The usual disclaimers apply.

Chapter One

The net curtain in front of the living-room window was limp and yellowing, saturated with dust and spotted with flyspeck. Very carefully Severus Snape pushed its frayed edge a fracture of an inch to the left and bent forward, squinting, to peer through the accumulated grime of years of neglect on the window pane. The street was quiet, there was no through traffic here and in this weather no one of his dog-walking and gossip-indulging neighbours wanted to be outside, let alone stop for a chat. He could hear the muffled sobs of the small, dark haired boy quite clearly. The child was standing on the doorstep of the next house in the cold December rain without a jacket. His hair was plastered to his skull and his school jumper was soaked through.

Snape sighed impatiently. For seven years he had ignored the world outside his isolated, private little universe, which consisted of the small terraced house he had inherited after his father's death, the Muggel supermarket he visited for supplies and the occasional trip to Diagon Alley whenever he had to do business at Gringott's or needed potion ingredients that could not be collected in the stretch of waste land at the end of the street where the mill had once been, grown in the flowerpots in his own back yard or bought by owl mail order. He ignored his neighbours; he had ignored the invasion of the builders' vans and the noise and the dirt the refurbishment of the other houses had brought to the street, he had ignored the sleek cars and the comings and goings of the estate agents showing the modernized houses to potential buyers, he had ignored the removal vans and the arrival of his new neighbours, most of them twenty-something middle class couples getting their feet on the first rung of the property ladder. And most specifically he had ignored his next-door neighbours, a single mother and her young son. He had taken great care to stay invisible, to avoid all contact. So far he had succeeded. They probably wondered if he existed at all.

And now this. The little boy had been standing in front of the door for half an hour. It seemed as if the door was locked and his mother wasn't at home. Most probably at work or on her way home from work at this time of day. The boy apparently didn't have a key. Why? Had he forgotten it? Lost it? And why didn't he wear a jacket? It was December and too cold to go outside in nothing but a grey school jumper. The boy was small and thin. He would catch a cold in this weather. Where was his mother? Why did she not look after her son properly? And why was he, Severus Snape, not able to simply ignore the boy and continue reading the article on the recently discovered fat burning properties of the ventriculus-potion in peace? What kept him at the window, what made him behave like a nosy spinster? Damn it!

With an angry snarl, Snape let go of the curtain. For a moment he remained standing in front of the window, hesitating. Then he released a deep and noisy breath, tossed the potions magazine he had been holding in his free hand on the rickety coffee table and went to his own front door. He donned an ancient pea jacket that had once belonged to his father, fished a large, black umbrella from an old chest that contained a variety of things, from Wellington boots to moth-eaten scarves and gloves, grabbed his cane and opened the door. The boy seemed to have noticed the movement; he looked up warily and did some tentative steps forward. Snape stepped outside and pulled the door shut. Opening the umbrella he made his slow and awkward way towards the next house. The boy froze and then backed away until he reached his own front door. He pressed his back to the door as if this would enable him to melt through it. With eyes wide with apprehension he stared at the strange man towering in front of him.

"What are you doing out here in the rain?" Snape demanded, sounding gruffer than he had intended.

The boy blinked, sniffled and muttered something about 'Mum' and 'school'. Snape didn't bother to ask for more coherent information.

"Come with me," he snapped impatiently. "You can wait for your mother in my house."

The boy pressed his lips together and shook his head.

Snape stared at him in consternation.

"What do you mean, boy? Don't you want to get out of the cold and the rain?"

"My Mum always says I am not to go anywhere with strangers." The boy tried very hard to keep his voice steady. "She says there are many bad men around, criminals who..."

"Don't be silly, boy, I'm not… a… criminal, I live next door."

The boy shook his head vigorously and clenched his fists.

"I don't know you, do I?" he said defiantly, his grey eyes firmly locked with the strange man's black ones.

Snape let out an angry breath. He wanted to tell the boy to go to hell. He wanted to go back to his armchair next to the fire in his living room, back to his article, his studies, his experiments. But he couldn't tear himself away from the shivering boy, who, after all, merely obeyed his mother's advice. There was something about this boy, something Snape couldn't put a name to, which touched him and prevented him from turning his back and stomping away.

"Hm. Right. Well."

He shrugged out of his jacket and held it out for the boy.

"If you don't come with me I'll wait here with you. Put that on."

