Away In A Manger
An HP Christmas/Winter Tale
What Child Is This?
December 24, 1981
A portly man wrapped in a heavy coat and wearing thick sheepskin boots and gloves stumped along the pavement towards the large nativity scene set up before the grand cathedral of St. Paul's. The church was closed for the night, as it was nearly two in the morning and midnight services were long over. Everyone was home sleeping or getting ready for the mad rush to the tree and the fireplace upon Christmas morning to inspect the treats and gifts left by Father Christmas.
Everyone, that is, except for the big man and the slender horse-face woman walking next to him carrying a large picnic hamper. She was also muffled against the whipping wind and freezing cold in a long coat trimmed with fur on the cuffs, hem, and sleeves and her face was hidden by a merino-woven scarf.
Had anyone been awake to see them except the occasional stray cat or shivering rat, they might have thought the couple was heading to the cathedral to put a Christmas basket in the nave for a needy family. They looked well-to-do and the basket seemed heavy from the way the woman panted as she carried it.
The man glanced about furtively as they reached their goal, the lifesize nativity of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the three Wise Men, and the shepherds and animals surrounding the crèche where the infant lay in a manger. All the pieces had been lovingly hand carved and painted and looked extremely life-like, down to the smile upon Mary's face and the twinkle in the baby's eyes. St. Paul's had been using this same nativity for over seven years, it had been made by a master woodcarver who had since passed away.
The woman paused before setting down the picnic hamper and then she looked up at the man and hissed, "Are you sure we ought to do this? What if one of them finds out?"
The man snorted derisively. "How? They just left him on the doorstep with a note. I'm tired of taking care of another mouth, he's no relation of mine, why should I bear this burden?"
The woman's pinched expression grew even more pronounced. "He is my sister's child . . ."
"So? You never wanted to have any contact with her after she finished that crazy school and married another of those crazy people. Do you want our son to grow up with a freak? An unnatural creature? Do you?"
"No, no of course not."
"Listen, they can't force us to take him in. If they wanted him so badly, one of them should have taken him. Let his own kind tend to him!" He looked down at the picnic hamper with utter revulsion and kicked it with his foot. A tiny whimper came from within. "Come on, let's do this before someone comes by, though it's so bloody cold you'd have to be insane to be out on a night like this."
The woman shivered, but whether from cold or fear of discovery was not to be known. "Perhaps we should have considered an orphanage?"
"Too much trouble. Here's as good a place as any for someone to find him." He marched over to the manger, which had been stuffed full of sweet-smelling alfalfa, and picked up the wooden baby Jesus and tossed it down upon the ground. Then he beckoned to the woman, who knelt and opened the hamper, withdrawing a rather large bundle swaddled in a wrinkled blue blanket. The bundle whimpered and sneezed.
She hurried over to where the man waited impatiently, and laid the swaddled seventeen-month old, who looked much smaller, as he had barely gotten enough to eat, on the hay. "There! Let the Lord look after you now, you pathetic scrap!"
Then she and her husband peered about once again and made haste down the pavement away from the nativity, anxious to be far away from the scene of their nefarious deed. They never glanced back.
In the manger, the sudden chill woke the little baby, for the blanket was not warm enough to keep out the wind, and he began to cry, a pitiful wail that echoed in the bitterly cold air that Christmas Eve night.
* * * * * *
Ever after, he would always wonder what prompted him to emerge from Diagon Alley at that particular spot, a block or two away from St. Paul's, instead of the more popular spot close to London Bridge. It was dark and cold and Severus Snape, newly certified Potions Master, was exhausted from brewing too many potions for his employer, the skinflint apothecary Amos Smithers. Smithers had given him a list over three feet long and insisted all of them be brewed before Snape returned home to the dingy flat he was renting over in Whitechapel.
He had just finished the last of them and was now able to go back home and seek his bed, cold and lonely, as he had been since moving to London months ago, away from Godric's Hollow, away from the knowledge that the woman he had loved and lost was now gone forever, killed by an insane madman. There had been more to it than that, Severus thought with a bitter smile. Something about a prophecy her son was supposed to fulfill, that would prove to be the downfall of the dark wizard who called himself Voldemort, and she and her family had been betrayed by their Secret Keeper, but after learning of her death, Snape had not bothered to keep reading.
