Title: Lessons Learned
Age-Range Category: One
Characters: Severus Snape, Eileen Prince, Tobias Snape. (Mentioned: Lily Evans.)
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Violence.
Note: This was a pinch hit. Thanks so much to my beta for helping out during the holiday season!
Summary: Severus Snape is an inquisitive child, and Spinner's End teaches him much about the world.
Severus Snape knows he is loved.
He knows because his mother assures him of it. When he asks what love is, she gives him a peculiar look and an amused little laugh, before calling him a silly boy and sending him off to bed.
He searches for proof that his mother loves him, and thinks he finds it in the way she gently pulls a comb through his unpleasant hair. The way she smuggles scraps of food into his room so he doesn't go hungry more than two nights in a row. Or, if he's very lucky, the way she pulls him into a tight, comforting hug.
He learns to dislike luck. To reject the concept outright, because his mother only hugs him when she's crying, and he doesn't like seeing her cry.
When he asks again, she tells him love is forever. It cannot be won, and it cannot be lost. It simply is. And it endures, always.
Severus knows his father loves him because his mother assures him of it.
He searches for proof, but doesn't find any.
Severus learns that some people are more important than others when his father takes him to the local pub.
He's only five years old, so most of the patrons are considerably older, taller, and thoroughly entertained by his presence. Sometimes, when the door creaks open, his father shoves him under the table. He doesn't mind it there. The darkness wraps itself comfortably around him and he can listen to the lively conversations without distraction.
He learns about evil bosses, hypocritical politicians, and stifling wives. He learns that small people could have more power than the powerful, if they only had the nerve to stand up and take it.
Severus is small, but he doesn't feel very powerful. He extracts from his pocket the dull coin one of the older men gave him, and tries to shine it on his trousers. That only seems to make it murkier, and he promises himself he'll have a proper, shiny coin of his own someday.
Maybe he'll use it to buy a new pair of trousers.
Maybe then he'll be powerful.
Severus learns about pain the day his father is wearing a thick brass ring.
He thought he understood it the first time his father's palm connected with his cheek. Or the night a boot left a muddy imprint on Severus' stomach as it pinned him to the ground.
But it's the ring, in the end. Both sharp and blunt at once, cold metal that somehow also burns and leaves small, rectangular dents in his skin.
His mother uses magic then.
It's the first time he's witnessed the full force of it up close and he almost misses it. Through bloodied eyes, he just manages to make out a powerful burst that knocks his father backwards. The old man quickly recovers though, and sets about the task of leaving far more little rectangles on his mother than he left on Severus.
She doesn't fight back.
He learns about pain that day, but also about weakness.
One clear, bright night, Severus learns about magic. The wind whistles through autumn leaves, swallowing some of his mother's whispered words, so he listens as intently as he can.
She describes a world of castles, creatures, and adventures. Of robes, wands, and more food than Severus has ever seen. Of books and friends and infinite wonder.
Of hope. Severus learns about hope.
A glass shatters. Perhaps a vase, as his father rages just outside the bedroom. The doorknob shakes and rattles; the wood threatens to splinter. He glances up at his mother, expecting fear, but finds only an eerie calm. She waves her hand and his screams are absorbed by some kind of invisible veil.
"You will get a letter," she promises. "You'll get one because you're special, Severus. And it will take you far away from here, to a place where you'll be safe. To a life you can barely imagine."
His heart swells, and then sinks.
"What about you?" he asks softly.
"That doesn't matter."
He blinks up at her, unable to comprehend the response.
"Will he find out?"
"It doesn't matter," she says again, rocking him gently in her arms.
"Will he be mad?"
"It doesn't matter."
Severus clings to her, tightening his grip, and tries very hard not to ask: Will he still love me?
Severus learns the power of silence and restraint.
He watches his mother bite her tongue and suppress her magic to placate and please. He watches her use intellect and cunning to outsmart and deflect.
From his father, Severus learns that fists have power, but not the kind he craves. He doesn't want to draw blood. He wants to stand tall. He wants to fly.
He wants to be noticed, sometimes.
He reads. Voraciously. Turns natural affinity into a skill through repetition and determination. It helps him feel closer to his mother, who used to read complex magical tomes aloud while permitting him to follow along on the pages. His mind must have absorbed some of the information because he no longer needs her to quench his thirst for knowledge. He doesn't understand many of the words, but enjoys the way they roll off his tongue. The way they make him feel. Older, and more important.
