CHAPTER TWO

dracunculus vulgaris


Seven years later


It started with a letter that arrived on the desk of Albus Dumbledore on the fifth of June, 1987.

Severus was in his own office at the time and did not see the arrival of said letter. He sat behind a raised counter grading student-brewed Shrinking Solutions, dribbling portions onto dimpled glass slides to judge the viscosity and the integrity of the bonds. He held the glass up to a candle and barely gave it a glance; one whiff of the burnt wormwood and scalded cowbane told Severus the potion was slop, but he nonetheless ran each sample through the gamut of tests. The mindless repetition was almost therapeutic.

He picked up another sample, twisting the vial. He gave the vivid purple liquid an apathetic glare and pinched the bridge of his nose, pondering if popping the cork and dousing his office in noxious gas was worth giving Mr. Dagworth his well-deserved Troll mark. He flipped the vial through his long, pale fingers as he contemplated what had gone wrong. The proper green color would come from the caterpillars adding the metamorphosing synthesization between a subject's basic and shrunken forms. For it to be purple, an unintended ingredient had reacted negatively with the Shrivelfig reagent.

Severus swiveled the vial through his fingers again, tipping his head. "Earthworms," he muttered. The half-witted tosser had used earthworms instead of caterpillars. His eye roved over the remaining samples settled in the rack and his lip curled as he considered the monumental effort required in hammering information into the heads of his thick-skulled, dunderhead students. Exams were but a handful of weeks away, and he hadn't more than two or three viable Shrinking Solutions.

He leaned as far back as the stool allowed and exhaled, rolling his shoulders. Then, in a fit of pique, he threw the vial in the bin—where the compressed liquid exploded upward in a plume of sickening gas, and Severus vanished it, knowing Dumbledore wouldn't let him skive lessons if he poisoned himself. He considered vanishing the lot and making them brew it again but decided witnessing the catastrophe a second time might be even worse.

What was he meant to do when the idiots started using ingredients not even on the bloody board? Put the right ones in their hands for them? Should he brew the potions too? Hold their hands in the middle of O.W.L and N.E.W.T exams?

As Severus contemplated his options, the Floo started to sputter. It coughed once, twice, then gave one almighty gasp of green sparks to ignite a flame in the grate—and Severus dove behind the counter before the head of Albus Dumbledore could fully materialize.

"Severus?" the Headmaster called. "Severus, are you there?"

Severus said nothing, holding his breath as he listened to the fire crackle until the Headmaster retreated and the fire went out. He'd had quite enough of the Headmaster today. He didn't want to sit through another impromptu staff meeting, another long-winded session on disciplinary protocols, or drink bitter tea while the man tried to ply him with sweets from the kitchens. No, unless one of his Slytherins was missing a limb, Severus would stay right there sorting through the dismal mess of his second years' latest potions failures.

Of course, his reprieve didn't last for long. Severus managed to finish testing the samples and had only just sat down with a cup of tea from the kitchens when his office door flew open, and he sloshed scalding hot Darjeeling down his front.

"Merlin's sake," he hissed.

"Severus Snape!" The Deputy Headmistress strode into the room arrayed in all her tartan glory, scowling for England as she rounded on Severus and jabbed a finger at the empty hearth. "I told Albus you would be here! Dodging your Floo calls, as usual!"

"I haven't the faintest idea what you mean," Severus replied as he siphoned tea off of his frock coat. "And if I did, I'm certain you can handle whatever crisis the Headmaster has dredged up now."

"Oh, I'm certain I could as well—if he were not looking for you specifically." The older witch adjusted her square spectacles as she peered down her nose at him. "Now, are you prepared to act like an adult and stop hiding in your office?"

Severus was prepared to hex her out the door and be done with it, but he nonetheless settled for leveling his most displeased glower and setting aside his tea, rising from behind his desk. "Let's get this over with, then."

"Honestly, Severus. You'd think you were being punished."

"Every summons from the Headmaster is a punishment of its own. He's very creative."

He allowed her to go through the Floo first, then resigned himself to following, gritting his teeth as he stepped past the grate and entered the Headmaster's office. The room shimmered in the sunlight pouring through the diamond-paned windows, and Severus averted his sensitive eyes from the shelves of glittering silver instruments and crystal implements, blinded after spending much of the day locked in the dungeons. Dumbledore himself stood by the perch of his familiar, stroking the phoenix's plumage as he watched McGonagall and Severus enter the room.

