"Watch over Harry, Severus, but don't let anyone know."
Those had been the last words Lily Potter had ever spoken to him. It had been right before she had gone into hiding in Godric's Hollow, and she had made her oldest and best friend swear Wizard's Oath that he would watch over her son should anything happen to her or James. She had said he was the only one she could trust, for he was skilled in the arts of healing as well as subterfuge. Severus had agreed, reluctantly, for James had never done him any bloody favors, but he could sense the desperation in Lily's tone and couldn't bear to refuse her. So he had sworn, and bound himself to be little Harry's unseen guardian, the watcher in the shadows, apart yet closer than his own heartbeat, thanks to a special bracelet Severus had given Lily to put on her baby. Once on, it would turn invisible and could only be removed by Severus himself.
The bracelet was keyed to Harry's emotional and physical state and would alert Severus, who wore its twin upon his left wrist, if something happened to the boy while under the care of his Muggle relatives, such as an injury or an illness or some violent emotional upheaval. He had protested to Albus, of course, that leaving Potter with Lily's sister and her husband was not a wise choice, but Albus had insisted that blood must take care of blood, and silenced the younger man with a stern glare.
Severus had subsided, seething silently, but vowed to be true to his promise.
Watch over Harry, but don't let anyone know.
Three years later:
Harry coughed loudly, trying his best to smother it with one little hand. If his aunt or uncle heard, they'd yell at him to stop being such a burden and he wouldn't be allowed to eat tomorrow because he had disturbed them with his damn coughing. But it was getting harder and harder to breathe in the cramped cupboard under the stairs. He had started coughing on Wednesday, from staying out too long in the rain, Dudley had locked him out of the house and no one had heard him banging on the door until two hours later.
Once Petunia had hauled him inside and scolded him for tracking mud on her clean floors, she had then sent him to his cupboard and locked him in. Harry had been shivering and soaked, and had done his best to dry himself with the tattered blanket, but it had barely been enough, and he had shivered the whole night through until his clothes had dried.
He had started coughing then and now it was getting worse. His chest felt heavy, it hurt when he breathed, he was achy and hot and hungry. He huddled under the threadbare gray blanket Petunia had purchased from the sixpence store, trying to stem the wracking cough that burst from his chest.
It was hopeless. He coughed loudly, feeling as if he were going to cough up his insides, his whole frame shook with violent tremors, and tears prickled his eyes. In a way, he almost hoped his aunt or uncle would hear him, because then they might come down and see what was wrong. His chest hurt so much . . .he was thirsty but there was no water, and it was dark and clammy and the door was locked.
Unknown to the child, the bracelet on his wrist began to send a silent alert to the man who had vowed, years before, to watch over him.
Severus Snape looked up from the cauldron of Swelling Solution he was brewing, feeling the bracelet on his wrist quiver urgently. This was the first time in three years the bracelet had reacted like that, and he immediately set down his stirrer and clasped his wrist.
Images formed in his head, of a child coughing under a raggedy gray blanket, sick and flushed with fever. Equally clear was the child's worry and fear and a sort of resigned desperation. Goddamn those Muggles! He swore and then he performed a Fetching Charm, which was a sort of limited Apparition spell, designed to fetch a single living thing or object to the caster.
In the cupboard, Harry wheezed and gasped, then vanished.
Only to reappear in the arms of a man wearing a dark velvet robe. Severus quickly cast the hood of his robe over his face, so that the child could only see a faint outline of his chin. The little boy whimpered and looked up at the face of his rescuer, frightened.
"Easy," Severus whispered, attempting to make his tone soothing. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"Where am I?"
"A magic place. A safe place. You're sick, Harry."
"Uh huh. My chest hurts." He coughed violently.
Severus winced, for the boy sounded as if he were going to hack up a lung. What the bloody hell was wrong with those Muggles? Why didn't they do something to help their own flesh and blood? He shook his head angrily. Well, if they would not help, then he must. He was bound by the oath he had sworn.
