Once Upon a Winter's Night . . .
Once upon a winter's night, a young girl huddled in a dingy alleyway in wizarding London, numb and blue with cold, for that January was one of the rawest anyone could remember. Snow lay in fitful clumps throughout the street and ice glistened on the lampposts and off the awnings of the shops. It was just after New Year's, and if this had been a different situation, the shivering waif crouching in the dirty snow would have been tucked up in her bed, warm and safe and cozy. But the nine-year-old was a foundling, abandoned by the one person who should have cared for her, now that her mother had breathed her last.
She knelt in the snow, trembling as the bitter wind swept through the refuse that littered the alley, cupping in one hand a single match. The match burned with an odd persistent flame, and the child gazed at it with a singular intensity in her bright blue eyes. She knew she was ill-prepared to be out in such weather, her favorite blue shirt was in tatters now after spending two weeks sleeping on the hard ground and cobblestones and her matching skirt was as well. Her once soft white cloak was now a rag and she had torn strips off it and bound her hands in a futile attempt to keep from getting frostbite. Her feet were bare, some children had stolen her shoes as a prank two days ago and she had never seen them again.
You should keep moving. If you stay still, you'll freeze, she reminded herself. But she was so tired, tired of running and hiding, tired of being chased away from the storefronts because the shopkeepers thought her a vagrant thief out to steal their wares. She shivered and wished that she could get warm and wished most of all for the one thing she could never have again, that had died when her mother had-a home and a family. Once she had a home, and a pretty room with rosebud wallpaper and a soft eiderdown comforter with printed unicorns and shoes and had never gone cold or hungry. Once, but no longer. All of that had gone when her mother had, and the man who called himself her father had cast her off.
She shut her eyes against the threatened tears. Don't cry. Don't. It won't help any. She would not remember that awful day, that cold icy voice declaring, "You are no daughter of mine. I know no one named Holly Sinclair. Now leave immediately, before I make you regret the day you drew breath, Squib child!"
Squib child. She had never truly understood what it meant to be born with just a whisper of magic until then. Never knew it rendered her an outcast in the world of magic, a world that sneered at those who, like her, had been skipped by magic's blessing.
But now she knew, to her bitter sorrow, and unbidden, two tears slipped down her cheeks to freeze upon her pale face.
It's so cold tonight. And all I have are these matches to keep me warm, that I stole from the pub across the way when they were sweeping up for the day. A Muggle curiosity, left behind by some wizard who wanted to understand them better, I guess. Ha! Should have asked me, I could tell him what it's like, without magic.
She fixed her eyes on the flickering flame in her hand, which was all that kept the dark and cold at bay there in the alley next to Eyelops Owl Emporium. Except . . . there was one thing she possessed, one small gift that was a legacy from her mother, Valina, who had once been a talented witch. Holly was a seer, one who could sometimes see the future in a single flame, if her gift chose to reveal what might be.
Please, please, show me a way out of here. I'm so cold. So very cold. Merlin have mercy, but I think my fingers are falling off. She wriggled her hand and the match flame danced upon the brick wall. This was her last match, she had burned the others over the course of two hours, wishing she could break into a shop to take shelter, but they were all warded and protected against such things.
Suddenly she felt a sharp pain in her head, as always occurred when her Sight activated. She bit her lip, but the pain was swiftly gone and then her eyes focused upon the tiny ember burning brightly . . .burning . . .burning . . .
She saw herself, pale and scrawny, starvling street brat, crumpled in a heap upon the dirt encrusted snow, the match in her hands burnt out, still and lifeless. But then a ray of light appeared and she saw her spirit arise from her body and drift upwards, to a familiar figure who waited just within the light. "Holly! Come, luv, it's time to come home! I've been waiting for you, my sweet lovely girl."
"Mum?" She blinked and then she could see the wispy figure of her mother's shade, holding out her arms. "It's really you?"
"Yes, sweetling. Come, Holly, don't be afraid. We're going home."
"How? Our home is gone."
