Title: The Man Upstairs
Characters: Severus, others
Beta Reader: psyfic
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
Note: I've always been intrigued by how and where wizarding children get their schooling before they're old enough to go to Hogwarts. Not all witches can be stay at home mums.
Summary: Severus Snape finds something unexpected during a school trip to Diagon Alley.
Severus Snape sighed impatiently, adjusting the sleeves of his new dark blue robes as he waited for Madam Snodgrass to round up the rest of his nine-year-old classmates. They were all going on a school trip to Diagon Alley, which he was looking forward to, but the process seemed to take forever. There were fifteen students in the Academy, which was controlled by Madam Snodgrass and her assistant, Miss Dorcas. Madam Snodgrass was middle-aged, fat, quaked like a blancmange, and had a red nose. Miss Dorcas was very thin, wore thick glasses, and jumped at loud noises.
His dad had not wanted him to go to the Academy, but his mum insisted. "It's no good him just going to Muggle school!" she said. "He's got to learn about the wizarding world."
His dad didn't care for the idea. "He's learning reading, writing, sums, and a bit of geography. That's all he needs."
"No, it isn't all he needs!" his mum insisted and, as usual, his mum got her way.
So, as soon as Severus turned nine, his mum took him out of regular school and enrolled him in the Snodgrass Academy for Wee Wizards and Witches. It wasn't too bad. He was learning about magic wands, kneazles and puffskeins, flying brooms, and goblins, and in the afternoons they took turns reading the "Tales of Beedle the Bard" out loud.
Severus eyed the length of thick brown rope that was lying on the floor. Miss Dorcas was holding one end of it and looked harassed, as usual. It was an ordinary piece of rope, a little thicker than clothes line, and long enough to reach wall-to-wall across the classroom. He wondered what they were going to do with it.
He found out in just a few minutes, when the two witches chivvied the last of the children into position along the rope, boys on one side and girls on the other, and Madam told them to take hold of it with their right hands and hold it very firmly.
Her grey hair somewhat askew and her chins quivering, Madam picked up the other end of the rope and checked the time on a large gold watch that she had pinned to her massive bosom.
"Don't let go of the rope!" she commanded, and then the whole world changed around them.
There was a horrible sensation like someone had yanked a hook in Severus' middle, whirling patches of colour, and then, suddenly, they weren't in the classroom any more.
Severus blinked at the sudden bright sunlight, trying to figure out what had happened. He had been there and now he was here and Madam Snodgrass was coiling up the rope and stashing it away in her capacious handbag. It was, he decided, magic.
They were standing at the end of a cobblestone street, about a block from a tall white building. There was a junky little store on one side of the street that had all sorts of strange-looking things in its window, and on the other side was a shop with a sign that said, "Ollivander's."
"Now then, children!" Madam said, "This is Diagon Alley. I want you to stay close behind me and don't stray out of line."
She proceeded majestically along the street, describing points of interest in a rather booming voice, with the line of children following her and a somewhat frazzled-looking Miss Dorcas bringing up the rear.
Severus stared intently at the sights of Diagon Alley, storing them up in his memory so that he could tell Lily Evans about them. More and more, his world revolved around Lily. He kept thinking of things that he could do to please her. His mother didn't approve, but his father said that Mr. Evans had a good job and that they were a respectable family, if a bit above themselves, and there was no harm in it. Severus wished that Lily could see these things too, but she was going to a Muggle school and wouldn't be able to come here until she was eleven and got her Hogwarts letter.
He put his hand in his pocket and fingered the coins that his mum had given him. Silver and bronze, they were completely different from the money his dad gave him once in a while, to spend at the candy counter in the little store on the corner. This was wizard's money, his mum explained, and he could only use it in Diagon Alley. He hoped that it would be enough to buy a birthday present for Lily.
It was all very interesting, but nothing really caught Severus's attention until they reached the corner, where another street joined Diagon Alley. The shops along the side street seemed a bit grimier and more ramshackle than those on the main street, and one of them, a small brick building, had a show window that was filled with a fascinating array of stuffed animal heads and hanging skins.
Miss Dorcas was flapping her hands and trying to recover Greta Catchlove and Bertram Aubrey, who had their noses glued to the window of the Magical Menagerie. Madam was talking about Gringotts bank, explaining that it was where their parents kept their gold. Somehow, Severus doubted that his dad used a place like that to cash his pay check.
