"He took it! I can't believe he actually took it!"
"But did you see -"
"Of course we did, we're right here, aren't we?" Harry shook his head at Ron, trying not to laugh.
Ron, on the other hand, was practically having a fit. "He actually took it! Into his house! A kitten!"
"Shh!" Neville urged him again, peering out of the upper window of the dilapidated old Muggle house. They had chosen it not because it was abandoned (as far as they could tell, all of the houses on Spinner's End were abandoned, except for Snape's), but because it was directly next door to Snape's place, with a perfect view of the doorstep where they'd left the Kneazle kitten. Luckily Snape hadn't cast any Revelios on the house, or they would have been found out immediately.
"I can't believe he didn't find us," Harry said, echoing Neville's thoughts. "Maybe he's losing his edge." He sounded slightly disturbed by the thought.
"Nah," Ron said. "The war's over, isn't it? Even Snape can't be paranoid all the time." He sniggered. "If he were, he wouldn't have adopted a kitten." He broke off into another bought of near-silent laughter. "Snape with a kitten! I wish we had gotten a picture."
Neville wasn't nearly as surprised as Ron that Snape had accepted the gift. What had surprised him was the look of weary despair on Snape's face as he'd carried the kitten back up the stairs. He wondered what had been going through the strange man's head.
"What d'you reckon they're doing now?" Ron asked. "Cuddling?" He chortled.
"If that Kneazle's anything like Crookshanks, probably not," Harry said. "Remember how wild he was in the beginning."
"Yeah," Ron said darkly, rubbing his head. "But that was because of Wormtail."
"It can't just have been because of him. Remember, the woman in the shop said he'd been there for ages."
"Oh yeah…" Ron frowned, then brightened. "Bet Snape's in for a rough night, then."
"I hope not," Neville said, before he could stop himself.
Ron stared at him as if he'd grown a second head.
"I mean, the whole point is to make him more human, right?"
"No," Ron said, "the point is to annoy him."
Harry rolled his eyes. "I'm sure it'll be fine, Neville. Snape can handle himself."
"But can he handle a kitten?" Ron practically cackled.
Severus's house had, indeed, been searched by the Ministry. What a pity for them that he had transferred all of his most valued possessions to Hogwarts. Minerva had promised to have a house-elf deliver them tomorrow, but in the meantime, Severus found it rather depressing to sit on his threadbare old sofa, staring at the roughly dismantled bookcases (evidently the Ministry had failed to realize that a simple Alohomora would open the hidden passageway to the rest of the house). At the other end of the sofa, the Kneazle was clawing at the cushions, having exhausted her supply of Gryffindor bedding. Severus was too tired to stop her.
The emptiness inside him, so like the emptiness of this worthless house, alarmed him. He had not had the time to feel empty after killing Dumbledore. He had felt fear and anger, grief and horror, but his purpose had sustained him, a purpose to which he had clung with all the determination in his being. Now what purpose did he have? Saving Longbottom?
He scowled. Here, in the house where all his failures had begun, he didn't feel capable of walking up the stairs to his bedroom, let alone reconstructing a man's entire psyche.
"I hate this place," he told the Kneazle.
She paused in her clawing, jumped to the floor, and resumed with the carpet. He supposed she had the right idea.
At first, when he had returned here after his final year at Hogwarts, after Dumbledore had called him into his office to tell him his father was dead (with such solemnity that he had clearly been under the impression someone worthwhile had died), Severus had kept the house out of spite. Nothing would have displeased Tobias Snape more than to see his worthless witch of a son (he had never quite grasped the gendered terms "witch" and "wizard") corrupting his house with magic. Naturally, Severus made as many alterations as his limited knowledge of house renovating spells would allow.
Bookshelves concealed all the hallways and stairwells. Magical lanterns replaced the electric lamps. The hated television had been smashed with a few highly enjoyable Blasting Hexes. The bedrooms had been entirely dismantled and redone. Most importantly, the basement was now a potions lab, its contents worth more than the house itself.
Yet, somehow, it didn't seem enough. Spite, and later convenience, had kept Severus coming back to this house, but the simple fact remained: he hated it.
No matter how much magic he had poured into the wretched place, it was still Tobias Snape's home, and every room was stained with those memories.
"Right there," he said, eyes fixed on the carpet the Kneazle kit was destroying, "is where I cast the Cruciatus Curse on my father, after my mother died." His expression darkened. "After he let her die."
The Kneazle paused again, staring at him.
"She was ill," he told her. "The Muggles couldn't cure her, but Healers could have. But she never went to St. Mungo's." And, though Severus had been at school at the time, he knew why she hadn't gone. He knew his father would never have let her. He had snapped her wand, thrown out her cauldron, burned every spellbook he could find - and she had let him.
