“What the ruddy hell are dementors?”
“They guard the wizard prison, Azkaban,” said Aunt Petunia.
Two seconds’ ringing silence followed these words and then Aunt Petunia clapped her hand over her mouth as though she had let slip a disgusting swear word. Uncle Vernon was goggling at her. Harry’s brain reeled. Mrs. Figg was one thing—but Aunt Petunia?
“How d’you know that?” he asked her, astonished.
Aunt Petunia looked quite appalled with herself. She glanced at Uncle Vernon in fearful apology, then lowered her hand slightly to reveal her horsey teeth.
“I heard—that awful Snape boy—telling her about them—years ago,” she said jerkily. (pages 31-32 of Order of the Phoenix.)
The ringing was in his ears this time; Harry felt as though he’d cracked his head on the Dursley’s window again. Working his mouth to words that refused to come, he finally croaked, “Snape…boy?”
that awful boy
It had been many years since they’d had a summer this hot.
His shirt seemed to have permanently cemented itself to his back, as drenched in sweat as it was. There was no hint of rain to offer a reprieve, or even a breeze; the sky was a cloudless, blinding void. Steam rose off of the streets as though someone had lit a burner beneath them. Each time he dared step outside, humidity swept across him in a sticky wave. Cooling charms were useless, fans a waste of time, and the very idea of opening a window was laughable. Severus had half a mind to dunk himself in the trash-logged river to cool down a little. He should have known skimping out on buying an actual air conditioner this year would come to bite him in the arse. As it was, he was fairly certain he’d far surpassed his personal bathing records, what with the amount of cold showers he’d taken in the last few days.
Spinner’s End had become a ghost town. Empty at the best of times, with the growing number of abandoned houses, the remaining residents had been driven into their homes by the heat, leaving the streets deserted. The town’s adolescent gang was nowhere to be found, and even the Richardsons next door were quiet. Severus supposed they were too hot to argue.
At least they didn’t have to spend the day standing over a burning stove.
Casting his umpteenth cooling charm, Severus mopped at his forehead and pushed his stringy hair back from his face. The Dark Lord couldn’t have asked for a potion at a worse time. Brewing on a day like this—it was sure to be the hottest day of the year—was not his summer ideal. The fact that there were no papers to grade couldn’t even lift his mood. He’d take tea with Sirius Black over this.
Finally, he thought, sprinkling a handful of ground lacewing flies into the bubbling potion before resetting the oven timer. Unlike in the original recipe, this gave him twenty minutes to clean up while the Polyjuice simmered and turned brown. He dropped his wooden spoon onto the unused burner and flopped backward into the chair he’d pulled away from the table. Sweat slid down his face in rivulets. The mason jar he’d filled with ice earlier was now more water than anything; there was a damp ring darkening the pitted table. He took a long sip and savored the feeling of it going down his throat.
It wouldn’t be much longer before he could begin preparations for the Veritaserum the Dark Lord had demanded. He wasn’t due to have it finished for another month, but it had been a very long time since Severus had placed any faith in the patience of others; and even longer since he’d placed any faith in other people altogether.
The days following the Triwizard Shitshow had been long and bleak. It had been fourteen years since he’d stood before the Dark Lord, fourteen years since he’d so vigorously guarded his mind, and yet a part of him felt like it had been only yesterday. Like a part of him was still trapped, frozen, in that same passage of time.
At least he wasn’t teaching. There was no need to navigate through the minefield of memories Hogwarts dredged up, no grading to do, no little pustules to watch over…and no Potter. He could sleep until midday if the want arose. He didn’t have to grace the Great Hall with his presence and pretend to eat. He could catch up on the latest journals that had been published this year. Unless the Dark Lord called.
He could even finish making those changes to the Draught of Peace that he’d been fiddling with for the last month, or create another addition to Muffliato to expand its perimetal limitations and offer an increase of privacy. The possibilities were endless, really. It was summer. Summer was his time to experiment…unless the Dark Lord called.
The Dark Lord had become all too interested in his company since his return.
Just as the Headmaster had predicted after the… events of last year, he’d been lying low, making plans and gathering troops rather than making himself known to the world. This meant less Death Eater raids—or really, less excuses to make as to why he’d not attended—and more speeches, more spying, more info-gathering, and, of course, more punishments. He doled out the Cruciatus like a middle-aged woman at a shopping centre doled out free samples. Severus had spent the last month feeling like he’d clawed his way out of a settled grave. Without copious amounts of nerve regeneration potions, he would probably be on the brink of peripheral neuropathy.