No one was watching, so he slipped around the corner and down the street, to look at the window display. It was fascinating! There were large snake skins with exotic patterns, sleek brown skins and fluffy golden ones. Heads of strange animals were mounted on wooden shields and hung on the walls. There was also an empty spot in the display, with a little hand-lettered sign in front of it that said, "Demiguise Skin."
The store next to the one with the heads and skins sold strange flowers and plants, and beyond that one was a shop that sold claws, hooves, and horns. Before long, Severus had completely forgotten about Madam, Miss Dorcas, and the rest of the class. He wandered deeper and deeper into the maze of buildings. Shoppers in dark robes, some with capes and hoods that hid their faces, brushed by on either side of him.
Severus looked around. A teenaged boy in a scruffy brown robe was leaning against the front of a grungy wooden building, picking his teeth with a long, sharp-bladed knife.
"I know someone who would like to meet you," the boy said, looking avidly at Severus. "What say we go talk to him?"
"No," Severus said, shaking his head and backing away. "No, thank you."
The boy looked both ways, saw that they were temporarily alone in the street, and then reached out one hand, snatching at Severus's arm. However, he only managed to catch the sleeve of the dark blue robe, and Severus, frightened, twisted away. The sleeve of his robe parted with the sound of ripping cloth and he ran.
"You, kid! Come back here!"
Severus could hear the sound of running steps behind him, and he dashed around one, two, three corners. The last turn was a bad mistake. He was in a small cul-de-sac, and there was no exit. Tall dirty buildings loomed over a courtyard paved with uneven old bricks and a stone fountain with a dry, cracked, basin squatted in the centre.
Looking around for a place to hide, he saw that there were no shops here, no display windows. These buildings must be places where people lived. They were high, dark, and brooding. Where he could see windows, he could also see that their blinds were closed. He ducked into the stone doorway of a tall, narrow building, flattening himself against the peeling wooden door where the shadows were dark and deep.
Catching his breath in shallow gasps, Severus waited. He heard the footsteps, and then the footsteps stopped and there was a muttered expletive.
Something cold and hard pressed into Severus' back. He fumbled at it with one hand, and realized that it was the door latch. He pressed it. The latch clicked softly and the door came slightly ajar in its frame. Holding his breath, he pushed back until there was a wide enough opening, and slipped through to the interior, closing the door silently behind him.
The next thing he did was to go to the side of a dusty window and peer cautiously through it. He was in time to see the boy who had accosted him look around with an ugly expression on his face, then walk back through the narrow cobbled entrance and out of sight. Breathing a sigh of relief, Severus turned and looked around.
He was in a small, square, hall with a checkerboard floor of black and white stone tiles, some of them cracked. The room was hot and dirty. The walls were panelled from floor to ceiling, and a small rickety-looking table stood off to one side. A dark, narrow, staircase clung to the right-hand wall and led up to the shadowy reaches above. Everything looked dusty, as if it hadn't been cleaned in many years. Closed doors were set in the walls to the right and left, reminding him of his own house. There would be a living room on one side, and a kitchen on the other.
Severus knew that he shouldn't be here. This tall dark house, crammed in between its rundown and disreputable neighbours, was exactly the sort of place that adults warned kids to stay away from. He should make his way back to Diagon Alley, Madam Snodgrass, and the rest of his class. But if there wasn't anyone around to tell him he was in the wrong, then it was okay, right? It wasn't as if he was breaking any actual rules. Severus was satisfied with his own logic.
A small square picture in a tarnished gilded frame hung on the back wall, next to the staircase, and he walked over to look up at it. The canvas was empty except for the image of a dull purple drape in the background. A narrow tarnished plaque at the bottom of the frame was engraved with the words "Ursula Southeil." Severus had an Aunt Ursula, on his mother's side, and he wondered if they were related and if this Ursula was the woman who owned the house, or maybe someone's grandmother.
He walked back across the cracked tiles, his footsteps echoing on the stone, and opened first one and then the other of the closed doors, peering inside cautiously. He found no surprises. On one side there was a dark little kitchen with a scarred chopping block and a fireplace with a rusted spit instead of a stove. On the other side there was a gloomy chamber with two dilapidated wooden chairs and a threadbare carpet.
Severus closed the doors quietly and then turned his attention to the narrow, rickety-looking staircase. The banister shook when he laid a hand on it. He snatched his hand back, and cautiously mounted the dusty steps.
He had reached the landing at the top and was looking around curiously when a dark figure stepped suddenly out of the shadows and grabbed him by the collar of his robes.
"What are you doing here, you nosy little whelp?" a harsh voice growled at him.
