Chapter 4 : The Offer
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Harry couldn't wait for the weekend, when Professor Snape would take him to Gringotts to withdraw some money so he too could make generous contribution to the library fund. He would make it an anonymous donation, only he and Severus would know about it. He was already famous for living instead of dying, he didn't want to be known as The Boy Who Was Rich too. Even if it was true.
What he wasn't looking forward to was tonight's detention with Malfoy. He was afraid Malfoy would try and get him in trouble again. He also had heard stories about how unpleasant Snape was during his detentions towards students. Harry did not enjoy it at all when Severus was upset with him, it made him feel ashamed, that he had let Severus down by misbehaving. He doubted if Malfoy felt the same. When he had glanced over at the Slytherin table, he had seen Malfoy laughing and talking with his friends, acting as if nothing was wrong. In contrast, Harry was filled with trepidation and could barely swallow his lunch.
Up at the staff table, Snape picked at his lunch as well, nervousness making him lose his appetite. He almost regretted his rash decision to be Potter's legal guardian. Almost, because he feared he might do as poor a job as Potter's relatives had done. Not that he would ever neglect the boy, but Severus knew there was more to raising a child than simply supplying material comforts and necessities. Could he be what Harry needed? Did he want to be a father figure to an eleven-year-old boy, even if he was his beloved Lily's child? Most of all, would Harry want him to play the role James Potter would have filled? Snape was certain that Dumbledore and Minerva had told the boy only good things about the former Quidditch player. None of them would have wanted to tarnish Potter's image by mentioning how cruel and nasty he had been towards Severus at school. Everyone always seemed to make excuses for Potter during school, shrugging off the things he did to Severus and to others as mere pranks, but there had been a dark side to James that few had ever seen save his victims. Lily had seen it, though. Had seen it and had somehow managed to . . .overlook it, forgive it? Severus would never understand how she could have fallen for the arsehole Potter had been back then. He shook his head. There was no sense in speculating over what was past. What mattered was now.
Despite his being Head of Slytherin and dealing with children on a daily basis, Severus was afraid he would not be an adequate guardian. He had not had a decent father growing up, Tobias had been an abusive drunk who had battered his wife and son into fearful obedience, until Severus rebelled at seventeen and left, though not before he nearly beat the bastard to death. Severus hated the fact that he had inherited Tobias's hair trigger temper. It was something he worked hard to control daily, especially around smartarse arrogant students who delighted in mouthing off to every teacher in the school. But at the end of the day he could retreat to his quarters and meditate, or brew, or drink a cup of tea to calm himself down. He wouldn't have that option with Harry, who was his ward, and would therefore be able to stay in his quarters if he chose. What if Harry caused him to lose control? What if he raised a hand to the boy? Hurt Harry the way Tobias had hurt him? Lily had told him to love the boy as she would have. But what if he was incapable of such a thing? His experiences as a spy had made him bitter and hard, how could he love again after so long? Yet, he did care about the boy. He felt compassion and anger at what the child had endured. He was concerned when Harry was hurt and determined that he not be bullied by the likes of Malfoy. But was that love? And what if he did grow to love the boy, but Harry rejected him?
He felt his head start to throb with all of the conflicting thought and emotions swirling in his head. He could not believe how much turmoil one small boy had made out of his life. What had possessed him in making that declaration? You know why, Severus. Because you didn't trust Albus not to send him back to that hellhole. Because no child should have to endure what you did for all those years. And because you promised Lily you'd take care of him, whispered his conscience.
He would not be foresworn, but at the same time the task he had undertaken seemed monumental. He would be responsible for Harry until the boy was of age, and probably beyond that too. It was a very sobering and frightening thought. Once again he asked himself if he were doing the right thing. How could he ever measure up to the ghost of bloody James Potter, hero? And why would he even want to try? He sneered mentally at himself. No, Harry would have to accept him as he was, a flesh and blood man, not some storybook fantasy father.
He stabbed a forkful of chicken and dumplings and swallowed. He would simply have to wait and see.
