Albus Dumbledore tapped a long, frail finger against the wood of his desk. Behind him, Fawkes shifted on his perch, crooning softly to himself. The phoenix's quiet song was one of the few sounds filling the long silence in the massive office. It was accompanied by the soft whir of several silver instruments, the incessant ticking of a clock whose hands inexplicably ran backward, and Severus Snape's occasional impatient sigh.
At last the sound of stone grinding against stone filled the air as the magical staircase behind them shifted open. Minerva McGonagall came sweeping up the steps, her lips pursed as tight as her bun.
"Albus, Severus," she greeted the two of them in turn, nodding politely to each of them. Her eyes flashed from behind her spectacles. "Am I to assume this is about the Potter boy?"
"Isn't it always?" Snape drawled, arching and eyebrow.
Dumbledore gestured for McGonagall to have a seat. His hand fell back to a folded piece of parchment on his desk. "Arabella Figg has written me for a third time… and it seems that young Harry is not as well-cared for as we'd hoped."
"Meaning?" McGonagall pressed, a new edge entering her tone.
"Meaning," Dumbledore sighed, closing his eyes, "that he time has come to find the boy a new home."
Snape and McGonagall spoke simultaneously.
"Surely things cannot be that bad," Snape hissed.
"But Lily Potter's protection—won't it be undone?" McGonagall demanded.
Dumbledore addressed Snape first. His calm blue eyes met Snape's gaze squarely. "Circumstances are no longer tolerable for the Potter boy. I am certain you can muster some sympathy, Severus."
Snape looked away, slightly abashed.
Dumbledore turned to McGonagall. "The magic protecting young Harry is preserved by Lily Potter's enduring love for her son. I had hoped that Harry's aunt might offer a shred of that maternal affection, thereby keeping Lily's sentiment alive, but as Harry has aged her meager attachment to him has only waned. Because Harry gains nothing by staying with the Dursleys, I feel it is prudent to find him a new home, one where that protective magic might be rekindled."
Snape felt another pointed look from the headmaster pass over him, but he chose to feign ignorance.
"Well, what do you propose?" McGonagall demanded. "We've discussed the possibilities already, many years ago. The boy has no other living relatives, and even the Potters' closest friends are mostly indisposed. Remus Lupin would have been an ideal guardian, but he feels unequipped—"
"Yes, with his affliction," Snape muttered, though he kept his voice low.
"Even amongst us… you are far too busy, headmaster. I would hardly be a better choice, and I haven't the energy to raise a young boy…. What else is there to be done, save perhaps put the boy in an orphanage and hope for the best?"
"There are," Dumbledore murmured, "other options…."
Snape took a moment to stare at Dumbledore in disbelief. "You can't… headmaster, you must be joking—"
"I would that I were, Severus," Dumbledore cut him off sadly. "But of all people, you knew Lily very well, did you not? Few can claim that."
"At a time," Snape snapped, "we were close, yes."
"Bonds forged by friendship do no die out so easily. Some burn on, even in the ashes…."
Snape could scarcely keep his lip from curling into a snarl. "My ancient friendship with Lily Potter does not make me a suitable guardian for her orphaned son—"
"But you have a connection, Severus," McGonagall cut in. "That is more than most could claim. You've a memory of the boy's mother, something to impart to him."
Snape studied McGonagall silently. She had always been clever. He wondered if she had already guessed at the truth that Dumbledore danced around, his most painful and most carefully-kept secret.
"Pensieve could do the same work. I never intended to rear a child, especially not the Boy Who Lived. I am wholly unsuited—"
"I disagree," Dumbledore interrupted. "But perhaps you need to think this over. Minerva? Have you anything to add?"
McGonagall's unusually piercing grey eyes held Snape's gaze for several unbearably long seconds. "I think you are up to the challenge, Severus." And with that she rose from her chair. "I should get back to the corridors. The students have been rather bold of late."
She strode back out of the room, shrinking as she went until there was no trace of the stern woman, only a tabby cat with strange markings around its eyes. The fleet-footed creature padded down the stairs and slipped out of the office.
Once the grinding of the stone passage halted and Snape and Dumbledore were once more alone, Snape began, "I cannot do this. There must be another way—"
"When you came to me, Severus, I asked you to promise me one thing. You swore to me that you would do all I asked, all you could, to keep Lily Potter's child safe."
"From a distance!" Snape hissed. " I don't know how to raise a child, especially not James Potter's son. He would be better off in other hands—"
"Ah," Dumbledore cut in, his eyes twinkling slightly, "this is not about your inability to take him on. This is about a schoolyard rivalry—"
" 'Rivalry' is hardly the word," Snape growled. "Potter was a menace. He tormented me for years. He was the wedge that severed me from Lily, the one good thing…." Snape trailed off, his voice growing hoarse. He cleared his throat and continued, "I will not—cannot—raise Potter's son. I say this for my sake as well as the boy's."
