CHAPTER 13

UNCONDITIONALLY

The cauldrons were the last of the boy's punishment. Severus could hardly justify anything worse, given the boy's remorse and obedience. That, and the return of the tremors that evening, just before their dinner, reminded him that the boy had already been punished most cruelly by Bellatrix. At least the tremors were not as violent or as noticeable as before, but it was awful still to see the limbs of one so young shake like that.

Three cauldrons only, too. A token punishment, really, and one that still settled uneasily in Severus' stomach. He tried to make up for it later that night, just before bed. He transfigured the loveseat once more, recreated the glowing orb of light, settled a glass of water down on the coffee table, and gave the boy his potions. No Dreamless Sleep, though he longed to offer Potter that relief. But it was unwise, of course. The return of the pain and tremors would likely come in the early hours of the morning, meaning the boy would have to wake, and best if he do so from a lighter slumber, not the heavy, deep darkness of a sleeping draught.

He gave the boy something light though, a sleep aid, in his evening tea. Something to help him drift off.

And then he forced himself to do one more kindness for his ward—though it was not very difficult, considering the child's reaction to all the other tidbits he'd shared about Lily. And after the memory… he could still feel the tight pressure of those arms around his midriff, fierce with gratitude.

Funny to think that, not so very long ago, he would have shuddered at the thought of any child embracing him. Oh, certainly there had been First Years who'd looked as though they longed to do so, who had gazed forlornly at their Head of House as if his cold exterior might suddenly melt, revealing paternal tenderness and fondness. No such luck, of course, not for them.

But the boy was different somehow. Severus had understood the magnitude of the gift he'd given Potter, a glimpse of a mother he would never know, a snapshot of her brilliance and kindness, and the sweet sound of her laughter. It was only natural that the child should have an extreme reaction.

And too, Potter had recognized the liberty he'd taken with his temporary guardian. He'd been shy, apologetic, concerned that he'd overstepped a boundary. Not like the annoying twits he taught who, Severus was certain, thought themselves entitled to his affection. No such entitlement from the boy, unsurprisingly.

Oh, yes, Severus had been a touch uncomfortable with the embrace. He'd neglected to respond in kind. He was not a demonstrative man, not a "hugger", as his colleagues might say, and so it was only natural that he not reciprocate the impromptu gesture.

That did not mean, though, that he had been entirely unmoved. The impression of Lily lingered in his mind—how could it not?—even as he began to see the boy in another light. So quiet, so reserved, so… unassuming, in every possible sense of the word. Merlin's sake, Potter had thought that Severus had rescued him from Bellatrix only to throw him immediately out of doors! Or to ship him off with Albus, at the very least.

The boy had worked his fingers to the bone that afternoon, first pulling weeds, then cramming his head full of knowledge. Potter had practically recited the chapter he'd been assigned when Severus had quizzed him on it, a note of panic hitching in his voice whenever he stumbled over information or failed to recall some useless tidbit.

And then the cauldrons. Severus had had to use a minor healing charm to close up the abrasions on the boy's fingers, since he'd applied himself so thoroughly to his task that he'd literally worked his hands raw. Severus had tsked lightly at that, and admonished the boy to take better care of himself, hoping to discourage such unreasonable zeal in the future.

And the boy had deflated at that, as if instead Severus had thoroughly berated him about his stupidity and worthlessness. He'd meekly apologized, and mumbled something about leaving blood in the cauldrons.

Severus had nearly lost it then. Thankfully he'd managed to get a firm grip on his temper and, rather than take out his fury on his blameless ward when it should be reserved for the boy's wretched Muggle relatives, Severus had merely reiterated his words about there being no point in scrubbing to the point of breaking skin.

He'd tried his best to be gentler with the boy after that. After all, it was clear to him that Potter was willing to throw himself with utter abandon into any task assigned. Likely, Severus realized, because the boy was hopelessly starved for approval.

Well, Severus would not—could not—coddle him. But he could be mindful of how he treated his charge.