He frowned down at the boy, who looked so like his father that it made Severus's lip curl. But then he looked at Harry's eyes and those eyes, bright with fever, took his breath away. Her eyes. He has her eyes. The eyes of the woman he had once loved were now staring back at him. He felt his chest tighten and he blinked hard. Then he forced the inconvenient emotions down and summoned several potions to him.
He moved over to the chair, a comfortable leather one, that he normally kept in his lab for sitting in while he was waiting for a potion to steep, and sat down with Harry in his lap. "Now then, child. I'm going to give you some–"
"Medicine? Will it taste icky?"
"No, a potion. A magic potion. And yes, it might taste a little unpleasant. Nevertheless, you must take it. It will help you get well." If he had to, Snape would shove the potion down the brat's throat, but what the boy said next totally shocked him.
"Magic's not real."
"What? Who told you that?"
"Uncle Vernon n' Aunt Petunia. They said magic's just tricks n' mirrors and doesn't exist. There's no such thing."
Severus's jaw hung open. He had known that Lily's sister had never approved of her sister's magical talents, he had grown up with the Evans sisters, and knew Petunia was violently jealous of her younger sister for having an ability she never could, but to deny magic's existence, especially to her nephew, who was undoubtedly going to be a wizard as strong as his mother someday? It was . . .it was . . .preposterous! It was cruel and wicked. And it made Severus's blood boil. He fought to keep his temper under control. Petunia was lucky she were nowhere near him now, for he would have been hard pressed not to hex her miserable tongue out. Magic didn't exist, indeed!
"You're wrong, Potter. Magic is real. I use it everyday. And I'm going to give you a magic potion that will quiet that cough and another to get rid of that fever." He shifted the boy slightly, sitting him up against his shoulder. Merlin, but why did the child feel so thin? He could practically feel his ribs, even through his heavy velvet robe. He carefully unstoppered the vial of Decongestion Draft and poured a measured dose into a small graduated cup.
"Open up and drink," he ordered, pressing the cup to the little mouth.
Harry obediently opened his mouth, and Severus gently tipped the cup and the thick Decongestion Draft flowed down the child's throat.
Harry sputtered and grimaced. This magic potion tasted utterly nasty!
"Swallow, young man."
"Ugh!" Harry wanted nothing more than to spit the horrible stuff out, but a hand was holding his mouth closed and he was forced to swallow.
As soon as he had done so, the pain in his chest eased and he could breathe a little easier.
"Now for the next one."
Severus administered the fever reducer next, this one didn't taste quite as bad, but he made sure the child swallowed with a firm hand to his chin, tilting the boy's head back as well.
"There. You should start feeling better soon."
"Uh huh." Harry yawned, he was feeling sleepy and the arms that held him were warm and soft and he nestled his head deeper into the dark fabric. He had never felt so safe in all of his life. There was an odd smell in the air, some kind of spice he didn't know, but he was too tired to ask what it was.
His rescuer was frowning down at him, though Harry couldn't see that because of the hood. Snape couldn't believe the nerve of the little brat. He was falling asleep on Severus's shoulder, of all the cheek! What made the brat think he could be allowed to do that?
But there he was, sound asleep, his lashes a coal black smear against the porcelain white cheek.
"Humph! Bold as brass, just like your damn father! Figures," muttered the Potions Master sourly.
He thought about returning the boy to his . . .home, if one could call it that, but then he recalled that Potter might need another dose or two of potions and so he transfigured the brat's clothes--what was he wearing? It all looked two sizes too large–into a soft set of pajamas with green snakes on them, then transfigured an old set of scales into a child-sized bed.
I will keep him here for the night, to monitor him. Then, once I'm sure he's recovering, I'll send him back home.
Severus frowned viciously. From what he had observed, he didn't think the Dursleys were fit guardians, but he had to send the boy back, his disappearance would be noted after too long. Watch over Harry, Severus. But don't let anyone know.
