Severus slept until late in the morning, and when he woke, he was much improved. Albus came by to check on him and was overjoyed to see the professor nearly back to his snarky self. Harry was still asleep, so Dumbledore had some privacy to broach the issue of the guardianship to Severus. "If, as you say, the Dursleys are not fit to raise the boy, then an alternative must be considered. I originally felt he would do better with his relatives, Muggles though they are, because of the blood ties and also growing up in Surrey he would be out of the public eye and hopefully out of the Death Eaters' eyes as well. But given the circumstances, I have now reconsidered."
"How very astute of you," drawled the Potions Master, sarcasm dripping from his words like poison.
"Now, Severus. There's no need to be so sharp. I made a mistake, a particularly bad one, but it was not intentional. I do not want to see Harry go the way of Tom, and end up in an orphan home. But there is no one else I would trust to protect him and guide him other than you."
"Me? Albus, you don't know what you're saying. Potter would never agree to it. He barely respects me as a teacher. Merlin only knows what he would make of me as his guardian."
"Severus, I believe that Harry has grown to care for you, hard as that will seem to believe. You are the one adult he trusts to understand what happened to him and to help him past his fears. The question is, are you willing to care about Harry?"
Severus was silent for a long while, mulling over the Headmaster's words. Ever since he had saved Harry's life and tended to him in the cave, he found his feelings had altered significantly towards James and Lily's son. It had been easy for him to see only arrogant troublemaker James Potter in the son, to continue to nurse a grudge towards the boy because the father was no longer available. But somewhere in the dark of that long winter's night, Severus had opened his eyes and seen the true Harry Potter. Just a boy, who had been maligned and mistreated by those who should have loved him. It reminded him painfully of his own childhood. He didn't know if he could be what Harry needed. But Albus was right. The boy needed constant supervision and protection. If he did not give it, who would?
"All right, Albus. If the Dursleys agree to relinquish Potter's guardianship to me, and we document it as such for the Ministry, I shall bring the matter up with the boy. I will not have a child in my home that resents me or is not willing to agree to my authority. He needs to agree to this. I shall do my best to give him a home and a family. But only if he so wishes."
"Of course, Severus. Now then, I am going to see if Harry is awake and once he has eaten, we can head over to Surrey."
Severus bared his teeth in a cold smile. "Good. It's about time I paid a visit to my old neighbor, Petunia."
Albus bit back a chuckle. He knew it wasn't nice to gloat, but he was certain that Petunia would be shocked when her old neighbor showed up on her doorstep, and if he were completely honest, he was looking forward to the confrontation.
Petunia was busily decorating the banister of the staircase with a large swag of holly, ivy, and pine trimmed with small brass bells and velvet red bows, she had always loved the fresh smell of the greenery and this tradition harked back to her childhood, when she and Lily used to twine the festive boughs along the banister and mantel of their home on Spinner's End.
A large Scotch pine was situated in the den, decorated with many hand-blown glass balls and glittery ribbons, underneath it was a beautiful quilted tree skirt with embroidered redbirds and pinecones on it, made by Petunia's mother. Soon it would be covered by mounds of gifts for Dudley, but as yet, Petunia hadn't gotten around to putting them under it.
Once she had secured the bough, Petunia stepped back and admired it. It was quite beautiful and she smiled, pleased with her handiwork. Then she went and began to gather up the presents for her darling baby boy, who would be coming home from Smeltings tomorrow, which was Christmas Eve. She could hardly wait to see Dudley again, and hoped they were feeding him right at that school. She finished arranging the presents under the tree, then checked her watch. Vernon would be home in about four hours.
As she admired the tree and the presents artfully wrapped beneath, she thought about what a relief it was that her freak nephew was going to be staying at that school again for the holiday season. It was where he belonged and not here, mucking up her holiday with his freaky displays of magic. And that way she needn't get him a token gift. Or worry about her dessert magically flying through the air and smashing upon a guest's head. For once, things would be normal around her house.
She had just turned to go into the kitchen to check upon her baking mince pies when the doorbell rang. She hurried to answer it, hoping it was the delivery of poinsettias from the flower shoppe for the front entry.
Instead, she opened it to find her unwanted nephew upon the front porch along with an old man wearing a vibrant purple pantsuit and a paisley tie and a tall lean man in black trousers and a dark green pullover wearing a familiar sneer upon his face.
"Happy Christmas, Aunt Petunia," Harry greeted her, flashing her a fake smile.
Petunia put her hand on her heart and frowned angrily. "What are you doing here, boy? They kick you out of that school already? Figures!"