The boy swallowed, doubt in his eyes. Snape thrust the jacket towards him. At last the boy reluctantly accepted it and put it on. It went down almost to his ankles.

"Come." Snape motioned towards the doorstep. Slowly and with a painful groan he lowered himself, arranging his bad leg so that it wouldn't hurt too much. He patted the concrete step next to himself.


As the boy complied, Snape surreptitiously eased his wand from the sleeve of his jumper and cast a warming and a drying spell. Then the two of them huddled under the big black umbrella, their awkward silence underscored by the staccato rhythm of the raindrops.

"What's your name, Mister?" the boy broke the silence at last, casting a timid, sidelong glance at his strange companion.

"Snape, Severus Snape."

"I'm Nathan McGregor."

Snape answered with a vague growl, shifting his weight to find a more comfortable position, hoping the boy would shut up or his mother would come eventually.

"Your leg…does it hurt?"

"My leg? It's…" none of your business, he wanted to say. But when he shot the boy a quick glance he noticed genuine compassion in his eyes and simply shrugged.

The boy frowned thoughtfully, biting his knuckle.

"Did you fight in the war, Mister? Because there was an old man at our school telling us about the war and how he fought the Nazis…"

Snape had almost started answering in the affirmative when he realized which war the insufferable boy had in mind. Old man indeed! He certainly didn't look that old."

"No, not in that war."

"Another war? Mum says there are still wars in far away countries, in Africa and Asia. Did you fight in another country?"

Merlin, the child was a nosy little prat! Snape grunted an incomprehensible answer he hoped would suffice to shut the boy up and decided that the only means of preventing the child from asking awkward questions was to start an interrogation himself.

"Where's your mother?"

"I don't know. She promised to collect me from school today, but sometimes she has to stay at work later if there's an emergency. She's a nurse, you know."

"Doesn't she phone you when she's late?"

"Actually, she couldn't… my mobile…"

"Is it broken?"

"No… it's… gone."

"Gone? Have you lost it?"

"No… three boys … when Mum didn't come I went home on my own and…. three boys… they… I … was mugged."

"Boys from your school?" Snape asked, the shadows of painfully repressed childhood memories threatening to rise to the surface of his mind.

"I … don't think so … but … I don't know. I didn't see their faces. They had hoodies and baseball caps…"

"Did they take your jacket as well?"

"Yes, Mum will be angry, it was new."

"Has this happened before?"

The boy nodded and hung his head in shame. Hastily he wiped away the tears with the sleeve of Snape's jacket.

"They… they think they can do it, because I'm small and not very strong and…"

A car stopped in front of the house. A woman jumped out.

"Nat! O thank God you're there."

She froze, taking in the scene in front of her. Snape could see the reaction to his personal appearance in her narrowed eyes and acknowledged it with wry little grimace.

"Excuse me, but …"

Nathan jumped to his feet, but remained standing on the doorstep, fidgeting nervously. Snape struggled to his feet, too, and stepped forward.

"I'm Severus Snape. I live next door. I saw your son in the rain and…"

A quick flicker of surprise in the woman's face, then she turned to the boy.

"What happened to your jacket, Nathan?"

The boy hung his head.

His mother sighed. Very briefly her eyes met Snape's and he could see pain and sorrow in them. Then she turned towards her son again.

"The traffic was awful. I tried your mobile, but you had it switched off…"

Nathan shook his head; tears were running down his face again.

"What is it, Nat? What's wrong?"

"He was mugged. They took his jacket and his mobile", Snape said quietly.

"… and my money", Nathan added in a small voice.

His mother closed her eyes and turned her head away, her face contorted in a grimace of despair. For a moment it looked as if she was going to cry, too. But when she opened her eyes, she was in control again.

"Well, you'd better come in", she said briskly, fumbling for her keys in her handbag.

"I'd better be on my way", Snape said.

"Oh no, Mr Snape. Do come with us. Nathan's still wearing your jacket, I'm sure you'll want it back. And I haven't said 'thank you' properly. Come in, Mr Snape, I'll make us a cup of tea, I'm sure you'll want one after sitting outside in this weather."

Why did he accept her offer? He didn't know. Something simply made him do it, some unknown power made him close his umbrella and follow Nathan and his mother into the house.

AN: So here I go again, working on an idea that came up some weeks ago and has been occupying my imagination ever since. I hope you'll like it and won't mind long intervals between updates. I'm very busy at the moment.