The Potions Master heaved an exasperated sigh, damning the impulse that had made him swear an oath to watch over this quasi-reflection of his rival. Still, a promise made must be kept.
So he carefully laid the sleeping child in the bed he had conjured, and tucked the covers under his chin. The boy should sleep through the night. Then Severus turned back to his brewing, glancing every so often at the still form in the bed. The things I do for you, Lily.
The next morning, Harry's fever and breathing was much improved. Snape administered both potions again, this time Harry took them without a fuss. Afterwards he looked at his black-robed rescuer and asked, "Who are you?"
Severus ignored the question.
Harry frowned, wondering why the man didn't answer. Instead, he whirled about and went to the other side of the magic room, where something was cooking in a large black pot over a fire. The man's black soft robe billowed behind him kind of like wings.
Harry frowned. He recalled his teacher at preschool saying that sometimes angels came down from heaven to watch over little children. Harry had asked her if they even watched over kids who were . . .strange and freaky . . .and she had said yes, that angels were there for everyone, but especially children. They watched over them and protected them always.
Perhaps this one was an angel. But the angels in the books all had white robes and wings. But maybe his angel was different. Like he was different. Yes, that made sense. He had a dark angel instead. Harry smiled, then he yawned. He felt sleepy again, so he snuggled down into the soft bed, it felt so very good, like a cloud, and fell asleep.
When Severus looked up a few moments later, Harry was curled on his side, sleeping soundly.
Time to send him home, wretched place though it is, thought Severus reluctantly. He waved his wand and intoned the reverse of the Fetching Charm.
Harry potter vanished from the little bed and reappeared a second later in his dingy cupboard, restored to health once more.
This continued over the course of Harry's childhood.
Whenever he was sick or hurt, he would retreat to his cupboard and would be magically fetched to Severus's side. Severus would then use his potions and healing skills to cure the boy, keeping him under surveillance until he was healed. He never told the boy his name, and he never let the child see his face, always remaining hooded.
Harry grew to think of him as his dark angel, and that was what he called the man in his mind. When he was with the angel, he knew nothing would ever harm him, in the magic place of warmth and spicy strange smells, he was safe. Sometimes the angel would feed him before sending him back, or give him food and drinks to take with him.
"I must send you back, child, but I will always be here if you need me."
One time, Harry had been badly burned while cooking dinner over the stove, he was around eight, and when it came time for him to go home, he had burst into tears and clung to the velvet robes. "Please, sir! Please let me stay! I don't wanna go back!"
The sobbing plea tore at the wall Severus had built around his heart, tore and shredded it until it was crumbled to naught but dust, and he looked down at the undersized waif gripping his ankles and felt a scorching anger at his mentor followed by a heart-rending anguish for the scrawny unloved boy, who had somehow ceased being a brat he took care of out of duty, and instead had become something more, something very like a son, if only he could bring himself to admit it.
A secret son, a son who was borrowed, but nevertheless a son.
He laid a hand gently on the weeping boy's head, that messy mop that would never be tamed, no matter how many times Petunia shaved it or Severus combed it. "You cannot stay, Harry. You know the rules."
Harry sobbed harder. "Don't care! I hate the rules. They're dumb! Please let me stay! I'll-I'll do anything. I'll clean, I'll scrub the floor, I'll cook."
"Child . . ." Severus began, his throat hoarse from choking back his own bitter bile. He wanted, more than anything, to have Harry stay, but it had taken him too long to recover from this latest hurt, and Severus could only use the Time Turner so long before it was noted by the Ministry. Two days, no more. Watch over Harry, but don't let anyone know. "I . . .am sorry. But you must go back. Now stop this and stand up, you're acting like a whiny two-year-old."
"Harry." Severus made the boy's name into a lash, and the child flinched.
Conditioned to obey such a tone, he rose, but he refused to look his angel in the face. Instead he kept his gaze upon the floor upon the dark guardian's boots.
One finger tipped the boy's chin up, until the accusing green gaze was piercing Severus's own, stirring feelings of guilt and regret within the other's breast, emotions he had not felt in eight years, since Lily had breathed her last.
