Disclaimer: Harry Potter and associated characters are the intellectual property of JK Rowling. I just played with them a little.

On Sunday, sure enough, Tobias began to teach his son how to fight.

"You look, Russ," he said, as they stood in what passed for their back garden. "Hold your fist like so."

"Like this?" Severus' fist was tiny beside his father's massive hand.

"With the thumb on the outside or you'll break it when you land a punch." Tobias adjusted Severus' hand to a better position.

"Okay, dad."

Tobias lit a fag and held it in his teeth. "Now then, it's best to hang back and let 'em try and hit you first. Watch 'em close, like, and duck out t' way. Throws 'em off-balance."

In exaggerated slow motion, he swung at Severus' head. Severus took a hasty step back.

"Not like that, lad." Tobias took a long drag, and blew the smoke aside. "Stay where you are so you've got reach to hit 'em back."

Again, he swung slowly at Severus' head. This time, Severus kept his feet still while he dodged the blow. Tobias' body twisted wildly off-balance and he leaned forward, scattering ash where he went.

"Tha's right." He grunted approval through his teeth. "Now, square in the jaw."

Severus hesitated. "Will I hurt you, dad?"

"Tha's the point, lad, tha's the point. S'too late now, I've got my balance back. Give it another go."

Once more, Tobias straightened and swung at his son. This time, Severus ducked lithely out of the way, balled his hand up into a fist, and swung with all of his might at his father's exposed jaw. His fist connected in an oddly satisfying way, and Tobias fell onto the ground, cigarette still held expertly in his teeth.

Severus gasped and ran over to him. "Did I hurt you, dad?"

"Come to think of it, you did a bit," said Tobias, reaching up to rub his stubbly chin. For a moment, Severus was afraid, but then he saw how his father's eyes twinkled.

"That's right!" shouted Severus joyfully, "I got you!" He leaped onto his father and pummeled his chest with his fists.

Tobias roared like a bear and lumbered to his feet so quickly that Severus would have fallen several feet onto the ground if his father hadn't caught him and tossed him up into the air. He shrieked with glee as his father caught him and tossed him up again.

They play-fought until teatime, when Tobias pronounced Severus as accomplished a fighter as any five-year-old needed to be. Severus basked in the glow of his dad's approbation and swung one more punch into his father's leg.

"Here now, Tobias Snape, what do you think you're doing?"

They both looked up. The mother of the girl next door stood by her basket of washing, watching them with an amused smile.

Tobias narrowed his eyes at her, took out his packet of fags, and lit a fresh one. He took a long drag and blew it out before he answered. "And where were you when young Jake Fairchild was trying to kill Russ' cat, Susannah Norris?"

She observed him levelly. "Tending my own house, like I ought."

"Mm," said Tobias, grown oddly quiet. "Well, lad, I think it's time we go inside and have a bite."

Mrs. Norris watched them go. As Tobias reached for the door, she took a step forward. "I've got a few extra cakes laid by inside, if you and Russ would like to come 'round and have your tea here."

Tobias stiffened and went still, his eyes still fixed on the door. Something about his changed demeanor made Severus feel strangely afraid, although he couldn't say why. At length, he turned to meet Mrs. Norris' gaze.

"I thank you kindly," he said, his voice oddly formal. "But we have food of our own here at home."

Mrs. Norris smiled in a way that reminded Severus inexplicably of a cat. "Are you sure it's got as much flavor as mine has?"

"We're accustomed," said Tobias gruffly. "Inside, Russ."

And in they went.

The next year passed with all the pleasantness that could be gleaned from predictability and routine. Severus began grammar school. Mum the cat grew and thrived, and Mum the mother remained as she always had-reclusive and secretive. Tobias was Tobias, hard working, often absent, but always jolly when he was home, and Severus' favorite companion and playmate.

Not all was unchanged, however. The episode with his cat had widened the rift that he felt between himself and the other children on the street. He was never invited to join their games now, unless a parent stood watch and shamed them into it.

On his sixth birthday, he told Gran the whole story, and she listened with pursed lips and angry eyes.

"Muggles," she said, disdain in her voice that Severus had never heard there before. "Pay them no mind, my darling boy. Soon enough you'll be off to Hogwarts to learn to be a true wizard, and they'll never trouble you again." Then she smiled warmly at him. "A successful Apparition at five years old! If you weren't in the books before, your name is certainly down now."

He didn't entirely understand what she meant, but the promise of Hogwarts—a real school just for Wizards!—went some way toward making up for his general ostracism by the children and even, he sometimes suspected, the parents of Spinner's End.

In fact, the only family on the street who seemed to treat Severus just the same as before was Mrs. Norris and her daughter, Samantha. Samantha still played with him in their shabby, shared back garden, and Mrs. Norris still smiled from behind her washing as she hung it out to dry, and still occasionally gave him a cake or a biscuit in the long afternoons when he sat home alone.

After finding himself to be a misfit in every other way, Severus found school to be a delightful surprise. He took to learning in a way he had taken to nothing else, grasping hungrily at every tidbit of knowledge his bemused schoolmistress could provide. He already knew how to read, thanks to the laborious efforts of Tobias on wet Sunday afternoons, but it was a revelation to him to discover that there was a wealth of words to be found beyond what the Evening Chronicle could offer.

Often, Severus would take his schoolbooks outside and sit in the dirt of the back garden, knees hugged to his chest, reading. But he had soon read all of them from cover to cover more than once, and they began to bore him, until he spent far more time with his head leaning on his hand, staring at nothing, or watching Mrs. Norris do her chores, or watching Samantha serve tea to her dolls, a game for which he had no taste at all. One wash day, as Severus covertly watched her pulling down the dry linens from her line, Mrs. Norris paused over her basket, straightened up, and shaded her eyes, looking at him.