Draco was feeling quite satisfied with himself after class that day. He had managed to win ten points for answering Sprout's question about self-pollinating snapdragons correctly, and he wasn't all that concerned over the upcoming detention. He knew Snape would give the lion's share of the dirty work to Potter, since Potter deserved it for starting with him and was a Gryffindor besides. Draco, as a Slytherin, wouldn't be doing all that much.
He sauntered into the common room, prepared to ask Blaise or Daniel Mott if they wanted to play a round of Exploding Snap before dinner. But he didn't see any of his yearmates in the common room, just some older third, fourth, and fifth years. Before he could head to his room, Marcus Flint, the Slytherin prefect for that year, caught him by the shoulder. "Malfoy. I want to talk to you."
Malfoy looked up at the beefy Quidditch Captain, his grey-blue eyes puzzled. "What for, Flint? I was going to—"
"Shut up. And it's Prefect Flint to you, firstie." Flint interrupted, angered by the younger boy's lack of respect as well as what he had done previously to earn the displeasure of his Head of House. He pulled Draco into a corner of the room, far enough away to not be overheard too much. Then he began his lecture, because Malfoy needed it more than any other Slytherin he'd ever known, the little snob. "How is it that you manage to get Professor Snape in such a snarky mood and it's only been a few months into the term? What the bloody hell is wrong with you, dueling Potter right in front of Snape's quarters? Do you think he's deaf? Or stupid?"
"No, but Potter started it. He cast a Repelling Charm at me." Draco whined.
"That's a load of dung, Malfoy, and we both know it." Flint sneered. "I'm not stupid. Potter doesn't have the balls to start a duel, and the professor told me himself Potter was in the dungeons to ask him a question about homework."
"How was I supposed to know that? He could've been lying!" protested Draco. He couldn't believe Flint was getting on his arse for dueling bloody Potter.
"All you had to do, Malfoy, was go to the professor. He would have dealt with Potter. Instead, you had to act like some rich toff and duel him! Which made us lose fifty points! Idiot! I thought you were supposed to have a brain, Malfoy!"
Draco stiffened. "So what if I thrashed Potter in a duel? He's a Gryffindor, we're supposed to hate them. And I didn't lose fifty points, it was only thirty."
"Only thirty, he says. Listen, you arrogant little shit, you're not supposed to lose any points, or as little as possible." Flint growled. "You're especially not supposed to make Professor Snape take points from his own House for breaking one of the most important rules the school has. And, for your information, Malfoy, McGonagall took twenty more points for you saying some nasty thing about her Golden Boy's sainted mum!"
"He insulted mine too!"
"Big deal! You didn't have to flaming hex him till he bled. If you wanted to get back at him, there are a dozen different ways you could have done it without involving the teachers. Instead you act as stupid as your pals Crabbe and Goyle. Unbelievable!" Flint shook his head in disgust. "Just for that, you're going to get an additional punishment from me."
"Huh? You—you can't do that!" squeaked Malfoy.
"Watch me. I'm a prefect, and I have the authority to punish you little snakes if you step out of line. You aren't any better than the rest of us, Malfoy, so quit bloody looking down at us like we were dirt beneath your feet. I could give a rat's ass if your daddy's pals with the Minister. So, because you caused us to lose all those points, you're going to do some extra chores around here this weekend. And you're going to write two hundred times, I will never lose fifty points from Slytherin again. We'll see if that won't cure you of your bloody attitude, Malfoy!"
"I have homework!"
Flint shrugged. "Too damn bad. You can do that after you've served the House and written your lines. Next time keep your wand in your damn pocket. Got me?" Flint glared at the smaller boy threateningly. "Or else I'll take you out back and show you what it's like to duel a real wizard."
Draco shrank from him. The look on Flint's face was cold and hard and Malfoy suddenly was afraid. Marcus looked as though he meant every word and Draco knew if the other ever lifted a wand to him, he was dead meat. "Okay, Prefect."
"Good. Now get out of my sight. And remember, what you do in public reflects on your House and everyone in it. So don't disgrace us again, Malfoy!" He gave the blond a rough shove and Malfoy stumbled into the middle of the room.
Several of the other Slytherins studying gave him cold looks of disapproval. Draco felt himself flush and thought angrily, how dare they judge me! I'm the son of Lucius Malfoy, the Minister's right hand! Someday, they'll be sorry!