Perhaps he’d prefer the neuropathy.
His wards hummed, signalling the arrival of a benevolent intruder named Albus Dumbledore. Severus’s body ached in protest as he hauled himself out of his chair to meet the Headmaster. If he’d thought his body hurt, it was nothing compared to how his eyes felt as they rested upon the most blindingly yellow robes he’d ever had the misfortune to see, complete with painfully blue trim and agonizingly white stars.
Severus took one disgusted look at him, decided he was too sticky to stomach such a hideous ensemble, scoffed, “What the hell are you wearing?” and returned to the kitchen. Albus followed with what was probably a sickeningly serene smile.
“You must be aware of how busy I am, Headmaster,” he continued as the timer went off and he settled back into his potion. A curl of ice-cold air swept across the back of his neck as Dumbledore performed a cooling charm infinitely more powerful than his own had been. Severus fought back a shiver as the sweat dried on his back. “I don’t have time to play host to guests.”
“Even if you did have the time, Severus, I must admit I find myself having difficulty imagining you wanting guests over.” He could hear the smile in the Headmaster’s voice. “Alas, my visit here today isn’t of the cheery sort. Have you been reading the papers?”
Did anyone, these days?
“I skim it,” he lied, adding four measures of boomslang skin to the cauldron on his stove before moving to place bicorn horn in his mortar on the counter.
“They have not been kind to Harry Potter as of late,” Albus said quietly. Severus paused for a brief second before beginning to crush the bicorn. “Cornelius has been taking as many measures as possible to discredit the boy. I can’t imagine it’s doing wonders for Harry’s morale.”
Why do you think I care about the boy’s supposed morale? he thought, Occluding just a tad harder than before to keep the idle scathing away from Dumbledore. “And?” he pressed, personal moral failures notwithstanding.
“I fear it won’t be long before more extreme measures are taken. Whether they come from Cornelius himself, or from one of his associates, I cannot say. I’d expect nothing less from the Minister these days,” Albus said. There was a grim edge to his voice and a tightness to his eyes. “Sending somebody to, as they say, ‘finish the job’ is something I no longer consider beneath him.”
He sprinkled a measure of bicorn horn into the potion, scrutinized the color, and then added another half a measure. Then, sending a silent prayer to whatever god might have been listening, he cranked his sputtering stove on high for twenty seconds before turning it down to a simmer. Severus waved his wand sharply over the cauldron and finally stepped back to mark the time. The copper cauldron he’d chosen allowed him only eighteen hours until he needed to begin the fourth stage of the Polyjuice. “If you’re here to ask whether the Dark Lord has mentioned a plot to hire someone to kidnap the boy, posing as the Ministry, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. He’s said nothing of the sort.”
The Headmaster was silent. Then, even more softly than he’d spoken before: “Are you sure he has no true grounds to base his suspicions on, Severus?”
He was going to need a Calming Draught if Albus insisted on having this conversation again. The Dark Lord always had his suspicions — would always have his suspicions—on where his loyalties truly lie. The fact that he was still alive was proof in his lack of evidence.
“We have discussed this. I’d rather not have a repeat of the migraine you gave me last time,” Severus muttered. He wiped down his stove and set the lacewing flies aside for later, safely enclosed in a tupperware box. Dumbledore’s beard twitched at the sight of it. Gritting his teeth, Severus shoved the box out of view and turned to face the older wizard. “You could have said all this with your head shoved through a fireplace. What do you want, Albus? It’s too hot for games.”
“As straight to the point as ever. It’s a wonder anyone ever reads your studies, my boy, what with your lack of—”
“I am very busy,” he snarled, cutting Dumbledore off. The handle to his oven door creaked alarmingly; he let go of it as if he’d been burned, forcing his hands to unclench and drop to his sides. The cooling charm had worn off. He could feel sweat sliding down the back of his neck.
The Headmaster’s smile faded. “Harry is to be transferred to headquarters in August. His safety is far too compromised in Privet Drive. However…I cannot be certain of the Order’s continued safety, if Harry is to be stationed there. His link with Tom is growing ever more concerning. I must confess I am wary of being in the same room as him.”
There was an uproar swelling in his chest, in his throat, but Severus dissociated himself from the sensation before it could take over his body. “Do you believe he’s being possessed?” he asked, and his voice sounded foreign to his ears. What would he do, he couldn’t help but wonder, if he saw Lily’s eyes turn red with the Dark Lord’s taint? He Occluded harder.