He vaguely recalled that the child, Harry she had named him, had somehow survived, and been taken away to live with relatives somewhere. But all he knew was that she was gone and her departure left him with a gaping hole in his heart that would never fully mend. For he had loved her, despite her rejection of him, more fool he. His love had been a hopeless longing, never to be fulfilled, yet he could not let it go. What he loved, he loved forever.
He swallowed sharply and dashed away traitorous tears that threatened to overwhelm him. Snape, you fool! She threw you over for Potter and still you cling to her. She never would have come back to you. Come back to starve and freeze in a one room flat like a pauper when she had Potter and all his gold and his fancy manor to live in? He sneered at himself. But I loved her first, his heart whispered. He might have won her away, but she was mine first. And I love her still.
He continued walking, emerging from the portal from Diagon Alley into the alley near the cathedral upon the wings of magic. His black cloak and robes, a requirement for those who worked with potions on a daily basis and risked being burnt and having potions slosh all over one's clothing, were wrapped tightly about his lean frame, and his hair blew into his eyes as the wind picked up.
It's bloody cold out here tonight, he thought as he quickened his pace, his boots echoing along the cobbles. He considered casting a brief Warming Charm, but he was tired and did not want to waste his precious magical energy. He would be warm enough soon, his flat was but ten blocks from here.
He gazed up into the sky and saw a star gleaming brightly in the frosted air. For one instant he lost his weary cynical air, and looked like what he was—a young twenty-one year old, barely scraping by. Far away he heard a clock chime and he rubbed his eyes and realized something. It's Christmas. And I am alone. Again. Oh, Lily, I miss you so much. I wish things had been different. If only you had lived. Then perhaps . . .
Angrily, he spun on his heel. He knew better than to go down that road. Useless to wish for what might have been. Or long for what would never be. This was his life, the life he had chosen when he had left school. To become a Potions Master and someday own his own shop, it was a dream he could fulfill, one that was not beyond his reach, if he worked hard and saved his pay. Unlike those other ones, where he dreamed of Lily leaving Potter and coming to find him, apologizing for being so cruel, for listening to her friends instead of her heart.
"Gryffindors don't date Slytherins. I thought we could make it work, but I was wrong. You flirt with darkness, Severus, like all your House, and I cannot follow you down that road."
"Lily, no! I'm not one of them! I swear it." He had pleaded, he who never begged anything. "Please listen."
"You told me Lucius Malfoy invited you to become one of his 'special group', and you know what they are, Severus! They're Death Eaters!"
"I never said I'd accept!" he cried, frantic. "I told him I'd think about it."
"You should have told him to go to hell!"
His face twisted in anguish. "And have him hex me into oblivion? Him and the rest of them? What was I supposed to do?"
"I don't know. Walked away."
"Not soon enough. I'm sorry, Sev. But it's best if we didn't see each other again. Goodbye." She turned to go.
He reached out a hand, it closed upon empty air. "No!" he cried, something falling to pieces inside of him. "Don't go, Lily! Don't!" He wanted to scream those words at her retreating back, but his voice had dried to a whispery rasp and he could not make himself heard.
But she had gone . . .gone straight into the arms of the arrogant toerag, his personal nemesis, James Potter.
She never knew that her words to him had sealed his fate.
He had turned his back on everything that day. He had rejected Lucius' offer, implying that he wasn't worthy of it, and then he had lived only for one thing—his Potions Mastery. He had completed his apprenticeship in a mere three years, becoming the youngest ever to earn his Mastery in Britain or Europe. All of his intellect and brilliant mind, all of his magic, was given over to his chosen profession, his first and only love. During his stay at the Academy of Potion-Makers in Oxford, there had been a joke repeated among the other apprentices that he had been born out of a cauldron and had potions running in his veins instead of blood, for he alone never took a holiday, never joined them for a round at the pub after classes were done, never had friends, he lived and breathed his craft.
He did not bother to explain that there was a reason he did so—and that reason was that potions was something he understood, something that would never betray him, something that would soothe his lonely heart and give him something to focus on.
But now he was finished with all that and need explain himself to no one.
He gazed at the star again, had it grown brighter since he had last looked at it?
His steps took him past the life-sized nativity that stood on the lawn in front of the cathedral, and he paused for a moment to hug his cloak closer. The chill wind snapped and snarled about him, blowing his hair into his eyes. He reached up a gloved hand to shove it aside.
It was then he heard it.