Starting with meeting his basic needs. That night he'd dug up a few boxes of clothing that had been packed away in the attic and shrunk a good number of outfits down to fit his charge. The clothing was worn, most of it rather plain and overly formal, as per his usual style, holdovers from his early twenties. But it was still infinitely better than the tattered monstrosities the boy had been forced to wear up until then. He'd yet to mention to Potter that he'd incinerated all the remaining castoffs from his relatives, save his undergarments. That would have to be remedied at a later date.

And now, Severus sighed, he would offer the boy a bedtime story of sorts. What was the world coming to? Severus Snape, sitting down to send James Potter's son off to dreamland with a fond memory of the boy's mother?

Well. He was doing this for Lily. Surely this sentimentality could not be such a terrible thing. For Lily, and maybe, just maybe, a bit for the boy himself.

"Comfortable enough, Mr. Potter?" he inquired a bit gruffly, staring down at the boy.

Teeth brushed, hair combed (or, rather, an attempt was made at combing), bundled into pajamas, and his glasses already folded neatly on the coffee table. Those green eyes stared back at him, uncertain, apprehensive, tinged with gratitude and admiration (likely only because Severus had informed the little miscreant that his punishment had been sufficient). "Yes, sir," he said shyly, his eyes dropping down to where his hands twisted in his blanket.

Severus sighed. Well, he'd already decided to do this, he thought. No use in backing out now. He reached a hand into the pocket of his own dressing gown and withdrew the item he'd stashed there. It was just a duplicate, he reminded himself. This was a small gesture. A token, really. Albus should have thought to have sent the boy something like this ages ago.

"I have something for you."

The boy perked up instantly, eyes wide, shining with focus. Severus noted the way the child's hands clenched more tightly, and he wondered if it was fear, anticipation, or a mixture of the both. Though he hoped it was anticipation only. Really, he'd treated the boy well, hadn't he? Severus had given the boy no cause to be frightened of him. In fact, he'd worked rather hard to reassure the boy that no harm would come to him under this roof, hadn't he?

Severus pushed the notion aside and instead carefully extended the photograph to the boy. "A Muggle photograph, I'm afraid," he murmured, watching carefully as the boy lifted his hands to accept the gift.

Potter accepted it like a nervous altar boy accepting the bones of the Virgin Mary herself. He did not snatch it by the edges; rather, he held it aloft between two hands, pressing the stiff edges of the photo into the flesh of his palms, so that no part of his hands touched either side of the photo. He stared at the image, transfixed, a small, jubilant smile forming over his lips.

It was one of Severus' many photos of Lily, but one of his favorites. Taken at the end of their fourth year, early in the summer—just days after they'd both stepped off of the Hogwarts express, in fact. Lily had been tending to the gardens in the back of her house, using (as she was wont to do) just the barest touches of natural wandless magic to encourage the blooms in the flower garden. That afternoon, however, she'd gotten a touch carried away. Her parents had been delighted, of course, to see the garden overflowing, each plant full of lovely blossoms. Thankfully there had been no ominous letter from the Ministry, so the magic she'd exercised must have still been a low enough amount to evade detection.

Her parents, enthralled with their gifted daughter, had insisted she gather a bouquet to showcase her fine work. And she had. And they had memorialized the moment in photography, so here she stood, awash in the sepia tones of 70s era photography, her arms full of multi-colored blooms of every stripe, green eyes shining and lips stretched in a triumphant grin. She'd sent him a copy that summer, tucked into one of their habitual letters. Her caption was on the back still, in her looped, elegant script. "A Lily amongst the roses." And Severus had quipped back in his reply, "And still fairer than them all by far."

Such lines had never seemed quite as insipid when traded with Lily.

Severus sighed and summoned an armchair over. He sank into it, still studying his charge. The boy had eyes only for that photograph, and wide eyes they were. Severus wondered if the boy would even blink, fixated as he was.

"Your mother was a very gifted witch," he began calmly, allowing himself to be pulled by the stirrings of remembrance. He rarely spoke of Lily, mostly because his memories of her were so bittersweet, such a reminder of all he'd lost and all he'd wrought. Recounting them aloud only seemed to make it worse. But if he allowed himself to fall into the past…. Well, that seemed to mute the effects well enough.

