Explosions from the Potions Lab were entirely normal at Hogwarts castle, not only during the school year – those kind of explosions barely registered, as they only occurred with student potions – but especially during summer, when the Potions Master experimented.
The House Elves had long since grown used to that, and even formed a specialized team to clean up afterwards. They also occasionally had to assist an injured and/or humiliated Potions Master in going to the infirmary to get rid of a variety of potion-induced injuries and effects. Wit the defeat of Voldemort the Potions Master had even more time on his hands, so the crew had plenty of practice.
Still, what they found on a morning in July, five years after Voldemorts defeat, was a little more than their experience could handle.
The rooms were completely destroyed. Fortunately most dangerous potions were contained in unbreakable bottles, but still the mess had gotten everywhere.
After a short communal 'EEP!' the elves set to work, expecting to find the Potions Master somewhere among the rubble. Their scans showed he was still alive, so they made him their priority as soon as they had secured the room.
The four year old boy they retrieved from what had once been completely decent black robes, however, was unlikely to answer any questions any time soon.
A quick brainstorm session by the elves resulted in a tiny Potions Master securely tucked in an infirmary bed, Headmaster Dumbledore having been apprised of the situation – he had been on his way down to check on Snape anyway, considering the force of the explosion – and half the castle elves working on restoring both the rooms and any damage to the castle foundations.
The Headmaster stood staring at the sleeping child with a frown on his face.
"Does we be needing to change rooms for little Professor Snape?" one of the elves asked, "Potions Masters rooms are damaged."
"I don't think that will be necessary," the Headmaster bit his lip, "there are few people available to look after him and the castle is not safe for a child to roam around unsupervised. We will have to find a place where he can stay until the potion wears off or we find an antidote."
"You is taking him to the Wheezy's, Headmaster sir?"
Dumbledore shook his head. "Molly and Arthur are stretched already with the dozen or so orphans they took in. Besides, Severus grew up in a Muggle neighbourhood – he would be frightened in a magical household even if he did experience magic."
A twinkle appeared in Dumbledore's eyes that would send the people who knew him best running for cover. A Profoundly Bad Idea That Seemed Good At First Glance was in the making.
The Dursley family had enjoyed five years of normalcy after the defeat of That Freak. Dudley had finally graduated from Smeltings the month before and Vernon had gotten him a job at Gruntings. Although he had strongly advocated that his son should become at the very least, Assistant Director, the only person around who could veto Vice President Dursley's decision, the President and owner of the company, did just that, and Dudley started out at the mailroom, with promises that if he did well, he would be promoted.
Right now, Vernon was having to use all of his considerable influence to prevent Dudley being fired outright. Fortunately, a few threats and a little flattery so far were enough to cover up for Dudleys mistakes and violent behaviour, so all was well.
So, just when all was well for the Dursley family, disaster struck. One morning at breakfast, a strange-looking creature (a house-elf, Petunia dug up from memory) just teleported into their kitchen with a small darkhaired boy.
"I is sorry for interrupting yous breakfast," the elf said, grammatically incorrect but polite enough, "Headmaster Dumbledore is asking me to take little Severus here. He is saying yous be willing to look after him for a while. I is going to be picking him up later."
"WAIT!" Vernon bellowed, "what do you mean? Is this another freak? And what's this about us taking care of him? How long?"
"I's do not know that," the elf said apologetically, "little master had an accident. Is taking some weeks to clean up. Headmaster Dumbledore not be allowing him to stay in the castle."
"Severus?" Petunia narrowed her eyes, "Severus Snape?"
"Yes, this is being Professor Snape," the elf confirmed.
"Do you know the freak, Petunia?" Vernon asked.
"Yes, he is that horrid boy that used to live next to us at Spinner's End," Petunia pushed the boy towards the elf, "We are not taking him. Give him back to that old fool."
"I is not allowed to take him back, not until Headmaster says so," the elf popped away.
Severus stared at the big people in fright.
"Not again," Vernon glowered at the child.
"Well, the cupboard is still empty enough," Petunia said with an evil gleam while Dudley stared dumbfoundly at the child.
Vernon grabbed the boy by his collar, threw open the door to the cupboard and locked him in.
Severus curled up unhappily on the small mattress in the cupboard. In the three days he had been here, he had been slapped and made to work a lot. The woman constantly yelled at him, made him do chores that he couldn't do yet. And if he wasn't working, they locked him in the cupboard.
There had been someone else living in here as well, though. Severus was a bright boy – he had taught himself his letters already. There were letters on the wall of the cupboard, he could see them. H A R R Y S R O O M. This had been another boy's room once, he thought, someone whose name had an H and an A and R R Y.
The door opened, and the bulking form of Vernon Dursley stood in the opening.