He turned and headed to his room, the eyes of his Housemates like daggers between his shoulderblades.
Then, if that weren't bad enough, Professor Snape himself called him into his office an half-an-hour earlier than his detention to dress him down also.
"Prefect Flint told me he assigned you some lines and chores in House this weekend." Snape began, eyeing Malfoy sternly. "He told me your attitude leaves something to be desired. I must say I agree with him. You believe you are above the rules, Mr. Malfoy. You are a spoiled bully who thinks you can get away with anything. You are very much mistaken." Severus said coldly. "I do not tolerate bullies, in my House or out of it. What you did is inexcusable."
"Why?" Draco asked sullenly. He was tired of everyone ragging on him for beating up poor little Potter. "It was just Potter. He's a Gryffindor, we're supposed to be enemies."
"Rivals, not enemies," Severus snapped. "There's a difference. Why did you cast the Bone Break Curse on him when he only cast a Repelling Charm? That curse should only be used when you fear for your life. Did Potter frighten you so much that you thought he might kill you?"
Malfoy snorted. "Professor, please! Potter, frighten me? I knew more hexes by the time I was three than Potter learned in two months here." He boasted.
Snape was not impressed, only irritated. "And yet you cast a hex designed to injure severely at a boy who knew barely a month's worth of spells. And that makes you proud? To defeat an opponent who is so much less skilled than you? What does that prove?"
"That I'm better than him?" Draco said cockily.
"Wrong!" Snape's hand slammed down upon his desk. Draco jumped. "It shows me that you are an insufferable bully and a fool. You could have killed another student last night, boy! Aimed incorrectly, you could have shattered his nose, driving pieces into his brain, snapped his femur and severed an artery, causing internal bleeding. Potter could have died, and all because you felt like proving how superior you were! Because your ego couldn't stand the competition! Tell me, Malfoy, what would you have done if Potter died that night?"
Malfoy's eyes went wide. "I . . .don't know, sir."
"Maybe you ought to think about it then! Because if you had killed Potter, even your father's influence couldn't have kept you from being expelled and maybe arrested as well. Not to mention branded a murderer at eleven years old. Your mother would surely be proud of you then, wouldn't she, Malfoy?" Snape's disapproval was palpable.
Malfoy dropped his gaze to the floor. He had never considered that his hex could have had such disastrous results. "No, sir."
"What was that?"
"No, sir," Malfoy repeated loudly.
"No, she would be consumed by shame and horror, that her son could become a cold-blooded killer over such a minor thing as meeting a rival student in the corridor. Such spells as that should only be used in dire circumstances, not in some pathetic schoolboy quarrel. If your father didn't teach you that, he should have. Never use a curse unless you intend to cripple or kill an opponent. An opponent who seeks to take your life, not a fellow student who has barely a month's worth of study. Such a victory only proves that you are a coward, Malfoy. Because only a coward picks on a boy weaker than he is."
"I'm not a coward, sir!" Malfoy cried angrily.
"No? Prove it then. Act like a Slytherin. Follow the rules and earn points for your House. We already have a bad reputation because of certain individuals, do not add to it, Malfoy! I will not permit a student of mine to become a gutless bullying coward. And if I cannot get through to you, perhaps your mother can."
Draco gulped and turned pale as snow. "You haven't told her, Professor!" he wailed.
"Not yet. Nor have I informed the Headmaster of what happened. I am giving you one chance to shape up and behave. Keep on as you have, Malfoy, and I will have no choice but to inform Narcissa of the shame her son has brought down upon her."
"No, sir! Please don't," Draco whimpered. He did not fear his mother, not as he did Lucius, but he did value her opinion and respected her, and he knew she would be very disappointed if she knew how he had behaved. She had never agreed with Lucius teaching their son any dark magic. She was the only one who had ever showed him kindness and affection as a small child and Draco loved her fiercely. He loved Lucius as well, but that love was intermingled with fear and therefore not as enduring. "I'll be good."