"Ah, Minerva! So you did manage to find him," Dumbledore said with a smile. "Thank you, my dear."

McGonagall sank into one of the comfortable padded chairs before the man's desk and tossed a scathing look in Severus' direction. "Yes, well. It appears our Potions Master was too distracted to mind his Floo."

"Indeed." Severus ignored Dumbledore's offer to have a seat. Instead, he flicked soot from his sleeve and folded his arms against his chest. "Is there something you require, Headmaster? I have a great deal of marking to get through and exams to prepare."

When Dumbledore gestured at the second chair again, this time with a more definitive point, Severus seated himself and waited for the old wizard to speak. Instead of going for his own chair behind the desk, Dumbledore plucked a rather innocuous bit of parchment from among the thicker scrolls and sheaves, extending it for Severus' perusal. None of the three present that afternoon could have possibly guessed how such a short missive would change their lives and the fate of the entire Wizarding world forever.

"I received this concerning letter from an associate of mine who works in the Muggle Liaison Office at the Ministry."

"And why did it come to you? Do you have many dealings with Muggles these days, Professor?" Severus asked as he flicked open the parchment's fold and scanned the first line. He nearly didn't catch his sudden intake of breath when he registered the name "Juniper Potter."

"Oh, Madam Tolin wrote as a special favor to me. She intercepts issues and problems that pop up among Muggle schools when Muggle-borns or half-blood children have accidents in public."

"And there's been an issue with Potter?"

McGonagall's head turned at the mention of the Girl Who Lived, her brow furrowing.

"That's what I'd like to determine," Dumbledore said, idly tugging at the long ends of his beard. "Rather than there being a magical accident, it seems Miss Potter's teacher, a Mrs. Langford at Sandfield Primary, felt the need to write the NSPCC expressing mild concern for Juniper's living situation."

"Mild concern?"

"Whatever Mrs. Langford's perceptions, she didn't express a need for expediency."

Severus scowled and flicked the letter onto Dumbledore's desk. Madam Tolin hadn't written much of interest, simply covering her role in stalling the Ministry's attention and ordering a discreet Obliviation of the Muggles involved. Whatever information Mrs. Langford had disseminated had not been included on this particular page. "Was there any specific reason mentioned for this apparent concern?"

"A series of unexcused absences."

"That's it?" Severus scoffed. He knew Dumbledore had something of an obsession with the Girl Who Lived, but this was a waste of Severus' time. He'd rather listen to the aging wizard natter about Board policies than have him make up issues to entertain his mind.

"As far as I have been informed. Mrs. Langford wrote that she had contacted Petunia Dursley on a Muggle telephone to ask about Juniper's absences and was told she was ill, but no excuse was written by one of their healers. Mrs. Langford has some doubts about Petunia's honesty. Exams are being proctored even in Muggle schools, and it is a most inopportune time for a student to miss lessons."

McGonagall had been content to be silent until now, emitting one low, Scottish curse as she shifted in her chair and huffed like a wet cat. "The worst kind of Muggles," she mumbled. "I told you, Albus, years ago! I told you, they were the worst kind of Muggles I'd ever had the misfortune of observing in my entire life!"

Severus quirked a brow, not having known McGonagall had any kind of contact with Lily's sister or her family. Truth be told, when he'd first learned that Dumbledore had left Juniper Potter with her Muggle relatives, he'd voiced his own incredulity about Petunia raising the girl, but the Headmaster had been firm on the subject: Potter was to stay with Lily's blood relatives.

He hadn't seen Petunia in twelve years or so, not since he and Lily were about fifteen. Being a few years older than them, Petunia had moved out and went on to university, and her history after that mostly came to Severus through idle comments made by Lily, the Evanses, or the neighbors. Rumor had it she dropped out of university when she met her future husband, which didn't surprise him, given Petunia had all the ambition of a dead cat. She'd never aspired to be anything more than a housewife, and Severus assumed she had everything she'd ever wanted: a husband, a snot-nosed brat of her own, and a perfectly average life in a perfectly average Muggle borough. He imagined she'd taken in the girl and made her just as dull and colorless as herself.

"May I ask why you thought to bring this to my attention, Headmaster? If you're concerned for the girl—."

"Oh, I'm certain it's just a misunderstanding, but it does no harm to check in."

Confused, Severus looked to McGonagall and then back to Dumbledore. Then, the realization hit with all the subtlety of a Bludger. "You can't be serious, sir."

