Chapter 1 : Birthday Treat
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January 9th, 2018
Isle of Wight
The Ivy Manse:
From the journal of Albus Severus Potter, aka Sev:
I woke up early this morning so I could get a head start on my apprentice duties, for today was my Potion Master’s birthday, and I wanted everything to be perfect for him. Or at least as perfect as I could make it. I had stayed up till eleven last night planning on how to make my Master’s birthday special. On my birthday, my mum, Ginny, always made me a special dinner and my favorite kinds of dessert and I was allowed to eat as much as I wanted of it. I usually had seconds, but not thirds, ‘cause I’m not a pig like my older brother Jamie. On my birthday I was also allowed to stay up late and allowed to do whatever I wanted, which was usually reading or brewing potions, or playing Wizard Chess or some other game that involved thinking. I loved logic puzzles and my dad always made sure I had books of them to occupy me. “So you don’t go looking for trouble,” he’d tease, though I never went looking for trouble. That was Jamie’s line. He searched for trouble. Me, on the other hand, tried to avoid it as much as possible, but sometimes trouble seemed to find me. My sister Lily and I called it the Potter Curse.
Anyway, I wanted to give Uncle Severus, who’s also my godfather as well as Master, a wonderful birthday. He was fifty-eight this year, which was sort of middle-aged for a wizard. I think. So I thought about what Uncle Severus liked to do, and how I could make this day special. Dad had sent me some money, which I had used to owl order a present, but I thought that wasn’t enough. I had always sent him a card and a small gift on his birthday, I never forgot, just like he never forgot me on my birthday. I was his namesake, and preferred to be called Sev, just as my grandma had called my godfather when he was a kid.
I decided to start by finishing up the brewing of a few potions that we had started last night. They were standard ones for St. Mungos, PepperUp Potion, Decongestion Elixir, Cough Controlling Drafts, and Euphoria Drafts. That last one was tricky, but Uncle Severus had done the hard parts of it last night. It was now at the end of the brewing process, and all I had to do was stir it six and a half times with a white ashwood stirrer and then decant it. The others required some additional ingredients to be added, and the PepperUp Potion needed to be brewed from scratch, since we’d only made twenty vials last night and the hospital asked us for thirty-five.
So I dressed, wearing my usual jeans, a pullover, and my black robes, which were spelled to protect me from burning or splashing hot liquids, and were water and stain resistant. I tiptoed past Uncle Severus’ room, I could hear him snoring gently inside. Shhh! Don’t ever mention I told you that, he’ll make me scrub all the cauldrons in his lab. It was around five in the morning, so I had plenty of time to finish up the potions for him, and then start on his cake.
I hurried down to the lab in my slippers, since they made less noise than my trainers on the stairs. The lab’s in the basement of the Ivy Manse, and it is the best and most modern potions lab I’ve ever seen. Uncle Severus keeps it spic and span, so clean you could eat off the floor if you wanted. One of my jobs as his apprentice is to keep it that way. If I’m in trouble with him, he makes me do it the Muggle way, with a bucket and a mop and some Magical Mess Remover. I’ve only had to do that twice, both times because I was cheeky and argued with him about the right way to brew something. Sometimes I can be a little know-it-all, or as Uncle Severus says “the boy who thinks he knows it all”. But nobody’s perfect, right?
Seven cauldrons were bubbling when I entered the lab, which was painted a light blue. It had gray marble tiles on the floor, a huge sink at the back and shelves and shelves of potion ingredients along the walls. Some were locked up in a special cabinet, those were the very rare or poisonous ingredients, and I had to ask permission before going to use any of them, and get the key from Uncle Severus. We also had Ventilation and Breeze Charms on the lab, so we didn’t have to endure any nasty or acrid fumes when we brewed some potions. My eyes were really sensitive to strong fumes, so sometimes Uncle Severus made me wear special goggles and once when we were brewing an Acne Paste, which has bubotuber pus in it, which really smells, he put some magical eyedrops in my eyes afterwards so they quit stinging.
I quickly went over to the one with the Euphoria Draft simmering and gave it the correct amount of stirs with the ashwood rod, then carefully decanted it into the already labeled vials. Those I then packed in soft cotton batting and placed in the crate labeled St. Mungos. Then I moved onto the other drafts, adding and stirring and simmering where it was needed. I had Uncle Severus’ potions book out, even though I’d almost memorized some of these drafts. I didn’t want to risk making a stupid mistake and ruining everything.
Once I’d done what I needed with the drafts already brewing, I quickly gathered up the ingredients for the PepperUp and whipped together three batches. I could brew that in my sleep, it was the first potion I’d ever brewed alone, back when I was seven.
In about a hour and a half, I had finished everything, and cleaned up the lab. All the potions were neatly packed in their crates, Uncle Severus would seal and address them later. After scrubbing my hands in the sink I headed upstairs. When I entered the kitchen, Grace came over to me, meowing.
“Hey, girl,” I knelt to stroke her.