He could feel the boy's rapt attention, the way his posture straightened further, the way the air suddenly stilled in the boy's lungs, as if breathing would be enough to offend Severus and cause him to stop. Starved for affection, starved for approval, starved for knowledge…. Internally, he shook his head to himself. They should have taken the boy away much sooner. Perhaps never left him in that wretched home in the first place.

"A very gifted witch," he continued, closing his eyes lightly and conjuring memories of that summer. It had started out slightly cool, and down the way from Spinner's End, in the Evans' neighborhood, everything had smelt of freshly-mown grass and sunshine. "She was particularly adept at Charms…."

And Potter stared on, drinking in Severus' every word.

XXXXX

Friday came, and Severus was resolved. Mostly. He'd yet to even broach the topic with his erstwhile ward.

The past few days had passed peaceably enough. Severus was finding that Potter's company was more and more tolerable, though the boy still seemed unnaturally jumpy. They spent most of their days in relative proximity to each other; Severus found that he was uneasy at the prospect of being too far from his ward. So while Severus worked in his study, he left the door open so that he could keep his ears open for sounds coming from the parlor, where he'd left the boy to read a chapter or two.

They prepared meals together. Potter turned out to be quite adept in the kitchen for a boy his age, particularly with prep work. As soon as it became apparent that the boy knew how to handle a paring knife, Severus left him to do most of the peeling and scrubbing of the vegetables, while he handled the more difficult and delicate tasks. Trussing up their roast, butterflying a chicken, deboning fish filets. He found too that he was more apt to prepare elaborate (or, elaborate enough) meals now that he had another mouth to feed. Potter's eagerness and engagement even made the task somewhat enjoyable. Not that he would ever admit to such a thing.

It helped that the boy didn't complain. Ever. He did as he was told, and he took special care in following instructions. He worked diligently. When he wasn't certain about something, he asked—hesitantly, his voice trembling, as if expecting a rebuke, but at least he could approach Severus. And he was relaxing more with each passing day.

Too, he applied himself to his studies. Severus made a point for the rest of the week to quiz the boy about his reading, mostly to verify that Potter had actually completed the task assigned to him. He had decided that no further punishments were necessary, true, but he hadn't been too apt about allowing the boy back his playthings, particularly that box of quarrelsome enchanted soldiers who'd led him astray and into danger in the first place.

He did eventually concede to outdoor time the second day, though he reminded the boy sternly beforehand to stay far away from his herb garden. Potter had agreed readily.

Perhaps the greatest factor in his decision was the increasing time they spent each evening remembering Lily. He still had Potter sleep on the transfigured loveseat, though the aftereffects of the Cruciatus had all but subsided. It was a precaution, especially since he was certain that Potter was now vulnerable to particularly nasty and vivid nightmares, thanks to his traumatic experience.

Severus had fallen into the habit of recounting stories and memories just before Potter went to sleep. He told himself it was to help the boy concentrate on pleasant thoughts and to ward against such nightmares, which had begun to dwindle in number and intensity since he'd started this practice. He firmly told himself that it was not because he enjoyed the habit. Much, at least. And even that was mostly because Potter listened respectfully enough, and asked few questions. Likely because he feared that badgering Severus for details would put an end to their little story time.

All in all, their coexistence—no, not coexistence, his guardianship—was turning out much smoother than expected. More than that, he found that something about it seemed almost natural (perish the thought). Potter had long since ceased to be an intruder and become a natural part of his daily rhythms.

And if Severus could be honest with himself, it was gratifying beyond belief to care for a dependent. To see the vestiges of trust forming in those emerald eyes, to see the worshipful awe etched in the boy's expression when he watched Severus work, or perform mundane household magic. To feel the sheer intensity of the boy's attention any time Severus deigned to answer a question or recount a memory of Lily.

Severus leaned back in his high-backed desk chair and ran an exasperated hand through his hair. Merlin, what was he getting himself into? This, what he planned to say to Albus, it went far beyond his initial grudging offer to extend Potter's stay under his roof. No, he'd sunken further into madness than that. He was up to his ears in it now, to be considering proposing such a thing.

Albus had said there was a way. And impossible as it had seemed, Severus had long ago learned that he could occasionally expect miracles from the wily headmaster. How the elder wizard planned to smooth this all over he had no clue, but he was certain it could and would be done, else Albus never would have brought up the possibility.