Dumbledore continued to smile, as was his wont, but when he spoke, he addressed McGonagall instead of the Potions Master. "Minerva, thank you for retrieving Severus. May we have a moment alone?"

She balked and argued, annoyed by his blatant dismissal, and though Dumbledore allowed the irked witch to vent her frustration, she still gathered her robes about herself and stomped off in a huff. As the door snapped shut, Dumbledore folded his wizened hands before himself and spoke in a quiet, level tone. "I know this is a rather sudden request, but given you have a past history with Petunia Dursley, I thought it best to ask you to be the one to visit."

"If anything, my past history with the woman makes me a worse candidate, Headmaster."

He chuckled as Severus scowled. "Perhaps. However, she is familiar with you, and she has expressed her desire for privacy in the past."

"Privacy?"

"From the magical world. Her sister and brother-in-law had just been murdered by magic last I spoke with her. She must have been worried for her niece."

Something of his explanation didn't mesh with Severus' understanding of Petunia, and he frowned as the older man went back to his bird to allow Severus a moment of thought. Petunia had never been a private person; it was anathema to her even as a girl, always strutting about the neighborhood, trading gossip with other Muggle teenagers or young, bored housewives. Privacy? Petunia didn't know the meaning of the word.

He didn't want to go check. It would be a long trip to see a woman he despised and the spawn of a wretch who'd made his life miserable for seven years. It didn't matter who her mother was; anything Lily in the girl would've been wiped out by the Potter genes and Petunia's rancid personality, and Severus had no patience for impertinent children. If he had to travel the whole breadth of the island just to discover the brat had skipped school on a whim, he was liable to hex Petunia in the face.

Lily would want you to check, even if only to give the girl a lecture on going to bloody school and not worrying her teachers.

Severus slouched in his chair and ran a hand through his unkempt hair. Trust his own subconscious to guilt him into this ruddy mess. "Fine," he snapped, sitting up. "Fine, I'll go. I'll need the proper street address."

"Thank you, Severus."

The Headmaster wrote off the needed address on a spare parchment scrap and extended it for Severus to take. The Potions Master raised his hand to do so, then stopped, closing his pale fingers into a loose fist as he looked into Dumbledore's inscrutable blue eyes. "And if I do find something amiss?" he asked, the possibility having not occurred to him until that moment. It seemed outlandish. "What should I do then, Headmaster?"

"I should think a stern word with Petunia and her husband should suffice." He waved the parchment, encouraging Severus to snatch hold. "And you must remember, Juniper must stay with her aunt. The blood wards fueled by Lily's sacrifice keep her safe from Tom and his agents but require her to live with her maternal relatives. I'm asking you to not use magic against the Dursleys, Severus. Or be rude, or insult them unduly—."

Severus snorted. "Then why are you sending me?"

"As I've already said, I believe your former acquaintance with Petunia will serve us well. And because you're less—enthusiastic than many of the others I could send."

Ah. Meaning Severus was less inclined to go into raptures over the Girl Who Lived than the other tender-brained ninnies at Dumbledore's beck and call. He couldn't disagree with that, though he still thought the man should send McGonagall.

Severus took the parchment and read it over. "Fine," he repeated, stuffing it into a pocket. Little Whinging. Good fucking God. "But I'm not leaving until after supper. It would be best for all parties involved if I don't have to endure Petunia on an empty stomach."

Dumbledore laughed as if Severus had told a joke, which he hadn't, and the Potions Master departed from the man's office, choosing to leave via the stairs and the gargoyle so he could have the opportunity to growl and stomp in frustration on the way downstairs. He returned to his office and his quarters beyond, fully intending to enjoy what remained of his free time. He shed his robes and loosened his cravat, but when he got to his favorite armchair, ordered his drink from the kitchens, and leaned back, Severus found he couldn't relax. He blinked, and the words of the letter flickered behind his eyelids.

Mild concern.

Number Four, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey.

He stared at the carriage clock on the mantel, a thin film of dust upon the glass face, three brass rivets holding it in place. Every tick thumped like the beat of a heart.

Number Four, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey.

Juniper Potter.

Severus didn't believe in Divinations. He didn't believe in fate or destiny as Dumbledore did, and yet Severus couldn't shake the strangest feeling that overcame him. He fidgeted with the cup, the saucer, and bounced his leg, unable to sit still. It felt as if something other than himself propelled him from his chair back to his feet, and he yanked on his outer robes again, grimacing at the clock.

