchen, which ended in a door that led to the basement. “My personal laboratory,” Snape said. He eyed Harry contemplatively, no doubt seeing the way he had perked up. “You have shown a surprising talent in the art.” The compliment made Harry flush with pride and scuff a boot on the already worn floorboards. “I would not be opposed to you brewing under supervision, but as with the greenhouse you are not to go down there unless I am with you. If I am brewing something sensitive and wish not to be disturbed, I will inform you of such.” He spared Harry a sharp look. “If there is an emergency, I expect to be notified no matter the case.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.” Harry really was grateful, he hadn't even had to ask and Snape was giving him what he most wanted. He was also feeling off balanced by it; this was going too well. Things did not do that in Harry’s life.

There was another door about halfway down the hallway that housed a washer and dryer, both obviously muggle and well used, like most things here were.

“I expect you know how to do your own laundry?”

Harry nodded.

“Good. If you own anything that needs a gentler hand, there is a service that can take care of it.”

That was useful, if Malfoy made good on his threat to have Harry over at his manor.

The tour next led them back to the sitting room, where Snape tapped a particular spot on a bookcase which then slid open to reveal a hidden stair. Which both Harry and Jax found fascinating.

Do all wizard buildings have secret passages?

I hope so,” Harry hissed back, following a smirking Snape up the narrow stairs. He made note of which ones creaked the loudest.

The landing held three doors, one off the left, another about halfway down and the last taking up the end of the hall. There were no windows, but there was a string hanging down that was attached to what Harry assumed to be an entrance to the attic space.

Snape pointed at the furthest door, “My quarters; please knock if you need me and I shall do the same. The bathroom,” the one in the middle, “you will have all to yourself. I expect you to keep it clean.”

He then opened the door closest to them, motioning Harry inside.

“This will be your room for the duration of the summer. Decorate it if you wish, just keep it neat.”

Harry looked around the space speechlessly. It was barren save for a single bed pressed along one wall, dressed with what looked to be new bedding, although the frame was just as old as the rest of the things in the house. There was also a desk under a window that held a serviceable view of the dilapidated mill. A couple empty bookcases bordered a closet, whose door was closed but Harry figured it would be just as empty as the rest of the room.

It wasn't a big space, by most means, but it was a far sight better than a cupboard and Harry could not quite believe it was all theirs.

“This whole room is for us?” It sounded stupid saying it out loud, but Harry couldn't help it.

Snape had that pained look on his face again, and Harry was glad they were away from the kitchen; he did not know how much more tea he could stomach just then.

“Yes, Harry,” the man said softly, not meeting his eyes, but looking around with a sort of muted despair that Harry couldn’t understand the origin of. If Snape was using his given name, it had to be something more than the obvious.

“This used to be my room, growing up, I am sure it will serve you well.”

That he had not expected, and Harry looked around the space with new eyes. He could imagine a gangly Snape, lounging on the bed or scribbling at the desk. He wondered what his childhood had been like. Harry got the feeling it was not a pleasant one, from the reactions he had towards Harry’s own treatment.

“Thank you,” he said, instead of one of the thousand questions running through his head.

If this was Snape's childhood home, did that mean his mother had lived around here too? Cokeworth seemed like a bit of a miserable place for it, and he could kind of understand why his aunt had made the move to Privet Drive. But Harry thought he'd still have taken the dirty river and tired looking rows of brick houses over the bright and shiny falsehood that seemed to permeate Number Four and its surroundings.

He and Snape stood awkwardly for a few more moments before the man left him to his unpacking. “Dinner will be in a couple of hours,” he said as he exited the room, closing the door softly behind him.

There was a lock on the door, but it was on the inside. Another stark difference between Spinner’s End and Number Four.

What do you think, Jax?” Harry asked the serpent as he pulled his trunk from a pocket and unshrunk it at the foot of the narrow bed.

It's much bigger than the cupboard,” Jax replied, slinking across the scuffed floor to explore under the desk. “There’s all kinds of interesting smells all over this place. And the back garden was very nice, when can we go out there?

Harry snorted at the snake’s one track mind. “In a bit, I promise.

He debated about unpacking anything, unsure if they might need to make a quick exit. Snape seemed accommodating enough now, but Harry was wary of trusting him too much. Things did not usually go so smoothly for them, and Harry wanted to keep his guard up for now.