Severus snorted. "We'll see about that. Go into the lab and sit down at a desk. Potter should be here shortly and then you can start scrubbing. While you are doing that, I can finish grading more of this infernal homework, which half of you don't even bother reading."
"Yes, sir." Draco hurried from the office, his ears smarting from the stinging critique. He could not really deny what Snape said was true, and that made him resentful and irritable. It wasn't fair! He'd bet a fistful of Galleons that Potter wasn't being lectured like this by his Head! Sometimes he wished Snape wasn't so bloody strict and unbending. Rules were meant to be broken. Hadn't Snape ever learned that?
Harry arrived at Snape's lab at precisely seven o'clock, as the professor had stated. He walked in and saw Malfoy sitting at a desk.
The other boy looked up and sneered at him.
Harry ignored him, peering once more at his pocket watch and smiling at his mum before shutting it and tucking it inside his shirt pocket, beneath his robes.
"What's that you got there, Potter? An heirloom from your dear old dad?"
"None of your business, Malfoy." Harry said coldly, taking a seat across the room.
As if on cue, Snape entered the room, silent as a shadow, his familiar perched upon his shoulder. The door shut with a bang behind him. "Now then, you both know why you are here. You will be scrubbing cauldrons over there," His finger pointed to the back of the room, near the sink, where twenty cauldrons were stacked, sticky with crusted on goop. "Without magic for two or three hours. There are gloves on the counter, and wire scrub brushes and soap also. Well? What are you waiting for? An engraved invitation? Why are you still sitting there like brainless lumps? Get started! Anything you don't finish will be carried over to the next day."
Draco gazed at the pile of dirty cauldrons in dismay. "All those?"
Snape gritted his teeth. "Yes, all those. If you don't quit dawdling, Malfoy, I shall make you scrub the floor as well. On your hands and knees."
Draco jumped up and ran over to the sink.
Harry was already there, rolling up his sleeves and pulling on the dragonhide gloves. He was no stranger to cleaning things, not after growing up at the Dursleys. He took a long handled scrub brush and began filling a bucket with water and soap. He knew better than to groan and complain like Malfoy was doing. That only made your punishment ten times worse.
He noticed that there were cauldrons of different sizes and materials. Most were the standard pewter cauldron, two were huge iron cauldrons, and a few were silver and gold cauldrons. Despite the fact that this was supposed to be a punishment, Harry couldn't help but wonder what sorts of potions were brewed in the gold and silver cauldrons. He nearly started to ask Snape, but then he shut his mouth, figuring the professor probably didn't want him talking during detention. Aunt Petunia never wanted to hear his mouth running while he did chores around the house.
Harry carefully selected one of each kind of cauldron, before Malfoy could take all the smaller ones and leave Harry with the bigger messier ones.
"Hey!" Draco objected. "What's the big idea, Potter?"
"What? I divided them up evenly, Malfoy." Harry said, leaning over and beginning to scrub out a pewter cauldron first.
Snape looked up from his desk. "More scrubbing and less complaining. And mind you don't scrub too harshly on the gold and silver cauldrons. If they're scratched, they're useless. You will also need to polish them."
"Polish them?" Malfoy goggled.
"'Till they're so bright you can see your face in them!" squawked Skull from his perch on Severus' shoulder. The raven had a devilish gleam in his eyes.
"Who asked you, bird?"
Skull hissed at him. "Only a fool refuses free advice. Stupid boy!"
"Who are you calling stupid, birdbrain?" Malfoy demanded.
"Mr. Malfoy, ignore the raven and keep cleaning. Unless you wish to be here till tomorrow evening." Snape threatened silkily. Then he frowned at his familiar. "Skullduggery, quit tormenting the students."
Skull fluffed his feathers. "Killjoy," he muttered, then went and nibbled upon Snape's extra quills.
Harry smothered a giggle at the insolent bird's antics. He had finished one cauldron already and had now begun on the largest iron one. He carefully poured a mixture of hot water and soap in to it and let it soak while he turned to wash out the silver one.
That one took less time and then he said quietly, "Professor? Where's the silver polish?"
"Beneath the sink, to the left of the sponges." Snape replied without glancing up.
