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Chapter 1: The Wizard's Gift
December 23rd, 1993
Harry had never seen Diagon Alley this crowded until he had ventured out to shop for a few presents. Shoppers bustled to and fro on the cobblestone streets, clutching packages and bags, dragging screaming children by the hand past the toy store and the sweet shop. Harried parents and sweethearts searched frantically for a gift for that special someone, or a replacement for a gift that had been sold out. The crowds were so thick that Harry felt slightly claustrophobic, like the last jellybean crammed in the top of an overfull container. It was a good thing he had shoved the pouch with his money inside the collar of his coat and had wrapped his scarf about his neck, concealing it further. There was always the chance that some quick-fingered pickpocket could abscond with the last bit of holiday money a shopper had.
He made his way to Quality Quidditch Supplies, where he bought Ron a new Chudley Cannons jersey and a chocolate Snitch for Christmas. Ron loved Quidditch and sweets and could rarely afford either. For Hermione, he went to Flourish and Blotts, where he purchased the brand new bestselling Revised Encyclopedia of Runes and Rune Casting by Alfrika FarSeer. He knew she wouldn't have purchased it yet, since it had just been released today, and she was busy helping Madam Pomfrey and Snape brew potions for the Hospital Wing. Harry also stopped in the stationary store and bought her a lovely champagne pink ostrich quill with a silver point, perfect for taking notes on her new book. He even stopped and bought a bag of Fizzing Whizzbees for Dumbledore and a box of Scottish toffees for McGonagall.
After shrinking his packages so they all fit inside his coat pockets, he prepared to brave the endless crowds of last minute shoppers to return to The Leaky Cauldron. He had just stepped out the door of the sweet shoppe, when a sudden gust of wind blew his hat from his head.
Muttering irritably, he chased it down the street. It was the only hat he owned, and he didn't want to lose it. Finally, the hat fetched up at the mouth of a dingy alleyway inbetween an apothecary shop and what looked like an abandoned warehouse. Harry knelt to pick it up when a rasping voice called from out of the shadows, "Hey, kid. C'mere a minute."
Harry quickly snatched his wand from his arm holster and cast a light spell. The circle of light cast by his wand revealed a scruffy disreputably dressed wizard crouched against some trash bins. "Who are you?" he asked, for the gray-haired man looked to be about in his middle fifties, he had a short salt-and-pepper beard and seemed very thin. He was wearing a robe that might once have been blue or silver, but the color had now faded to a nondescript gray. It was tattered and stained, held together by a simple strip of leather. There were holes in the wizard's boots, a big toe poked through one.
"My name's not important. C'mere. Hurry. I haven't got much time left." He beckoned Harry with one hand. Almost immediately, he was bent double by a harsh wracking cough.
Now Harry knew better than to trust a stranger. Especially one who lingered in dank alleys and tried to coax young boys into the shadows. But he also was curious, and he reasoned that if the old man tried anything, he could escape as long as he kept his head and his wand handy. He came within a few feet of the strange wizard and said, "What is it? Did you want to show me something?"
"Yeah. I want to give you something."
"Huh? But you don't even know me."
The stranger coughed again. "I know enough, I know you need what I'm about to give you. But if you accept what I give you, you must do something in return."
"I don't understand."
The wizard took two shuffling steps forward and grabbed Harry's arm. Up close, Harry could smell the odor of stale sweat and dirt, and the man's breath was foul. Harry almost pulled away, but the man had an odd look in his blue eyes. It was a look that compelled the younger wizard to wait and hear him out. Harry flinched at the other's touch, the wizard's grip was hard and unyielding, his face flushed as if with fever.
"Listen close now, boy. The gift I am about to give you is meant only for those who truly need it. I have searched for over two years to find one worthy and finally I found you. I was given it long ago, and it saved me from a terrible mistake and gave me a second chance. Now I give it to you, but you must know there is a price."
"What price? I don't want it, whatever it is."
"Hush. It doesn't matter what you want. It's not about want, it's about need. The greatest gifts always are. Once you have received it, you must then search for another to give it to, for this is a gift that is meant to be shared. But you cannot give it to just anyone. You have to find one who needs the gift as much as you, if not more. Once you have found that person, then you may pass it on. But it may take you a long time to find the right one."
