1. Unexpected Gifts by hootowl
Severus Snape didn't enjoy teaching. In fact, he hated teaching. It certainly wasn't a career he would've envisioned himself in at eighteen and newly graduated from Hogwarts. He didn't envision it either when he earned his Potions Mastery at twenty-one. But life didn't go as he planned and teaching potions at Hogwarts was what he did. The winter holidays were as eagerly anticipated by him as his students and he fled the castle for his allotted forty-eight hours in his own home before he was required back at Hogwarts for supervision and whatever Christmas celebration the Headmaster demanded his presence for.
The fire was burning heartily in the hearth, warming the small parlor of Spinner's End, and Severus was enjoying a relaxing perusal of his potion's journals when a sharp knock startled him from his reading. Looking up, he turned to regard the front door with some suspicion. His neighbors weren't exactly a friendly lot and most of the neighborhood was abandoned.
The knock came again, louder and more insistent than the first and Severus set aside the magazine and drew his wand. Eight years since the fall of the Dark Lord, and he'd never had a visitor. He edged toward the front door, moving the valance that provided privacy on the sidelight windows. A frown creased his forehead and he unlocked the front door and opened it, drawling, "Hello, Petunia Evans."
The blonde-haired, pinched-faced older sister of the late Lily Evans Potter scowled at him, her glance taking in his pressed charcoal trousers and navy sweater, sniffing her disdain. "It's Dursley now, Snape. I see you managed to find something to wear that didn't come from the dustbin five years ago."
Petunia always was petty. "And I see you haven't lost your charm. What do you want?"
She thrust out a small, black cat that he hadn't noticed in the initial exchange. The cat dangled from where her pinched fingers gripped its scruff, mewling pitifully. Severus glanced down at it, frowning at her. "I see. You haven't seen me in close to ten years so you came back from whatever cookie-cutter home you currently occupy to give me a cat?"
"Don't be ridiculous," she snapped at him and gave the cat a shake. "I've had enough of you freaks. I didn't want him, but Vernon and I took him in because it was our Christian duty to do so. We'd hoped he wouldn't be as tainted as you people, but he is. For over eight years we've dealt with his freakishness, but I've had enough!"
Severus' frown deepened and he folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the doorframe. "I have no need for a cat. Not even a black one. Besides, I thought the belief was that witches had black cats. "
"I will not have a beast in my house!" Petunia shrieked, and the cat yowled. Her face flushed an uneven, unbecoming red and she gave the cat another rough shake, hissing, "Shut up!"
"I can also see you can't be trusted with a goldfish, let alone a child," Severus drawled, glancing over her shoulder to the sedan that was parked at the curb. The wide face of a rather obese child pressed against the back window, watching them.
She sneered at him and then hurled the cat into the dirty snow near the curb. "If you won't take him, then he's no longer my concern. I don't care what happens to him. That — that freak can deal with his own mess. I'm done!"
She spun on her heel and stalked back to the car that idled in front of his house. He could see the wide face of a boy pressed to the window of the backseat make a rude expression and the hulking frame of the driver — Severus could only assume it was Vernon Dursley. He watched in bemusement as she yanked the car door open and then seemed to remember she had more to say.
"You can tell that... Dumbledore that we're moving. Vernon's been transferred to one of Grunning's foreign offices and I'm not telling him where!"
Severus straightened as a niggling sense of alarm surfaced. There was only one boy in the backseat that he could see. And, unless the Potter brat was incredibly small, there was no way the boy would fit in the back seat with the luggage and Petunia's whale of a brat. Petunia dropped into the front passenger seat and slammed the door. Severus imagined she hadn't even had time to buckle her seat belt before the tires squealed and the car peeled up the street and around the corner. And so left a woman Severus never desired to see again.
He turned his attention to where the black cat had disappeared under the dirty mound of snow. It hadn't emerged from the impression it'd made and Severus feared he was about to acquire something he didn't want. Resigned, he turned to grab the Wellies and stuff his feet into them. He trudged the short distance to the snow mound and reached down through the snow. His fingers touched cold fur and he grasped the cat, pulling it from its icy confines.
Clumps of dirty snow clung to its fur and it trembled in his grip but was surprisingly silent and still. Severus narrowed his eyes at it, noting the droop of the cat's ears and the thin, white streak of fur over the cat's right eye. Wariness was evident in the cat's emerald green eyes and Severus sighed. "I had at least two more years before I had to deal with you."
