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Runaway Boys

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"All children, except one, grow up."
—J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy


The dreams began the summer that Severus Snape was twelve years old.

He had been home for a week, and he still wasn't sleeping easily. At some point in the six months since Christmas, the chill of the dungeons and the night-time breathing of a dozen other boys had become the new standard of normal, and the insomnia that had plagued him his first month at Hogwarts ran in reverse. School had proven to be everything he'd imagined it would in his most hopeful daydreams and his most loathsome twists of anxiety, and now it was home that was strange, with its stale smell and creaky floors.

The early summer in Cokeworth was damp and sweltering compared to the brisk, cold springtime of Northern Scotland. Severus threw off his blankets and squirmed out of his nightshirt. It took some fighting; he'd outgrown it over the last year. He had outgrown all his clothing, except for his school robes, which his mother had deliberately bought two sizes too large. He still didn't know how he was going to ask her to buy him new pants.

He flipped the under-stuffed pillow over to the cool side and tried to shut out the sound of a group of teenagers shouting in the street. The telly was on downstairs, and his father was grumbling in annoyance at the news report. His mother kept climbing and descending the stairs. He had missed them. He hadn't intended to, but he had. Now, though, he wished they would be quiet.

His eyes burned, and his shoulders tightened up with every sudden outburst or crash of broken bottles in the street, but in time his exhaustion overcame him and he finally fell asleep.

In his dreams, there is an island.

It isn't a very big island—only the size, perhaps, of the handful of streets between the train tracks and the corner shop where he was allowed to wander as a small boy—but it is entirely his own. The land juts and tumbles in a collection of jagged green hills and dwarf volcanoes that hiss clouds of steam.

Once, the landscape was a faithful recreation of a photograph of Iceland featured on the cover of a magazine that had sat on the coffee table when Severus was a toddler, but the interim years have changed it. There is the great crevasse, inside of which Severus's red-lit nightmares sleep lightly. There is the bridge where he and Lily sit together when he dreams of her, the two of them watching the goldfish and guppies in the river below for many night-time hours as the sun perpetually sets on the horizon. There is the library tower, filled with storey upon storey of beautiful leather-bound books and built half from the brown brick of the Cokeworth Public Library and half from the ancient grey stones of Hogwarts.

Tonight, Severus climbs up into the boughs of the great sprawling chestnut tree that stands above the steep cliffs of the island. Late sunlight streams through the green leaves, which rustle gently in the breeze and tickle him through his nightshirt. The bark scratches his bare feet as he clambers higher into the shady recess.

From up here, through the bars and shutters of the branches, he can spy on the children in the neighbouring isles. There used to be others here: wild boys who dressed in ivy and animal skins. But Severus drove them off long ago, never at home with their boisterous games or the bossiness of their noisy, handsome leader.

He watches them as they play a childish game of knights in pots-and-pan armour, wielding swords made from branches. Their shouts carry over the water, and Severus frowns in mingled jealousy and annoyance.

"You look like a perceptive young man," a deep voice declares from below him. "Are you, perchance, aware of any treasure on this island?"

Severus startles, twisting on his perch and peering down suspiciously. He has been alone on his island for a long time, save for the dream of Lily, and the tigers and the snakes, and his father in the volcano. The man leaning against the tree trunk is tall and dark and handsome and dressed in a wondrous set of clothes. His long hair falls in curls from beneath a striking red hat with a long plume. His boots are made of glossy black leather, and his coat is studded with golden buttons. At the end of one sleeve, where a hand ought to be, is a sharp, curving piece of iron.

The frisson of fear turns to a shiver of admiration as Severus realises that the swerve and polish of the man's question overlays a robbery.

"There isn't any treasure here," Severus says. He tastes the word 'perchance' on his lips before he tries it. "Do you, perchance, have the wrong island?"

The man smiles up at him, baring sharp white teeth. "Perhaps. But is there not any place where treasure might be buried? Hidden away very cleverly?"

"No," Severus says, gleeful in his lie as he thinks of the books, all of them bound in dragonskin and stitched with golden thread. "That would be stupid. On account of the volcanoes. If you buried treasure here, it would all melt away."

"Sound reasoning," the man says. His head tilts to one side, his blue eyes narrowing. "What's your name?"

"Severus S—" He cuts himself off and then tentatively amends: "Prince. Severus Prince."

It's a better name, he's decided. His new friends at school know the Princes, but they've never heard of any Snapes.

"That is a fine name, Mr. Prince," the man says. "As for me, I am Captain James Hook."