"Our new home, little one. The one called heaven."
And then Holly understood and she no longer hesitated, running on winged feet into her mother's embrace.
She blinked, coming out of the vision with a start. For one single moment, she had been warm. She blew softly upon the match in her hand, willing the little flame to keep burning. The match was almost burnt down to her fingertips. Is that all there is for me? To die here in the cold, all alone? I want to see my mum again, but I don't want to die here, like a stray cat, frozen to death. Oh please God, there must be another way, somehow . . .
And again she whimpered as her Sight stabbed her and showed her yet another possibility . . .
She was still crumpled in a heap in the middle of the street, but this time there was no glowing light, only a slight boy with dark hair and glasses tripping over her and exclaiming, "What the blazes . . .hey! What are you doing in the middle of the street-taking a nap?"
He knelt down then and shook her shoulder with his green-gloved hand, and then his eyes went wide with alarm. "Merlin, you're half-frozen to death!" he stood up quickly, removing his cloak and throwing it over her and glancing up and down the street, it was early morning and hardly any shops were open. "Dad! Where are you? Come here quick, I need you!"
She heard an answering baritone, "Harry? Where are you? What's wrong?"
"Over here, Dad! By the Owl Emporium."
The boy waved and suddenly a tall man in a black great coat was beside them, stern and imposing, yet somehow she knew he would never hurt her and he pointed a wand at her and cried some magic words she had never heard and she was warm again and she knew she would be all right . . .
Holly blinked, her vision misted with tears, as so often happened after a Seeing, from gazing too long into the fire. Two visions. Two possible outcomes. But which was the true one? That was always the problem with her Sight-it never revealed absolutely the future, only glimpses into what could be. And she never knew how to control it, nor to see how to bring about one possibility over another.
That was why he had called her talent useless, fit for parlor tricks and amusing dumb Muggles. Worthless! A worthless talent for a worthless brat. Now get out!
The cruel words echoed in her head as the match died and she wrapped her arms about her skinny frame in a desperate attempt to keep warm, knowing all the while how useless it was. She walked two paces forward and then another two, until she stood at the mouth of the alley and then she could go no further.
Her legs gave way and she crumpled to the frozen cobbles, and her last thought was of her beloved mother, who had loved her daughter despite her lack of magic always.
* * * * * *
Several blue-skinned wind sprites appeared with a pop above the ragged form, whispering and crying in alarm. She fades, my brothers! cried one. She is an innocent, though the spark is faint in her. We must find a way to keep her alive until that which she Saw comes to save her.
Whispers of concern and a faint disapproval followed that statement, for the sprites usually did not interfere in mortal affairs, but this was a special case. And so the tiny beings fluttered and gathered around the freezing child, fanning her with their wings, and using their magic to keep her breathing just long enough for dawn to break and a certain young wizard to awaken and entreat his father to take him to Diagon Alley to shop for a birthday present.
* * * * * *
"Harry, must we go shopping today?" Severus grumbled as he set out toast, thickly buttered, with strawberry jam, and a platter of bacon and eggs and broiled tomatoes. "I had been meaning to take this weekend to relax a bit and perhaps read." He glanced out the window of the breakfast nook in their small house, and noted the way the wind was blowing and the trees across the street were trembling and shook his head. "It's quite cold out today, not a good day to go shopping, son."
"But, Dad, this is the only time I can go to get you a present before you go back to Hogwarts." Harry told him, sitting down and helping himself to a bit of everything. "Your birthday's on Wednesday, remember?"
Severus heaved a long suffering sigh. "Harry, I've told you before, you don't need to get me anything. You being here with me is enough of a gift for me-" the Potions Master began the familiar litany.
"No, Dad. Everyone should get presents on their birthday," Harry argued, his chin setting in a familiar stubborn line. He could never understand why his dad always said this, every year it was the same, and every year he ended up dragging Severus to Diagon Alley so he could get him a special present. This year it would be specially good, since he had been saving all of his allowance for weeks to afford the new blown glass set of beakers and book of rare potions recipes he had seen in the apothecary at the start of last term, when Severus took him along to restock his ingredients for his classroom. "I won't take long, I know exactly what I want. Then we can come home and you can read the whole afternoon and so can I."