The cat, of course, said nothing and Severus turned back to his open front door, stepping back into the warmth of his home and toeing off the Wellies and moving into the parlor where the fire burned brightly in the hearth. He gently dropped the cat on the rag rug in front of the fire and drew his wand. The cat cringed but didn't try to run.
"Now," Severus said, "you're going to tell me exactly how you managed to get yourself into this situation."
He raised his wand and opened his mouth to say the spell when the fire suddenly flared.
"Severus!" Albus Dumbledore's voice boomed through the fire before his head even appeared. The cat leapt in surprise and then bolted in a blur of bristled fur and scrambling paws. It would've been amusing if Severus wasn't feeling increasingly annoyed.
Severus let his wand hand drop back to his side and he scowled at the Headmaster's head resting among the embers of his fire. "Albus."
"Severus," the Headmaster repeated, "the wards have fallen. Harry Potter's missing."
Severus hummed, tilting his head and casting a glance toward the shadows under the nearby armchair. "He was here until you startled him. Now he's hiding under my armchair. Minerva will be disappointed."
Albus Dumbledore frowned. "This not a frivolous matter, my boy."
He sighed and flicked his wand before turned away to crouch in front of his armchair. "You may as well come through. And you," he said, speaking to the hidden cat, "might as well come out now before I drag you out."
He heard Albus step out of the fireplace just as a small, black nose appeared from beneath the armchair. Albus moved closer and the nose disappeared again. Severus sighed and rose to his feet, absently brushing non-existent dust from his trousers. "Petunia Dursley dropped by not too long ago."
"Did you see the boy?" Albus questioned.
"I saw her boy," he replied with a curl of his lip. "She is doing him no favors."
Albus searched his face with a thoughtful look. A soft press against his ankles drew Severus' eyes downward. The cat had slinked from its hiding place and was now eyeing the Headmaster warily from behind Severus' leg.
"I did not know you had a cat," Albus commented.
"I do not have a cat," Severus scoffed. "That is Petunia's doing."
"I wasn't aware you received gifts from Mrs. Dursley."
Severus couldn't prevent the sneer that pulled at his lips. "I most certainly do not. I do not do gifts. The only good thing about this holiday is that I don't have to deal with students."
"You, my boy, are sadly lacking in Christmas Spirit," the Headmaster commented, drawing his wand. With a flick, the cat was no longer a cat. "Ah, there you are, Mr. Potter. Happy Christmas!"
The scowl that had yet to leave Severus' face grew deeper. The boy was dressed in soiled, oversized clothing and a dark bruise had spread across his left cheek. Potter gaped wide-eyed at them and then scrambled back to press himself tightly into the corner of the room. A quick glance at the Headmaster revealed a slight dimming of his smile before he cleared his throat. "Well, now that all is set to rights, Severus, if you'll follow me to the kitchen for a word."
The thought of leaving the brat unsupervised in his sitting room did not give Severus a great deal of comfort. He snatched up one of the potions journals he'd been reading earlier and moved toward Potter, thrusting it out at the boy. "Amuse yourself with this and attempt to learn something. Don't move from this spot."
Potter silently took the magazine, handling it like it just might explode, and Severus turned to stalk to his kitchen. He doubted the boy would actually read the magazine. He, himself, had found that particular issue dry and boring with little new knowledge.
He found the Headmaster pouring a cup of tea and settling into one of the chairs at the table. He looked up when Severus entered, preempting him. "It appears the Dursleys have moved and left no forwarding address. At least, none that I could acquire without some degree of subterfuge. I fear that even if I did manage to find them, leaving young Mr. Potter with them again would not be in his best interest."
Severus moved to the kitchen table but didn't take a seat. "And why is that?"
Albus set his teacup down, tapping lightly against the rim of the cup. "The blood wards I placed around the Dursley home have fallen. It appears that they fell sometime in the last twenty-four to thirty-six hours."
"Blood wards," Severus said flatly. "I can't imagine Petunia Dursley willingly taking in her sister's child."
The Headmaster looked surprised. "Whyever not? Lily and Petunia were close."
"As children," he sneered. "Petunia Evans had always been a self-righteous, prideful bitch. From our brief encounter, Petunia Dursley didn't seem any different."
"But Petunia loved her sister," Albus insisted. "Why else would she accept young Harry into her home?"
"Why else, indeed," Severus murmured. "Perhaps you didn't give her a choice. Or, perhaps, there was some financial inducement."
Albus cleared his throat and stood. "Since it is doubtful the wards can be rebuilt, we must find a new place for Harry to stay."