"On the contrary, Mrs. Dursley," corrected Dumbledore. He put a hand upon Harry's shoulder. "Harry here is one of our brightest students."
A snort of disbelief came from Snape, who remained silent for now, eyeing Petunia with scorn. As if she cared, Albus! Humph! Potter could be one of the best students . . .if he applied himself. He has the potential magically and the brains, just not the discipline. But that shall change when and if he becomes my ward.
Petunia lifted an eyebrow in disbelief. Then she stepped back to allow them entry, not wanting the neighbors to see and speculate about her odd visitors. Once the door was safely closed, she looked them up and down and said coldly, "Why are you here then? Thought you were spending the holidays at that school, boy?"
Harry stiffened. "I will be, Aunt Petunia. But Professor Dumbledore and Professor Snape wanted to speak with you first."
"Dumbledore?" she repeated suspiciously. "You're the one who left him on the doorstep, aren't you?"
Dumbledore nodded. "I am. As your sister's only living relative, you had an obligation to take in your orphaned nephew."
"Obligation indeed!" sniffed the haughty blond woman. Then, recalling her manners, she invited them to sit down and have a cup of tea and some biscuits, which they all refused. "What would you know about obligations, old man?"
"As much as you do about avoiding them, Petunia," Severus interjected, and there was cold disdain in his tone.
"You!" she spat suddenly, whirling upon the other wizard, her blue eyes flashing. "You're a fine one to talk, Snape! It was because of you that my sister walked the path to her own destruction."
"I have no idea what you are talking about," replied Severus, startled at her accusation.
"Don't you?" purred the other venomously. "You were the one who told her about magic and encouraged her to use her freaky powers. If it hadn't been for you, she would have stopped using them and become a normal girl. It's your fault, Snape, that she became a . . .witch!" Petunia practically spat the last word, and in her mouth it sounded like an epithet, something foul and dirty.
Snape's eyes flashed. "Lily was a normal girl, Petunia! Using magic is like breathing for one of us. She couldn't have stopped if she had wanted to, and why would she?"
"Don't lie, Snape! You corrupted her with all your talk of magic school and potions and crazy creatures! My sister was a regular child until she met you. After that she was never the same! She went away to that place and when she came home she bewitched my parents."
"Bewitched your parents?" Severus sneered. "Mind telling me how she did that when there are rules about underage wizards using magic outside of school?"
Petunia shrugged. "Lily could get away with anything when she chose, and my parents worshipped her, she could do no wrong in their eyes. They used to disapprove of her freaky outbursts as a child, until she met you and they spoke to your crazy mum—"
"My mother was not crazy, and you will mind your tongue when you speak of her, am I clear?" Snape snarled and suddenly his wand was in his hand.
Petunia squeaked and almost fell off her chair. Her eyes were wide with horror. "You wouldn't dare!"
Snape bared his teeth in a silent snarl. "Try me."
She shrank back in the chair and looked at Dumbledore pleadingly. "Don't let him hurt me, sir!"
Dumbledore gave her a beatific smile. "Have no fear, Petunia. Severus shall not hurt you."
"He did when we were children! He made a branch fall on my head!"
"That was accidental magic. And it served you right for spying," interjected Severus. "Always trying to play the pity card, aren't you, Petunia?"
Harry couldn't help it. He giggled, for he would have dearly loved to see that. He was shocked that his aunt still remembered Severus and apparently hated him as much as she did Harry, maybe even more. He had not thought there was anyone she hated more than him.
Petunia snapped her head around. "Think it's funny, do you? You and he are the same, vicious nasty freaks who belong locked up!"
Severus' eyes narrowed. He had enough sparring with the bitter woman. It was time to get down to business. "Locked up? Like the way you lock up your nephew in the cupboard under the stairs?" he inquired smoothly.
"What? How did—he has Dudley's second bedroom now!" Petunia sputtered.
"A second bedroom?" Dumbledore inquired. "I didn't know you needed more than one."
"Dudley's like two people," Harry interjected, saying what he had longed to say for years about his spoiled rotten cousin.
Petunia gasped. "How dare you talk about my Dudders that way, boy?"
Harry shrugged. "Because it's the truth."
"So you did keep your nephew in a broom cupboard?" Snape pressed, his eyes burning like two hot coals, boring into Petunia like hot pokers.
"Best place for a freak like him!" snapped Petunia. "Out of my way and invisible, just the way we liked it."
Harry flinched, even though he had always known none of his relatives gave a damn about him, it still hurt to hear Petunia speak about him with such derision.
"And how long did that go on?" demanded Snape.
