Title: The Other Half
Beta Reader(s): batdina and aislinntlc
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
Summary: He's long and skinny, and his nose seems to be a combination of the worst of both Eileen's and mine. Poor little sod will never live that one down. His skin, though, is the softest I've ever felt. Brushing my stained, scarred finger over his cheek feels like a crime, but I can't stop myself.
"My baby," I repeat the words, stretching them out, trying to find the sense in them.
"There hasn't been anyone else, Tobias. Not ever," Eileen Prince says, twisting the straps of her handbag and sitting forwards in her chair.
"Bloody hell, lass." I pick up my pint and put it down again without drinking. She flinches at the thunk as if I'd hit her. I scrub my palm over the bristles on my cheek and then drop my hand when I notice her eyes darting after the movement. "You just flummoxed me for a moment, that's all."
She nods uncertainly and settles back, not easing her death grip on her handbag.
We're both silent for a few minutes. Her eyes are firmly focussed on her hands, and I take the opportunity to give her a good look. Eileen's no prettier than I remember, especially in that get up. Even the girls her age down our street don't wear anything like that get up, flowery dress down to her ankles and a long vest-like coat over top. Got more money than sense, that girl.
"If we were to—" she clears her throat and gets a painfully earnest expression on her face "—my parents, they don't hold with your kind. So we'd be on our own. We couldn't expect anything from them."
My kind? Jesus wept! I'd like to shove my kind in the hoity-toity faces of the fucking toffs just once, I think, as I watch Eileen snap her handbag open and closed a few times. "I make a decent wage at the mill," I say. "Got a house, an' all."
"It's not quite that simple..." she trails off and glances around. "We'd need to talk, but not here. If you're willing, that is."
"Aye, I'm willing. For you and that child."
"Your son," Eileen says. "It's a boy."
"A son?" I prod my empty glass. "That definitely calls for a drink."
She's up out of her seat and off to the bar before I even think about asking. Definitely a keeper, that one.
"You're welcome to come in now." The woman — witch — beckons to me. Through the open door, I can see Eileen leaning back against a stack of pillows that weren't in our bed before today. There's a bundle in her arms. Our son.
I grit my teeth as I step past her into our bedroom. Eileen's spent hours in here, giving birth to my son. Now is not the time to take a strip off either of them for turning my house into... well, I haven't the foggiest, actually, but there should have been some sounds coming from the bedroom. All that silence isn't natural.
The room reeks like every hospital room I've ever been in, but there's something else as well. Something sharp or sweet, almost like that feeling in the air during a thunderstorm after the lightning has ripped the air apart.
I'm still trying to work out what it could be when I reach the bed and Eileen smiles at me. She's tired and no more beautiful than she's ever been, but my chest seems to thicken as I sit carefully beside her.
"We have a son," Eileen says, brushing the blanket back away from our boy's face.
He's long and skinny, and his nose seems to be a combination of the worst of both Eileen's and mine. Poor little sod will never live that one down. His skin, though, is the softest I've ever felt. Brushing my stained, scarred finger over his cheek feels like a crime, but I can't stop myself.
"He's grand, lass," I say, because there aren't any words in the English language to describe how this baby is making me feel. I want him to be one of mine with a fierce desperation that I have to close my eyes to hide, not a changeling who'll leave me behind for a world I'll never know.
"I want to call him Severus."
"What?" I blink at her. "Are you mad?"
She lifts her chin in a determined gesture I've come to hate. "It was my little brother's name."
The baby turns his head into my finger when I stop stroking his cheek. His mouth is tiny and damp against my skin. He's mine, I want to tell her. Your family turned their backs on you; I didn't. But I don't know how to say no to her. Not when she's in pain. Not when she's holding my son.
"Da da da da da da da," Severus chants the single syllable over and over again as he sits on the floor in front of me, playing with his toy cars, bashing them together over and over. Barely a year old and he's talking already.
"Bright bairn," says Pete Taunton, as he puts another pint in front of me and then sits down with his own. "Knows which side his bread's buttered on."
