The shadowy folds of his mother's dress as she walks beside him, her cool hand holding his tightly in its grasp; Tobias absent; Mother's hand trembling as she leads him into the darkened room. The candles on the nightstand light on a whisper. There is a feeling in Severus' stomach that he recognizes as excitement, even as the anxiety creeping in makes him want to shiver. It wouldn't do for Tobias to see the magic.
She speaks of the coming year, of his schooling. "Finally," she says, "you'll be where you belong."
He thinks about Lily, about strolling through an ancient castle with his friend beside him, of performing great feats of wonder. Away from this place. Away from his father.
She takes something out from a drawer. "For your birthday," she tells him, smiling for the first time in a long while. "Shall I teach you?"
It is his first spell book.
The barn owl swoops down over the Slytherin table and drops an envelope in front of Severus.
"From your mother?"
Severus claps his hands over the letter and stows it away in the folds of his cloak, wondering if everyone saw the Muggle postage seal. "Jealous, Mulciber?" Mulciber’s parents haven't written him once since school began.
In his dorm room, with the curtains drawn around him, he tears open the envelope and unfolds a note written on slightly soiled paper.
I'm afraid they've reduced the hours at the factory. Tobias is not pleased. Perhaps it would be best if you remained at Hogwarts for the rest of the winter holiday. I've included some galleons for your birthday. Please use them wisely.
"Are you sure you won't come with us?" Lily's question is said with such sincerity that Severus is tempted to agree. Holiday with Lily and her family in Majorca, escape from another cold Hogwarts winter.
But he knows that as kind as Lily's parents are, they never liked their daughter's friend. It wouldn't be comfortable for them to have him in their midst, and Petunia downright despises him.
Besides, if he’s going to make something of himself he needs to be willing to sacrifice something as trifling as a holiday abroad.
"No, it's all right. I have plans here."
Concern deepens Lily's green eyes. "What kind of plans?" Severus knows she disapproves of his Slytherin friends.
He reaches up and tugs a strand of her hair, the way he used to when they were children. "Potions." Not exactly a lie. He pushes away the spark of guilt that arises with the thought that Lily will be happier kept in the dark.
"You and your potions," she says fondly, with a laugh that banishes the last of the guilt. "Here, then." She shoves a package wrapped in bright green and silver paper into his hands; a concession. Severus takes it automatically.
"What is it?"
"For your birthday. Don't open it until then, okay?"
Severus hides his emotions with a smirk. "I'm not so wholly lacking in self control." Not like someone else he knows, who opened all her Christmas gifts the moment they arrived the first week of December.
So he waits. On the eve of his birthday he sits on his bed in the empty dormitory room and carefully unties the ribbons, peeling back the wrapping. He recognizes the name embossed on the leather cover instantly as that of a premium potions supply chain. Undoing the clasp and flipping the leather cover open, Severus sees three rows of tiny glass vials, each of them filled with a different commonly used potions ingredient.
You and your potions, Lily said. Severus allows himself to smile. She understands him well.
A thread of unease runs through Severus when he receives the summons from Dumbledore. Had he found the dragon's blood? His steps quicken as he makes his way to Dumbledore's office. No, he hid it too well. Unless Avery betrayed him, and Avery never would.
I'll just deny it, if he asks.
When Severus arrives, Dumbledore's face is grave; his eyes aren't even twinkling. That doesn't bode well.
Dumbledore's thin, wrinkled hand reaches out and nudges the bowl of sweets toward him. "Sherbet lemon?"
"No, thank you. Is something the matter, Headmaster?" Better to come straight to the point.
Dumbledore sighs. He leans back as though he is waiting for something. Whatever it is doesn't come. "When was the last time you heard from your parents, Severus?"
"Just before Christmas. A letter should be coming soon for my birthday. Is there---" He doesn't finish the sentence. His first holidays at the Malfoy mansion, meeting the Dark Lord, everything, had so distracted him he hadn't noticed his own birthday passing by. "My birthday," says Severus. The dread makes his voice a whisper. "It was three days ago."
Something should have come. Mother always wrote.
The kindness on Dumbledore's face makes Severus hate him. The headmaster stands up and goes to him. A warm hand touches his shoulder. "My dear boy," he says gently. "We received an owl just now. Eileen--"
"No." Severus shakes off Dumbledore's hand and races out of the room.
Severus runs his eyes over the worn leather, its wrinkles illuminated by the firelight. Each time he takes it out it seems as though more wrinkles have appeared; the leather's as aged as he feels. Has it only been eight years? Inside the cover the little glass vials are untouched. The ingredients, in all probability, have spoiled by now. Useless.