"Since I was little, it was only after the letters came that I was allowed to go upstairs and sleep," Harry told him quietly.
Now Dumbledore's eyes flashed. "Why would you treat your nephew so cruelly? He was a helpless baby when I gave him to you to raise. Your only living relative, the last bit of your sister you had. How could you do such a thing to your own flesh and blood?"
"I never wanted to keep him!" she cried. "You just assumed I would take him in. I never wanted to raise another magical freak like Lily! After she married another of her kind, all I wanted was to get away from her and live a normal life. A life where brooms didn't fly and sticks didn't shoot curses at you. And I finally got my wish when I married Vernon and we moved far away from Spinner's End. Until you left her brat on the stoop and started the whole bloody mess all over again! Well, you might have been able to make me take him in, but nobody said I had to like it! He cost me food and clothing—"
"I paid you a generous stipend for his upkeep, madam," Dumbledore interrupted angrily. "Enough to feed, clothe, and shelter two boys. So you have nothing to complain of on that score."
Harry blinked. He had never known that. His uncle had always told him that he had to earn his keep by doing chores around the house. All the chores.
"What did you do with the money, Petunia?" asked Severus. "Spend it all on yourselves? For it's a sure thing you never spent any on Harry. He came to school lacking the most basic necessities—such as a coat, boots, and gloves!"
She glared right back at him. "I was told the school provided for its students."
"An extra set of robes or the occasional hat, but most parents make certain that their child has decent clothing for all seasons. Of course, you wouldn't have done so, because you'd prefer to forget he ever existed once he steps out of the door, right?"
"He's a menace! He caused my husband to lose a very important account because he dropped my strawberry trifle on Mrs. Mason's head!"
"I told you, Aunt Petunia, that wasn't me, it was Dobby!" Harry protested. Would she never forget about that bloody cake? It wasn't like Dobby had dropped a dungbomb on the woman's head, after all.
"Still lying, are you? There, you see what I have to put up with? He's a no good brat, just like his mo—"
Snape flicked his wand at her.
Her lips blew up to twice their size, until she looked like the freak she had called Lily. She screamed. "What have you done to me? Ahhh!"
"Silence!" hissed the irate Potions Master, and his wand flicked again.
Petunia's howls cut off abruptly.
"Much better. Never speak of Lily with such disrespect in my presence again, am I clear?" he hissed furiously, leaning in until he was nose to nose with her. "She was worth a hundred of you, Tuney. She was a brilliant woman, not a freak, and she gave her life to protect her only son. What have you done for your son except spoil him rotten and allow him to run wild?" He indicated the mounds of presents under the tree. "Out of all those presents, is there one for your nephew? Yes or no? Nod or shake your head to answer me."
Petunia had a hand on her throat and looked like she were about to faint. Slowly, she shook her head.
"Not even one gift? Where is your Christmas spirit?" Dumbledore asked, both shocked and angry.
"Dead and buried," snorted Severus. "Let me guess. Freaks like us don't deserve presents, right?"
Petunia nodded, making awful grimaces as she tried to speak.
Severus looked at Albus. "And these are the people you chose to raise Lily's child. A vindictive bitter hag, her pig of a husband," Snape gestured to the pictures on the wall of Vernon and Dudley. "and their spoilt brat of a son. Harry, did you ever get any presents for Christmas? Or your birthday?"
"No, sir," said Harry softly.
"Did you ever ask why?" Dumbledore wanted to know.
"Once. Uncle Vernon told me Father Christmas doesn't give presents to freaky nephews like me and Aunt Petunia said my birthday wasn't one she wanted to be reminded of, since I was the one who had killed my mum."
Dumbledore shook his head. "How terrible! I am so sorry, Harry. No one deserves that sort of treatment."
Harry shrugged. "I never knew it was wrong until I started going to primary school and other kids talked about what they got for Christmas and complained about their parents making them pick up their room or take out the trash. Not one of them ever had to clean the whole house or scrub toilets with a toothbrush."
"Did you receive an allowance for your work?" asked Dumbledore.
Harry shook his head. "Never."
"How about your cousin?"
"He never did anything. Except make a mess."
Dumbledore frowned sternly at Petunia. "Was that how your parents treated you and your sister?"
Petunia started to nod, but Snape's warning glare and wand movement made her reconsider and she shook her head instead.
"Then why do it to Harry? Was it out of some kind of jealousy, some attempt to get even with Lily now that she was gone?"
Petunia remained still, glaring at Albus half-defiantly. Think what you will, she seemed to imply.