Merlin. To propose keeping the boy. Not on a provisional basis, not just until Albus made other arrangements. Admitting that he would like to do as much to the headmaster, after so adamantly refusing for so very long…. Yes, he had never liked the taste of crow. But needs must, he told himself. And more and more he caught himself thinking about what life would be like with that emerald-eyed little boy in it, infesting his home, trailing after him like a puppy, inundating Severus with a ceaseless flood of questions concerning magic and Hogwarts and Lily…. It would not be such a terrible thing.

Perhaps it was selfish and wrong, to want to secret away this last piece of Lily all for himself. To nurse that feeble connection to her, to assuage his own guilty conscience by providing for the very son he'd all but condemned to die all those years ago. Even to have this final, twisted victory over James, knowing that he, Severus Snape, would be the one to shield Potter's boy from the world, that Severus would be the one to teach him and guide him, that Severus would be the recipient of those fierce embraces of gratitude.

Terrible reasons, he scolded himself, to take in an orphaned child with a prophecy hanging heavily over his head. Terrible, selfish reasons.

But those were not the only things driving him to this course of action. Because he knew, beneath everything, that he was doing this for Potter alone. For that lost boy who'd tried to make amends by cooking breakfast. For the black-headed child who would smile timidly and blurt out questions, and never expect answers, only hope for them fiercely. For the boy who, even broken by Bellatrix's cruelty, had pulled enough courage from some reserve to turn right around and pelt the mad woman with stones. Yes, for that stupid, reckless, irritatingly endearing child, Severus would do just about anything.

Another thing he would never admit to anyone. Not even fully to himself.

But it was undeniable. A part of him wanted to follow this course for Potter's sake alone.

The Floo flared to life unexpectedly, and Albus Dumbledore's grave face appeared there, his eyes piercing over his half-moon spectacles.

"Severus, might I step through?"

Severus knelt down to bring his own face into view. "Headmaster. Of course, I'd just planned to contact you." He fought to keep his frustration from his tone. Had the man truly believed that Severus had forgotten his promise? "I had intended to contact you today. I was just about to, in fact. But do come through—"

Albus needed no further prompting than that. He dusted the soot briskly from his cobalt robes—a rather subdued style today, Severus thought. "I am certain you did, Severus," the headmaster murmured, pacing over to one of the bookshelves that lined Severus' study. "That is not the reason I came to call—directly, at least. The Ministry has moved Harry's custody hearing to this evening. It seems that Lucius has expedited things, which means, unfortunately, that we shall have very little time to devise a plan."

Severus swallowed thickly. Of course. Of course Lucius bloody Malfoy would not simply sit back on his heels and wait for Dumbledore to out-plot and out-maneuver him. He would pull every string he could to ensure that the hearing went in his favor.

"Given your… hesitation," Dumbledore continued, and hand rising to stroke and tug at his beard, "I cannot help but think that our only choice is to present the Dursleys as the proper choice for the time being, and argue that Harry's need for the blood wards is so dire that it would be irresponsible to allow him to go to another."

Severus felt as if his veins had turned to stone. "Lucius will bat that argument aside. He will point to his home as absolutely secure, and he would not be exaggerating much. You know as well as I how potent many of the ancient wards and protective spells there are, not to mention the Darker enchantments at work securing his home and property. And the Minister will side with him confidently, because as long as Potter comes to no harm—"

"Yes, yes, Cornelius will look competent, and maintain his favor with a key political ally. I am aware, Severus, but I can think of little else at the moment. We may have to accept that we cannot win this round, and instead plan for what we can do at a later date to correct this. I've no doubt that Lucius will treat Harry well, however… unsavory… other aspects of his guardianship might be—"

"And what would you have done," Severus interrupted impatiently, fighting down his irritation once more—a stronger surge this time—"had I intended to take Potter on in a permanent capacity? You assured me that you had a plan in place for such an eventuality. Is it no longer viable?"