A knock sounds on the door. There's only one person that knock could be.
"Why do you even bother?" Severus mumbles. After all, his professor’s quarters belong more to Dumbledore than to him. The door swings open on the second knock.
"I beg your pardon?" Dumbledore asks in a voice that is infuriatingly cheerful. He holds a plate in his hand. Severus doesn't answer him, just stares in sullen silence as he deposits the food onto the small table in Severus' sitting room. "I thought it would be a shame for you to miss the Cornish hen. It's simply delightful."
"You could have sent an elf."
Dumbledore makes a dismissive noise and, instead of going away, pulls up a chair and sits. His blue eyes might as well be peering right into Severus' soul. "How are you, Severus?"
Severus recoils inwardly, but it only shows in the twitch of his fingers against the potion kit's leather. They've had many conversations since--since the Dark Lord's demise, but this is the first time Dumbledore has asked Severus such a question. "Isn't it obvious how I am? I'm alive." The words are bitter on his lips.
For a moment it seems as if Dumbledore will say more, will press on. Dumbledore thinks better of it, then, and just nods, flashing Severus a bright smile. "Very good, very good. Well. Speaking of being alive, I understand it's your birthday tomorrow." Reaching into his robes, he pulls out a wrapped box and sets it onto the table next to the food.
Severus' hand grips the potion kit instinctively; a dull pain pierces his stomach. "That wasn’t necessary." Take it back!
"You wouldn't deny an old man the pleasure of gift-giving, would you?" It sounds like a question, but to Severus it may as well be a command, with Dumbledore's steady gaze pinning him down. When Severus gives no answer, Dumbledore smiles again and takes his leave. The door to Severus’ quarters clicks mutely as it closes behind him.
Severus considers throwing the present into the fire, but settles for leaving it on the plate of food for the house elves to clear away.
The next morning, the present is back on the table in his sitting room.
Severus begins to understand: Dumbledore is trying to punish him with kindness.
"How is it going, Severus?" asks Dumbledore.
Severus scowls, refusing the seat Dumbledore gestures him to in favor of pacing back and forth across the room. "Quirrell is like a rat scuttling here and there under our feet. The Quidditch incident--you know that I'm convinced he's--"
"We have no proof," interrupts Dumbledore. "Even if we did, don't you agree that it's wiser to have such suspicious individuals close, where we can keep an eye on them?"
Anger and frustration win against prudence. "Is that why you keep me so close?" he snaps, stopping in his tracks to glare at Dumbledore.
Dumbledore's eyes soften. "Once, perhaps." He pauses, as though waiting for Severus to say something in response.
Severus doesn't know what Dumbledore expects of him. "What, am I now worthy of your trust? I don't believe it." Dumbledore has secrets he will never tell Severus. Dumbledore, who smiles calmly at everything and lies in wait.
"You'll believe what you will, Severus," Dumbledore says briskly. The softness is gone from his eyes. Severus feels bereft, and can't quite understand why. "Continue to watch over Quirrell. Try to be kinder to him."
"I suppose you want me to be kind to the Potter brat as well."
Dumbledore laughs. "You know I admire your foresight in keeping a cold front towards Harry. You have been kind to Harry in your own way. That Quidditch incident, for example."
"He hates me."
"Don't you prefer it that way?"
"Yes." Feeling James Potter's hatred is, after all, infinitely preferable to seeing Lily's green eyes each time he looks at the boy.
"Ah!" Dumbledore exclaims, tearing him away from dangerous thoughts. "I'd forgotten why I called you here." He opens one of the many drawers in his desk. A present emerges from its depths. "It is next week, isn't it?"
"You know when it is," Severus points out, walking closer to the desk. "Or you wouldn't plague me with one of those," he makes a jabbing gesture at the present, "every year."
"And yet you never put any of them to use."
"No. I threw them all into the broom closet."
At this, Dumbledore's eyes twinkle. "At least you haven't cast them into the fire."
As if that would be of any use.
Penelope Pristlethorn's rabbit-like teeth chatter as Severus towers over her. "Repeat after me, Miss Pristlethorn: I will not leave the grounds of Hogwarts without permission."
The girl complies in a shaky voice, her terrified eyes fixed on his face.
"Do not forget," says Severus, reaching down and shaking her once by the shoulder for good measure. "You do not want to be caught attempting to escape again. Understood?"
She nods vigorously, and Severus sends her off to her dorm room.
When he is alone again, Severus walks around the desk, sinks into the chair and puts his face in his hands. Dumbledore's chair. It's been half a year, and Severus still can't think of it as his own. Maybe it will always be Albus' chair.