Harry made his way to the sink, located the polish, and was coming back to his spot when Malfoy stuck out a foot and almost tripped him. Harry avoided the trap however, that trick had been pulled on him numerous times by Dudley. "Knock it off, Malfoy. Unless you want more detention," he hissed angrily.
"Kiss arse." Draco spat under his breath.
Harry began polishing the cauldron, trying his best to ignore Malfoy's taunts.
They were about halfway through their detention when a knock sounded. Snape looked up from his grading irritably. "Yes? What is it now?"
"Sorry to disturb you, Severus, but Dumbeldore wanted me to ask you to referee the next Quidditch game," Madam Hooch said. "I can't do it, I'll be on holiday."
Snape sighed. He detested Quidditch, though he knew the rules of the game inside and out. "Very well, Rolanda. Tell him I shall do so. After all, I have nothing else to do with my time than waste it refereeing that bloody game, never mind the potions I need to brew or the tests I have to grade," he muttered under his breath.
While Severus was distracted, Skull decided it was too dull and decided to liven things up by singing.
"Bad boys, bad boys
Whatcha gonna do?
"Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?"
Harry started laughing uncontrollably. He wondered where the raven had learned that song? It was a theme song from an old show called Cops that Dudley used to watch on the telly. Really, Skull was a marvel.
"What's so funny, Potter?" growled Draco, furious that Harry seemed to be almost done with his cauldrons. "I'll tell you what you're gonna do when they come for you . . .you'll faint and wet yourself."
"You wish, Malfoy," Harry scowled. He deliberately turned his back on the other boy, refusing to be baited. He already had nearly a week's worth of detention, he would be damned if he'd add to it. He started to clean the small gold cauldron next. He was grateful for the gloves, as they kept his hands from growing red and chapped as well as protecting them from any acidic substances. Petunia had never allowed him gloves when he scrubbed her house.
Skull suddenly alighted on Draco's cauldron. "Naughty, naughty. What would Mother say?" the raven croaked, imitating an elderly nanny.
Draco was not amused. He detested cleaning anything, and would have preferred preparing potions ingredients to this menial labor. He flicked soapsuds at the familiar. "Go bugger yourself, Skull," he growled.
The raven, in full mischievous mode, tisked at him. "Language, young man!" he said in Snape's voice. "Or would you like to taste soap along with that sandwich?"
Harry turned about quickly to see who had said that, and smirked when he saw Skull lecturing Malfoy. The bird was very entertaining, no wonder the twins adored him.
"Stuff it, bird!" Malfoy snapped. Under other circumstances, such as Skull teasing Potter, he might well have laughed at the raven's perfect mimicry and wit. Now, however . . .Then he caught Potter smirking at him, the insufferable little twit. "What are you smiling at, Potter? Think it's funny, do you?" He glared at the raven. "Skull, go and torment Potter, why don't you?"
The raven cocked his head, then cawed, "No." Then he began to tap out the notes to the song he'd sung earlier with his beak on Draco's cauldron.
Harry turned away, his shoulders shaking silently.
Furious, Draco picked up a smaller scrub brush, one used to apply polish to the expensive cauldrons, and flung it in a fit of temper. He had been aiming at the smug Harry, but the brush's handle struck the bobbing raven instead, knocking the bird off the cauldron.
Skullduggery screeched loudly in shock and pain.
Draco froze in horror.
Snape whirled around upon hearing his familiar's cry of distress and saw the raven lying next to Malfoy's cauldron and the brush falling down to smack into the stone floor with a thump. It took a millisecond to see who was guilty. "Malfoy!" he spat. "You dare to harm my familiar?" Fury bubbling in his eyes, he stalked over to the cringing boy and grabbed him expertly by the ear.
Draco yelped, for Snape's fingers pinched his ear like a raptor's claws. "Oww! Sir, I didn't mean to! I was aiming at Potter. Sir, please, I'm sorry!"
"You're going to be a hell of a lot more sorry when I get through with you. Go and stand in the corner behind my desk. Now!"
Draco nodded frantically. Snape released his ear, kneeling and gently picking up the dazed raven. "There now, Skull. Are you hurt?"