"Should the child pay for the sins of the father?" Dumbledore inquired mildly. "Would you condemn him to the same misery that bred so much unhappiness in you?"
"I…." But Snape's rebuttal about the severity of his situation died on his lips. Dumbledore had, after all, placed the boy with the muggles in the first place, and Snape knew that Harry's relatives had been extremely reluctant to take him in. If Dumbledore thought it was necessary to remove it from the situation, something serious must have occurred.
Flashes of Snape's own home life leapt to mind. Repressed fragments—his father drinking, his father swinging his belt around, his mother crying, hiding in his room….
Dumbledore had known about this weakness, and he'd struck.
"Meet with the boy," Dumbledore suggested. "Take him in for a short time to see if the two of you are compatible. If you are ill-suited to each other, we will look into making other arrangements."
Snape hmphed noncommittally.
"I know this is painful," Dumbledore said gently, "and this is, I promise, the last time I shall bring this up. But Lily Potter died for her son. She gave everything she had for him. Would you not be honoring her memory, and your feelings for her, most nobly by taking up this burden?"
Severus rose from his seat. His black robes closed around him like a dark, dense cloud. "You're right," he conceded sardonically. "This is extremely painful."
And with that he strode out of the office, his mind far too unsettled for his liking.
Snape continued to stare at the young boy, who seemed to be shrinking into himself beneath Snape's withering gaze.
There was not much to him, Snape thought. The image of his father, to be certain. Scraggly hair, scrawny limbs. He was awfully small for a boy of eight, going on nine. Dressed in oversized, ill-fitting clothing and a shoddy pair of glasses that had been taped together. He half-stood, half-hid behind his trunk, eying Snape warily, as if he might be venomous. Snape could make out the boy's now-legendary lightning scar, half concealed by his shaggy black hair.
And the eyes. Of course. Green and clear, like hers, and absolutely unbearable.
Snape turned from the boy back to the muggle family, the Dursleys, who'd huddled together at the foot of the stairs. The fat, neckless father stood in front, with his wife and his pudgy son peering out from his side. The horse-faced woman looked murderous, and the boy looked o be some combination of curious and terrified.
"He has all his belongings?" Snape inquired.
Vernon Dursley nodded sharply. He was trying to put on a brave face but was failing at it. "And you're taking the boy? You won't be coming back?"
"Not likely," Snape told him, watching as a bit of relief and smug satisfaction broke through the man's terror.
"And your kind won't be bothering us anymore?" he continued, almost gleeful.
Snape couldn't help himself. He smiled a thin, cruel smile as he fingered his wand, which he held concealed up his sleeve. He likely wouldn't have to perform a single spell to unhinge these muggles, just flourish his wand a bit. It would serve them right.
His eyes flashed to Petunia, who he remembered all too well. Her cruelty toward Lily had been a source of great torment. He could still see her in his mind's eye as a spiteful little girl mocking his clothes, calling him a freak, trying to tear Lily from his side….
No, he thought, it wouldn't be worth the headache he might cause, satisfying as it might have been to put the lot of them in their place.
"My kind will be keeping a close eye on you," Snape informed them coolly. "After all, you know too much. Come, Potter."
"Well, we didn't bloody well choose this!" Vernon sputtered. "You tell them to leave us alone, you hear? We'll mind our own business here, and you all can mind yours—"
"I would mind your step," Snape advised. "The Ministry will be monitoring you closely, I would imagine. If you keep your heads down and your noses clean, who knows? They may even decide not to make you simply… disappear."
All three Dursleys paled at those words.
"Mum!" Dudley squealed. "They can't—"
"Hush," Vernon hissed. "Listen here, we're happy to forget the boy ever existed—"
"Good," Snape said. "Time to go, Potter."
The young boy ducked his head down and started tugging at his trunk, which was much too bulky and heavy for a boy of eight.
Snape sighed and flicked his wand, which was still concealed up his sleeve, at the trunk. Instantly the trunk seemed to weigh a thousand times less, making it possible for Harry to maneuver it out the door.
They headed down the Dursley's drive, out toward the street.
Snape glanced down at the small boy, whose voice was so faint and uncertain that he barely heard it.
"Yes?" Snape sighed.
"The Dursleys won't really be harmed, will they?"
Snape almost rolled his eyes. "No, Potter."
The boy seemed to relax a little. "And… and I'm going to live with you?"
"Temporarily, yes. Until Professor Dumbledore can place you in a better home."
The boy nodded to himself, as if this was just confirming what he already knew. "And... are you really a wizard?" This he asked in a hushed, reverent tone.
The boy was as dense as his father, Snape thought.
"Yes. I was given to understand that Dumbledore explained this all to you."
"And Hagrid," Harry added eagerly. "It's just… I can't believe it!"