Uttering the word "wizard" is forbidden, so he thinks it instead. Over and over, weaving it through his mind like a promise, testing the limits of his fragile hopes and dreams.
The things Severus wants rarely come to pass, but this is different. He can feel it. He is a wizard. Even if he has to hide it. Even if Spinner's End is not a safe place for his kind. He's a wizard, and one day he'll no longer have to stand guard as his mother resets her own bones. Or help by pressing a damp rag against her cigarette burns while she attends to deeper wounds.
Where he once saw weakness, from his mother he now learns strength. Perhaps because he's more mature and able to handle the complexities of such things.
After all, he's six years old. Only a few years shy of double digits.
Severus learned to hide when he was very young. There's not much to it: find a spot as far as possible from the threat, and take shelter until it passes. Simple.
Perfecting stealth is another matter.
As Severus grows, his father's fuse shortens, and Severus learns to be creative. Learns never to use the same hiding space twice within a month. Learns to be agile; to react to changing circumstances. He studies his father's movements, noting their predictability and committing them to memory. Front door, kitchen fridge, armchair. Two bottles of Muggle beer, then the bathroom. The yelling begins in earnest half an hour after dinner. The house runs like a Swiss watch, and if Severus times his own movements right, he can go days without so much as a sighting of his father in the flesh.
Things become more complicated once his mother falls ill and he can no longer rely on having scraps of food smuggled to him. Venturing out into the dangerous terrain to steal from his father's pantry is a risk, but Severus is no coward.
He learns to stick to the shadows. To wait out the silences, no matter how long they last, and mask the patter of his footsteps under an outburst of shouting or coughing; the flush of a toilet or hiss of a kettle.
Pressed up against mouldy walls and corners, he learns to make himself small. Learns to quiet and modulate his breathing. Learns to snatch what he wants with nimble fingers and disappear without a trace.
He learns how to be invisible.
By the time he is nine, Severus has seen what it means to be broken. Has watched the life force drain from someone once vibrant and irrepressible. His mother still speaks when he sneaks into her room, but it's rare, and he mostly struggles to remember the tone and cadence of her voice.
Occasionally, he recalls her promise about love. That it's unconditional, enduring, and cannot be lost. Now older and wiser, Severus has some doubts, but tries to hold onto and trust his mother's words.
More crucially, Severus has learned to master fear. Learned how to coexist alongside it without trembling. How to embrace it as a constant shadow; his only steadfast companion.
The revelation comes slowly, settling into his consciousness with the ease of something returning, unnoticed, to its rightful place:
I don't need anyone.
With enough careful focus, aloneness can make him feel strong. Autonomous. Self-reliance gives him a power that the weak lack, and that those decayed by dependency will never understand. Severus Snape is beholden to no one but himself.
There are, of course, those whose affection he craves. Affection, not love. He would never sully his connection with Lily Evans by reducing it to what he knows of love. She's an acquaintance. Though, the strength of his feelings for her confuses and exhilarates him. Perhaps she is a friend? A ray of dazzling light cutting through the dark, illuminating a future he's insatiably desperate for. Soon, they will be at Hogwarts together and Cokeworth will be a distant memory.
Perhaps there'll be more people like Lily there. From her, he has finally learned about joy. Her eyes glow with it, her smile radiant and full. When they're at Hogwarts, he's certain he'll feel it too.
It happens one evening when he's washing the dishes. It's supposed to be a punishment, but he rather enjoys standing on the tiny, wobbly box left out for him and scrubbing grime off the cutlery; imagining what he might do with the sharp ones when he's bigger and stronger.
His mother sits at the table, sinking further into herself as his father's tirade grows more unhinged. Severus' head hurts and his fists clench, and he's never wanted anything more in his life than he wants the screaming and whimpering to just stop—
The window cracks. A loud, brutal break, tearing glass from the pane and shattering fragments across the room.
The screaming stops.
Severus tentatively turns to survey the damage. His mother is staring at him. His father is staring at her.
She blinks, as though someone has flicked an on switch, and turns slowly to her husband.
"It was me," she says mechanically, her face a dazed mixture of shock and horror.
Severus feels his father's eyes lock onto him.
"It was me," she repeats, suddenly finding her voice. "Tobias, it was me!"
But it's clear Tobias isn't listening. He's staring at Severus as though he's never seen him before. As though he's an insect. An alien. A threat.
Severus meets his gaze and holds it without flinching.