The raven allowed Severus to examine him, making sure his wings were not broken and gently feeling him over. "Stupid boy!" Skull cawed. "Naughty brat!"
Snape nodded grimly. The raven seemed unharmed. "How do you feel?"
"Sheepish," Skull answered. "Ba-aa-aa!" His imitation of a sheep was dead on.
Severus gave a sigh of relief. "If you can imitate a sheep, you're fine."
Skull nodded once. "Told you so, Sev." He stood up and then fluttered over and perched upon Harry's shoulder.
Skull cawed. "Have you ever heard the one about the shepherdess and the priest?"
"Skullduggery, don't you dare repeat that!" Severus interjected. "Bloody damn Abe and his off-color jokes."
"How about a man walked into a bar with a chameleon?" Skull began.
"Skullduggery! I'm warning you. No treats for a week if you repeat any joke that Abe or Albus told you, am I clear?"
The sly raven cawed an affirmative.
"Potter, how many cauldrons do you have left to scrub?"
Snape raised an eyebrow. "You work fast, boy. Finish up and then go and wait in my office. I have something important to discuss with you."
"Yes, sir." Harry said, and turned back to his cauldrons. He was both curious and anxious about the coming discussion. He didn't bother to reveal that he was a champion scrubber because the Dursleys never lifted a finger to wash up anything and he had to do it all.
Snape stalked up to the front of the room and said icily, "Malfoy, my office."
Draco headed into the office, wondering how much trouble he was now in for hurting Snape's familiar. Damn Potter! He wished the other boy would drown in his own cauldron.
Severus counted to ten slowly four times before following his disobedient Slytherin into the office. When he was certain he wouldn't throttle the boy, he allowed himself to confront Draco. "You amaze me, Mr. Malfoy. It's only been an hour since I last lectured you and still you flout my authority and worse, you hurt my familiar!"
"It was an accident, Professor! I didn't mean to hit Skull. I wanted to hit Potter for making fun of me."
"Oh, and that makes it all right?" Snape demanded. "Didn't I just finish telling you I will not tolerate bullies in my House? It seems as though you have a problem obeying me, Malfoy. Do you know that were this the previous century, I could call you out in a duel for injuring my familiar, especially a raven familiar? You are not some Muggleborn fresh from London, you have been raised with wizarding etiquette and tradition, and you know the proper way to behave. Or so I thought. I must have been mistaken. You've behaved no better than a two-year-old in a temper. You will now go back in the lab and scrub ten more cauldrons. Obviously you didn't have enough work to keep you out of trouble. Furthermore, since you seem to regard my dictates as something to be obeyed only when you feel like it, I shall inform Narcissa about your transgressions."
"Stop telling me what to do, Malfoy! One way or another, you are going to learn the value of obedience and if I cannot get through to you, perhaps your mother shall."
"No. Don't tell her." Draco pleaded, giving him puppy dog eyes.
"Go back and finish your cauldrons, boy. And send Potter in here." Snape was unmoved. The boy had gone too far, had crossed the line one too many times.
Draco slunk from the room like a whipped cur. He couldn't believe that Snape was actually going to tell his mother! Narcissa would be most displeased. He was sure he would get a Howler before the afternoon tomorrow.
Severus rubbed the back of his hand across his head, where the beginnings of a tension headache were starting. Normally he did not involve parents in his disciplinary actions. Usually his detentions and lectures were enough to make even the most rebellious student toe the mark, especially if they were snakes. He felt that parents should not get involved unless it was deadly serious. But he knew that Draco would lose all respect for him if he went back upon his word. Much as he disliked it, he would be writing a letter to Narcissa that night.
But first he had to discuss his decision to become Potter's legal guardian. And truth be told, he dreaded that more than he did the conversation with Narcissa. He drew in a deep breath.
Harry entered the office a moment later, his sleeves still rolled up, exposing his thin spindly arms and smelling faintly of soap and water and grease. His dark hair was sticking up all over, and it was plain he was dying to know why Snape had summoned him, but he held his tongue. Skull was sitting on his shoulder, preening.
Severus gestured him to a seat, then he sealed the office with an Impenetrable Charm, so no one could hear what was spoken.