"I hated them," he said. "Both of them."
The Kneazle gave a half-hearted yank at the carpet, then sat still.
"Yes," Severus said. "That's where I tried to get revenge." He sneered bitterly. "I couldn't go through with it, of course. Not that it mattered. He drank himself to death the next year. Died in the mud by the river."
The Kneazle stared at him, and he stared back, though her golden eyes were inscrutable.
"I hate this place," he said again.
She tore at the carpet viciously. Her meaning was obvious. Severus couldn't think of a reason not to agree with her.
He stood up. "Yes. I think you're right."
She tilted her head as he held out her basket. "In you go."
Somewhat to his surprise, she obeyed immediately. Severus looked at the basket, wondering if he was mad, then decided he was mad not to have done this sooner.
And, after all, why not? Voldemort was dead, Dumbledore was dead, Lily was dead, his parents were dead. Everything that had ever given his life meaning, good or bad, was dead. It would have been much simpler if he, too, had been dead, but his own magic had prevented that, for some reason he had yet to fathom.
He might as well be dead, though, if he stayed in this abominable place.
Balancing the Mimbulus mimbletonia on top of the basket, he blasted the front door open with his wand, reveling in the sound of splintering wood. Striding over the threshold and down the stairs, he reached the pavement and whirled dramatically.
There it stood. His least favorite place in the world.
Raising his wand, he felt his face twist into a feral grin.
Harry, Ron, and Neville were just about to Disapparate when they heard a loud blast. Scrambling for the window, they peered out, only to stare in amazement as Snape glided out of the house, Kneazle and cactus in one hand, wand in the other.
"What is he doing?" Ron muttered.
They didn't hear the incantation, but they saw the blaze of fire shoot out of his wand to engulf the house beside them. Even from here, they felt the sudden crash of heat.
"Fiendfyre!" Harry yelled.
"He's lost his marbles!" Ron exclaimed.
"Let's go!" Neville gasped, and they Disapparated.
They reappeared on the river bank. The fire was already sky-high. It didn't look like Snape had stopped with his own house. In fact, it looked like he was setting the entire street on fire.
"Well," Harry said, "I guess it was about time."
"What are you on about?" Ron asked, appalled. "He's completely cracked!"
"I dunno," Harry replied. "I wouldn't have minded burning the Dursleys' house to the ground."
Ron gaped at him, but Neville could only look at the flames. Raging serpents coiled into the sky, fiery spiders crawled over the roofs, and some nameless winged creature swept over it all, triumphant, despairing, reveling in the utter chaos below.
Bricks crumbled. The frames of buildings jutted up like skeletal arms, swaying in the conflagration, before they, too, disintegrated. The sky burned orange, and people in the Muggle neighborhoods nearby began to scream.
Then, just as suddenly, the fire went out. The buildings on Snape's street were gone. Neville could just make him out, a lone dark figure surrounded by smoke and ash. Over the churn of the river, Neville thought he heard him laugh.
Homeless, with only his cactus and his kitten for company, Severus stared at the ash and ruin around him and laughed. The smoldering heat of the Fiendfyre still lingered in the smoking wreckage around him, burning his nostrils with an altogether satisfying scent. So, he thought, this is what freedom smells like.
He laughed again. Then he sat down, buried his face in his hands, and started coughing.
What the hell had he been thinking? He really was homeless now, and until he was able to visit Gringotts in the morning, he was penniless, as well.
Brilliant plan, Snivellus, he told himself.
Distantly, he heard sirens wail. From within the basket, the Kneazle wailed as well, trying to force the lid open and almost knocking the cactus over in the process. Removing the plant, Severus allowed the Kneazle to poke her head out.
Curiously, she sniffed the air. Then she sneezed. Severus felt a wave of utter horror at his tender realization that she was cute.
"Fiend," he said, meeting her golden gaze and trying to imagine it was fierce, rather than adorable. "I believe I will call you 'Fiend.'"
She flicked her tail, evidently quite pleased.
"Very well," he continued, as the sirens swelled against the smoky air. "I think it would be prudent for us to remove ourselves."
Rather than returning to the basket as he had intended, the Kneazle burrowed her way into his pocket. He sighed, but allowed it. He told himself it was because it made it easier to carry the cactus, not because the warm little bundle of her felt comfortable nestled against his leg.
He forced himself to imagine the possibility of accidentally sitting on her and squashing her, and felt marginally better about the situation.
By the time the fire brigade rounded the corner, he was gone.