He compromised by placing a few books on the desk, along with some writing materials.

Do you want one of your rocks?” he asked.

Yeah, over here.” Jax wiggled into a corner made dark by the shadow of the desk. Harry dutifully placed one of the flatter charmed rocks on the floor. It was nearly completely out of sight from most angles in the room, which Harry supposed was the point.

He sat on the bed then, while Jax continued to poke around the room. He just needed a moment to adjust to the thought of having all this space to himself, a door that locked from the inside, and the promise of regular meals. Harry wanted to believe it. He really did, but experience had taught him otherwise. So he would remain cautious.

The bedspread was a plain dove gray, but it seemed new and clean, which was still better than anything he'd had before Hogwarts. Laying back, Harry closed his eyes for a moment, not noticing when he slipped into sleep from one second to the next.

~~~~~~~>

Severus Snape sat in his childhood kitchen, brewing his third cup of strong tea. The day had been alternatively hectic and painfully awkward. He had Apparated from the school to Spinner’s End as soon as the last of the stragglers had made it to the train. He'd then spent the remainder of the morning clearing out his old bedroom and putting extra wards on his more volatile books.

Severus had been at a bit of a loss at what to do with the newly emptied room, unsure what children needed outside his duties as Head of House. Food and shelter he could provide, but what else? Thinking back to his own lamentable childhood had not yielded much in the way of answers. So he'd acquired a fresh set of bedding and a few empty bookcases and hoped it would be enough. Potter had seemed grateful enough at the thought of his own space, too grateful. Severus angrily stirred too much sugar into his tea, remembering that blasted cupboard.

If Petunia hadn't already been rotting in Azkaban, he might have considered doing something drastic. He had nearly done so in any case, holding back only because he knew how much worse an extended stint in the prison would be compared to the swift and far too easy deaths Severus had envisioned.

Let the dementors take her and that lump of a husband and do their worst. Hopefully they would not waste away too quickly, that would be no sort of justice at all.

Pushing the thoughts from his mind, Severus glanced at the ceiling. It was quiet upstairs. Perhaps too much so, but he was hesitant to investigate just yet. He'd had just about his fill of awkward conversation for the day. Severus took a sip of the tea, grimacing at the sickly sweetness of it and pushed the offending mug away.

Why had Potter insisted on staying with him?

Why had he agreed to it?

Running a hand through his hair, Severus sighed. There was no use brooding about it now, the decision was made and he would just have to muddle through as best he could. Introspection could wait a few more days.

Looking to the clock above the stove, Severus supposed it was late enough to start on dinner. It would do well to distract his roaming thoughts at the very least.

He was in the middle of dicing an onion for spaghetti bolognese when a cut off scream sounded from second floor.

Dropping the knife, Severus hurried for the stairs, thoughts whirling over what could have caused the boy to cry out like that. The scream had been quickly muffled but terrified in its rawness. He gave the door only a passing knock before entering, wand ready.

The boy was sitting up on the bed, its covering wrinkled as if he had laid down atop them for a nap. He was pale, hair sticking to his sweaty forehead, the rectangular frames of his glasses crooked. Potter’s snake was in his lap, hissing quietly but fell silent as Severus entered, looking at him with those unnerving purple eyes.

A nightmare was the obvious conclusion and Severus smoothly stowed his wand away into his sleeve once more.

The boy glanced up at him briefly before focusing on his familiar, stroking the smooth scales.

Severus was at a loss for what to do, knowing what this child had been through, both recently and over the last decade. He felt wholly inadequate in dealing with any of it beyond providing draughts and an offer to talk through things that he knew the boy would never take him up on.

“I'm sorry,” Potter said suddenly, not looking up from his snake. “I didn't mean to be so loud.”

Severus held back a sigh. “No apology necessary,” he managed after a moment of heavy silence. “Do you wish to speak about it?”

No,” was the emphatic reply, sharply cutting through the dense quiet of the house.

“Very well.” Severus had expected as much.

He did not enjoy the sense of imbalance the situation was instilling him with. Severus had never been good at emoting freely. He could analyze motives and manipulate others into believing what he wished them to, and have them thinking it was their own idea in the first place, with the ease of breathing. He had been an excellent spy and even better Slytherin.

But this, here? This went well beyond his wheelhouse. It would require honesty of a caliber Severus was unsure he possessed. The boy would need a gentle hand but not mollycoddling. Severus had the distinct impression Potter would bolt at the first sign of a tightening leash.

Which the Potions Master could hardly blame him for.

The night terrors would be an issue, one that could not be waylaid by draughts forever. Severus doubted the Dreamless Sleep he provided would be enough to keep them even remotely at bay. They could only grant temporary relief, and then only for the two nights a week permitted to avoid developing a dependency.

Severus made a note to monitor the boy’s use of the potion, to make absolutely certain he did not abuse it. He did not believe that to be the case, with the rate of replenishment he'd done over the term since prescribing it, but then again, Potter had shown remarkable skill in brewing. It was not out of the realm of possibilities that the boy could manage a fifth year potion.

It would bear monitoring. Severus would give Potter the benefit of the doubt for the time being. For now, perhaps a distraction.

“Dinner will be ready shortly. If you wish to take a walk around the back garden, I shall summon you when it is finished.”

That seemed to agree with the boy, who was still far too pale but had stopped trembling. There was a quick exchange with the serpent in his lap, which ended in an excited looking wriggle that Severus took to mean acquiesce to the suggestion.

“I shall leave you to it, then,” he murmured, leaving the still mostly barren room.

He had not expected Potter to immediately overtake the space with all of his possessions, if indeed the boy even had enough to fill the small area. Severus knew it would take time for him to adjust to the fact that Severus was not about to abuse the boy, or treat him in such a way that forced a hasty retreat from the premises. Potter was cautious, an excellent trait for one of his House, and something the Potions Master could understand.

It had not escaped his notice that there were a few things placed about the desk. A concession. A sign that perhaps the boy was at least somewhat optimistic about the situation.

As he took up the knife again to continue preparing their meal, Severus contemplated just how difficult it was going to be, looking after this child. If Lily would approve of the decision or if she’d still refuse to forgive him even now. She very well may have preferred the boy go to the Longbottoms.

There was no way of knowing in any case, so Severus pushed the thoughts away and concentrated on mincing garlic with short, quick motions. When Potter wandered through a moment later, having deftly avoided most of the creaking steps, he spared the boy a nod. Potter returned it after a moment of hesitation, perhaps fearing Severus would change his mind and make him talk. The snake astride his shoulders winked at him, the cheeky thing.

And then they were through the door and into the garden. Severus could see them through the grimy window above the sink. He really should clean them more thoroughly. The snake wasted no time in slinking down and off into his herbs. Potter had a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

Feeling the boy would not appreciate catching the Potions Master spying upon him so, Severus went back to stirring his sauce, ignoring the heavy weight of old guilt with the practice of years.