Good God, Snape thought. James Potter's son, completely flabbergasted by the mere thought of magic. He wasn't sure he had the patience for this.
"Now might be a good time to start believing," Snape advised him dryly. He scanned the deserted street and the shuttered houses, searching for any sign of muggles. Thankfully, this neighborhood seemed extremely antisocial and reclusive. How he despised coming out into these areas where he was forced to exercise caution for something as simple as Apparition. Thankfully, he'd chosen a particularly quiet moment to take his leave.
"Here, Potter," he commanded. "Take hold of my arm and don't let go. Unless, of course, you care to be sliced to ribbons."
Harry winced, undoubtedly imagining being magically ripped apart.
"And keep a tight hold on your trunk," Snape added.
With the boy clinging to his arm for dear life, Snape scanned the streets one more time before conjuring to mind the image of his humble home at Spinner's End.
The world distorted as an immense pressure began twisting around Snape, one that was only too familiar to him. Privet Drive disappeared, swallowed by blackness, before a wavering new location began to appear, at first like fragments in a kaleidoscope. The fragments rapidly expanded and coalesced, the pressure receded, and Snape found himself standing at the edge of the weathered stone path leading up to his narrow two-story home, a place he'd inhabited since childhood, despite the unpleasant memories that still festered within its walls.
Snape glanced down at his new charge, who'd sank to his knees, arms wrapped tightly around his stomach. Snape took a step back, knowing that, given that this was his first time Apparating, the contents of the boy's stomach may well have been on their way up and out.
Fortunately, the upset caused by the trip only seemed to have caused dry heaves, and gradually the boy seemed to recover. He pushed himself back to his feet, shaking his head a little to himself, likely to clear away residual dizziness.
"All right there, Potter? Have we made it in one piece?"
Harry touched his face, his arms, his legs, every part of his body, as if he might discover that a whole chunk of himself was missing. "I—I believe so."
"Good." Snape drew his wand, glad to have the familiar instrument back in his hand. "This is my home. Since you will be staying here for a short length of time, let us get a few things straight." Snape flourished his wand, sending Harry's trunk flying from the sidewalk and up the stairs of the house into the boy's bedroom. "My Cloaking Charm extends precisely to the front of the walk, no further. You are not to set foot beyond it."
Snape made his way up the path. Harry tagged along beside him, craning his neck around to take everything in.
Not that there was much to see. The brick house was unremarkable in every way. The lawn had not been properly watered, and in the heat of late spring the clumps of weeds were beginning to shrivel and brown. To any observer, it was just another run-down home, indiscernible from any other in the vicinity.
They reached the front door. Snape paused at the threshold to turn stiffly to Harry. "I expect you will exercise the utmost care and respect while staying here," he pronounced slowly, fixing the boy with a meaningful glare.
Snape pushed the door open, revealing the dim interior of his home.
Snape had done much work on the place since officially assuming ownership of it, after his parents' passing and his graduation from Hogwarts. He'd restored it entirely, transforming it from a state of utter disrepair to one of perfect working order.
While his repairs had made the place functional and habitable, from replacement of the shattered and boarded up windows to new flooring to completely redoing the lighting, Snape had not done much to make the place more inviting.
It remained sparsely furnished, to a point that it was almost impersonal. Nothing adorned the walls—no photographs, no paintings. The few rugs covering the scrubbed wood floor were tan and simple, chosen for practicality rather than style. The drapes were mostly beige, thick enough to block out all light if necessary. And Snape's penchant for perfect order meant that every surface in the house was immaculate, completely devoid of even the most mundane of clutter.
"You are a guest in this home," Snape continued, striding forward into the entryway. He pointed to the curtains of the solitary window on the back wall; they parted to let in a scant bit more sunlight. "As such, you will keep your hands to yourself. If it is not yours, you will not touch it."
Harry traipsed after Snape, his eyes wide as he took in the details of his new home.
Snape swept into the kitchen, a modest space fitted with a gas stove and a small, off-white sink. The pipes were old but well-maintained, meaning that the sink functioned, even if it did take a few seconds for the water to reach the faucet head. A decades-old refrigerator hummed in the corner. Snape kept it stocked with the basics—milk, butter, eggs, sausages, an assortment of vegetables, a few blocks of cheese. The cupboards were filled similarly, with the basics and little else. Snape did not often waste time cooking elaborate meals.
The sole exception to the barrenness was the tall, elaborate spice rack that sat on the counter beside the stove. There, in row upon row, sat jars of every imaginable spice and seasoning, from salt to saffron. It was that spice rack that seemed to have caught Harry's eye.
Snape cleared his throat with a loud "ahem" to get Harry's attention.
The young boy's head snapped back to him.
"If you require anything from the pantry, you will ask. You are not to touch the stove or any of the appliances. And if you make a mess, you will clean it up—promptly and thoroughly."