The attack he's expecting never comes. Instead, his father's expression hardens; passion and fury melt away and he looks at Severus with the indifference of a stranger.
"Clean it up," he barks.
Then he turns on his heel and leaves, taking with him the last of Severus' lingering delusions about unconditional love.
When the front door slams, all Severus can think is that his own mother lied to him.
She whispers his name, but all he can hear are broken promises and the lesson in betrayal.
Two days before his eleventh birthday, his father comes at him with a knife. It's a little thing, no bigger than a pocketknife, but glints dangerously when it catches the light.
Severus has always been quick on his feet, though rarely graceful, and he stumbles when bolting for the door. His father on the other hand, reeks of alcohol and can barely manage a straight line, enabling Severus to dart under and around the drunken swerves and make a beeline for his own bedroom. The voice follows his every step, slurring incoherently, growling and spitting and screaming that if Severus doesn't reach eleven, everything will be fine!
He trips again, and scrambles across the threshold on his hands and knees, slamming the bedroom door shut and clicking the rusty lock into place. He hears his father reach the landing and roar like a madman.
They're upstairs now, so his mother can surely hear the commotion. For a second he wonders if she might come to help, but shakes the thought off as a fantasy before getting down to business.
Confident the lock is holding, he drops to the floor and locates the barely perceptible dent on the side of his bed. He digs shaking fingers into the sunken wood and, as though reacting to his touch, the bed's four legs suddenly sprout little wheels.
It's difficult, but not impossible, to drag the whole thing up to the door. Severus is small for his age and weak enough to be panting within seconds, but he manages. He wonders if his mother somehow made it lighter too. He had only asked for wheels that could appear and disappear on command, but perhaps she'd improvised. She enjoyed improvising, once. She loved everything about magic.
Satisfied the bed is pressed as close to the door as possible, Severus lunges again for the crucial spot and the wheels vanish, sending the bed crashing to the floor with a heavy thud.
Silence falls, both in and outside the room. An eerie vacuum filled only by Severus' gasping breaths.
"Are you doing magic in there?" his father screeches. "You're not eleven! You're not allowed!"
Silence again. Then haphazard, stomping footsteps.
Then, more silence.
Severus tries to take deep breaths. Tries to slow his hammering heartbeat. It worked. He'd never tested the bed before, having promised to use it only as a last resort. But his clever little scheme had worked, and Severus takes a moment to savour his ingenuity. With training, with power of his own, there will be no limit to what he's capable of.
The wood above him splinters with a sickening crunch, and Severus only just manages to bite back a scream. Another blow. The whole door rattles on its hinges and Severus scrambles back into a far corner.
It sounds like an axe. His father really is going to kill him.
He wonders what would be worse, the axe or the pocketknife. The former would be painful, larger, blunter, and more likely to shatter bone. But the pocketknife would be slower, and he doesn't particularly like the thought of death taking its time, leaving him to languish in his final moments under his father's smug gaze.
Severus glances at the window and wonders how many bones he might break if he decides to jump. Broken bones he can handle, but where would he go? And what would happen to his mother?
It slowly dawns on him that for all its rattling and creaking, the door itself is holding. In fact, while it sounds like the outside is being smashed beyond repair, the inside face of the door remains utterly undisturbed.
He almost sends his mother a whispered thanks, but the word sticks in his throat. He just... can't. Not knowing she's right across the hall, a mere few paces away, listening but doing nothing. It makes him feel sick. Makes his stomach burn and his heart ache. It fills him with rage, confusion and fire, and reinforces the most important lesson of all: he cannot truly rely on anyone but himself.
He tries to ignore the ongoing sound of metal on wood, blow after blow, and instead stares out of his little window. He'll sit here for days if he has to. He won't eat, nor will he sleep. He'll simply watch the window and wait for a magical owl to peck at the glass and deliver the promise of a better future.
If Spinner's End has taught him anything, it's that while he can't choose his circumstances, he can work to change them. He has no real evidence of this, but he has hope. It's a hope that stands on shaky foundations, but it's enough. It must be enough.
Tobias can't touch Severus anymore. Not in any way that matters, because Severus finally understands: his filthy Muggle father is the weak one. The coward. The ignorant, bumbling oaf ruled by fear and determined to eradicate anyone more powerful than him.
Go ahead. Take your best shot.
Severus is smarter, stronger and braver. He feels the hum of magic prickling under his skin, and knows he is well and truly done taking lessons from others.
Severus has taught himself how to survive.