"Lazy brat. Laying around doing nothing like all of your kind. Come along," he dragged the child from his cupboard and threw him into the garden, "Petunia wants to plan flowers down there," he pointed, "and I ordered earth to do it."
Severus stared at the large mount of earth and the shovel that stood in it.
"You are going to spread it out evenly over the empty patch there," Vernon pushed the child towards the shovel, "and mind you don't make a mess, or I'll take it out of your hide."
Several hours of working in the hot son later, Dudley strode into the yard, eating an icecream.
"Little freak," he smirked, looking at the dirty and sweaty boy, "not nearly done yet, are you? Dad'll be furious."
Severus was halfway done when Vernon Dursley appeared. The boy was too tired to protest the yelling, the slaps and being dragged to the cupboard.
He was let out the next day only when Petunia had chores for him to do. His tired, aching arms could not comply however when she made him first mop the floor, and then lift the heavy bucket to the sink. The bucket toppled and dropped to the floor, drenching everything, including Severus.
"MY KITCHEN!!" Petunia screeched, advancing on the cringing child.
"You horrible brat," she hissed, "you did that on purpose."
Severus frantically shook his head, fear on his face as Petunia reached for the nearest kitchen implement and grabbed him.
Harry Potter wandered into Hogwarts on his way to meeting the Headmaster. Five years of working as an Auror was enough for the young man, and when the offer came to teach at Hogwarts he decided he had to give it some serious thought.
Although he had not kept in contact with the Headmaster much, he did look forward to catching up with the old man. Time had healed many of his old wounds and issues.
The interview went well, and Harry agreed to teach DADA the upcoming year. Although the curse had ended, the teacher was retiring after three years and Harry was looking forward to filling the vacancy.
"Did you visit your family recently?" Dumbledore asked, twinkling.
Harry nodded, a little confused. "Sure. I visit Molly and Arthur at least every week, and usually I get in touch with Ron and Hermione almost every day. Why?"
"Not them, dear boy. Your aunt and uncle."
Harry's eyebrows raised so much that they almost slipped down the back of his neck. "Why on earth would I want to visit them?"
The Headmaster seemed surprised. "Surely you are in contact with them!"
"Of course not," Harry shook his head, "Headmaster, you know I was unhappy there. I realize now, after all these years, that I had to live there to be protected against Voldemort, but it was truly the lesser of two evils. I even toyed with the idea of filing child abuse charges against them, and only decided against it because it would bring me even more publicity that I did not want."
Dumbledore seemed pale and subdued. "It…it can't have been that bad, can it?" he asked, pleading.
Harry sighed. "They locked me in the cupboard under the stairs for the smallest offences, and sometimes for no offence at all. They did not feed me adequately. They did not outright beat me, but they did slap me a lot, and made me work like a slave. By the time I went to Hogwarts, I could keep an entire house by myself."
The old man looked defeated, and Harry narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Why?"
Dumbledore looked up. "Severus had a potions accident last week. He turned into a four year old. I – I felt too busy to care for him, so I had him sent to your relatives…"
Harry's eyes widened. "Are you insane? We have to get him out of there! Petunia hated me for my magic and for being Lily's son, she hated Severus even more!"
Dumbledore almost jumped up, his eyes worried. "Let us go. You apparate us there, Harry."
Petunia sat back on the couch, a tabloid in her hand, a cup of tea and some chocolates on the table. Time for a well-deserved break. Vernon and Dudley were at work, the little disaster had been locked away.
She was just starting on the juiciest Royal gossip when the doorbell rang, quite frantically. With a muffled expletive she got up and janked the door open. Whatever greeting might have been on her lips died as she saw her nephew and the old man on her doorstep. Oh dear.
"Where is he, Petunia?" Dumbledore demanded.
"YOU!" the woman exploded, "how dare you come barging in and order me around! You drop childen off on my doorstep as if this was an orphanage!"
Harry meanwhile, pushed past her towards the cupboard.
"And you! You swore you would never come back here," she rounded on him.
"I didn't intend to," Harry said calmly, proceeding to pick the lock on the door. He didn't bother asking her for the key, "but apparently mistreating me wasn't enough for you."
The lock opened with a click, and Petunia backed away. Harry stared into the darkness. A small, dirty form huddled in a corner, his arms over his head to protect himself. Nausea filled him – how often had he himself not been in that position?
"Come," he said to the boy, "come here. I am not going to hurt you. Come out."
Severus, seeing that this man was not one of the people who had hurt him so much this week, stumbled out of the cupboard, tensing when he saw Petunia.
When Dumbledore moved into view, the boy started sobbing.
"I sorry!" they managed to make out from the small form, "Sorry! I not do it again, I promise. Can Sev'rus come home, please? Be a good boy…please."
All blood drained from Dumbledore's face. "Severus," he coaxed, waiting for the boy to look up, "come," he opened his arms.
