The smell of the beef stew simmering made my stomach rumble. I couldn't recall the last time I had eaten. Though I had no need to ration portions at school as I did at home, I had never eaten very much at mealtimes. The hall was too noisy and I often had to watch out for any sort of prank from the Marauders, so I usually ate very little in the company of others. I had long since persuaded the house elves to send me a late supper in my room, or I went down to the kitchen to eat something. But lately I had not been inclined to keep regular mealtimes and anything I did eat tended to make me feel sick afterwards. Depression is not something that pairs well with food. At least not in my case.
But now I was practically drooling all over the colorful blanket lying across my shoulders. I sneered at myself. I was such a hopeless idiot! I couldn't even do myself in right. Or did Hagrid have something to do with saving me from my self destruction? I hadn't thought he cared. I had thought nobody cared for me at all.
Yet here I was, alive, and warm and comfortable in Hagrid's cottage, the last place I had expected to end up. My father had always said I was destined for hell for being an insolent brat and using heathen magic. When Mum had died, he hadn't even bothered to show up for the funeral. Not that I had wanted him there. He could have done nothing to comfort me. No one could.
I still missed her, she had died in December, and it was only six months since she had passed away, leaving me with no parental figure to rely on. And worse, no one who cared for me at all. I found myself blinking back damnable tears . . .again. I couldn't fathom it. I never cried. Never. I had had all the tears beaten out of me by Tobias when I was eleven, and received my Hogwarts letter. It had been the one act of open defiance I had ever shown him, and it had resulted in the worst beating of my life. But it had been worth it, for my mother had acted then and made sure I went to school where I was away from my father and able to learn how to control the magic that was my birthright. I wish she had divorced the nasty bastard as well, but for some unfathomable reason she stayed with him, maybe it was out of pride or fear or even some hopeless unrequited love. I had never asked, and now I would never know.
Love turns wise men into fools, I thought sardonically. I did not know where I had read that, but it was true. I still loved Lily, would probably always love her, despite her rejection of me. But now she, like Mum, had abandoned me, and I had nowhere to turn.
I rolled over, propping myself up on an elbow. I was still in my uniform, though Hagrid had removed my robes, tie, and shoes and opened up a button on my collar. He must have thought I had passed out from the heat. Or at least that's what I prayed he thought. Please, let him not guess what I had really intended. I didn't need anyone's pity. I just wanted to be left alone.
It was what I deserved, after all, pathetic fool that I was.
My movement alerted Hagrid, who turned his head from the pot and smiled genially at me. "Awake, are ye now, lad? Good. If you needed a place to sleep, you coulda knocked. My door's always open to you, Severus."
I breathed a sigh of relief. So . . .he thought I had been sleeping. Well, in a way I had been. I gazed at him mutely, suddenly too sick at heart and weary to respond. I had wanted to leave my existence behind and instead found myself still clinging to it in spite of everything. And I didn't even know why.
Hagrid didn't seem to mind my silence, he just patted my shoulder gently. I flinched and he looked at me sadly. "Sorry, did I hurt you? I forget, sometimes, that you're not even a quarter of my size."
I shook my head. Hagrid's friendly pat hurt about as much as Fang licking me. I just didn't like being touched, especially not by an adult male. I had received too many slaps and kicks from my father to ever be comfortable getting a casual pat from a man, even one who I knew would never hurt me. I was like a wild cat, wary and ready to spring away at the slightest sudden movement.
Hagrid was not offended by my distrust. Instead he said, "You're lucky I found a few conies for the stewpot, lad. Otherwise you'd eating bread with butter n'jam, since I ran outta honey yesterday. Have to go and tap another hive tomorrow. It's too late now for you to return to the castle, so you might as well stay here. I don't mind the company."
I did, but I could hardly say so. Instead, I retreated behind my wall of silence.
Hagrid pulled two wooden dishes and spoons from his cupboard and dished up the stew. He poured a glass of ale for himself and a glass of pumpkin juice for me. "Sit and eat, Severus."
I obeyed, because I was accustomed to obeying people in authority, and because I was starving.
The stew was accompanied by some rich wheaten bread with crunchy sunflower seeds baked in it, and there was a crock of butter to spread on it. I ate silently, concentrating on each spoonful and bite as if my life depended on it. It tasted so good that I wanted seconds. But I didn't want to ask for it.
I remained staring down at my empty bowl, licking my lips.
Hagrid read my mind, or so it seemed, for he reached across the table and gave me a second scoop of stew and another piece of bread. "Here. You're too skinny for a growing boy. Eat up now. Don' they feed you right up at the castle?"
I didn't bother answering, just ate the second helping. Nothing at the castle had ever tasted so good as that simple stew and bread. Hagrid, for all his size and supposedly limited intellect, had a deft hand with spices.