Harry tried to pull away, clearly the wizard was bonkers.
But the old one held him fast, gazing into his eyes. "Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you. The gift is meant to help, not harm." He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small wooden box, elegantly carved with holly and ivy and a dove. He pressed the box, about the size of Harry's palm, into his hand. "Inside you shall find the greatest gift of the season. Use it well, Harry Potter."
Before Harry could say anything else, the old wizard vanished, leaving him alone in the dingy alley, clutching an innocent wooden box.
Harry stared down at it. He wasn't sure what to do, though common sense told him not to open the box, to wait and show one of the professors, in case it was cursed.
It had started to sleet and the cobblestones suddenly became treacherous. Harry turned, intending to go back out of the alley and over to The Leaky Cauldron, the box still held in his hand, when he slipped and fell.
The box bounced out of his hand and hit the ground, and the lid popped off.
Suddenly a rush of warmth, light, and the sweet scent of flowers perfumed the air. It washed over Harry in a wave, surrounding him with a serenity he had never known before. He breathed in the air, which seemed tinged with gold. Immediately he felt a rush of peace so deep that he feared he might die from sheer joy and contentment.
He quickly picked up the box and cradled it close. He sensed it was now empty, but he felt no sense of loss. For the first time ever, he was content and happy, all of his troubles and worries had vanished. He no longer feared being found outside the school by a professor, such as Snape, where he was forbidden to go. He no longer felt sick when he thought about the murderer Sirius Black and how he had betrayed Harry's parents to Voldemort. Not even thinking about the demetors scared him anymore.
Then he knew what gift the wizard had given him.
He tucked the wooden box into a pocket, dusted himself off, he wasn't even bruised, and continued on his way.
Safely back at the school, Harry set to wrapping his gifts. He would have Hedwig deliver them on Christmas morning.
The peaceful feeling was still with him, and Harry basked in the warmth and soothing sensation. It filled him to the brim and chased away all the sorrow and fear within him. He tucked away the presents in his trunk and lay on his bed, relaxing. For the first time in his life, he felt no pressure to do anything, not homework, or chores, or studying. There was no need for him to dwell upon the terrible knowledge that the escaped prisoner wanted to kill him, or that his parents had been killed because of the prisoner's actions. He had no need to be The-Boy-Who-Lived, savior of the wizarding world.
He could just be. He closed his eyes and fell asleep.
And he dreamed he was in a fair country, and his parents were there with him, hugging him and laughing. They told him they were proud of him, that they loved him, and together they walked through the pristine wilderness. Harry had never felt more at home or more loved than at that moment.
When he awoke, it was the middle of the night, and Ron's soft snoring filled the room. Harry rolled over, realizing with a flicker of chagrin that he'd fallen asleep fully clothed. He had not even bothered to take off his shoes. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. Then he looked at his watch. It was almost one o'clock in the morning.
He didn't feel tired, however. Or depressed or regretful when he thought about the dream he had had. The dream had been wonderful, in it he had connected with his parents, and come away from the meeting stronger in mind and spirit. Their unconditional love sustained and renewed him; it would be with him always, for all of his life. Where once he would have regretted his parents' sacrifice, now he understood why it had been necessary and he thanked them for it.
He sat up, listening to Ron snoring in the next bed, and grinned to himself. What a fortunate coincidence it had been for him to meet the strange wizard. Or maybe it hadn't been a coincidence?
He pondered what the wizard had said to him. Inside is the greatest gift of the season. Once you have received it, you must then search for another to give it to, for this is a gift that is meant to be shared. But you cannot give it to just anyone. You have to find one who needs the gift as much as you, if not more. Once you have found that person, then you may pass it on.
But who could he find to give the gift to? He considered those still in the castle, his friends and the professors. Who among them needed the gift of peace and understanding the most?
Ron came to mind. His friend certainly never had much peace and quiet at home, being the second youngest of seven, and he was always complaining that no one understood him.
But even as he thought it, he knew Ron was not the one. Ron might say he wanted peace, but he didn't crave it.