He wouldn't wait for supper. He'd leave now.

x X x

It was still daylight when Severus stepped onto the stoop of Number Four, Privet Drive, but night loomed on the horizon and dyed the sky in shades of violet and vermillion. He gazed out toward the lowering sun overlooking the rooftops and wondered if he'd make it back to Hogwarts before dark.

The trip took longer than he'd expected. Severus had never ventured anywhere in the vicinity of Surrey, let alone Little Whinging, and so he could not Apparate near Privet Drive. He'd walked to Hogsmeade and Floo'd to the Leaky Cauldron from the Three Broomsticks, departing from there into Muggle London. Once faced with the odious choice of hailing a taxi or boarding the Knight Bus, he decided he didn't much want to have his brains shaken and scrambled aboard the purple monstrosity, and so he applied a quick Transfiguration to his robes, fished out what old, crumpled pounds he had in his near-empty coin purse, and traveled the Muggle way.

At least Dumbledore couldn't say he hadn't made an effort to remain inconspicuous.

That was how Severus found himself on Privet Drive, sneering at a line of identical, split-level homes all painted in the same shades of beige and framed by eponymous privet hedges. Rapping on the house's door, he thought they looked like markers in a cemetery, just rows of graves equidistant from one another, carrying gray bodies into the afterlife.

He despised it.

The sound of his knuckles on the wood carried into the distance.

"Who the devil is that?"

A muffled voice came from within the house, followed by a hulking shadow moving against the curtained sidelight. The lock clattered and the door opened, revealing a mustachioed man of considerable girth standing on the other side of the threshold. He looked at Severus with dull, beady eyes set in a ruddy, bloated face and grunted a sour greeting. "What do you want?"

"Are you Mr. Dursley?"

"Yes? Who're you?"

"I need to speak with you. I'm from—." Severus pursed his lips, considering his options. Deception would get him into the house faster, and if he needed to use magic afterward, he would. What Dumbledore didn't know wouldn't hurt him. "Child services. May I have a moment of your time to clear up a misunderstanding?"

Dursley's beady eyes hardened and flickered as the man clearly considered slamming the door in his face. "Fine," he said, stepping back, allowing enough space for Severus to enter the house. "Don't know why you lot can't come at a decent hour when people aren't in the middle of dinner…."

The door snicked shut behind Severus, and he took in the house's foyer. The odor assailed him. Ammonia rasped in his lungs and he choked on potpourri and aerosol spray, his eyes and sinuses burning from the unnatural smells. Yet, under it all lingered a different, unpleasant scent, something rank and astringent. Severus guessed it could come from the manky trainers left in the rack by the door—or a dead rat in the crawlspace. Maybe both.

There were cabbage roses on the bloody wallpaper. Merlin's ghost.

"Child services, you said?"

"Yes, Mr. Dursley."

Dursley harrumphed, giving Severus another glance over, and strode deeper into the house. Behind his back, Severus retrieved his wand and reversed the Transfiguration on his robes, following silently as Dursley called out Petunia's name.

They found her in the lounge, seated next to a corpulent little boy with three dinner plates on three trays, watching the telly. It appeared a perfectly average, suburban Muggle scene—but something was amiss.

At first, Severus couldn't put his finger on it—and then he glanced at the trays again, at the arrangement of three dinner plates with just enough room for three bodies to comfortably seat themselves, and it wouldn't have been strange at all if not for the fact that four people lived in that house. Photos crowded the mantel above the boarded-up hearth—dozens and dozens of photos of all sizes, most depicting the fat blond boy at various stages of infancy, though others were dedicated to different people, including Petunia and her husband. There wasn't a single spark of red hair anywhere to be seen; no Lily, not at all, no James Potter, and no sign of the second child who called Number Four home.

Did Dumbledore make a mistake? Severus wondered. It wasn't common, but it had been known to happen: Dumbledore tried herding one too many Nifflers, as the expression went, and was surprised when he found his pockets empty.

Severus had perhaps a moment to absorb the scene before Petunia Dursley—still horse-faced and now poorly aged—turned her head, spotted him lurking in her husband's shadow, and screamed.

"YOU!"

"Me. Hello, Tuney. It's been a long time."

She leapt to her feet and stood between Severus and her son as if to protect the confused boy from him. "Get OUT, get OUT!" she shrilled, jabbing a finger back the way he'd come. "You are not welcome here!"