"Come, Harry. I wish you to show me about the house." Dumbledore was on his feet, and Harry followed suit. "Where is this cupboard you mentioned?"
"Over here, sir," Harry led the way to the broom cupboard, which was just off the den.
Petunia began making sudden motions with her hands and sending Albus pleading looks with her eyes, obviously not wanting to be alone with Severus.
Albus pretended not to see and left the room with Harry in tow.
No sooner had they done so, then Snape loomed over her, his fury now showing upon his face. He braced himself upon the arms of her chair and looked directly into her eyes. "Coward!" he hissed softly. "You're lucky that Lily isn't here right now, she would skin you for what you've done to her son. Treated him like a servant and worse, neglecting and starving him! Oh, yes, I know all about it, Petunia! You can hide nothing from me, your mind is like an open book."
She gulped and buried her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking.
Snape was unmoved. "Spare me the crocodile tears. You never shed a tear over Lily's grave and you never will. You are cold and selfish and unfit to take care of a stuffed dog, let alone a child. But you were also clever. You made sure he never revealed anything amiss at home. You taught him well the dangers of doing so. But now the cat's out of the bag. You are condemned by your own words and actions. And soon everyone will know what a harridan you are and you shall never be able to hold your head up again. People will point at you in the street and whisper behind their hands about you and your despicable husband and child. Everyone will know your secret shame and how you lied to make yourself look good. Everyone."
Petunia was shaking her head frantically, tears trickling from her eyes.
"Oh, yes. Because I shall make sure of it. You will be a pariah in society, Tuney, and every decent woman will shut their doors when they see you coming. Who knows, there may be an official inquiry and you may even go to jail." Severus said, totally enjoying watching her squirm. "And all of that lovely money will be gone too. Sad, isn't it? When all you had to do was to treat your nephew like one of the family and make him happy. In a year, you'll probably be begging on the street. No more fine house, or designer clothes, or jewelry." Snape hissed. "What goes around comes around, Petunia." He waved his wand in a complex pattern and mumbled something under his breath.
Petunia threw herself at his feet, begging him wordlessly to remove the "curse" he had put on her and her family.
Snape's lip curled. "You have no one to blame but yourself. Now get up and quit drooling all over my boots, woman!" What he had cast had not been a real spell, but he had taken pains to send anonymous tips to the both Muggle and wizarding newspapers and the authorities, and pictures would be sent also as soon as Albus finished taking them. That plus a taped confession, carefully edited for the Muggles, from Petunia's own lips, Albus had the tiny recorder in his pocket, plus Harry's signed confession of abuse, should be enough to put the Dursleys away by both Muggle and wizarding law for a long time. All of the rest was but a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Petunia was pointing to Dudley now, in the picture hanging on the wall opposite, and looking frantic.
"What shall happen to your son?" Severus interpreted. "Why, he shall either be sent to another relative or end up in a foster home, where one can hope he is treated decently, and not like the way you treated your nephew. But anything can happen, especially to the son of child abusers. As for Harry, he shall come and live with me, as my ward and apprentice, and have the life he should have from the beginning."
Severus spun on his heel, seeing that Harry and Albus were standing in the doorway. "Have a Happy Christmas, Petunia!" he called mockingly over his shoulder.
Albus cancelled the spell on her just as they were walking out the door.
Petunia ran screaming after them. "No-o-o! You can't do this to me! Take it off, Snape! Take it off! Please! For Lily's sake!"
Severus whirled on her. "Since when did you ever do anything for Lily's sake! If it were totally up to me, I'd see you rot in hell first! Count your blessings, Tuney, that Dumbledore has more mercy than I do. Good day, my lady termagant." He made one quick motion with his wand, casting silently. Dumbledore had had his way in one respect, but Severus was a Slytherin and had his own brand of justice. With that, he shut the door in her face and stalked down the steps to rejoin his two companions.
"What did you do to her, sir?" asked Harry wonderingly. "Did you really curse her?"
"I gave her exactly what she deserved. All of them. You need never return here again, Harry."
They all walked down the street to a large tree, which would hide them from view, so they could Apparate to the Ministry.
Dumbledore patted Harry on the shoulder comfortingly. "I am sorry you had to hear all that, my boy. I never would have believed it though, if I hadn't heard and seen it with my own eyes. Had I known what they would do . . .can you ever forgive me?"
Harry looked up at the remorseful old wizard and whispered, "Yes, sir. It wasn't your fault that they . . .hated me. They're just like that." He bit his lip. He wasn't really surprised by anything Petunia had said. He had known long ago that she detested him. And yet . . .for some reason hearing the words made him feel sick. He swallowed hard. "What . . .what will happen to me now? Will I stay at the school?"