~~~~~~~>

Harry sat on the low wall that bordered Spinner’s End and the next property. Jax had assured him with a quick sniff around that the wards extended about a foot beyond the barrier. He was still a bit shaken from the dream, one filled with high laughter and the stench of burning flesh, but the open (if not completely fresh) air of the back garden was helping. He was grateful that Snape had not pushed for him to talk about anything. Although, the way the man had burst into the room as if expecting a fight had startled Harry out of the burgeoning panic attack that had been forming.

He watched Jax slither his way through the various herbs and plants that took up much of the open space. It smelled earthy back here, like living growing things, but there was still a faint stench of muggy air and dirty river underneath it all. Somehow, it just made it seem all the more real and worthwhile. If these things could not only survive, but thrive surrounded by all this unpleasantness, then maybe Harry could do the same.

By the time Snape called them back inside, it had grown dim with twilight and Harry felt much calmer. Scooping Jax up from where he was lounging by a fragrant budding plant (that Harry was fairly sure was used in various painkilling potions,) he led them back into the house. Snape had set plates piled high with pasta on the table and Harry’s stomach gurgled loudly at the sight. It had been a while since the meal on the train and the food smelled much better than anything his aunt had ever produced. He quickly washed up at the sink and only hesitated a moment before seating himself opposite the professor at the little round table. Jax poked his head up and flicked his tongue out at the meal, but Harry waited until Snape started eating before he took a bite himself.