A large hand extends into the branches, and after a moment, Severus carefully leans down and shakes it.

"Pleased to meet you," Severus says.

"Are those friends of yours?" the captain asks, nodding towards the neighbouring island, where the boys are now riding wild ponies bareback, jousting with each other using lances made of hollow reeds.

Severus shrugs. Of course, he thinks, the man would rather know them.

But the man's smile only widens. "Do you know," he says, nodding now to the sea below, where Severus can see a great galleon bobbing on the water, "my friends have real swords."

A heavy thump from downstairs jolted Severus from his sleep. He sat up fuzzily, his heart pounding and his mouth dry. For a moment, he was certain he'd been dreaming about something important, but it drifted away from the grasp of his memory as the sound of shouting rose up the stairs.

He climbed tiredly out of bed and pressed his ear to the door so that he might catch up on the situation. The tangle of accusations revealed a recurring row. His father had wanted a late-night snack and had made a mess in the kitchen. His mother wanted to go to bed, but how could she when everything would be dried-on and mouldy in the morning? How was it, his father wanted to know, that she cared about cleanliness only when he was making the mess, but she was happy to be a slut when it suited her?

"You have no idea what I do all day to keep this house! You come home from work and sit straight on your lazy arse—"

Severus needed a wee, but the toilet was downstairs and the row wasn't interesting enough to warrant getting in the middle of it. The situation wasn't pressing just yet, but he might have to relieve himself out the window if they didn't calm down soon. He lifted the pane anyhow. It was too hot and close in his bedroom, and the night air felt good on his bare chest as a breeze drifted into the room.

He wanted to go see Lily. That was supposed to be the point of summer: two months with his best friend completely to himself, and no classes or houses in the way. On a night like this last year, he would have put his clothes back on and climbed down into the alley. It was only twenty minutes on foot to Lily's house—fifteen if he cut through a few gardens—and there was a trellis that led right up to her bedroom window, which was never latched.

Or it never used to be.

"Let's have a chat, you and me."

Mr. Evans takes him by the shoulder and sits him down at the kitchen table. It's the first day of the summer holiday, and Lily's house smells of sunshine and fresh lemon squash and her mother's roses.

Lily and Mrs. Evans slip out of the kitchen. Severus can see a hint of blonde hair at the window as Petunia eavesdrops from the garden. He scowls, but he refrains from banging on the glass in front of Mr. Evans.

"Don't worry, you're not in trouble," Mr. Evans says in a voice that Severus knows is supposed to be reassuring but isn't.

Mr. Evans never shouts, and so Severus has learned to be wary around him. You never know what someone is going to do if they don't give you the consideration of shouting when they're angry.

"There's going to be no more of this sleeping in Lily's room, all right? You're a young man now, and she's a young lady."

Severus squirms, looking down at the table. He didn't think Mr. and Mrs. Evans knew. Lily would never tell on him, and she always pretended he had come over early for breakfast. It must have been Petunia, he thinks with a flash of anger. She's always sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. She ruins everything.

"I know things at home aren't..." Mr. Evans trails off and then smiles tightly beneath his ginger moustache. "You can still come over whenever you like, provided it's daytime and you come in the front door. But if I find you sleeping on the bedroom floor again, or anywhere else, we're going to have a problem. Do you understand?"

Severus stares at the little green and purple florets on the plastic tablecloth until they swim before his eyes.

"Severus?" Mr. Evans prompts.

"I understand," Severus mutters.

On the warm nights following a handful of innocuously bright and sunny days in July, Severus dreams of sailing. Captain Hook's ship is called the Jolly Roger, and it flies the black flag with a deliciously menacing white skull and crossbones. The ship is made of dark, gleaming wood that the men—all broad-shouldered and dressed in motley clothes like well-muscled parrots—scrub and swab to keep pristine under the precise steps of the captain's polished boots.

All around, the air is thick with the smell of sea-salt and salt-sweat. It dries on his skin, delicious when he licks his lips. In his waking hours, Severus has never been on a boat and gets ill on trains and in cars, but here, the motion of the ship is oddly...persuasive. The rocking waves make Severus feel strange in a pleasant, ticklish way that settles low in his abdomen.

The crew of the Jolly Roger tour the near-endless archipelago that sprawls out from the mainland. Under the captain's sly command, they weave around the hundreds of thousands of little islands, dodging storms and chasing treasure. There are swampy lagoons full of pink flamingos, and there are stretches of savannah the size of a football pitch where lionesses spring out of the tall grass and chase antelope in endless circles. There are uncanny red deserts full of spiny cacti, and there are scarred and pitted half-spheres of rock where boys and girls hop about in slow, low gravity like the astronauts the Americans sent to the moon.