Severus snorted. "You mean sleep the whole afternoon, don't you, Little Mischief? You were up late last night reading under the covers."
Harry gaped at him. "How'd you know?"
Severus smirked. "I'm your father, I know everything." Actually he knew what Harry had been doing because he had done the same thing at that age, he had always loved reading at night, when all was quiet and his father was absent down at the pub or passed out on the couch.
Harry just rolled his eyes, prompting his father to give him a rather sharp look. "Please, Dad? It's early, there won't be anyone out yet except the store owners and you won't have to worry about running into any students begging you to change their midterm grades or some parent wanting to know why their kid didn't pass Advanced potions this term. They're probably still asleep."
Severus let his son squirm for a few minutes while he ate his eggs then agreed. "Very well, Harry. I will give you an hour, no more. I have no wish to spend my whole Saturday arguing with some foolish parent about their child's well-deserved mark in my final exam or listen to a whole week's worth of excuses as to why Johnny couldn't turn in his last assignment because his great aunt Muriel from Cornwall died and he had to go to the funeral and was prostrate with grief even though he only saw her once a year on Christmas."
"An extra half an hour," Harry returned. "What if the thing I wanted to get you was sold? Then I'll have to pick out something else."
"You're pushing it, son."
Harry shot his father his best Lily look, where he made his brilliant green eyes all huge and pleading, because he knew how much his dad had loved his mother and Harry had her eyes.
Severus groaned. "Fine! An hour and a half. But that's it."
Harry hid a grin. Works like a charm almost every time. "Thanks, Dad."
Severus didn't bother to answer, he simply sipped his tea and wondered when the hell he had become such a pushover. It's the eyes, Sev. Her eyes. Your one weakness and the sly little snake knows it.
His eyes met those of the great silver wolf lounging casually near the stove and he growled, "What are you staring at, Silver? Maybe I should just send you along with Harry, huh?"
The silver wolf opened his huge jaws and grinned, then shook his head in a firm gesture of disagreement.
"Dad, Silver can't come with me. He'd cause a riot or something."
"Not if you put him on a leash," Severus suggested slyly.
Silver growled, and Snape laughed. The big wolf was clearly insulted at the mere suggestion that he be treated like a family pet, when he was a wild creature and more, a former wizard himself who had chosen life as a wolf over suffering the curse of his werewolf nature every full moon.
"Dad was only kidding," Harry soothed. "We'd never put you on a leash, Silver."
Silver made a grumbling noise, gave the Potions Master a glare from his amber eyes and put his head back on his paws and dozed. He was rarely at the Snape residence, preferring the forest to being cooped up underneath a roof, even if he was a member of the family. But he made exceptions on occasion, especially during the winter, when the vast snowy silence made him long for the comforts of a home and companionship. Wolf Wood, situated at the edge of the Yorkshire moor, provided him with all the space he needed to roam and to hunt, but Harry and Severus were the only wizards who knew the truth about him, that he had once been Remus Lupin, former werewolf, and he had pledged his life as Harry's guardian.
"That's what you think," Severus muttered under his breath, and Silver opened one eye and snarled lightly in warning. The tall wizard smirked and muttered, "Lighten up, Lupin! Can't you tell I'm not serious? Or is your brilliant lupine nose failing you?"
Silver gave a half-bark as if to say, You wish, Snape! then shook his head and went back to his nap, he had been out hunting late last night and had only just returned to the Snape residence through the special Portkey Severus had set up for him.
Harry chuckled, sometimes his father and Silver behaved like two brothers, bickering over almost everything, but loving each other nonetheless, though neither of them would ever admit it. He finished his breakfast and washed up the plates without being told, and then Severus Flooed them to Diagon Alley.