"Well, I must say, you didn't have to be quite that uncivil," intones Heliotrope Wilkins from her place on the wall.
"I thought the shake was a nice touch, myself," Armando Dippet chips in.
"You would." This is from Phineas Nigellus Black.
"He is protecting her," explains Dumbledore patiently. "Better to scare her than to have her fall victim to the Carrows."
"I don't need you to defend me," Severus growls. The guilt still eats at him every time he hears Dumbledore's voice coming from the portrait frame.
"You don't need to be defended," says Phineas Nigellus, arms crossed over his chest. "You're doing the right thing."
A murmur of agreement amongst the portraits.
"Perhaps," says Dumbledore, when the sound has died down, "you should go check on the students, Severus. Ensure that they--and the staff--are behaving."
Severus nods. He should have thought of that, except he'd been indulging in a fit of weakness instead. He hasn't felt the same since that night by the lake, when he'd finally revealed his Patronus to Potter.
Severus half turns, looks at Dumbledore's blurred and altered countenance. "What is it?"
An ironic smile plays on Dumbledore's lips. "What is the date, again?"
For a moment Severus stands there, blinking. Then, without a word in answer, he turns away.
There's a noise echoing through the flat. It takes him a moment to recognize the doorbell; it has never rung before, not in this place.
He retrieves the wand from its hiding place and goes to the door. The eyes that confront him on the other side of the peephole are vivid green. Impossible to mistake. Guilt, shame and anger, all at once, make his breath come fast.
"Snape," Potter says as soon as the door has swung open. "Hi."
It isn't what Severus expected. Potter, who always hated him, who is the spitting image of his father--except for those eyes, those eyes--is standing at his door. Instead of striking him down as Severus half-hoped he would, he's saying hi.
"Potter," Severus replies, after he's found his voice again. It comes out like a choke.
"Can I come in?" When Severus only stares at him, he heaves a short sigh, reaching up to brush some hair out of his eyes. "Don't stand there looking so expectant. I'm not here to bring you in or anything."
Confronted by an irresistible force who will inevitably get his way, Severus moves aside. Potter steps into the flat, and Severus leads him into the small living room. A lone armchair is propped against one wall. Severus clears off the tea mug that rests on a stool next to the armchair. He passes it to Potter, who immediately points his wand at it. Within a few seconds in it's an armchair identical to Severus'. Potter sits.
"How did you find me?"
Potter shrugs, fingers fiddling with a frayed spot on the armchair cushion. "I've made a few Muggle friends in law enforcement. It wasn't difficult, once I knew you were alive. And that I found out while visiting Hogwarts. They've rebuilt, you know." Naturally. The children of the Wizarding world need somewhere to go, after all. Still, Severus recognizes something akin to relief brushing across him at Potter's words. Hogwarts lives.
"Minerva?" She visited him once, at the start of the school term. He had gone back to Spinner's End. It hadn't been a good idea, and soon afterward he had moved.
Potter shakes his head. "No, Professor Dumbledore. His portrait." His eyes crinkle in amusement as he remembers. "He told me he thought I should go pay you a visit soon, just as if it were the simplest thing to do. So here I am."
Severus remembers the pile of unopened presents in the broom cupboard back at Hogwarts, wonders what became of them. He has to swallow before he can speak again.
"So he's sent you as my birthday present, has he? How like him."
"Hi," Potter says, like deja vu. "Let me in? It's bloody freezing out here."
"What language," Severus mutters, for lack of something better. He steps aside.
Potter's footsteps are oddly loud as he follows Severus into the living room. Once there, Severus takes his usual seat. Yes, this scene is certainly familiar.
"Dumbledore sent you again?"
Potter has settled himself on the second armchair--Severus hadn't bothered to change it back--and taken off his mittens. "No. I came on my own." Mittens discarded, Potter rubs his hands together. Severus frowns, and mutters a wandless warming charm, earning himself a grateful smile. "Is that okay?"
No, he's tempted to say. It would be a lie, but he is an excellent liar. "I fail to see why you are here." Perfect truth.
"Today's your birthday, right? Just thought you'd like some company."
"How very kind of you," Severus answers, sarcastic.
"Yes, I think so. Got anything to eat?"
"This is ridiculous."
"What, you don't like sushi?" Potter waves the paper bag at him. Severus recognizes the label from the shop down the street. "I thought for sure you'd appreciate weird slimy things." He bites his lip, an expression which reminds Severus of Lily. "Sorry, that was rude."