"Unfortunately, it isn't a question of welcome or whether or not I want to be here. I assure you, I could have happily gone the rest of my life without us meeting again."

Mr. Dursley had gone quite red in the face and was quickly making inroads on magenta. "How dare you barge into our home under false pretenses—."

"Not under false pretenses, Dursley. I may not be from child services, but they did send me, in a roundabout way." His lip curled as his gaze swept the mundane room again. The show on the telly continued to play. "Where do you think any post concerning your niece sent to the authorities ends up? I'll give you a hint; it's definitely not the Muggle police."

"W-we don't—."

"It was Dumbledore. Dumbledore sent me."

They fell silent. Someone on the program laughed.

"Send the boy out of the room, Petunia. I daresay he'll survive missing one supper."

Dursley puffed up as if he'd been doused in Swelling Solution, and Severus tightened his discreet grip on his wand, certain the Muggle would take a swing at him. "Now see here! I won't stand by and be given orders in my home by one of your kind!"

"Vernon," Petunia warned, giving the lout a name. She reached a quivering hand behind herself and touched her son's shoulder. "Dudders, darling, take your plate upstairs and watch the telly in your room, please."

"But what about pudding?" the boy whined, watery eyes still fixed to the screen. He showed little interest in the stranger who'd come barging into his living room. "Mummy, it's not commercials yet!"

"Dudley. Go on, please. I'll bring you pudding in a bit, how about that? Two servings."

The child contemplated the deal and complied, picking up his dinner from the tray and waddling out of the room. He passed Severus, and the Potions Master muttered a Compulsion Charm under his breath, ensuring the boy would stay in his room. That left the three adults alone in the lounge, Petunia coming to stand at Vernon's side, crossing her skinny arms against her chest. She wore the kind of cotton print dress Severus' mother would have found fashionable in the fifties.

"Where is the girl?" he demanded in a quiet, cold voice.

"Not here," Petunia retorted, though she first shared a glance with her husband. Someone else wouldn't have caught it, but Severus did. "She's at a friend's house."

Severus didn't believe her. The girl was meant to be ill, and even if that proved a fib made to support her delinquency, it was still a school night—and Potter wasn't yet seven years old, too young for a sleepover.

Something wasn't right.

"Funny. According to the letter, you told the school Potter was sick."

Again, Petunia's eyes darted to Dursley's, and they shared a moment of silent communication. "It would be that teacher, then, wouldn't it?" Petunia sniffed. "She's a liar. Anything she wrote is a complete fabrication. She has it out for decent, hard-working families—and the girl's a nasty little liar, too, telling the school all sorts of fibs. Ungrateful for all we've done and given her."

Blood rushed in Severus' ears, and when he spoke, he could barely hear himself over the sound of it. "The only liar here seems to be you."

"How dare—!"

Severus turned on his heels and headed toward the stairs, fully intending to find Potter's room and the girl therein. Of course, Dursley tried to stop him from nosing further about the man's house, and when he dared yank on the back of Severus' robes, he sent a small shock into the idiot's wet, fleshy paws. Dursley howled with pain. The idiot succeeded in slowing Severus long enough for the Potions Master to note the strange silver lock threaded through the latch on the boot cupboard under the stairs.

Who locks a boot cupboard?

The smell grew more potent. It crawled in Severus' throat.

He couldn't say why he stopped. Some innate intuition perhaps, triggering his attention like a field mouse fleeing a raptor, or perhaps it was the same force that had dragged him from his armchair and urged from Hogwarts ahead of schedule. Whatever the impetus, Severus followed the sudden desire and flicked his wand at the boot cupboard's door. The lock popped off and fell to the floor.

"Stop! Wait right there—!"

Severus pulled open the door and—.

The smell overwhelmed, rolling in a fetid cloud, and he held a hand over his nose, eyes stinging. Ammonia. Bleach—sick, the sour odor of unwashed body, dust, and waste. What in the hell was he looking at? White, withered arms curled around scabbed knees, legs like twigs protruding from an overlarge, unwashed shirt pulled past skinny thighs. Dirty, bare feet, broken fingernails. A Hallowe'en decoration shoved into storage? What—?

A pair of familiar green eyes found Severus'. The right could only partly open, ringed in a puffy, yellowing bruise.

Juniper. He was looking at Juniper Potter.

It couldn't be real. The blood-spotted blanket, the befouled bucket in the corner, the scared, puzzled little face—none of it could be real. He comprehended it in bursts as cold sweat gathered on the nape of his neck and his hands went cold with shock. Magic prickled along his spine.