They stepped out of the Leaky Cauldron and Harry wrapped his scarf more snuggly about his face, the wind was brutal today. His dad had been right, this was not a very good day to linger while walking along the street. But the apothecary was just ahead and Harry turned to Severus and said, "Uh, Dad? Could you, um . . .go into Flourish and Blotts a moment, please? So you don't see your present? I want it to be a surprise."
"As you wish," Severus agreed, though he had been planning to visit the bookstore eventually, he never could resist it's siren call. "An hour and a half, young man, remember it."
"Okay. I know how to tell time, I'm not an idiot, y'know."
"Watch that cheeky mouth," warned his father, then he spun and entered the bookstore on the right, leaving Harry to make his way down the street towards the apothecary.
The wind was blowing extra hard, or so it seemed, and Harry hunched his head down to cut down on the stinging icy sensation that made his cheeks tingle. He had been colder than this before, when he had nearly drowned falling through a frozen pond three years past, on a Christmas holiday in Yorkshire. Ever since, Harry had not enjoyed skating much, though he was quite a good skater.
"Brrr! Feels like Antarctica here," he muttered into his scarf, wishing he knew a warming charm the way his father did. He could do accidental magic, but so far hadn't managed to focus his power enough to cast an actual spell. But Severus had reassured him that day was coming soon and harry would simply have to be patient.
He was so preoccupied with the weather and hoping that the set of beakers and the book he wanted to purchase hadn't been sold that he didn't see the lump of rags and snow in the middle of the street until his trainer caught on it and he tripped, nearly sprawling face first in the street.
"Huh? What the blazes?" He stood up, thanking God that no one had seen him falling like a klutz over his own feet and a stupid pile of . . .snow? He squinted, for it wasn't just snow. There was a . . .hand lying there.
"Bloody Merlin's ghost!" Harry cried, using an expression Severus was fond of. "That's not just a pile of snow, it's a . . ." He knelt and brushed off the coating of snow and only then did he notice the tiny wind sprites all about, pointing at the still figure and urging him to hurry. "A girl!" He took her hand in his gloved one and gasped. "Merlin, you're half-frozen to death! Damn!"
He ripped off his cloak, draping it over her, she looked to be nearly his age, but she was so very still . . .like a wax doll. He tore off a glove and put a hand against her neck.
There. A flutter of life.
The wind sprites chattered. Hurry, master Harry! She fades!
"Right. Uh . . ." Harry paused, then he stood up and yelled as loud as he could for Severus.
Severus appeared next to him an instant later, wand out, and Harry pointed to the comatose girl and cried, "Dad, she's freezing to death, help her!"
Severus took in the situation at glance and never hesitated, his battle-honed training as a spy taking over. He quickly cast a warming charm on the little girl, whose pale golden hair was spread in wet clumps against her threadbare clothing. Her clothing began to steam as the charm began to work, melting the snow and ice from her body.
Severus knelt, gently slipping an arm about her half-frozen body, and lifting her into his arms. He didn't know how she had come to be in such dire straits, but that information could be obtained later, once he was assured she wasn't going to die. He had only seen one other child with such a bad case of hypothermia before and that had been Harry after his disaster on the lake that Christmas.
The child's eyes fluttered open and for a single instant Severus found himself looking into a pair of beautiful sapphire eyes. "It's all right. I won't hurt you. I'm trying to help," he murmured, uncertain if she were coherent enough to understand him.
Then she spoke, her voice as fragile as a wind sprite's wings. "I know."
Then she passed out cold in his arms, but she was smiling.
"Dad? Is she okay?" Harry asked, peering over Severus's shoulder.
"She will be, if I can get her treated for hypothermia right away. Sorry to cut your trip short, son, but we need to return home immediately." Severus said, and reached out and grasped Harry's arm firmly before Apparating back to their house. He just prayed he would be in time.
This the sequel to "A Wolf in Winter" please read that first before starting this story, otherwise you will be confused. This chapter is based upon the fairy tale "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Anderson. Hope you all like!