"Yes, sir," Harry agreed solemnly.
The sincerity of the boy surprised Snape. At least the muggles had instilled him a sense of respect, he thought. It was something to work with, if nothing else.
Snape swept from the kitchen into his crowded sitting room, which was made to feel even smaller due to the fireplace that jutted out from the right wall, taking up nearly half the space. A solitary loveseat sat pushed back against the far wall, wedged between two narrow bookcases, which were overflowing with worn volumes. Snape himself rarely used the room; the books shelved here were general volumes on a variety of subjects, such as Bathilda Bagshot's A History of Magic and 1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi, mostly leftover school books from Snape's years at Hogwarts. His own private collection, which was far more extensive and comprised of advanced titles, he kept in the study adjacent to his room.
"If you so desire, you may peruse this collection, so long as you do not damage these books in any way. That is, no rips, tears, stains, smudges, smears, blots, et cetera. They do not leave this room. I expect that, should you choose to borrow a volume, you will take the appropriate care in handling it." Snape glanced down at the young boy, who was squinting at the shelves, trying to make out titles. "Then again," he muttered, "not many of them have pictures…."
Snape continued to the right, to the slider door that opened from the sitting room out into the backyard, which was enclosed on three sides by a wrought-iron fence. It was not terribly large, though larger than most homes in the area had. It was spacious enough that, in the left half, Snape was able to maintain a small personal garden composed of various magical plants, complete with a tiny greenhouse for the less hardy species. Snape found it useful to keep a variety of plants with alchemical properties on hand, especially for his private research. To the right of the garden and greenhouse stood two scraggly trees, one an apple tree that produced only small, bitter, worm-riddled apples, and the other a twisted hawthorn tree that remained purely for aesthetic purposes—chiefly, that Snape had found no reason to remove it.
"If you venture out back, I advise you to steer clear of the plants, as there is no telling what irreparable damage they might cause you."
"Excuse me, sir," Harry chimed, "but don't you mean what damage I might cause to them?"
Snape's lips twitched up into a grim smile. "I do not."
Harry swallowed thickly and turned quickly from the door, as if merely looking at the wrong specimen might put him in harm's way.
Snape turned from the slider door and continued down the hall to the left, pausing before the room that had, at one point, been the home's master bedroom. He had long since converted it into a potions lab with an adjoining storeroom, and nearly always had three rare and difficult potions brewing within, most related to his latest sub-field of interest.
Snape did not bother to open the door to show the boy the interior. He had no intention of piquing his new charge's curiosity.
"My laboratory," Snape explained, "is strictly off limits, as is my private quarters and the basement. If I catch you attempting to slip into any of these rooms, you will be out of my home faster than you can say 'mea culpa'."
Harry's eyes flickered curiously to the closed door. "Of course, sir."
"Your room is up the stairs, along with your washroom. Your trunk is waiting for you. Go unpack and settle in."
"Yes, Mr. Snape."
Snape winced. There was something inherently wrong about that mode of address. He had never been a mister, and hearing the phrase now grated on his nerves. "Professor Snape," he corrected the boy. "I can only assume you have been slated to attend Hogwarts, meaning that in a few years' time you will be one of my students. So we might as well get into the habit now."
"Professor Snape," Harry repeated carefully, as if trying the words out on his tongue. "Excuse me, sir, but what do you teach?"
The bright, innocent gleam of curiosity in the boy's eyes was almost sickening.
"Potions," Snape replied curtly.
"Like, magic potions? Can you turn people into frogs, or make them fall in love like in the movies—?"
Magic potions. The kind of nonsensical redundancy that only James Potter's offspring could produce. Snape restrained himself from rolling his eyes, deciding that, so long as the boy was under his roof, he'd best start controlling himself, lest his eyes roll right out of their sockets.
"There are a wide variety of potions in this world, Potter, with a host of effects. For example, a few drops of a certain concoction might successfully transform a pestering young boy into, say, a gerbil, which I'm given to understand are quite quiet, require little care, and can be kept in small cages."
Snape watched with a twisted sort of satisfaction as the boy clamped his mouth shut and tipped his head down.
"We will eat in a few hours. Until then, I've work to do and am not to be disturbed. Is that clear?"
Snape watched the boy climb the stairs to the spare bedroom that had, at one time, been his own. He shook his head to himself, wondering not for the first time what he'd agreed to. He had a feeling that his headache was just beginning.
He'd promised Dumbledore that he would give this experiment two weeks, no more. Certainly he could keep the boy in line for that long. Certainly young Potter could not drive him mad in so short a time.
Two weeks and he would be done with this nonsense. No more fetching orphans from belligerent, insufferable muggles, no more explaining rudimentary concepts of magic and the wizarding world that any boy his age should know. He would be free again, left to his peace and quiet.
Snape could hardly wait.