Mild concern. Those were the words Dumbledore had used. Mild concern. A misunderstanding.

A "mild concern" was Severus' worries about how bloody stupid his second-years could be. A "misunderstanding" was an improperly ordered meal in a restaurant.

This? This was a fucking travesty.

Dursley grabbed him by the shoulders and Severus let him; it pulled the Potions Master from the putrid cupboard the child had undoubtedly been locked inside for some time and allowed him to turn, snarling, with his wand extended. No wonder they hadn't let her back to school. One look at that contusion on her face and even the half-witted Muggles would be forced to act.

"She had to be punished," Petunia cried. "She had to be punished for what she did to my—!"

Both Dursleys balked when Severus raised his wand and hissed, "Legilimens!"

A story pieced itself together image by image, the tale written in more detail the farther Severus plunged and the more he tore through their unguarded Muggle minds. He saw a small girl standing at the cooker in a too-large t-shirt, bare feet on the floor. He saw a large boy pestering her—fingers and elbows jabbing her sides, tugging ratty black hair, pushing, prodding, laughing. He saw the girl slip, fingertips brushing the sizzling pan, and furious green eyes raised to the boy. A burst of raw magic—bright and vivid and beautiful—threw the heavier child into the cabinets at his back.

And then the images came faster.

Red-tinged rage and screaming ire, quick hands and open mouths, gnashing teeth, skinny fingers wrapped around the hob's burning grate—.

How dare—. How dare—.

Meaty flesh glanced against small bones and a pale face, violet color eating away at the skin—.

My son! How dare you touch my son—!

It wasn't just the incident that Severus witnessed. It was malice. It was years and years and years of perversion—. It was Petunia's bony hands around a child's bare shoulders, pushing her down in the bath, a voice whispering, let it drown, let it drown, let it—.

Ice cold water sloshing—.

A belt snapping, whistling through the air, the jangle of a belt buckle and the crack of leather on flesh—.

How dare—!

Tiny, heart-wrenching sobs leaking below a cupboard door—.

That awful Snape boy—.

A black-eyed teen sneering from behind a curtain of greasy hair—.

"You're a freak, Lily! You're a—!"

The words echoed and pulsed, raining upon the slumped figure of a girl with resentful, bruised eyes, as Petunia tossed full meals into the rubbish—.

Let it drown, let it drown, let it starve—.

"Freak!"

Blood dripping, obscene on the white linoleum—.

Fat fingers around a skinny, pale throat, digging into a narrow little jaw—.

"You'll end up a worthless whore, just like your mother—."

The fury welled within Severus with physical force, his lungs heaving, his ribs creaking against the emotion—and for a moment, one moment, the feeling overwhelmed, and Severus couldn't see, couldn't hear, couldn't feel.

He just thought of Lily. Of red hair gilded gold in the sunlight, and an infant's delighted laughter.

And then, it came crashing down, and the world returned—a changed world, garish and foul and sicker than ever before. Severus' chest heaved with every gasping breath, his body trembling, bile burning in his gut.

A second passed, and then another.

The lights had gone out. The broken bulbs sparked and crackled in the fixtures. The telly blared with static.

Something warm and wet soaked into his sleeves. Severus stared dispassionately at the blood on his hands, on the wall, on the two twitching bodies slumped at his feet.

It couldn't have been more than one spell, though he didn't know which he'd used precisely, unable to remember speaking at all. It had cut across Vernon's chest, upward, ending at Petunia's throat as if Severus had thrown his arm out in one, single arch. One final, damning motion.

The girl watched him. She'd sat up, cradling her injured hands against her chest, and she didn't bother to look at her dead relatives—nor did she scream, or cry, or seem to care at all. Instead, she simply stared at Severus with those wide, resigned eyes reflecting the gray glow from the telly. She waited for what he would do next.

His breaths still came in harsh, broken gasps—the smell of the cupboard, of the girl, sinking into his chest like water in a drowning man's lungs. Severus stuck his bloodied wand into the front of his frock coat and jerked off his robes, the black cloth pooling around his shaking legs. He knelt in front of the unmoving girl and wrapped the robes about her slumped shoulders. Slowly, she gripped the fabric and tugged it closer, bowing her head. Severus hefted her weight into his arms and stood.

She was as insubstantial as she'd been when he'd first held her all those years ago.

Severus closed his eyes and Apparated away.