"Russ," she called, "you come over here."

Severus, obedient by habit, dutifully crossed the garden to where she stood.

"Is this yours, lad?" she held up a brightly colored volume with a picture on the front that Severus did not immediately recognize.

He stared shyly for a moment, and then shook his head. The book was one he had never seen before, the front cover splashed with a poorly-printed drawing of a man who might be a pirate, or a gypsy, or possibly just a well-dressed hobo with a flair for the dramatic.

"But it is," she said, fixing him with her bright eyes and smiling the strange, catlike smile he had seen before. "I'm sure of it. I can't imagine how it got into my washing."

Severus felt a pang of fear. She was surely angry at him for carelessly leaving this book in her basket, but it wasn't even his! He shook his head again, flushing red. "No," he said, tugging nervously at his long, uneven fringe so it would obscure his face, "it isn't mine."

Her smile grew wider. "I think it is, Russ." She opened it and pointed to the inside cover. Sure enough, it said Severus Snape just inside, in a hand not at all like his own. "You can't fool me. Take it back; I've no use for it."

She thrust the book into his hands and he stared at it as if it were a living thing suddenly and unexpectedly given into his care. "But—" he said, his voice quivering.

"Hush, lad," she winked at him, and he felt more flustered than ever. "Take it home and read it. What time have I got for reading?"

Bewildered, but grateful that he didn't seem to be in trouble, Severus clutched the book to his chest and fled, not stopping until he was up in his own comfortable bedroom where he could peruse it at his leisure, and without letting Mrs. Norris see any more of his embarrassment.

Over the following weeks, more books appeared. Some, like the first, were passed on to him by Mrs. Norris, who always disavowed any knowledge of their origin. Others he found hidden in the back garden, or tucked into the mail slot, or lying on the back step beside Mum the cat as she sunned herself. It was a mystery to Severus where they came from. He had tried to thank Mrs. Norris for a few, but she pled ignorance and ultimately forbad him from thanking her for merely returning what was obviously his, although she did often jokingly chide him (at least, he thought she was joking) for being so careless with his things.

He knew that they didn't come from his father. Tobias was not a man to make a secret of his gifts, and even though the books were shabby and cheap, a regular supply of fresh literature was hardly within their budget, and hardly something Tobias would fail to mention if he had found a way to obtain it. Gifts were a celebrated rarity in the Snape household.

In fact, although he couldn't say why, Severus kept the books concealed from his father. Some sixth sense seemed to tell him that Tobias, who loathed charity, might view these books not as a windfall but as an insult, and he very soon found that he couldn't bear the idea of giving them up. They (and Mum) were often his only escape from loneliness, and made up for the ostracism he faced from the other children of Spinner's End. He read by the hour, forgetting the gnawing hunger that often plagued him, forgetting his worries about Eileen, forgetting everything but the words on the page.

At night, when Tobias read to Eileen from the paper, Severus still lay on the floor, but now instead of listening for every word, he wondered about the books and the mysterious benefactor who had sent them.

When he finally hit on it, he felt silly for not realizing sooner. Didn't they always arrive in some strange, roundabout fashion? Weren't they always popping up in odd, out-of-the-way places, with his name already inscribed by some mysterious hand? The latest, a thin, secondhand travel guide to the Pyrenees, had been rolled up and tucked into a knothole in the dingy fence that separated his back garden from the next lot over. Clearly, the books were being delivered by magic, and he knew of only two people who could do magic.

The puzzle here became, admittedly, a little more difficult. Gran made a point of never doing magic where it might be seen by Muggles (the very thought of the word and all the future secrets and learning it seemed to promise sent a delicious thrill through him). But Eileen never gave him gifts—indeed, she never even spoke to him. It was rare for Severus to catch a glimpse of her more than once a week (spying through the knothole in his bedroom floor excepted). Gran, he felt fairly sure, had means to provide him with more books than he could ever read, and Eileen didn't. But all of the books were either terribly cheap or obviously used, and Gran said purebloods (whatever those were) didn't buy things secondhand.

Perhaps Eileen had noticed the dejected hours he'd spent sobbing outside her door the day that Jake had blackened his eye and hurt his jaw. Perhaps her motherly instinct had wakened pity in her heart and she, in her reclusive way, was trying to tell him she loved him after all. He knew from illicit peering through the keyhole that the front room was filled with books of all kinds. Would it be so difficult for her to write his name in the covers of titles she thought he'd enjoy and magic the books to some spot where she knew he would find them?

At nights, he began to listen for any hint from Eileen that the books were from her. He wondered if Tobias did in fact already know about the library that was slowly growing in the back recesses of his closet, and was simply waiting for Severus to express his thanks.

One night, lying in bed with the newest volume (a dingy paperback Treasure Island) tucked under his pillow, the thought struck him with a sudden pang. Tobias did so much for him. Did he think that Severus was ungrateful or unappreciative? Was his silence on the matter perhaps a symptom of pain or disappointment? He slipped his small hand beneath the pillow and touched the book's torn cover, his heart swelling painfully with adoration for his parents, for loving Tobias who cared for him so well, for poor, sad Mother, who was so very ill.

Clearly, there was only one thing for it, and that was to thank both of his parents properly—Tobias first, of course. He smiled into his pillow, the guilt of his ungratefulness dissipating with the knowledge that in the morning, all would be made well.