Albus gave his beard a particularly hard tug as his eyebrows drew together in consternation. "Severus, my boy, I know I have been pressing you to consider taking Harry on, but I never intended for the decision to be made in response to a crisis. You should not feel obligated to take Harry on merely to spare him from Lucius. I admit, the situation is not ideal, but all is not lost—"

"Albus," Severus growled impatiently, "I had decided to have the boy stay before you arrived with this news. You assured me that you had a plan for such a thing, as I doubt striding into the Ministry and announcing that I wish to take custody of the boy will do the least bit of good. Is this plan of yours still viable?"

Albus stared at Severus hard for a long moment, his blue eyes intent. And then the headmaster smiled a smile that spread at a maddeningly languid pace. "Truly, Severus? You truly have decided to take charge of Harry?"

"Yes," Severus snapped, scowling. "And it seems to me that we have little time to waste on you preening or gloating, so I beg you, tell me what we might possibly do."

"Why, this is splendid," the headmaster mused, still smiling brightly. "Marvelous, simply marvelous. Have you told the boy? No, of course not, you would wish to arrange things with me first. Ah, this will be complicated. Hm, but doable, I should think. Have you explained anything of our difficult position to Harry?"

Severus grit his teeth. He could already tell where this was going. He knew his employer far too well. "Very little. Albus, what will be complicated? How do you plan to surmount the fact that I am an ex-Death Eater with no claim, blood or otherwise, on the boy?"

Albus waved Severus' concerns away with a lazy gesture of one wrinkled hand, just as Severus knew he would. "I've determined a way, my boy, never to worry. It will take a few owls, I believe, but we should be capable of pulling things together before the hearing this evening. I will take my leave, then, to see to a few tedious details. In the meantime, perhaps you could explain the situation to young Harry, and let him know of your willingness to let him stay?"

Severus' hands were balled into such tight fists that he could feel his short nails digging into his palms. Typical, he thought, for Dumbledore to revel in ambiguity and hints without revealing so much as a scrap of his master designs. For all Severus knew, Dumbledore could be expecting him to run around for the next decade polyjuiced as the boy's oaf of an uncle. Yes, Severus was amongst the lesser creatures, he knew, unfit to be brought into full confidence. Much better for him to stumble forward blindly until the headmaster finally decided to share his thoughts.

No use in complaining, though. It never did any good. "Very well."

Dumbledore beamed. "Excellent! Shall we convene in my office, perhaps for tea this evening? Five, shall we say?"

Severus dipped his head in acknowledgment. "Five then." He even managed to unclench his jaw enough to force the words out naturally.

Dumbledore helped himself to a generous fistful of Floo powder from the mantle. "Until later, then," he bade Severus cheerily, and, thrusting the powder down, called out for his office at Hogwarts.

Severus ran an anxious hand through his hair. But Merlin, why could nothing ever be simple? And just how did Dumbledore expect him to make light of this situation to a child? A young child, no less, though a bright enough one, if Severus was being honest. Thankfully the boy seemed to have inherited his mother's precociousness.

Well, needs must, he told himself. He automatically touched a hand to his left forearm. If he was to explain this, he would give young Potter the full story. The boy needed to know if this arrangement were to become permanent. The boy deserved that much.

XXXXX

Harry fidgeted nervously on the sofa. The Professor was pacing the length of the parlor, his body strangely tense. Harry didn't like seeing that, not one bit. He knew now that the Professor would never hurt him, but the few times his aunt and uncle had looked like that—once after receiving a phone call about Dudley, who'd broken another boy's nose at primary, and once when Uncle Vernon had received a call informing him that his sister Marge had gone into the hospital with a heart problem—that nervous, tense mood had broken into a tempest later, and Harry had borne the brunt of the storm. It was only too natural to fear that the man's state was foreshadowing something terrible for Harry.

He'd been reading quietly, as was his habit these past few days, when the Professor had strode into the room, face grim, announcing that they needed to have a discussion. A very important discussion.

Harry figured this was about where he would go now. The Professor's two weeks were nearly up, he knew. Just a few days left and the strange old Headmaster would be back to whisk him off to another family. Hopefully. Harry knew that the Professor didn't think that the Headmaster would let him go to an orphanage, but he found it hard to put too much stock in those words.