Severus narrowed his eyes at the Headmaster's evasion but allowed the shift in topic. "There were plenty of families willing to take in the Boy-Who-Lived eight years ago. It shouldn't be difficult to find one still willing."
"No," Albus immediately disagreed. "It's far too risky to place him in any family. I would take him myself, but I'm an old man and I don't have the energy I used to have to look after a young boy."
Severus snorted his disbelief and then an alarming thought struck. "No." The word was out before his thought had fully formed. The Headmaster reached out to him and Severus pulled back. "Absolutely not."
"It would only be for a few days," Albus cajoled.
"Are the orphanages closed?" Severus demanded.
"Come now, Severus," Albus reprimanded, "you are sounding like Scrooge."
Severus glowered and folded his arms across his chest. The motion wasn't as intimidating without his black teaching robes. "I do not appreciate the comparison, Albus. And you are not going to distract me from the issue. Surely there are others better qualified to care for the boy."
"You have been a professor of a boarding school for the better part of a decade, my boy, and you're Head of a House," Albus said pointedly. "I believe you are fully capable of caring for Harry for the time being."
"I do not wish to care for the boy," he snapped.
Albus peered over his half-moon glasses at him. "What about your promise—"
"Do not bring that into this! I said I would see to his safety, not his upbringing!"
A small smile appeared on the Headmaster's face. "I was just asking you to watch Harry for a few days, Severus. If you wish to see to his upbringing after that, we can discuss it at another time."
"I don't!" Severus hissed. "I will watch the boy until the New Year, but I want him gone by then. I would like to enjoy my final three years Potter-free before I have to deal with the brat in school."
Albus chuckled, moving back into the sitting room, Severus trailing behind. To the Potion Master's surprise, Potter was still in the corner where they'd left him and the boy was fully engrossed in the potions journal. The boy startled when they entered, dropping the magazine and pulling his knees in close to his chest to make himself as small as possible. Albus stopped in front of the hearth and spoke cheerfully, "Well, Harry, you will be staying with Professor Snape for the time being. Severus, I'll send Poppy over at her earliest convenience, if you don't mind."
"Very well," he acknowledged, knowing he had little choice in the matter.
"Happy Christmas, Harry. Severus."
With that, Albus dropped a handful of floo powder in the fire and vanished in a rush of green flame. Potter gawped at the Headmaster's exit and seemed to forget himself when he exclaimed, "Wow! That was like magic!"
"It wasn't 'like' magic, Mr. Potter," Severus drawled, "it was magic."
Potter flinched. "Magic isn't real, sir."
Severus arched an eyebrow. "I do believe you were a cat when you arrived."
The boy's thin shoulders lifted in a small shrug and he ducked his head, mumbling, "That's because I'm a freak. I do freaky things."
"No doubt you've done plenty of accidental magic things, but that is far from freaky or unusual for magical children," Severus said. "Petunia was always a jealous bint."
Potter gazed at him with wide eyes that reminded him so much of Lily he had to look away. He shifted his attention to the potions journal Potter had dropped. "Did you read that?"
The boy quickly snatched up the magazine. "Yes, sir. It was amazing! The pictures move and do all those things actually make something useful? Eye of newt and all that?" His questions seemed to catch up with him and his mouth snapped shut and he cringed. "I'm sorry, sir. I know not to ask questions."
Potter held out the magazine, but Severus didn't take it. Instead, he eyed the boy curiously. "You are interested in potions, then?"
The boy gave a hesitant nod. "It seems like cooking and I'm good at cooking — or at least Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon didn't complain. Aunt Petunia had me cooking ever since I could see over the stove. Do you want me to cook for you?"
"No," Severus said with a scowl. "I don't suppose you'd be interested in learning to brew?"
To his surprise, the boy brightened. "You'd teach me?"
The Potions Master considered it a moment longer, but he had nothing else for the boy to do. "Yes. You can't be worse than some of the first-years and Madam Pomfrey needs some of her simpler potions replenished for the rest of the school year. Try not to blow up your cauldron."
"That happens?" Potter gasped.
"Far too often in my classes," Severus drawled. He motioned for the boy to follow him toward the back of the house. "This way, Potter. One does not brew where food is prepared."
Severus Snape didn't enjoy teaching. In fact, he hated teaching, but occasionally there would be a student or two who shared his love of potions and it was those students that sometimes made the job worthwhile. He just never expected one of those students to be Harry Potter.