“I am unsure. As far as I know, he has yet to show signs of possession. However…”
“It doesn’t take much effort to take control from behind the curtains. The Dark Lord is a powerful legilimens; it is safe to assume he has long since mastered the art of subtle possession. Do you wish for me to probe within the inner circle?”
If anyone would have information on the Dark Lord’s habits and schedule, it would be the inner circle. They would know if their Lord had been spending hours each day in a seeming trance.
“Cautiously. It wouldn’t do for Tom to catch you prying.” He sighed, looking to the left, out the grimy window above the sink. Suddenly aware of how much of a mess his house was, Severus felt humiliation curl deep in his gut. The heat in his face was not from the temperature of his kitchen. “That is not all. To ensure the protection of the Order, I must ask you for another favor.”
Alarm bells began to ring in his head. Narrowing his eyes, Severus leaned back against his stove before remembering his hot cauldron was there, and shifted to lean against his counter instead. The wooden spoon dug painfully into his elbow; he refused to move again. “A favor? Of what sort?”
There was an unusual hesitancy to Albus’s body language that made the alarm bells go from a ring to a screech. “You must know I would not be asking this of you if it were not of the utmost importance.”
“What is it, Albus?”
“You must teach Harry Occlumency. I had rather meant to teach him myself, but the circumstances do not currently allow for that. As it stands, Severus, you are far more equipped to teach him—you surpassed me in the art many years ago,” said the Headmaster, finally looking away from the window, through which Severus could vaguely make out the sun setting. “Do you have a second bedroom in your house?”
It took a fraction of a second for him to realize what, exactly, Dumbledore was asking of him. “No.” He spat the word out. “I refuse. What sort of joke is this?”
“I said— no . Absolutely not. I am not playing host to Harry fucking Potter.” There was glass on the floor, now, but he couldn’t remember breaking anything. His hands were shaking. Lip curled back in a wordless snarl, he breathed, “Find another place for the boy.”
For the first time, Albus sounded angry. “Are you so blinded by your hatred for James that you cannot see simple fact, Severus? I have exhausted every option. Harry is not ready to be taken to Number Twelve. The Grangers cannot keep him safe without magic. And the blood wards have become unstable—so unstable that a single nudge could cause them to crumble. I believe it may have something to do with the blood he exchanged with Voldemort back in—”
“ Do not say the name! ”
“There is no other option. Tom is currently more focused on the prophecy than he is on killing Harry, and will not seek to have you bring the boy without knowing why his failure to murder a child persists. Harry must stay here, if only for a few weeks. It is not the end of the world.” Albus repaired the shattered mason jar and dusted it off. There was water all over the floor, trickling through the cracks in the faded linoleum. “Are you well, my boy?”
Severus ground his teeth. His limbs were still attached, and his heart was still beating. That was about as well as he ever truly got. “Don’t try to change the subject. Could he not stay with his precious werewolf?”
“I’m afraid the Ministry would be quite, ah, discontent if they knew we were allowing a child to reside with a known werewolf,” Dumbledore said delicately. “As it stands…you are the only member of the Order with housing available for the boy.”
“Have you discussed this with the boy himself?” he scoffed, forcing himself to breathe deeply for fear of his anger running rampant again. “How does your beloved ‘Chosen One’ feel about being shuffled round like a toy? I wonder how Potter might feel about staying with his most beloved professor.”
“Harry will understand.” There was no telling whether he was lying or not. “It will only be for three weeks, if not less. He may be ready to be moved to headquarters by mid-August. I will, of course, compensate you on any food expenses.” Seeing Severus’s expression, he smiled a little. “I am by no means asking you to play the part of his father. Harry is capable of taking care of his own needs, as well as entertaining himself without causing mass property destruction. Simply train him to guard his mind, and keep him safe and fed. That is all I ask. Do you accept?”
Do I really have a choice? Severus seethed. He pushed away from the counter and let the spoon clatter to the floor. Grabbing the mason jar, he stepped past the patiently waiting Headmaster to refill it with ice, slamming it onto the table to melt for a while. “Fine. Three weeks, Albus. I shan’t babysit your boy wonder any longer than that.”
He hadn’t realized, until now, just how tense Albus had been. There was a noticeable slump to his shoulders; the lines on his face eased marginally. “You have removed a great deal of weight from my mind, Severus. Three weeks. You have my word. I’ll have Harry delivered to you the evening after tomorrow. Now—as you said, you are very busy. Allow me to see myself out. Goodnight, my boy. Rest well.”
And he was alone again. Severus stood there for a time, glaring at the door, before sinking into one of his rickety chairs and putting his head in his hands.
“What the hell did I just agree to?”