"Yes," Severus agrees curtly, snatching the paper bag and bringing it with him into the kitchen. When he returns, Potter is already sprawled on his armchair, regarding his surroundings with an air of familiarity. Since when does Potter have his own armchair in Severus' living room? Ridiculous.
"Looks good," Potter says when his eyes alight on the plate.
Severus nods. He passes one of the plates to Potter, along with a pair of chopsticks. "Rather less slimy than expected," he says, with a sidelong smirk.
Potter utters a surprised bark of laughter that somehow gratifies Severus. He quickly recovers himself, nodding at the sushi with an amused grin. "Disappointed?"
Severus picks up a piece with his chopsticks. "It remains to be seen."
They eat in relative silence. Severus becomes aware that this is the first time since Hogwarts he's shared a meal with someone. He supposes he should object to that someone being Harry Potter, but finds he can't be bothered.
"D'you want anything?" Potter asks when he is walking towards the door. "Next year?"
"I suppose you're going to insist on showing up again," Severus says, pointedly ignoring the question.
Potter grins again in happy resignation. "I suppose you're going to insist on being as stubborn as always?"
The owl pecks impatiently on the windowpane. Severus waits until he's finished making another ten turns clockwise before he opens the window. Very likely a late Christmas card from Minerva. She's gotten quite sentimental in her old age.
One look at the return address tells him otherwise. It's Potter's handwriting.
You were right about the angelica root. Bloody useful trick. Ron sends his thanks. I'm helping out at Hogwarts this winter. Would you come if I threw you a party? On the 9th?
Severus puts the letter in his pocket and returns to his brewing. At the end of the day, sitting in bed with a quill in one hand and a scroll of parchment on his lap, he struggles to put his thoughts into words.
At last, he writes: No. Don't be an idiot.
It is only when he's written and sealed this missive that Severus realizes he has no owl with which to send it. He stuffs the reply into one of the drawers on his nightstand and resolves to forget about it.
Two weeks later when Potter appears on his doorstep, the first words out of his mouth are: "You didn't write back!"
Severus shuts the door behind them with an audible bang. "Very observant of you."
Potter sits down in his armchair, eyes raised to Severus' face, looking both vexed and a little hurt. "I thought it'd be nice. To get you out of this house and actually seeing people."
"What makes you think I want to see people?"
The hurt begins to overwhelm the annoyance in Potter's eyes. "I guess you never really wanted to see me, either?"
This sort of emotional blackmail is just the kind of thing Lily would have done, Severus thinks, and responds a little too harshly: "Why would I want to see anyone who plagues me endlessly with nonsense?"
"Fine," says Potter, jumping up from his seat. "I'll leave, if I annoy you so much."
A tiny streak of something curiously like fear shoots through Severus. "Do as you please, Potter."
In the days that follow the incident with Potter, Severus wavers between the conviction that he's well rid of him and the compulsion to send Potter a truce of some sort. It is in the midst of this indecision that he hears, for the second time that week, the doorbell ringing.
"Hi," says Potter. "It's not the ninth anymore, but I figured…" He shrugs, flashing a helpless smile. "You're going to let me in, right?"
In Severus' living room, Potter deposits himself on his usual seat, fingers tapping nervously against the cushion. Severus realizes that for a few days, he'd thought he would never see Potter sitting in that chair again.
"Tea?" he asks, and turns his back to Potter.
"No thanks. Snape, please." The imploring tone in Potter's voice makes Severus turn back. Potter takes a deep breath, as if bracing himself. "M'sorry. For the other day. I just…
"Birthdays have always been important to me. For ten years I celebrated mine alone, in a cramped cupboard, with no one caring a single bit that I'd turned a year older. They mean something to me. And you mean something too, so." He makes a helpless gesture with his hand, asking for Severus' understanding.
How to explain to Potter, who is staring at him with an expectant air, about everything? About Lily, and Eileen, and Albus Dumbledore with his pile of brightly wrapped presents? All that regret. All those things he never deserved.
He doesn't deserve Potter, either, but Potter seems determined to stay. "Even if I could explain, I doubt you'd understand. Maybe I don't understand it myself."
"Oh." There's disappointment there, and Severus realizes it hurts him, to disappoint Potter. Potter, who visits him on his birthday each year because he cares.
"If birthdays are so important to you--" Severus pauses, then continues before he can change his mind. "--I'll come to yours instead."
Potter's eyes go round. A small smile curves his lips. "Would you?"
"Yes." Said impatiently, possibly followed by something like a grimace. But Severus doesn't take it back.
The smile grows. Then, Potter is laughing, delighted. "You know? It never even occurred to me we could see each other on a day that wasn't January ninth."
"That's because you're an idiot," says Severus, with a smirk.