Severus slowly moved to him, sobbing harder when the arms closed around him. But when Dumbledore moved to pick him up, he squirmed.
"No carry! No carry!" his voice high and panicky.
"Alright," Dumbledore assured him, "we are leaving. Just hold on to me very tightly."
He looked up at the petrified woman. "Again you escape punishment," he sighed, "I do not understand how you can treat a child like this."
She shook herself out of her stupor and glared at him defiantly. "Look who's talking," she sneered, "you are the one dropping off children like sacks of potatoes. If we were so bad, why did you keep sending him back? And having that horrid creature deliver this one?"
The Headmaster closed his eyes briefly. "I must answer for my own crimes," he said, "but they do not excuse you from yours."
He laid a hand on Severus's head, keeping him close. With duel cracks, he and Harry Apparated back to the edge of the Hogwarts wards.
Harry set off almost immediately – to find his foster brothers, the Weasley Twins. Dumbledore suspected he had some sort of revenge in mind, but really did not want to know what it was. Instead, he turned his attention on the dirty, sadly neglected child by his side.
Severus looked up at him, his eyes large and sad. "Not going back?" he asked, a touch of hope in his voice.
"No, child, you are not going back," the Headmaster assured him.
"I'll be good," the child promised, his eyes bright and eager, "I'll not be bad again."
The old man choked up. "Severus," he pulled the child close, "you've not been bad, dear child. I am so sorry," he cuddled the boy, "I am so very sorry. You've been such a good boy."
He pulled himself together. Severus had been through enough, he did not need an adult breaking own on him.
"Let's get you cleaned up," he said, taking the small hand in his own. He guided the child to the bathroom, where he lifted him to stand on a dresser and proceeded to strip him of his soiled clothes.
Obviously the child had not showered since he left Hogwarts. The clothes were soaked in sweat, mixed with dirt and all sorts of stains. Removing the shirt revealed finger-shaped bruises on the upper arms and Dumbledore clamped down on his anger. Severus looked at him fearfully when he moved to strip him off his trousers as well, and it soon became apparent why.
The child's bottom was bright red, with slight bruises. No wonder he did not want to be carried.
"What happened, Severus?" he asked gently as he turned the child around to better inspect him.
"I was bad," Severus whispered, "dropped the bucket. Took food from the bin. The…the woman…she had a big spoon…"
Dumbledore gathered the crying child into his arms, dirt and all. "Shhh, sweety. That was very bad of her. You did nothing wrong. I am going to give you some potion, and wash you. Then you can have food and drink. Plenty to drink, I should think."
The severe sunburn and dry skin had not escaped his notice. Severus was dehydrated. He got a bruise cream from the cupboard. It would work fast enough that the worst of the bruises would fade before he gave Severus his bath, because the child certainly was not able to sit down in the tub as he was. Afterwards he would apply fresh.
He started with the bruises on the upper arms, and Severus watched with him as the purple patches faded to greens and yellows. Then he turned the boy around again, and carefully applied the cream to the small buttocks. Severus sniffled as he did so, but the cool cream probably felt good. The immediate easing of the pain made the boy relax a little.
"A few more moments," Dumbledore said as he filled the tub, "do you need to use the loo, my boy?"
Severus shook his head, and Dumbledore mentally noted to get plenty of fluids into him soon. When the bath was drawn, he lifted the boy into it. Severus sat on his knees, hissing a little as the water touched his burned skin. Dumbledore turned to rummage through his cabinet, looking for something to ease the sunburn. He turned back to see Severus sip some water from the tap. He guiltily moved away when he noticed the old wizard had seen him.
"It is alright, little one," Dumbledore said with a gentle smile, "you can drink. When we are done here, you can have juice, too. Would you like that?"
Severus nodded, not objecting when Dumbledore began the arduous process of removing the dirt from his aching and in some places, blistered skin with a soft washcloth. Finally the Headmaster removed a clean boy from the bath, patted him dry with soft towels and re-applied the bruise cream. Another cream for the sunburn, and Severus was dressed in soft, thin pyjamas.
This time he allowed the Headmaster to carefully carry him. He was tired and the shock of the day was catching up with him. Dumbledore fed him juice, laced with nutrient potions, but the boy was not that interested in eating. Dumbledore finally carried him to his own bedroom, where he sat down against the headboard, the child in his arms. Severus stretched and accidentally knocked the Headmasters glasses off. The old man simply chuckled, and put them aside, but the boy had stilled in his arms.
"Severus?" he asked, "what is it, child? It is alright, it was just an accident."
That was apparently not the right thing to say as the boy began to tremble violently. Muffled sobs emerged, alternated with pleading.
"Shhh, now, shhhh," Dumbledore rocked, "What is wrong, little one?"
"Not send me back," Severus sobbed, "not send me back."