“This is really good,” he managed to say after a taking a few more bites, working hard not to just stuff his face full of the delicious noodles and sauce. He had grown used to full meals at Hogwarts, although his habit of eating far too quickly had been harder to shake.

Snape hmm’d, spinning a few strands of pasta onto his own fork and managing to eat with far more dignity than Harry feared he could ever manage.

“Where did you learn to cook so well?” he tried instead, after an awkward minute of silence where the only sounds were Harry failing to slurp his spaghetti quietly and the chirping of night insects coming from the back garden.

Snape looked contemplative for a moment before answering, “I’ve lived more or less on my own since I was seventeen. Cooking is not so different from brewing, it was not a hardship to learn.”

That made sense. Perhaps Harry would enjoy it, if he thought about it in those terms rather than as a chore foisted upon him by this relatives. He supposed it could even be enjoyable if he were able to then eat the results, instead of staring longingly at them and hoping for any scraps they decided to toss his way.

Maybe, if the summer went well, he’d ask Snape to show him, if the man wasn’t too busy. He probably didn’t want Harry pestering him about such things.

Glancing around for a change of topic, his eyes landed on the toaster tucked into a corner of the counter. “Why do you have so many muggle things? I wasn’t expecting you to own a telly or anything like that.” It didn’t occur to him that the question might be rude and invasive until it had left his mouth; he had just been so curious about it since stepping foot in Spinner’s End.

Luckily, Snape did not seem offended by the line of questioning, taking a sip from his glass of red wine before answering.

“My father was a muggle,” he said simply, gesturing at the surrounding house with his fork, his mouth curved into a bitter sneer for a moment before smoothing back into neutrality.

Harry tried not to stare at the man, the information blindsiding him. Snape had always projected such a magical presence that fit so well into the image of wizard in Harry’s mind, what with his fitted robes and long hair and manner of speaking. The ease at which he wielded magic, with efficient grace and more power than Harry thought he’d ever achieve. He was even Head of Slytherin house, notorious for their stances on things like blood purity and nobility. It all brought into focus just how much one could do, if given the correct motivation.

Harry was not so unobservant as to miss the significance of what Snape had just told him. It did not matter where he came from, Harry had the means to make better for himself. And even if he didn’t, he could still make his own way. As Snape apparently had.

They spent the rest of the meal in relative silence, as Harry tried to readjust his worldview concerning his professor and finding it difficult to reconcile this more humanized version of the man with his determination to not get too attached. Harry didn’t want to trust him quite so quickly, but he found it hard to settle back into the complete isolation he’d braced himself for.

Needing space to clear his head, Harry finished eating and automatically took his things over to the sink, washing them with an efficiency born of years under his aunt’s beady gaze. He nearly started in on the pots and pans after setting his milk cup on the drying board, but Snape waved him away.

“Don’t worry about that, I’ll take care of it. You look tired, why not retire to bed early? It has been a long day.”

Harry very nearly balked at the order, before he realized it was nothing of the sort. He wasn’t being sent to his cupboard or forced away; Snape, for whatever reason, just seemed worried over him. So Harry nodded and gathered Jax up from where he was coiled on Harry’s abandoned chair and made his way back up the narrow staircase to the room Snape had given him.

It was still early, barely eight, but Harry felt the weight of the day pressing down on him. He changed into his sleep clothes and grabbed his bathroom kit out of his trunk. The things in it were replaceable enough, so he didn’t see a problem with just leaving them in the room across the hall. Perhaps it was another concession, but Harry was too exhausted to think about it as he set his toothbrush on the side of the sink and his various shower things on the rim of the small tub. The bathroom was clean, if just as aged as the rest of the house. The tiles had gone the way of the kitchen’s and the tub could use a more thorough scrubbing, but overall it wasn’t terrible. The mirror, he found, opened up into a cabinet and he stowed away the hairbrush Parkinson had gifted him in there.

Back in the room, his room Harry supposed, he took a dose of Dreamless before settling into his new bed properly. Jax snuggled his way under Harry’s shirt to coil over his full stomach.

It’s nice here,” the snake hissed quietly. Harry patted him sleepily, feeling the pull of the potion.

I hope it stays that way.” If Jax replied, Harry was already too far down to hear it.