Sometimes the ship simply glides past these obstacles, slipping down the narrow inlets so smoothly that Severus's stomach flutters in excitement. Other times, the crew storms the shores with sword and shovel, scattering the young inhabitants and returning exultant with overflowing chests of treasure so heavy they must to be carried over-shoulder by four strong men. There are feasts on those days, and Severus grows tipsy on grog that tastes like butterbeer and fills his stomach with savouries the likes of which even Hogwarts cannot conjure.

The sailing is not always smooth, however. They pursue the captain's enemies along the way—these wild boys that Severus never really liked anyhow—chasing after them as they fly overhead like pesky geese and scattering them with gunfire.

"It's rare to meet a young man of your maturity and marksmanship," Captain Hook comments, his hand on Severus's shoulder as Severus aims and primes and lights a cannon.

The cannonball fires with an almighty bang that rattles Severus to the teeth, but the captain's large hand holds him steady as he's rocked back on his heels. Severus can smell the rum of the captain's cologne amidst the burning scent of gunpowder. He can feel the softness of his fine wool coat.

He shivers as the captain leans down and whispers in his ringing ear:

"Very well done."

Severus's lips part. He wants to sip the words out of the air and swallow them down to be his own. The captain speaks marvellously, like the most admirable of Severus's upperclassmen, like a tiger might if their mouths allowed it. Severus wants to talk like that, silk-tongued and sharply clipped and perfectly posh, and he opens his mouth to reply, but all that comes out is the cawing of a crow.

He awoke to the sound of bedsprings squawking.




For a moment, he lay with his eyes closed and his mind muddled, thinking he was still at sea and beset by blackbirds. The taste of salt lingered on his lips, and the drone of the air filled his ears like water. He could almost feel the warmth of a hand upon his shoulder, slowly tightening.

Then he heard a familiar low grunt followed by the distant shape of his father's name on his mother's voice. The high-pitched rhythm resolved itself into the complaint of his parents' precarious iron bed frame.

Severus pulled a disgusted face. He dragged the pillow over his head and stuffed his fingers in his ears.

Severus laughs, sticking his chest out boastfully, trying to forget he was ever daunted. "I'll just cast a disillusionment charm," he says. "It's easy."

Mr. Evans has let him go and is inside watching telly. Mrs. Evans is making dinner in the kitchen, and Petunia is pretending to be busy in her room, having gone on very loudly about all the important books she has to read for next term at her school. It's humid out, the combination of pressure and dark cloud promising rain, but he and Lily are sitting out in the garden with cold glasses of lemonade, and Severus is pumping his legs to keep the swinging bench rocking.

Lily's hand is very close to his, and he thinks about what it would be like to hold it. Her legs are crossed—not at the ankle, but properly, like a lady's—and below the hem of her pretty blue sundress, her shins are bare of the fine golden-red hair he remembers.

"Maybe," she says, although she doesn't sound as enthused by the idea as she should.

Severus nudges his hand closer to hers, but before he can make contact, she takes her lemonade glass in both hands and drinks.

"Or maybe," Severus says, "I could make Polyjuice, yeah? I bet I could. Mam wouldn't mind. She wouldn't even notice. I could make myself up like Petunia, and your da wouldn't even know. It would be brilliant."

But all Lily says, again, is: "Maybe."

During the stifling grey days of August, Severus dreams of having been marooned. The Jolly Roger sits on blue glass, unmoving in the middle of the ocean. His skin prickles with sweat, tingling all over, and his lips are chapped. The world around him is hazy and strange, shimmering like a cartoon mirage. In the distance, he can hear the crew's complaints. They clink mugs of grog together and shuffle cards and throw coins into gambling pots as they tell stories that Severus can only half-hear but knows are bawdy.

In the confines of the captain's cabin, everything is much more civilized. It's a rich room, like a little piece of a palace fitted into the ship. The bed and desk are large and ornate, and there is a low bookshelf fitted with all manner of antiquarian texts. A book of painted maps lies open on a stand, and on the walls hang a curved sword and a painted mask and an intricate tapestry of a sea battle. There is treasure everywhere, overflowing from boxes and piled high on the floor.

Severus is lying on the bed. Doing so feels wicked; it's the captain's bed, after all. It's not unlike the one he had at Hogwarts, only bigger, and the covers are plush and blood-red. The captain is pacing the little room slowly, making Severus nervous in a stomach-fluttering, anticipatory sort of way. Something is going to happen, but he doesn't know what.