"No, for the school is not adequate enough to protect you," Dumbledore informed him quietly. "You see, one of the reasons I wished you to stay with your aunt was because of the spell your mother cast on you just before she was killed. Her love was a powerful protection and through her blood tie to Petunia I was able to cast special wards about the house here. But they have begun to fail, since you never really considered this house a home or the Dursleys your family. The wards about Hogwarts are powerful, but even they can be breached. Therefore it's not safe for you to stay there the year round."
"Oh. But then . . . where will I go?" Harry asked, not daring to look Snape in the eye.
Severus cleared his throat, then said, "You may, if you wish, come and stay with me. I have a small residence in the city of York, about ten miles from the town where I grew up, it is hidden among Muggles, because it is the last place a wizard would think to look. The wards upon it are multi-dimensional and layered and they have never been penetrated."
Harry's eyes widened. "You mean, you live like a Muggle?"
"Some of the time, yes. No one in the Muggle world knows me by my true name. There, I am called Richard Savoy, and if you choose to come live with me, you would be my nephew, Harry Savoy. Once the papers from the Ministry are witnessed and signed, you would be my ward and I your legal guardian, responsible for you till you come of age at seventeen. If you choose to, that is."
Harry stared at the elder wizard, trying to figure out if Snape had offered out of duty or if he truly wanted Harry to be a part of his life. "What about you? Do you want me to live with you? Or are you just offering because you're supposed to protect me?"
Severus looked down at the small wizard and felt a sudden burst of compassion and affection for the boy. It was then that Harry reminded Severus the most of Lily. He put his hands lightly on Harry's shoulders. "I would never have offered you my home if I didn't want you, Harry. The Wise One was right. You and I are meant to be together, as mentor and apprentice, and guardian and ward. You need never worry that I shall behave like the Dursleys. They might have thought you were worthless, but that is because they are the biggest imbeciles ever to walk the earth. To me, you're worth more than my life. I know that I am not the easiest person to live with, but I will try and be more . . .sociable and tolerant and we shall make rules both of us can live with. Is that acceptable for you?"
Slowly, Harry nodded. He knew that Snape would keep his word once he gave it. "If you're sure?" he asked once more, just to be certain.
Severus nearly rolled his eyes. What more proof did the child need? Just then he recalled the first time he had boarded the Hogwarts Express and his mother had hugged him goodbye. It had made him feel warm and cherished. Hugs had been few and far between in his childhood and perhaps that was why he recalled that time so vividly. He suspected the same was true of the twelve-year-old before him. Still, he would try.
Awkwardly, he drew the boy close, all the while expecting Harry to pull away.
But Harry allowed Snape's arms to hold him and suddenly he returned the hug, squeezing the professor tight about the middle and burying his face in Snape's pullover. Harry had never really been hugged either and at first he had been startled when Snape's arms had come about him, but then he felt a rush of gratitude and happiness so great that he could find no words to express it. So he hugged Severus back.
The two remained that way for a few moments, comforting and being comforted.
Then Severus whispered, "Does that answer your question?"
Harry smirked up at him. "Yes. Thank you, sir."
"No, Harry." Severus said, a crooked smile quirking up his mouth. "Thank you."
He darted a look at Dumbledore, who was wearing an utterly ridiculous grin. "What are you looking at, old man?" he scowled. "Have you never seen a guardian hug his child before?"
Dumbledore simply laughed. "Of course, Severus. Come along, there us much to do before supper time."
Severus released Harry, who then took Dumbledore's arm, since the old man was better at Sidelong Apparition than Snape was. So Dumbledore had been right after all. Harry did want him. It was a heady feeling, being needed and wanted. Severus just hoped he would grow used to it.
Dumbledore and Harry Apparated away in a flash of bluish light.
Severus glanced once over his shoulder at Privet Drive before following. On his face was a sly grin. He wondered how long it would take the Dursleys to realize that they now appeared as loathsome on the outside as they did on the inside, and they smelled worse than a manure pile in the heat of July. It was a small bit of revenge, but Snape knew it would drive the vain, class-conscious, arrogant Dursleys insane, since the spell was not visible to the victim's eye. For you, Harry. And for Lily too.
An instant later, the space behind the tree was empty, and the only sound that could be heard was the wind and a woman simultaneously cursing and sobbing.
Hope you all liked this chapter.
Thanks everyone for reading and reviewing!
Next: Icefyre's revenge upon Voldemort! Who's excited to see what happens there?