I even drank the pumpkin juice, which I normally avoided, because I found it too sweet.
"All finished with your exams, righ'? I'll bet you aced 'em, never knew any kid as smart as you. Only a week more till you go home. You looking forward to the summer?"
Hagrid's simple words , praising my brains, made me feel somehow warm and fuzzy inside. The only one who had ever praised me was Mum. Even Slughorn simply took it for granted that I would do well in potions, and so forgot to tell me what a good job I did. But an instant later I went cold and trembled. Looking forward to the summer? Not on your life! It would be just me and him in the house, and I wondered if I would survive. I wished I could stay at the school forever.
I immediately ducked my head and let my hair fall in front of my eyes so Hagrid couldn't see how frightened I was. I tried to stop thinking of the hell that awaited me at Spinner's End. I had a week left . . .a blessed week before I needed to think about him. Calm down, Sev. Calm down. Don't let the fear rule you. Just don't.
There was a lump in my throat and my stomach churned with dread so badly I feared I would lose the wonderful supper I had just eaten. But I forced myself to take a deep breath and relax. I sipped my pumpkin juice slowly and eventually my stomach settled.
I felt a large wet nose nudge me and looked down. Fang was sitting next to me, panting happily, drool falling from his jowls to puddle on the floor. Normally I would have shoved the begging hound's muzzle away, but I was too despondent to care if he was drooling a river onto my socks. I fed him the rest of my bread.
He gulped it down happily and then slurped my hand.
Hagrid chuckled as I hastily wiped my hand on my trouser leg. "Ah, you fed him. Now he'll be your best friend forever. Seems to me like you could use one."
I froze. How much did he know about Lily and me? Had the news of her split with me reached even Hagrid's ears? I opened my mouth to retort angrily that I didn't need a friend, I didn't need anyone, especially not a silly dog that drooled like a waterfall. Then I shut it. Why bother saying anything? What was the point? Like Hagrid gave a damn about my opinion.
Fang put his head on my knee and sighed blissfully.
I stared down at him. I wished he would go away. But he didn't.
Hagrid busied himself tidying up after supper and I almost offered to help. Mum had taught me how to clear up my plate when I was three, and I felt lazy just sitting there and letting Hagrid do it. Like I was some rich prick, like Potter and Black, who had grown up waited on hand and foot, with house elves to wipe their arse if they wanted.
But then I reminded myself that I didn't care about anything anymore and I remained where I was.
Hagrid talked to me quietly. "Today while I was out checking my snares, I saw a baby thestral. It was the cutest little critter, all wobbly legs goin' every which way, and its little tail whisking back and forth. Most people can't see thestrals, unless they've seen someone they love die. Me, I saw my dad die when I was a lad. Just twelve, I was. Never really knew my mum, she left when I was a little 'un. My dad raised me till he took sick and when he died, I became a Ministry ward. 'Least till I ended up getting myself tossed outta Hogwarts on my ear."
Expelled? Hagrid had been expelled? I had never known that. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask why, but then I bit my lip hard. I had no right to demand an explanation, it was a private matter, and I should mind my own business. So I remained quiet, only my eyes betraying my surprise.
But I felt sorry for him, losing his dad at such a young age. That must have been hard. As bad as me losing my mother.
"Sometimes, when I watch the thestrals, I remember how it was . . .I never knew he was really sick until I came home from school fer holiday break and he was in bed. My dad never slept late his whole life, so I knew sommat was wrong. Bad wrong. But he tol' me not to worry, that he'd get better. I offered to brew him some potions, but he tol' me to just sit and talk with him a bit. So I did. He knew even then that he wasn't gonna make it, but he didn't want to upset me. Always a kind fellow, my dad was." Here Hagrid sniffled and wiped away a large tear from his eye.
I stared down at the polished wood grain of the table and struggled to keep from sobbing. His words had yanked me back from that cold lonely place where I felt numb to the night when my mother had died. I had sat vigil beside her. . .
I had been sitting beside her bed, holding her hand, which seemed absurdly small all of a sudden in my own long one. My mother's dark eyes met mine, bright with a strange flame, an otherworldly shimmer, and I had known then that all my prayers and hopes were in vain.
All of my potions weren't enough to keep death at bay.
It was here, in the room, its icy chill permeating through the layers of blankets and the Warming Charm I'd cast.
Go away! You can't have her! I challenged the silent specter angrily. It's not time for her to go. I don't want to be alone. Come back later!
But death remained, oblivious to my taunts and pleas.
Eileen began to cough, and I whispered, "Mum . . .here, sit up . . ." I eased her to a sitting position, wishing there were something else I could do.
"Thank you. Severus . . ." she trailed off and squeezed my hand. "There are so many things I wanted to show you . . .to teach you . . .but there wasn't time . . . I'm sorry . . ."