The wind had subsided to small gusts that stirred the dust along the pavement and it rose above it in a thin wavering screech—but one that was unmistakably the cry of a child.
Severus wondered what brat was still awake this close to Christmas morning and pitied the parents, being forced to listen to that annoying sound.
He rubbed his hands together, they were stiff with cold even inside his gloves, and prepared to move on.
The crying was repeated, more insistent this time.
Severus tilted his head. It sounded almost as if . . .it were coming from the manger in the nativity.
He shook his head irritably. He had inhaled too many potion fumes tonight, he was overtired, and his brain was dreaming up fanciful things, like the baby in the manger coming to life and crying.
He peered hard at the manger inside the crèche, surrounded by the Holy Family and the adoring Wise Men and animals. Get a grip, Snape. They're wooden figures, painted and carved, and they do not come to life, even on Christmas Eve. He berated himself soundly.
No? Then why is the baby moving? Another part of him asked.
He took a step towards the manger. Surely he was seeing things. He had gone past this nativity for weeks on his way to work and had seen the figures countless times.
The baby is wood, Severus. Wood. And this is a Muggle nativity and it does not come alive! You're imagining things.
Had there been firewhiskey in that Restorative Draft he had drunk just before beginning that last set? Was he wandering about London in a drunken stupor and just didn't want to admit it?
Had he gone round the bend, like the other apprentice swore would happen to him one day, with only his ingredients and cauldron for company? Could you go mad and not realize it?
The crying increased as he drew closer to the manger.
He leaned over and stared down at the baby asleep on the hay.
Except the baby was not asleep.
The baby was wide awake and screaming like a possessed thing, blue with cold.
Bloody hell, but I am not seeing this! I'm not! His mind shrieked.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then another.
That's it, Severus. Just breathe in and out. Calm down. He recited potion ingredients in his head—A is for asphodel, B is for bezoar, C is for comfrey, D is for dittany . . .Then he opened his eyes.
The baby in the manger had not become a silent block of wood.
It was still crying and waving its fists, wrapped in a blue blanket that was well-made but threadbare in places.
"Merlin save me, but you're real." Severus breathed, no longer able to deny the truth.
The baby's face was scrunched and blue from cold, Severus didn't know where the kid found the energy to howl like that. Then he supposed if he were freezing, he'd be screaming too.
Cautiously, Severus reached out a gloved finger and brushed it across the baby's cheek.
The baby opened its eyes.
Severus found himself looking into eyes of pure innocence, colored a startling evergreen.
He found those eyes drew him, held him, as if with some kind of mystical force, and he could not look away. His thoughts ran in circles, asking unanswerable questions.
What child is this?
Who would leave a baby to freeze to death in a manger on Christmas Eve?
And what in sainted Merlin's name am I going to do about it?
The baby began to sneeze and cough, obviously congested from all of that crying.
Severus finally managed to tear his eyes away and look around, hoping against hope that whoever had put the baby here would return, because no one could be so heartless as to abandon a child this way.
But the street was empty, the church stood silent sentinel and witness, and the darkened shops told no tales, grim and desolate.
There was only himself and the abandoned child.
A child who would freeze to death if something were not done.
Severus knew he was considered cold and aloof by his peers, but even he would not have been able to do such a heartless thing.
He looked again at the child, unwanted, abandoned, yet still finding heart to fight to live.
He made his decision.
"You're a survivor. Like me."
Then he knelt and lifted the baby out of the hay, awkwardly, and held the child close, wrapping a fold of his cloak about the foundling. The baby whimpered and shivered. "Hush. You're safe now. I know, I'm a scary stranger, insane to be doing this, but what choice do I have?" He murmured a soft Warming Charm, and the baby stopped shivering and snuggled against his chest. "Even I'm not such a cold-hearted bastard as to let you freeze to death. Who the flaming hell leaves a baby in a manger outside like a damn sack of groceries?"
Like his previous questions, he did not have an answer, and probably never would.
He began to walk swiftly down the street, the foundling held in a gentle death grip inside his cloak, drooling and sniffling all over his arm.
He climbed the steps to his flat and spoke a soft Unlocking Charm. The door swung open and the young Potions Master and his unexpected Christmas guest went inside.
This plot bunny bit me at work while I was reading a Christmas tradition book and it haunted me till I wrote it down. I have no clue yet where it will take me but hope you'll come along for the ride.