Severus yelped in sudden fear and tried to twist away, as he had from the boy in the street, but the stranger's grip was like iron.
The man was bulky, with a jowly red face and small narrow dark eyes. His robes were made of coarse black material, and he reeked of something sour. He towered above Severus.
"What have you found. Dolohov?" asked a cool voice from an adjoining room.
"Some brat of a kid," Severus' captor said. "You were right about someone poking around downstairs."
"I am always right," the voice said. "Bring it here."
The bulky man dragged Severus through an open doorway into a nearby room. Severus stopped struggling as he realized that he was no match for the strength of a full-gown man, especially not this one, who was huge and bull-necked, with hard calloused hands.
This new room was much different than the desolation downstairs. It was almost opulent, with a thick dark green carpet on the floor and green drapes threaded with silver that blocked out the sunlight from the windows. Two tall yellowish candles burning in silver holders on the mantel, and a flickering wood fire, gave out the only light.
The furniture looked expensive, polished where there was wood, and upholstered with brocade, like the chairs and couches that Madam Snodgrass had in her parlour, but much nicer. There were paintings on the walls, and small silver and gold ornaments that caught the flickering light and tossed it back. Severus noticed a little two-handled gold cup standing on the mantel, and he wondered what it was for.
A man seated in an armchair by the fireplace stirred, and Severus stared at him. He was pale, dark-haired, and very handsome, but there was something... wrong... about his eyes. They were a funny colour, more red than brown. He wore all black, from his shiny, narrow, shoes to the silk robes that seemed to float around his body. Severus knew about robes like that; his grandfather Prince had some and he wore them in his library when he was relaxing with a glass of wine after dinner.
A shiny gold locket hung on a slender chain around the man's neck, and there was some kind of curvy decoration on it, picked out in green stones.
His long slender fingers were as white as something dead and they were sliding over a multicoloured rope that was coiled in his lap. It moved, and the hair rose on the back of Severus' neck as he realized that it was an adder. His mum had warned him about adders.
"What are you doing here, boy?" the man in the chair asked. His voice was soft and rather high-pitched, almost like a woman's, but there was a stiff metallic edge to it.
"Just looking around," Severus said, his eyes fixed on the adder. His mouth felt dry.
"A dangerous habit," the man said, and added sharply, "Look at me when I'm speaking to you, boy! What is your name?"
Severus tore his eyes away from the undulating reptile and forced himself to look into the man's strange eyes. "Severus. Severus Snape."
"You should say, 'Sir' when you speak to your elders."
"Severus Snape, sir."
Severus felt his captor stir, and the thick hard fingers moved to the back of his neck, tightening ominously on it. "He's a nuisance and he'll tell people about this place. Let me dispose of him."
"Don't be so hasty, Dolohov. There is always time for that. It amuses me to speak to one of the younger generation. Who knows? He may grow up to be one of my most devoted followers." The man laughed softly. "In any case, I have been thinking lately of leaving this place. It oppresses me; it is too close to the land of Muggles and mudbloods. I can hear their traffic at night, and the sounds of their filthy entertainments. Come here, Severus Snape. Sit."
A languid hand lifted and one long white finger pointed to the brocade-covered footstool by the man's chair. The hand that was holding Severus released him, and he went nervously over to the footstool and sat down on it. His captor walked over to the door, which he shut, and stood in front of it.
"Now then, why are you here, Severus Snape?" the man with the reddish eyes asked.
"I just wanted to see the house... Sir." Severus bit his lip. "The door was unlocked," he offered by way of explanation.
"An error on your part, Dolohov," the man said, glancing up. "Don't let it happen again."
"No sir," the big man at the door said, and shifted uneasily.
The red-eyed man turned his attention back to Severus. "I mean, why are you here in Knockturn Alley?"
Severus squirmed a bit on the footstool. "I... uh, sort of got lost. We were on a school trip to Diagon Alley. I went between two buildings, to look in a store where they had some stuffed animals. Sir."
"Ah yes, Tofty's Taxidermy. They do have a very nice two-headed fire-crab in the window. And who is 'we'? You and your parents?"
Severus shook his head. "Madam Snodgrass and Miss Dorcas, and the rest of the kids from Miss Snodgrass's Academy."
The man laughed softly. "A field trip! How old are you? Not yet eleven, of course, or you would not be attending Miss Snodgrass's Academy."
"I'm nine, almost ten. Sir."
"Nine, almost ten. Do you know where I was when I was your age?"