"Am I in trouble?" Harry asked, wanting to know right away so he could prepare himself.
"In trouble? For what?"
Harry shrugged and looked down at the floor. At the Dursleys, he was always the one in trouble, whether or not he had actually done something. He prayed that was not the case here. He had begun to trust Snape, but old habits died hard. "I dunno, sir."
"Tell me when you figure out what you are supposed to have done," said Snape dryly. Then he cleared his throat. "I have called you here to . . .put forth a proposition, Harry. After seeing the results of Madam Pomfrey's scans, I have strong objections to you returning to your relatives' house for break or the summer. It is obvious to me that you are unwanted and they regard you as a burden."
"I . . .I try not to be, sir." Harry said, feeling unaccountably guilty. "I try and do what they want, but somehow, no matter what I do, it's never enough."
"What do they require of you?"
Harry told him about the chores, saying that Uncle Vernon had told him they weren't running a charity home and he had to earn his keep.
Severus was so furious he almost exploded. "Earn your keep? You do more chores than any other eleven-year-old I know of. You have no reason to feel guilty. You cannot please them because they are the kind of people who revel in misery and are never satisfied. Nothing you have done or could do would ever be enough. So don't waste a minute worrying about what those people think."
"Yes, sir," Harry said. Snape's words made him feel something he rarely felt—pleased with himself. He could tell the professor truly meant what he said, and he knew that Severus was a firm believer in hard work, and if Snape said the Dursleys were impossible to please than surely it was so.
"Now then, I have spoken to the Headmaster about their unsuitability to take care of you. Putting a child in a cupboard and turning him into a slave is unacceptable by any standards, wizard or Muggle. I never would have placed you with them to start with. Your aunt was always bitter and jealous of anyone different from her, and she cut all ties to your mother when she married. She wanted nothing to do with the magical world or her sister who lived in it."
"But . . .if you knew that, then why was I left there?" Harry asked angrily.
"I had no say in where you were taken. The Headmaster felt you would be safe and hidden away best by your blood relatives," Severus said honestly. "He did not ask me or Minerva what we thought. He did not know about Petunia's dislike of wizards. He assumed you would grow up in a good home and want for nothing. He has since come to the conclusion that he was very mistaken."
"Then what happens to me now? Can I stay here at the school?"
Severus shook his head. "While that has been done in the past, Dumbledore believes the school is not as safe as it should be for you. There are rumors . . .rumors that You-Know-Who may still be alive . . .or rather, his spirit is still living."
Harry's eyes widened. "He rose from the dead?"
"In a manner of speaking. But we have no real proof. However, his followers believe it and they would not hesitate to hurt you, even kill you, if they could. You know that I am pledged to protect you. Therefore, I . . .would like to become your legal guardian, so that you can stay with me."
There! It was said.
Harry stared at him, trying his best not to gape witlessly. "You mean . . .you want to . . .you want me to live with you?"
"Yes. That is what I'm offering. While I'm at school, you would, of course stay in your dorm, or you could have a room in my quarters if you wish. During holidays, you would live at my home, which may not be as large as Petunia's, but I assure you I have no cupboards for you to sleep in, nor will I treat you like a slave. There will be chores to do and rules to follow, but I promise you will be treated like a member of my family. Most of all, no follower of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will be able to find you, since my residence is hidden by powerful wards. The only one who shares my home with me is Skull, and you seem to get along fine with him."
"I like him, Sev. He's funny and smart."
"He's a rascal of the first order," snorted his master.
Skull flew to Severus' shoulder and rubbed his head along the Potion Master's cheek. "Keep the bran-boy, Sev."
Harry looked totally confused. "Bran-boy? I don't get it. Why is he calling me cereal?"
Snape shook his head, chuckling. "No, Harry. Bran is the Welsh word for raven. Skull seems to have taken quite a liking to you if he's calling you "raven-boy". It means he considers you a fledgling, and he has never done that for any student I've known before."
"Really? But why?"
Harry looked at the raven. "Why did you call me that, Skull?"
The raven fluffed his feathers. "It is what you are. You have the old magic, bran-boy. Rr-awk!"
"Old magic? I don't understand."