After all, the Professor was just doing his mother a favor. It wasn't as if he was responsible for Harry's welfare after this two weeks. He probably just thought that it was best to keep Harry pacified and protect him from any nasty truths. Maybe he just didn't want Harry to throw a fit, or cry like a baby, when he learned that he was probably headed to an orphanage after all. Or worse, straight back to the Dursleys.

And now it was too late to put off the truth much longer. Harry braced himself, vowing that he would get through this without bawling like a little child. He could be brave and strong, and holding himself together was the least he could do, after all the Professor had done for him. He still had the picture the man had given him of his mother tucked carefully away beneath his pillow. At least he would be able to keep that with him. The Professor had said that it was his now….

The Professor at last stopped his restless pacing and turned toward the loveseat, his sallow features stretched taut. "Potter…." There was a great deal of hesitation and uncertainty in the man's voice, as if he didn't know where to begin.

"Should I pack, sir?" Harry offered softly, peering up at the man through his lashes.

"What?" The man seemed genuinely startled. "No, why would you—ah. Ah." Understanding seemed to dawn in the man's eyes. He sighed heavily and withdrew his wand from his sleeve, and with a cursory flick of his wand he summoned an armchair to himself and sank down into it. "Two weeks. Yes, that was a part of what I wished to discuss." The Professor twirled his wand idly in his hands, his eyes cast off to the side, not quite meeting Harry's gaze.

Harry swallowed thickly. He didn't have to pack? What could that mean? He'd tried hard, sure. He'd hoped so desperately to be able to impress the man with his hard work. Never in a million years had he thought that he would actually succeed.

He'd learned early on that hard work wasn't enough. How many times had he pushed just as hard in his chores for his aunt and uncle? How many times had he been so very certain that this time the floor was spotless enough, or the garden was immaculate enough, or breakfast was good enough, for the Dursleys to start to like him, even just a little? And how many times had he been sorely disappointed?

But the man was telling him that he wouldn't have to pack. Unless the Professor merely meant that Harry had nothing to pack, since the Professor had provided everything and thrown out Harry's old clothing from Dudley. Oh, he hoped the man would at least let him keep one set of clothes. All he had that was really his was a few sets of socks and pants, and even those were worn and disgusting.

Maybe the Headmaster would let Harry hide under his robes if it came down to that. Just until he got to a new family who could spare him a shirt and trousers.

"Potter, you've seemed… comfortable here. Comfortable enough, at least. Is that right?"

Harry blinked. Comfortable? Sure he was comfortable. What a stupid question! "Yes, sir. Of course, sir. I—I really like it here."

The Professor nodded to himself, as if expecting this. "And you feel safe here, yes? I give you enough to eat and all? I don't frighten you too terribly?"

Now Harry was really confused. More dumb questions. The Professor knew the answer to those questions. Was he just making sure that Harry knew? That he appreciated things, like his relatives never said that he did? "Yes, sir, and thank you, sir—"

The Professor's eyes flickered to Harry, darkened with irritation. "I am not fishing for compliments, boy! There's no need to bow and scrape—oh, Merlin. What I am trying, very poorly, to say is that I believe… I believe it might be… acceptable… for you to remain here with me, as things seem to be panning out, and we seem… compatible." Abruptly, the man stood in agitation and resumed his pacing. "That, and the Headmaster is determined to have his way. And he seems utterly convinced that you will do best left in my care, for some unfathomable reason." The Professor stopped in his tracks and whipped back to Harry, his black eyes wary. "That is not to say that I—well, that I am not… amenable… to you remaining here. As I said, we appear to be compatible. And you seem content to remain. And if nothing else, this is a far better home for you than what your relatives offered you."

Harry blinked a few more times, trying to make sense of what the Professor was trying to say. He thought that it sounded like the man was telling him that he could stay here after all, but that seemed so unlikely. And besides, if that was what the Professor meant to say, why couldn't he just say it?

"Do you understand?" the Professor inquired.

Harry gnawed his lip, afraid to speak. "I… I don't think I do, sir. You—you'll let me stay here for a little longer?"

The Professor scrubbed a hand over his face, clearly exasperated.

"I'm sorry," Harry apologized quickly, "I was listening, I just—"

"No," the Professor muttered, dragging the hand from his face up through his hair. "I should explain better." The man drew in a deep breath, then asked, very plainly, "Potter, would you like to remain here with me permanently?"