Severus shook his head.
"I was in an orphanage. Do you know what that is?"
Severus shook his head again.
"It is a place for children who have no parents. My mother died when I was born and my father... " He laughed again, very softly, and there was something about the sound that made Severus feel a little sick to his stomach. "My father died too. I'm rather sorry about that. It could have been much more amusing if he had lived a little longer. I was hasty. Ah well, we must all profit by our mistakes."
He stroked the snake, which lifted itself against his chest, tasted the tip of his chin with its forked tongue, and then slid sinuously off of the side of the chair and across the carpeted floor. Severus watched it go, and swallowed hard, having somehow developed a lump in his throat.
Abruptly, the man in the chair leaned forward and grabbed Severus by the chin, twisting the boy's head away from the snake and back to face him. His thin fingers dug painfully into Severus' cheeks when the youngster tried to pull away.
"You could be of use to me, Severus Snape. There are certain... preparations... that I need to make, and you might do quite well. You have life. That is all that really matters, but I prefer life of a certain calibre. Your mother, who is she?"
"Her name is Eileen," Severus said, his throat gone so suddenly dry that he could hardly talk. "Eileen Prince. She comes from Cumbria. That's where my grandfather lives."
"She is a witch? A pureblood?" There was something hungry about the voice, something avid that made Severus shudder.
He nodded. He wasn't sure exactly what pureblood meant, but his mother was a witch, and his grandfather and all of his Prince relatives were magical folk.
"And your father? Who is he?"
"He's Toby Snape. He's from Whitby. My grandfather Snape has a shoe store there."
"Your father is not a wizard?"
Severus shook his head. "He works in the mill."
Abruptly, the man freed Severus, pushing him roughly backwards, so that he almost fell off of the stool, and jerked his hand back as if the touch of Severus's skin repelled him. "Not good enough, Severus Snape." He regarded the boy seated in front of him in silence for a long time. The adder had returned and wreathed around his ankles as a cat might do.
"What shall I do with you, boy?"
Severus was afraid to say anything.
Dolohov, still standing by the door, shifted on his thick legs and said, "Let me take care of him."
"No. Who knows? Someday, when he has grown to be a man, we may meet again and I may find a use for him." He reached over to the small table by his chair and opened the lid of a small inlaid wooden box that was standing on it. He lifted out a silver brooch, turning it back and forth in his long fingers. The flickering firelight picked off highlights from its polished surface, moulded into the shapes of leaves and vines surrounding an ornate letter R.
"This belonged to my grandmother," the man said meditatively. "When last I saw her, she was wearing it pinned to the collar of her purple dress. I can still remember the way the green light glinted off of the silver. I took it as a souvenir. One should have something to remind one of one's antecedents."
He touched the ornament with the fingers of his other hand, caressing it as it lay flat on his palm. The metal writhed and twisted, flowing and forming into a new shape. It seemed as though it must burn the skin that it touched, but the man only laughed his terrible soft laugh again.
He leaned forward and held the object out to Severus. "Take it, Severus Snape. It is a good-luck piece. Keep it in your pocket and when we meet again, show it to me and remind me that I was merciful to you."
Severus took the bit of silver with trembling fingers and stared at it. The metal had formed into a skull, with a snake that came out of its mouth like a tongue.
"Dolohov! Take him back to the taxidermy shop and make sure that he returns to Diagon Alley. Be certain that he is unharmed; do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," Dolohov said, and it seemed to Severus that he was resentful when he said it. He came forward, grabbed Severus by the arm, and jerked him to his feet.
The man in the chair, eyes half-lidded, had picked up the adder and was caressing it on his lap.
Dolohov took him downstairs, and as the big man pushed him toward the door, Severus glanced back over his shoulder at the tarnished picture frame on the wall. There was a portrait in it now, a picture of a very ugly old woman who stood out against the dull blue drape behind her. She was holding a thick leather-bound book in her hands and she opened it, flipping through it to a page at the back, and then pointed one long-nailed finger at him.
"Thy world to an end shall come, in nineteen hundred and eighty one," she said in a cracked voice, and grinned at him, showing an array of blackened teeth.
At the entrance to Diagon Alley, Dolohov let him go, and Severus, after glancing back over his shoulder once, to where the man stood like a massive guard, his fists resting on his hips, hurried toward the light and bustle of the friendly street beyond. He held the silver good luck charm tightly in his fist. It was rather pretty, in an odd sort of way. Perhaps he would give it to Lily Evans.