I reach down and pick Severus up, sitting him in my lap. His lower lip juts out for a moment, then he slams his toys onto the table and starts banging them together again. "Zoom zoom," he crows. "Da zoom da zoom."
His heels bang into my shin as I pick up my ale. I've seen other fathers bringing their children down to the pub on a Saturday afternoon while the wives are out and about. Never thought I'd be one of them, or that I'd be happy about it.
"Any more rumours about the mill?" Pete asks.
"No more than usual. Owners are getting all stroppy, moaning on about it being a bad time. Nothing from the union, though."
Pete nods. He looks like he's about to say something else, when Annie behind the bar turns on the match. Easier to watch that than to think about what will happen if the mill closes.
"Da." Severus pushes one of his cars into my hand. "Da."
It's even easier to run a car over the scarred tabletop and watch my son giggle.
"Tobias Snape?" The lady blocks my way, casting a long shadow. She's fairly bristling with disapproval. One of Eileen's kind, I'm guessing, given the fancy dress she's got on.
Uncomfortably aware that my clothes, skin, and hair are clarted with sweat, dust, and dirt after a long shift, I say cautiously, "That'd be me."
"You have a son," she says, "and my daughter."
No. The word's crashing through me as I get to my feet. Eileen's mother is tall for a woman, I grant her that, but she barely reaches my shoulders. Eileen's assured me that I'm safe and I trust her, I do, but not this witch with her bloody airs and graces.
"They're not here," I say, meaning you can't have them.
"I wouldn't have approached you if they were."
"He's just like any other kid."
"And I suppose you believe that's a good thing."
"He lives amongst me and mine," I say, folding my arms across my chest. "You and yours had your chance."
"Muggle." She sneers the word like it's the worst kind of insult, and maybe it is around her parts.
"Were you wanting something or are you just here to faff about and waste my time?"
For a moment, I think she's going to backhand me or worse, but then she shakes her head and steps back. "Tell her that her father is dead, will you? That it's safe again." She hesitates for a moment before saying, "For her, mind you. We'll not welcome a Squib."
"Whatever one of those is when it's at home."
She looks down her nose at me — a fair feat, given her height. Then she turns on her heel and is gone just like that, without so much as a fare-thee-well. Rude bint. Eileen is well shot of her and so's my Severus.
I'll not be doing anything to encourage that relationship, I decide as I continue on my way home. There are more than enough queer goings on in our lives without letting that bitch have her say.
It's not until later that night, when it's time to put Severus to bed, that I realise I have to talk to Eileen and tell her that her father is dead. She's tired, though, and has a headache. Tomorrow, I think, as I watch her carry Severus upstairs.
The lad's getting so big. His arms and legs are hanging over her arms. Still, even with his size, it's hard to believe he'll be starting school come the backend of the year. He's not showing signs of magic, either, despite Eileen letting him lark around with her wand.
He's still my son.
"We'll manage," I say, staring at the envelope in my hand. My first dole packet, and it's a far cry from the money I was making at the mill. No fattening it up with a bit of overtime either. I glance across the kitchen table at Eileen; she looks as exhausted as I feel.
"We'll have to manage." Her lips are pressed together. "What about—" she jerks her head up towards the ceiling. "He's been telling everyone about the match this afternoon."
"I'll not be shaming my son."
"That's not what I meant, and you know it."
I toss the envelope at her and slump back in my chair, rubbing my hands over my face. "There's nowt around here," I say. "Not for the likes of me anyway. Some of the younger lads... well, they might stand a chance of picking something up."
"I know." There's a flash of sympathy on Eileen's face, which vanishes when she looks in the envelope. She slaps it down on the table. "Well, there's no sense crying over spilt potions."
After all these years, I ought to be used to the crazy things that come out of Eileen's mouth, but this one rubs me wrong. "Jesus wept, woman. Watch what you're saying. If Severus picks up any of that shite... he has enough problems as it is."
There's a moment when I think she's going to snap back at me, but then the house echoes with the sound of Severus pounding his way down the stairs. He careens into the kitchen and comes to a halt next to me. "I'm ready."
"So you are," I say, brushing a lock of his wayward hair out of his face. "Go get your coat and scarf on and wait for me by the front door. I'll be there in a sec."