Harry bolted straight up as his whole body swelled with emotion. Disbelief, first, numb and cold, and it seemed to him that something had disconnected his mind and body. And then that began to dissipate, replaced by the bubbling, tingling sensation of pure joy washing through him. He was being offered a home. He might not have to go back to the Dursleys or to an orphanage after all.

And he'd meant what he'd said. He really liked it here. Sure, the Professor was quiet and could be snappish, but he was brilliant too. And a real wizard. And he talked to Harry almost as if he were an adult. Yes, the big, confusing words were annoying sometimes, but Harry knew that he was picking up on them slowly, and soon he would sound as smart and polished as the Professor.

Plus, the man had already protected Harry with his own life. He'd dueled that awful witch just to save Harry, and given him medicine, and watched him for nightmares after. Harry still slept in the parlor, just down the hall from the Professor's bedroom, and he knew it was only so the Professor would hear him in the night if he cried out.

But best of all, the man told him about his mother. He'd known Harry's mother. It wouldn't matter if the Headmaster found the most wonderful family in the world for Harry, they still wouldn't be able to give Harry photos of Lily, or tell funny stories about wizarding school, or share actual memories in the big stone bowl thing like the Professor had that one time.

So of course Harry wanted to stay here. "Yes!" he cried, unable to restrain himself. He nearly jumped up, too, and ran straight over to the Professor to wrap him in a hug. But he was a little wary of being so forward with the man. The Professors hadn't seemed comfortable the last time Harry had embraced him, so Harry thought it would be better to show his gratitude with his words instead. "Please, sir, I'd really like to stay. I—I can be really good—"

"Potter," the man snapped, his words sharp even though his black eyes were strangely gentle, "your staying here is not contingent on your good behavior, and it never will be. If I take you on, it will be unconditionally. Do you understand that?"

Harry felt a blush creeping over his cheeks, the same one that came every time he had to ask the Professor to explain something. He started to shake his head when he remembered the Professor's abhorrence for nonverbal answers. "No, sir," he admitted shyly.

"Tell me, would your uncle and aunt throw your cousin out for misbehaving?"

Again with the dumb questions. "No, sir." Of course not. Dudley was their son. Harry didn't see what this had to do with the meaning of a word. Usually the Professor would just elucidate with a few short phrases, spitting them out as easily as if the man had swallowed a dictionary.

"Mm, but what if his behavior were truly deplorable? What if, Mr. Potter, your cousin ran off and nearly got himself killed? Or worse, what if he deliberately disobeyed all your aunt and uncle's rules? What if he told them 'no' from dawn 'til dusk every day, broke their prized possessions, called them awful names? Would they throw him out or send him away then?"

Harry couldn't help but utter a small snort. The man clearly didn't know his cousin. Dudley had done just about all of those things and his aunt and uncle still cooed over him and coddled him and gave him lollies and new toys. "No, sir, but—"

The Professor held up a hand to cut Harry off. His black eyes glittered with a strange intensity. "Do you imagine that your aunt and uncle are very different from most parents, Mr. Potter? That their love for your cousin is exceptional and excessive?"

Well, maybe a little, Harry thought, but only because Dudley was so awful most of the time, and his aunt and uncle still hardly scolded him. But he supposed it was only a tiny bit excessive, since most parents seemed to care a lot for their children, and probably wouldn't toss them out for being bad.

Even the girl in primary who'd been caught stealing things from the classroom had only been punished by her parents, not given up for adoption, even though Aunt Petunia had hinted that she should have been sent away, the dirty, lying thief. And Uncle Vernon had said that he wouldn't have put up with such a rotten little child in his home, blood or no, and then he'd given Harry a meaningful look. A warning look, Harry figured, meaning that he'd better not make the slightest bit of trouble, because he was only barely blood.

"No, sir." He swallowed thickly, and continued in a small voice, "But that's different, I know, 'cause they're Dudley's parents, and… and well…."