Then he thought about Hermione, and how she was always pushing herself to be the best, studying endlessly for exams. Surely she could use some peace, and learn to relax.
Slowly, he shook his head. No, not Hermione.
Dumbledore? He was always busy with his duties as Headmaster. Perhaps . . . but even then he knew the gift was not for the Headmaster. Dumbledore carried his own brand of peace around within him, he did not need to be given it.
Perhaps the one who needed it wasn't even at the school. Perhaps he or she was somewhere else , waiting for their paths to cross. The wizard had said it could take a long time before he found someone.
Unable to sleep, filled with a renewed energy, Harry rose and left the Tower. He knew he was out of bed after curfew, but found he didn't care. He wasn't going to cause any trouble, merely take a walk to settle his brain before returning to sleep. He simply needed space to ponder and contemplate this peace that had permeated his being. Paradoxically, he found himself best able to relax when walking alone. He took the Marauder's Map with him and his cloak, no sense in getting caught out of bed by Snape or Filch.
He put on the cloak and slipped down the stairs. For some odd reason, he felt drawn to the dungeons. Normally he was uncomfortable down there, that was Slytherin territory, and also Snape's. But tonight he felt he needed the quiet and the solitude, so he crept down the stairs to the Potion Master's domain.
It was eerily quiet , he could practically hear his heart beating in the smothering silence. Small globes that put forth a shimmering light sparkled like will-o-wisps in the darkened corridors. The air was pungent with the smell of different kinds of herbs. He walked past the Slytherin portrait hole and then Snape's office. All was still and calm.
Until he arrived at the third dungeon, where he saw a light from beneath the partially closed door. He examined the map, sticking a hand out to read it in the dim light. There was a dot labeled Severus Snape inside the room Harry was standing next to. Harry drew in a breath and tapped the map, whispering, "Mischief managed." Then he stuffed the map back inside the pocket of his robes.
That had been a close call. He frowned, wondering what Snape could be brewing at this hour. He heard the soft hiss of the fire and the faint sound of a liquid bubbling, then a soft scrape, as of a stirrer along the side of a cauldron.
Unable to help himself, Harry peeked into the room.
There was Snape, stirring some potion.
Harry watched as the professor stirred the mixture several times, then withdrew, going to sit down in a padded chair beside the cauldron. He watched Snape's face, it was oddly drawn and seemed almost normal without the familiar sneer distorting his mouth. He continued observing the man, feeling compelled to do so.
Funny, but he had never really thought about what the teachers did over the holiday break. He just assumed they all went home to their families. Unless they didn't have a family to go home to. Harry tried to recall if anyone had ever mentioned Snape's family. He knew the professor wasn't married, had no wife and no children. What if he, like Harry, had no family to celebrate the holiday with? Was that perhaps the reason why the professor was brewing long into the night? Because potions were all he had to sustain him?
He recalled Hermione claiming once that Snape was probably lonely, and that was why he was such a grouch to everyone except his Slytherins. Harry knew how loneliness felt, he had been lonely his whole life before coming to Hogwarts and making friends. He continued watching as Snape rose, went and took something off his desk and stared at it.
He saw the man's face suddenly twist, his mouth screwed into a grimace of . . . pain.
What was he looking at, that made him assume such an expression? Harry saw that the dark eyes were filled with several emotions, chief among them looked to be regret and sorrow. But who or what did the professor care about enough to regret or feel sorrow for? Harry wished he could get a glimpse of whatever Snape was holding.
All at once, Snape stiffened, and raised his head, looking at the door Harry was peering around.
Harry froze, wondering if Snape could see through invisibility cloaks. The professor was staring right at him. Harry swallowed hard and thought about backing away. But he dared not move. He forced himself to meet Snape's gaze, and the pain that lived in those eyes stabbed through him.
Suddenly he knew who to give the gift to. Here was someone who was even more lonely and hurting that he was. If anyone needed the gift, Snape did. The gift that must be shared. Harry fumbled in his robes, finally withdrawing the wooden box from his pocket. He carefully opened it and then didn't know what to do next. How did one give the gift of peace to another?