He distracts himself with pretty things. A stack of gold coins on the headboard shelf is scrupulously straightened. A handful of emeralds fill his palm. They're smooth and warm, and he lets them fall through his fingers onto the bed. They make a sound like soft rain.

"Do you hear that?" the captain asks. He has stopped at the porthole and is gazing out at the motionless sea.

Severus lifts his head lazily. "Hear what?"

The captain turns and looks at him. His eyes are bright and curiously keen.

"Hear what?" Severus asks again, sitting up this time. His nightshirt is clinging to him with sweat, and he has a tight, restless feeling between his legs.

"That damned crocodile," the captain mutters. "That ticking clock."

Severus flushes hot as the captain approaches the bed. He shrinks back against the pillows, his heartbeat quickening. It feels as though the ship is suddenly moving again as the captain leans over him, the bed rocking beneath him, making him dizzy.

"I can hear it," the captain says, and his hair is very black as it spills across the faded off-white of Severus's nightshirt. An ear presses to his chest, listening to his pounding heart.

"What are you doing?" Severus whispers.

"Tick-tock," the captain says, his voice resonating against Severus's skin. "Tick-tock."

The captain draws back, and then his hook is against Severus's bare throat. The sound of ripping cloth makes Severus's whole body shudder, and the cold iron slides down his chest, all the way down to his—

He woke up gasping, thrashing, tangled up in the sheets and grinding down against the bed.

A choked sound from his own throat wrenched him fully out of his dream, and he opened his eyes in the darkness, shaking. He threw himself over onto his back, his hand pressing to his tense stomach. He had a stiffie, but it was going down. And his pants were wet.

Heat flooded his cheeks as he freed himself from the sheet and sat up. He twisted, feeling along the mattress in panic. He hadn't wet himself since he was five years old, and only then because his parents had taken him on an overnight train to his grandparents' and Mam had dosed him to keep him from getting queasy.

The mattress was dry, however, and when he touched the wet spot on the front of his pants, it didn't feel like wee. His hand ventured underneath, finding a slick mess clinging to his penis.

A flare of panic shot through him, and he fumbled for the lamp, switching it on and making sure he wasn't bleeding. Then he realised: a wet dream. This was what Henry Winterbottom in third year had meant when he'd asked all the first-year boys if they'd had them, and if they were still virgins.

Severus had, up until that moment, assumed that wet dreams were wet in the way that romance novels were wet. They had to do with liking girls. He frowned, trying to remember if he'd been dreaming about girls. He had been on the ocean, and there had been a ship...

His mind chased the dream, but it was already gone. It had felt good, though. Strange but good.

He fidgeted as the mess in his pants started to cool and dry. It occurred to him that the stuff might stain, and worse, that his mother might see it. Despite the tug of sleep, he got to his feet and crept to the door. The light was off in the corridor, and when he inched the door open, he saw that it was dark in his parents' room too.

Every squeal of the floorboards made him wince as he inched his way downstairs. Once there, he locked himself in the toilet and ran the tap at a mere trickle, washing the mess off his skin and scrubbing his pants clean.

"Go on," he says, warming to the idea. "I'll cause a distraction, and then you can nick her hair brush. It'll be dead easy."

But Lily only shrugs. She straightens her skirt, pulling it down over her knees. She has a sort of embarrassed look on her face. "It's not worth the trouble," she says.

He stares at her.

She shrugs again. "Just come over during the day, all right? It's not worth my dad getting angry. Come on—why don't we go to the shop and I'll buy us some crisps."

When he was safe in his room again, he stood stock-still and naked, listening for motion in his parents' room. All was quiet; he had got away with it.

He shoved the pants under his mattress, supposing he could sneak them into the laundry basket after they had dried. His stomach hurt, as if he had pulled something. He was tired, but he didn't want to go back to bed. Instead, he put on yesterday's clothes and opened the window. He climbed out and sat on the ledge, thinking about the way to Lily's house, and the way her bedroom always smelled of sweets, and the plushness of the carpet beneath his cheek and the warmth of one of her blankets settling over him in the middle of the night.

Then, his mouth set hard, he hauled himself onto the roof and scrambled up the damp incline. The clouds had mostly cleared, leaving gaps of black sky in between, and the breeze that had moved them slithered along the rooftops. Severus sat down behind the shelter of the chimney and wrapped his arms around himself. Looking west, he counted the stars until morning.