"The ravens are keepers of the old magic. He seems to think you have some of that within you. That you've been marked by it, or can use it somehow." Severus frowned. "Right, Skull?"
Skull nodded emphatically. Then he took off and flew out of the office.
"Hey! Where's he going?" Harry cried.
"Hungry!" Skullduggery answered.
"He tells me that and then he takes off because he's hungry?" Harry groused.
"That's a raven for you," Severus said. "They do as they please and reveal secrets in their own time, if at all." He gazed at Harry warily. "Well? Will you take up my offer?"
Harry worried his lip. He didn't want to refuse Severus outright. He knew that the man only wanted what was best for him. But he was afraid to accept Severus' offer right away. The professor was used to living alone, he valued his privacy. Harry feared he might cause Severus to regret taking him over the break. He recalled only too well how Petunia would complain endlessly about how much money he cost them and how much trouble it was to raise a freakish child. He did not want to agree to live with Snape, only to find that the professor found him an annoyance and a burden. But neither did he want to return to the Dursleys. He used to believe that he deserved their scorn and coldness, but now he wasn't so sure. But did he dare trust Snape to keep his word? What if he moved in and they couldn't stand each other? He wasn't Severus' son or relation, why would Snape care about him if his own blood didn't? Could Severus love him? There were times that Harry felt he could, and then again, he could see how awkward the other was, and he didn't want to force Severus into a role he didn't want.
"I . . .would you mind if . . .I thought about it? It's not that I'm not grateful, but . . .I just want to make sure it's a good thing . . ." he began, feeling very awkward. "I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize," Severus said, though he felt the sting of rejection nevertheless. He should have known. He was not the sort of man a child trusted to look after him. "I would expect you to think about it."
"Thank you, sir!" Harry said, relieved. "You aren't . . .mad, are you?"
"No. This is a big step for you. You need to be sure of yourself. Take some time and think about it. But you should decide before the holiday break. All right?"
"If you have any questions, you may ask me. I know I have a reputation as a strict bastard, but I will never be cruel to you, never take advantage of you the way your relatives did."
Harry wanted so much to believe that were true. But he was afraid. He didn't want Severus to be his guardian out of duty. He wanted something more, something that most kids didn't even need to think about. He wanted Snape to love him. If that were possible. "I know that," he made himself say. Then he gave the professor a rueful smile. "I never thought you would."
Severus looked relieved. "Good. Think about my offer. You must be tired, so I would suggest you go to bed. It's almost curfew."
Harry knew better than to assume it was a suggestion. He knew perfectly well Snape's suggestions were orders, couched in polite phrases. "Okay, Sev. Good night."
"Be here tomorrow night at seven." Severus reminded him.
"I will." Harry promised. Then he hesitantly reached out and hugged the black clad figure. He hoped he hadn't hurt Snape's feelings by not accepting his offer right off. So to soften the blow and show the professor that he still cared about him, Harry gave him a hug. It was not a particularly long hug, but Harry did rest his head against Snape's chest and feel his heart beating. He found it soothing and comforting. And Severus' arms held him close, making him feel safe and protected.
He allowed himself to be held for a moment or two longer before withdrawing. "See you tomorrow, Sev."
"Sleep well, Harry. And remember to take your Nutrient Suppliment tomorrow morning," Severus reminded. "It will be by your plate at breakfast."
"Okay." Then Harry left, covering a yawn.
Severus watched him leave, wondering why the boy's decision made him feel oddly bereft. He hadn't expected the child to agree so quickly. So why did Harry's choice leave him with a bitter taste in his mouth? Did you really expect the boy to jump into your arms? The snarky dungeon bat is hardly the ideal guardian a child dreams about. He had spent years cultivating that image, he could hardly blame Harry for being wary. Still, he could not help feeling hurt. Lily had told him to love her son. He had promised he would try. But what if Harry didn't want his love?
The Potions Master sighed. Now he would have to go back to Albus and tell him Harry wished to think about the guardianship. Which meant Dumbledore could delay the Dursleys punishment if he chose. The document Severus had obtained earlier would now sit in a drawer, awaiting the decision of one small boy. Why was everything in his life so complicated?
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