Harry didn't think the Potions Master would allow him to touch his shoulder or anything like that. The wizard had said that he would know whom to give the gift to when he found them. But he had never told Harry how to pass it on. Harry focused on the box in his hands, willing the beautiful feeling of peace to flow into the box, to fill it and in turn fill the one who most needed peace in his life.
He felt himself grow slightly dizzy, and leaned upon the door briefly. He felt something hot flow from him and saw tiny motes of golden power slowly trickle from his arms into the box, filling it with light. Harry clamped the lid shut, then tucked the box under his arm.
It was strange, but he did not find the peaceful feeling diminished after he had placed it inside the box. The peace and light was still within him, illuminating the dark spaces in his soul, keeping the nightmares and regrets at bay.
Harry headed back towards Snape's office. He would place the box inside, instead of sending an owl. He didn't want the professor to be able to refuse the gift. He unlocked the door with a whispered charm, then crept inside and placed the box on Snape's desk. He also scribbled a note for Snape. Then he paused, wondering if he were doing the right thing.
Why should he care if Snape was lonely? Or in pain? The man was a snarky pain-in-the-arse, as Ron would say. Still, that glimpse he'd had of Snape's true feelings, feelings that Snape had taken great pains to hide, touched a chord inside Harry. Besides, Christmas was the season of giving, of hope and light. Harry had spent too many Christmases forgotten in his cupboard or watching from afar, neglected and hungry, to ever wish such a thing upon anyone, even his Potions professor.
This was the right thing to do.
Harry quickly left the office. As he headed up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower, he yawned. Now he felt tired, as if he had not slept in a week. But he also felt extremely happy, knowing he had helped a lonely hurting professor this night.
He fell into bed, and was asleep almost instantly, a serene smile stealing over his face.
Severus finished bottling his Draught of Peace, which was something Poppy had requested he brew for her patients. Sometimes a student was so distraught, fearful, or in pain that this potion was the only thing that calmed and relaxed them enough for Poppy to treat them. However, the potion took hours to brew and required much concentration, so Severus preferred to brew it over break, when he didn't have to be distracted by noisy students or the demands of grading homework, tests, and seeing to the needs of his snakes.
He carefully packaged the ten vials for the Hospital Wing, keeping three for his private stores. He would bring them to the Hospital Wing in the morning. He headed down to his office, thinking ironically how there was no peace for him around the holidays. He preferred not to celebrate Christmas any longer, because it was just a reminder of the fact that he no longer had anyone to celebrate with. The only people he had ever loved, Eileen Snape and Lily Evans, were dead and gone, and since then the holiday lacked any meaning for him. What good was light and warmth and good cheer when everyone you cared for was cold beneath the ground? Why bother to celebrate new life when all he could remember was death?
He unlocked the door to his office, and shoved it open. The lights came on with a simple flick of his wand, and he placed the potion in his cabinet behind his desk. He spun about, ready to return to his quarters and sleep, or try to. The memories of Lily and Eileen were particularly harrowing tonight.
It was then that the simple wooden box caught his eye.
What was this and where had it come from? Immediately suspicious, he cast several Dark Detection Charms over the box. There was no telling how it had gotten here, and usually gifts that appeared out of nowhere were ones he would rather not receive.
But no dark curses, hexes, or jinxes were upon the box or inside of it.
He debated for several minutes whether or not to open the box. It was probably from Albus, the old man was forever trying to cheer him up during Christmas, to no avail. Christmas cheer faded in the face of overwhelming regret, guilt, and sorrow.
Sighing, he decided to open the box now. What was the point of waiting? He carefully removed the lid and peered inside.
The box was empty. He bit back a cry of dismay. Had he really been foolish enough to think that someone had actually cared enough to send him a gift this year? It had been a hoax after all, just another way to annoy the Potions Master. He was about to hurl the box into his trash bin when suddenly there was a flash of golden light.
It erupted from the box and struck him full in the chest.
He staggered backwards, clutching his chest. There was a sharp pain somewhere in the vicinity of his heart, but it soon faded. A wave of peace flowed through him, creeping slowly through the cracks in his heart and the dark shadows in his soul. Like golden honey it flowed in an endless stream, soothing the raw wounds in his heart and mind, granting him at long last peace from the past, and absolution from his mistakes.