"Be-cause, Mr. Potter," Snape corrected him coolly, his eyes still intense. "And as for your point, if—when, I suppose—you officially come under my care, as my ward, I will be taking a binding oath to see to your welfare. There are no caveats, no escape clauses, for that oath. Regardless of your behavior—and it will be exemplary if I have anything to say about it—you will have a place in this home. Had your relatives been a respectable sort, they would have upheld this same oath, though I think we've established that they are rather deplorable excuses for human beings. I, however, am a man of my word. Unless you think I am not?" Snape raised an eyebrow at Harry, as if daring him to challenge his honor.

Harry didn't want to. Not because he was afraid to, but because he knew in some deep, powerful place that what Snape said was true. "No, sir."

The Professor gave one short, curt nod of approval. "Good. Then that's settled. However…." Snape scrubbed a hand over his face again. The man looked utterly exhausted. "We have a bit of a problem, and there is a… a great deal you should know before you accept my guardianship." Snape made a few gestures with his wand toward the kitchen, and within seconds a full tea service was floating through the door and toward the coffee table.

Harry watched, mesmerized, even though the Professor regularly used such magic. Every time he saw something like this, it filled him to the brim with an unbridled sense of joy. It reminded him that he was different, special, that he got to be a part of this amazing world now.

That being different was actually a good thing, despite what his aunt and uncle always said.

The Professor tapped the tea pot, and instantly steam began billowing out the spout. The man bend over the table, preparing two cups of black tea. "How do you take yours, Potter?"

Harry blanched. He knew what the question meant, sure, but it wasn't as if he'd ever been asked himself. He'd heard his aunt asking the question of her friends. Mrs. Willoughby took it black with two teaspoons of sugar, Mrs. Hartford with a dash of milk… he knew things like that because he occasionally was called to fix their cups for them, and to put on his grateful little orphan act for the neighbors.

"Um… nothing," Harry mumbled.

Snape raised a disbelieving brow at Harry but made no comment as he passed over a steaming cup.

Harry sipped at the tea, and decided that maybe a little sugar would have been the better choice. This just tasted like odd hot water. Blech. He continued to sip anyway, though, and forced himself not to make any faces, not wanting to make a fool of himself in front of the Professor.

The Professor leaned back slightly in his chair, teacup held stiffly in one hand, and crossed one long leg over his knee. He still wasn't looking directly at Harry; rather, he seemed to be studying the bookshelves along the back right wall dispassionately. "Before we proceed any further, Mr. Potter, there are some things you should know about me. I made some foolish choices in my youth, and those choices have directly impacted your life." The man took a slow, deliberate sip of his tea. "What did the headmaster tell you of your parents and the Dark Lord?"

Harry shifted uncomfortably in the loveseat. "They died when he came after them that night. They were supposed to be protected, but something went wrong and he found them, and—and Mum gave her life to protect me, and that's why I didn't die from the curse. It killed him instead."

Snape's attention flickered to Harry, the man's eyes expectant somehow. "And?" he prompted.

Harry felt an ashamed blush color his cheeks. "That's mostly all he told me, sir."

The Professor muttered something under his breath, something that sounded rather profane. Then he continued aloud, "You need to know more than that. You deserve to know more. And you're young, not a toddler. I don't know what Albus was thinking, but he and his good intentions can go hang." Another sip, then a pause. "Did the headmaster mention what the Dark Lord stood for, what his followers sought to attain?"

Harry shook his head. Though he really should have wondered about that, Harry supposed. He'd just assumed that the dark wizard had been crazy, like the murderers they sometimes talked about on the telly.

"Of course not." The Professor sighed. And then he launched into a long story all about Purebloods and Muggle-born and Half-bloods, and wizards who thought they were better than everyone else.

A/N: Thank you (once again) to everyone for your favorites, follows, and especially the reviews. A kind word about my writing really makes my day, let me tell you. Quick word about the pacing-I keep stretching things out. This chapter was supposed to get us through the hearing. Then it was supposed to get us to the hearing. Then it was supposed to at least get us to the unveiling of Dumbledore's plan. But Sev's interior monologue and waffling about everything... So, I apologize if this is not the most exciting chapter, but I promise (promise) this time that things will most definitely probably pick up from here. Unless the fluff starts writing itself, in which case all bets are off. Cheer, and to my French readers, à la prochaine!