He's off running again. I get up, moving much more slowly, feeling every day of my nearly fifty years. When I pause next to her, caress her hair and place a hand on her shoulder, she reaches up and squeezes my hand.
"Stop off at the chippie on the way back," she says. "We might as well have one last splurge. It's his birthday celebration after all."
I hold onto her for a few seconds longer than necessary, only moving on when Severus yells out, "Dad," stretching the vowel out.
He's fairly dancing in place when I get there, and he thrusts my coat at me. "Ready to go," he says. "I looked up all of the scores this morning. Did you know that..."
I take hold of his hand and let his voice wash over me as we walk towards the bus stop. He chatters on about hat-tricks and goals against, and clean sheets. The street seems unnaturally quiet without the mill chuntering away in the background, but his unusual talkativeness helps to fill up the emptiness it left behind.
"It's his birthday," Eileen snaps. "Staying home is the least you can do. It's not as if we can afford anything decent for him. If I hadn't gone begging for a pound of flour from Emily, he wouldn't even be getting a birthday cake. It's not like I can conjure that out of thin air, now can I?"
Her voice sets my head to pounding again, and it's all I can do not to forcibly shut her up. "Give over, woman. I'll be back for dinner. I promised, didn't I?"
"Just like you were every other night this week? Hell, this month, but who's counting? Not me. All I have time to count these days are the pennies left over when you've done drinking the money that's supposed to feed our son. Not that that takes very long."
My chair falls over, crashing to the floor, as I get to my feet and go over to where she's standing by the cooker. "What would you have me do? You tell me. Sit on my arse all day long, staring at the bloody TV and turning into a lump like old man Corson?"
"You could go out and find a job."
"Bloody hell! You think I haven't tried?" My hands ball into fists at my side. "How many times am I supposed to dredge up a smile for a snotty kid half my age who can hardly bring himself to be polite while he pretends to take my application? There are no jobs for the likes of me."
"So your answer is to turn into a drunken sot just like everyone else? Merlin help me, I don't know why I thought you'd be any different."
Before I can respond, Severus comes banging into the kitchen. "Mum, Dad, you won't believe what I did on the way home from school."
Just looking at him with his raggedy hair, wearing a too-small school uniform, with a frayed knapsack hanging off one shoulder, makes me want to hit something. I'm supposed to be able to take care of him, give him everything he needs and more, but the best I can manage are hand-me-downs from the neighbours. Waste of bloody time and air, I am.
"What happened?" Eileen picks up a tea towel and wipes her dry hands on it.
Severus glances from her to me and back to her again. I can see his eyes shutter, and his excitement dampen as he does.
I clear my throat. "Aye, go on, lad. We could use a bit of good news around here."
"I did magic," he says.
The word punches through me, leaving another hole in my chest, next to the one drilled by the mill owners. I suck in a breath, fighting to get air past the iron band around my lungs.
"It's the best thing ever." Severus swings his knapsack off his shoulder. "You should have seen it."
Tossing the tea towel on the counter, Eileen claps once and holds out her arms for him. "Oh that's marvellous, Severus. Why don't you tell me all about it while we get you ready for dinner?"
Before I can so much as get a word out, they're heading upstairs, their dark heads together. Eileen's arm is around Severus, holding him close. Severus is talking a mile a minute, but I can't make heads nor tails out of a single word he's saying.
Magic. Bloody hell. Just when I'd finally allowed myself to believe that my son was going to stay in my world. Shite it may be, but it's all I've got to offer him.
Christ, I need a drink.
I check my pockets and find just enough to pay for a couple of pints. Plus someone's bound to be good for a round or two. Turning my back on the hallway, the rest of the house, I push the back door open.
"Dad, Dad," Severus yells. I can hear his feet pounding down the stairs. "Mum's given me her wand, and you won't believe what I can do now. Come watch."
I hesitate, almost stumbling down the steps, before I close the door behind me. Better Severus think I didn't hear him. He barely had a moment for me when Eileen told him stories about magic before. Now they'll both be off in her world without me.
He's her son, after all.