"Goodness. Of course I would not send you back," the Headmaster held him closer, "why would you think that, dear boy?"
Severus clutched his robes. "I was bad. Had accident. Elf said so. Brought me to Them. Not send me back to them!" he frantically clawed Dumbledore's clothes, "not have anymore accidents! Promise!"
Suddenly it clicked. The de-aging. Severus had thought that he was sent to the Dursleys as punishment for having an accident. He believed Dumbledore would use the Dursleys as punishment when Severus was bad, even when it was an accident.
Tears dripped down the old face and into the beard, some landing on the dark head of the child.
"No, no, Severus," he whispered, "no, you are never going to be sent back to them. Never. You have not been bad. You are a good little boy, and you are going to stay right here with me."
Long minutes later, Severus eased his grip on the folds of the Headmasters robes and sighed, his eyes closing. The rocking and soft reassurances settled him, and the lack of pain, thirst and hunger that had prevented him from sleeping before were absent.
The Headmaster tucked the boy into his bed and laid down next to him, the child's head on his arm. Only four years old, he mused. How could anyone treat such a young child with such lack of affection?
He was hardly blameless in that regard, his inner voice chastised him. He leaned forward and pressed a kiss on the child's head.
"I'll look after you now," he said softly to the child, "No one will hurt you again. And when you are your own age again, I will beg your forgiveness and continue to be a proper father to you."
Severus, hearing a gentle voice instead of the harsh yells and slaps, curled towards the welcome warmth. Dumbledore gathered him close, letting him sleep nestled against him.
They were still there, curled up together, Dumbledore dozing a bit while the child slept, when Harry returned. He smiled at the scene, a little sad. If only someone had taken him from his relatives when he was four. But he head learned not to dwell on things in the past years, and appreciate what he did have. And he had two brothers who, just as outraged as himself, had started planning proper revenge on the Dursleys. They had wanted to plan something for Dumbledore too, but Harry had pointed out that Severus deserved to be involved in that once he was a grown-up again. The Twins reluctantly agreed, but did start to think on some good ideas and collecting gags.
"No," the boy softly pleaded in his sleep. Dumbledore apparently did not hear, napping himself. Harry sat down on the bed and stroked the dark hair.
Severus's eyes snapped open and he stared at the person who had freed him from the cupboard.
"Hey, Severus," that person said, "how are you? I am Harry."
The small mouth fell open. "H…A….R…Y?"
Harry chuckled. "H, a, r, r, y," he spelled.
"You're the other boy who lived in the cupboard," Severus said, "it said so."
Harry bowed his head. "I remember writing that on the wall," he said, "I did not know you could spell."
Severus eyed him warily. "Not hurt me?"
"I am not going to hurt you," Harry confirmed, not finding it strange that the boy reverted to a more childish form of speaking considering all the stress he'd been under. The boy was still nestled against the Headmaster, but gently freed himself to get over to Harry.
"Thirsty," he complained.
"Well, we can't have that, can we?" Harry had spotted the sunburn back at Privet Drive and remembered his own childhood, labouring in the hot sun.
"Come. We are going to get some juice," he lifted the boy in his arms.
Dumbledore spilled out of the bedroom a while later, in a panic over not finding the boy. He found the child sitting on Harry's lap, holding a sippy cup of juice and listening to a story.
"I know he's too old for a sippy cup," Harry softly said as Severus chased the moving animals around with his finger, "but he is shaky and kept spilling things. The more he spilled, the more scared he became. I finally just got him a sippy cup. It makes him feel safe, I think."
The Headmaster nodded. With everything that happened, allowing the child to drink from a sippy cup for once seemed a minor issue. Tomorrow they would go back to giving him a cup, but for now, comfort seemed more important than any dental or regression issues.
Severus reached out to Dumbledore, and the old man took him in his arms, grateful that after all that had happened, the child somehow trusted him a little.
"Are you feeling better, hmm?" he asked, "would you like more salve on your bottom?"
Severus shyly nodded, and leaned his head against Dumbledore's shoulder as the Headmaster turned to Harry to explain. The look on Harry's face, however, made it abundantly clear that there was no need to explain – Harry had plenty of experience with his aunt's wooden spoon.
They were both happy that, before the salve was applied, Severus scrambled to the toilet. They gave him more juice, a few light bits to eat, and then Dumbledore picked him up to bring him to the guest bedroom.
A trembling lip was the result. "I sleep in big bed!" Large tears formed in the dark eyes, and Dumbledore found it impossible to refuse, much to Harry's amusement.
Harry took his leave, promising to return the next morning to play with Severus, and Dumbledore readied himself for bed as well. When the child crawled into his arms, practically begging to be protected from the horrors of the past week, Dumbledore simply gave in, put an arm around the small body and hoped that they could help Severus recover quickly from this latest Horribly Bad Idea he'd had.