"Understand, I do this because I have to. It is not because I wish it."
"But why? Why do you have to?"
Severus sighed. "I cannot answer that. But there is a reason."
Harry sniffled, looking so forlorn that Severus broke his own rule, and hugged the boy for a very long moment. He had tried so hard not to become attached, but little by little, over the years, Harry had managed to worm his way through the thorn thickets that surrounded Severus's heart.
Then Severus stepped back and sent Harry from him, and with the boy's departure felt the bitter ache of longing curdle in his throat.
Harry reappeared in his cupboard with a pop, as always, and the only warmth he had to sustain him was the memory of the dark angel's arms about him, holding him close.
He did not see the angel again until two years later, when he developed pneumonia from Dudley nearly drowning him at the local pool one afternoon when the lifeguards were off duty. Then he had been so ill that Severus had feared for his life.
It had taken almost three days for the Potions Master to bring down the 104 degree fever and repair the damage done to Harry's lungs. During that time, he barely ate or slept, consumed with making the child get well, he worked feverishly brewing and administering one draft after another.
Until finally, after forty-eight hours, the fever broke and Severus could rest. He fell asleep in the chair next to Harry's bed, exhausted to the bone.
Not long after, Harry awoke and found he felt better. He also saw, to his shock, the angel sleeping beside him. He had never thought the angel needed sleep. But apparently, it was so. For there he was asleep, and the hood . . .
The hood that always covered the angel's face had fallen off.
Harry slipped from the bed and crept over to peer at it.
It was a face that was pale, framed by long midnight hair, a strong nose and long chin. It was not particularly handsome, but there was something . . .noble about it. Harry stared at it for a long time, then crept quietly back to the bed and flopped down on it. Now he had seen the angel's face, the one thing he had always wondered about. He bit his lip. He didn't want the angel to be mad. If he got angry, he might send Harry away for good.
So the boy quickly jumped up and replaced the hood over the sleeping face.
There, now no one would know Harry had seen the face of his guardian.
When Severus awoke some four hours later, he found Harry asleep. He checked the boy's temperature and found it was normal. So were his lungs. Heaving an immense sigh of relief, Snape woke Harry up and fed him some soup and bread with butter.
Harry knew what that meant. It was almost time to go.
But he knew better than to protest. So he bid the angel goodbye and hugged him hard before being sent back to his cupboard upon the wings of magic. This time, at least, he had the angel's face and arms to keep him company inside the dreary cupboard, until Petunia summoned him to do more chores. And that was enough.
One year later
Harry hurried along the corridor, his new school robes flapping awkwardly about his knees, as he ran to his Potions classroom. He didn't want to be late for class his first day here. He stumbled to a halt just outside the door, fumbling with unsteady fingers for the handle.
Then he opened it and stepped inside.
As he did so, he breathed in the familiar scents of astringent herbs and sweet marjoram and basil. It washed over him in a wave and he gasped in recognition. This was the same smell that had always permeated the room where he had stayed with the angel, recuperating from illness and injury. He would know that smell anywhere.
He stepped cautiously into the doorway, feeling an odd sensation in the pit of his stomach. He felt as if he had come home.
He glanced down at the rows of desks, the cauldrons lined neatly along the back row, and then his gaze was drawn to the desk where a slender man in a black robe sat, marking papers with a green quill, frowning in disapproval.
"Sir? Uh, I'm here for class," Harry said, wondering after he'd spoken if he should have kept silent.
The Potions Master, whose name, according to Ron, was Professor Severus Snape, looked up with a scowl. "Well then, have a seat, don't just stand there dawdling, boy, like. . ." he trailed off, recognition slamming into him like a sledgehammer.
Emerald eyes met obsidian.
"You. It was you. You were the one who took care of me all those years," Harry whispered.
Severus could not answer, his tongue was frozen to the roof of his mouth.
How had Harry recognized him? And what was he going to do now?