He sank down in his chair, a strange warmth filling him, banishing the chill from his bones. Tears prickled his eyes and blurred his vision. He closed them, but they slid down his cheeks anyway. He wept silently then, but not from grief. His mind was filled with memories . . .
Baking gingerbread with Eileen as a boy, the scent of nutmeg, ginger, and spices filling the whole house and making his mouth water . . . eating them hot out of the oven with an icy cold glass of milk . . . sharing them with Lily, who insisted that gingerbread men needed frosting smiles, and putting one on all the gingerbread she made . . . decorating the tree with Eileen, with tinsel, popcorn, cranberries, and simple ornaments . . . the fresh clean smell of pine needles mingled with the sweet odor of plum pudding . . . Lily laughing as she hit him in the head with a snowball . . . chasing his red-haired friend about the yard and tackling her into a snowdrift . . . Eileen holding a vial of lemon verbena in a small crystal flask, that he had distilled himself . . . Lily exclaiming in joy over the Advanced Potions manual he had bought her . . . Himself, opening a small box containing a fine silver knotwork brooch with a silver snake in the middle, emeralds blazing from its eyes . . ."For me, Lily? But it's too much for me to accept . . ." . . . "Nonsense, Sev! I had it made 'specially for you. Happy Christmas!" . . . He had it still, wearing it pinned to his collar, beneath his robes . . . Arms holding him tight in a loving embrace as his mother welcomed him home after a difficult spying mission . . .Wintergreen and holly entwined about mistletoe, hanging in the doorway of the Evans kitchen, and Lily drawing him beneath it to kiss him . . . "A kiss for luck, a kiss for love, to ring in the New Year!" . . .Innocence and unforgettable passion . . .and a love that had never died . . .
So many memories, he nearly drowned in the deluge. But then they slowed, and he opened his eyes, drawing in a deep breath. He carefully wiped his eyes, expecting to feel the familiar pangs of sorrow and regret. The memories had always hurt before. But no longer. Now they filled him with peace, and he remembered the good times and love he had shared with Lily and Eileen. For the first time he understood the true meaning of the Christmas spirit. He picked up the box reverently, wishing he knew the person who had sent him the best gift he had ever received.
Then he saw the piece of parchment beneath it. He frowned, it was hard to decipher the untidy scrawl.
Dear Professor Snape,
A wise wizard told me that the best gifts are ones we don't ask for, but are simply given. I think you need this as much as I do. I hope you enjoy it.
Severus was dumbstruck. Surely he had read that wrong. But no, though the handwriting was atrocious, he recognized that scribbled signature. Harry Potter. He did not understand why the boy would have given him this most precious gift. Or how he had done so. He rubbed his eyes, which itched and burned. Maybe it didn't matter. He recalled the old saying, never look a gift horse in the mouth.
Perhaps he had misjudged the boy, seeing the shadow of his bullying father instead of the compassionate heart of his mother. This proved that the boy had inherited more from Lily than merely her eyes. Potter, you truly are Lily's son. Perhaps we can begin anew.
The professor leaned back in his chair, for the nonce reluctant to get up and go to bed. He needed time, time to think and time to accept the truth he had learned; time to accustom himself to the peace that had shattered the barriers of ice and stone surrounding his heart and made him feel again; time to realize that the boy he once resented was the last link he had of the woman he loved.
Suddenly, the two weeks of the holiday break no longer stretched before him with unrelenting solitude, meaningless hours dragging into empty days. Now he was filled with a new purpose, a new hope. He was the boy's secret guardian, but now he had a chance to become more than that, if Harry were willing. It had been a long time since Severus had called anyone friend. His mouth twitched into a crooked smile. Perhaps this holiday season wouldn't be so bad after all . . . Severus mused. If nothing else I can correct his abysmal handwriting. Either he never learned how to write with a quill properly, or he needs new glasses . . . Severus yawned, he would figure it out tomorrow. Harry wasn't going anywhere and neither was he. He had time to relish this newfound peace and he silently thanked Harry for this unexpected brilliant gift. It had been just what he always wanted.