"Don't, Mum. Please. You should never be sorry."
"No? Ah, Sev . . .I have so many regrets . . .but one thing I never regretted is you, my son . . .remember that . . ."
Eileen smiled, and one pale hand came up to caress my cheek. "So little time . . .and yet time is endless. . . .I'm so tired, Sev. All I want is to rest . . ."
"Let me go, Sev. You knew this day would come, I told you it would when I first learned the test results."
"I can't . . ." I stared at her anguish screwing up my face.
"You must," she insisted.
"No! I love you! Please stay! Please!"
"I wish I could . . .but they're calling me . . .calling me home . . .Love you, Severus . . .remember . . ."
She slipped away even as I watched, clutching her hand in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. But the night had come anyway and taken her and I could do nothing . . .except remember that love brought pain . . .
The memory of her last words to me was like a dagger in my heart, twisting and turning until I gasped, bent double from the pain. Mum, why? Why did you leave me here? I needed you . . .so much . . .
I forced the tears down. Crying never did any good. It wouldn't bring her back. It wouldn't mend my broken heart. Wouldn't fix a damn thing. My eyes burned from unshed tears. Tears were for cowards and I was not a coward.
"Heard about your mum." Hagrid said very softly. "Dumbledore tol' me. I'm more sorry than I can say, Severus. I know what it's like t'lose a parent. "Specially the only one who cares for you."
His perception robbed me of my voice. How had he known that? I had never told anyone about my miserable home life. I knew better. I eyed him warily from beneath my curtain of hair.
He slid a huge green hanky across the table to me. "Maybe tomorrow you'd like to come with me, lad, an' see the thestrals? Like me, you can see 'em, and it might help a little."
I failed to see just how that would do so, but I didn't bother responding. Tomorrow was not here yet and I didn't know what I would do. Let tomorrow look after itself.
"Well, I gotta go and see to the gryphon that hurt his wing outside in my shed. It's almost healed now and he should be able to fly soon. Ever seen a gryphon fly? It's the most glorious thing!"
His voice was full of childlike wonder.
I had never seen anything like that, but I found myself thinking about what it would be like, and that eased somewhat the grief I still held in my heart. It was a small thing, but it was better than nothing.
"You can have some tea if you like, and I think I got cakes somewhere around." Hagrid told me. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
Hagrid's "few minutes" turned into almost fifteen minutes, and I grew impatient and retreated to my pallet, using my wand to change my uniform into more comfortable pajamas. I still hadn't decided whether or not I wished to rejoin the land of the living, but while I was making up my mind, I could at least be comfortable.
I curled up on my side, facing the wall.
I felt the mattress sink as a black bulk came and laid down beside me.
"You big nuisance!" I hissed. "Go away! You smell and I don't want to sleep with a puddle of dog drool."
But Fang ignored my snippy tone and just stretched out behind me. He was almost as tall as I was, and he was warm, warm and soft and alive. He snored in my ear. Nice! Real nice!
I closed my eyes and tried to pretend I was somewhere else besides trapped on a mattress with a two hundred pound boarhound. But my mind kept returning to the night Mum died, and each time I tried to steer away from that memory, the one of Lily took its place. Utterly miserable, I curled up and buried my face in my pillow.
Despite my determination not to break down, I started to cry. Softly. My hands clenched into fists, hard enough to leave marks, and tears leaked from my eyes onto the mattress.
Fang woke and licked my ear. I shoved him away. He whined, thumped his tail, and then put his face on my shoulder.
I heard Hagrid return, and pretended to be asleep, squinching my eyes shut.
He came towards me, I felt his shadow hovering, but he didn't attempt to wake me.
I waited until he had dimmed the lamp and settled himself in his bed across the hut before allowing myself to relax.
I must have drifted off to sleep, because I woke sometime in the middle of the night, whimpering at my mother to stay.
Fang was snoozing at my back and I reached over and stroked him.
Abruptly, loss and despair overwhelmed me and I sniffled. Before I knew it, my eyes were leaking saltwater again.
But I made no sound. Stop crying, dammit! Just stop, you whimpering pansy-arse! I growled at myself in Tobias's hateful tone.
It didn't help. More tears followed. I couldn't stop them.
Then I felt a large hand rubbing my back.
"Good dog, Fang. Good dog," Hagrid muttered.
I had stiffened when he had touched me initially. But I slowly unwound, thinking he had made a mistake and had meant to touch Fang, not me, in the dark.
His hand continued patting me, rubbing up and down my back, and all the while I cried silently, until at last I fell asleep, worn and aching to the bone, while Hagrid comforted me. It made me feel good, even if it was done by mistake.
Hope you all liked this chapter! I recently injured my right hand and so have typed this with my left hand and some assistance from my BFF, Kristie.