Grace is Uncle Severus’ familiar, a beautiful black and gold cat. She has long silky fur and a thick tail with a gold tip. She’s mostly black, but has golden paws and a gold streak going up her nose. She’s half-Kneazle, very intelligent, with beautiful green eyes like mine. My dad gave her to my godfather after the war, as a way to thank him for helping Dad through the death of his owl, Hedwig, who had sacrificed herself to save him **.
Grace meowed again, and I went and fetched her dishes, filling them with fresh water and her special dry cat food made with real salmon and codfish. While Grace ate, I got together the ingredients I would need to make the cake. It was my granny Molly’s recipe, a devil’s food cake with totally scrumptious dark chocolate frosting. Uncle Severus told me once he loved dark chocolate and that’s why I asked Granny for the recipe.
Only thing was, I’d forgotten this was a magical recipe, and I lived in a Muggle house, with Muggle appliances. The first part of the recipe went all right, I mixed together flour, eggs, milk, the powdered chocolate, sugar, and baking powder. I poured it into the pan. Then I went and made the frosting. I tasted a bit on my finger. Mmm! It was delicious!
Now the recipe said to spread it over the cake and bake it in the oven. I thought that sounded strange, forgetting that Granny was used to doing her cooking with magic, using a Spell-O-ven. I turned on the oven to 350 degrees, which was what most things I’d cooked with my godfather went in on. Then I stuck the cake in, topped with frosting. The recipe said to bake an hour. I set the timer.
Then I started washing the bowls and spoon I’d used. I had just got the kitchen cleaned up, and decided to have a bowl of cereal for breakfast. Once I’d eaten, I made coffee for Uncle Severus. I wanted to make him breakfast, but I wasn’t a great cook, like Dad, so I made something easy, hard-boiled eggs, toast, and bacon. I put a Warming spell on it and then went to take a shower, as I was all sweaty.
By the time I was done, I heard Uncle Severus stirring and the water running in his bathroom. I quickly went back down to the kitchen to see if the cake was done.
I smelled something burning.
“No! My cake!” I yelped, rushing over to the oven.
Luckily I remembered to grab an oven mit before I opened the door.
I gasped in horror.
The cake was the glutinous, disgusting, burnt thing. Frosting had oozed over the sides and all over the bottom of the oven. I grabbed it and pulled it out, and suddenly it exploded all over.
The kitchen, which had been so clean before, was now covered with globs of chocolate frosting and batter.
And so was I.
Grace hissed at me and raced out from the kitchen to hide in the living room.
I just stood there, in shock. How could this have happened? What had I done wrong? And how could I clean up this dreadful mess before my godfather saw?
The Potter Curse had struck again. I was so upset I felt like screaming. Or crying. Or both.
Before I could move, I heard a silky deep voice say from behind me, “Albus Severus Potter, what in Merlin’s name is going on in here?”
My lower lip trembling, I looked up at Uncle Severus.
He was frowning and looked terribly disappointed and angry.
“I . . . was trying to bake you a cake, sir,” I said in a very small, very soft, whisper.
“For your birthday.” I started to sniffle.
Everything was ruined. I didn’t know where I had gone wrong, but my birthday treat was ruined. I had ruined Uncle Severus’ birthday.
All at once I began to cry.
I hardly ever cry, but this time I just felt so stupid and guilty that I bawled like a baby. Like Lily did the time she fell off the swing set and scraped up both knees and the palms of her hands.
“I’m so-o-rry!” I wailed, totally losing it. “I just w-wanted to make your b-birthday s-special and now it’s ruined!” I couldn’t bear to face him, I knew he was angry with me for being such a dunderhead. So I did something I’ve never done before. I turned and ran out the door into the backyard, which is quite large, and surrounded by thick hedges.
Blinded by tears, I ran all the way down the path to the pond, where we fed the swans and ducks that lived there. I stumbled into the tall grass that surrounded the pond and tripped on a rock. I landed hard on my hands and then I just lay there, crying my eyes out. I was sure Uncle Severus was furious with me for wrecking his kitchen, cooking without supervision, and in general making a total cock-up of his birthday. I was sure this was one of the worst birthdays he’d ever lived through.
I don’t remember how long I lay there, feeling utterly miserable, tears and snot dribbling down my face into the grass. But suddenly I became aware of a hand carding my hair, over and over. It was very soothing, and sort of reminded me of my mum, who used to do that when I was sick. The hand slowly began to pat my back and I gradually got control over my runaway emotions. I still felt ashamed and upset, but I wasn’t going to make myself into some blubbering coward anymore than I already had.
“Sev, look at me.”
I felt a blush spread over my cheeks, hot as fire. I wished a hole would open up and swallow me. What must he think of me now?
Very slowly, I sat up, and peered at him through my lashes. He was still wearing his pajamas, green long pants and a black shirt with the words Most Potente Potion’s Master. In his deep dark eyes was not, as I had expected, anger, but concern. “Are you cross, sir?”
He shook his head. “Not anymore. Are you hurt? Were you burned when the . . . cake erupted?”
Erupted. Now there was a good word to describe the disaster. The cake had erupted, just like a volcano. “No. Least I don’t think so.” I said. I was sticky and smelled like burnt chocolate. I looked down at my hands, which were scraped raw. Merlin, but I was a sight, as Mum would say.
“Let me see,” Uncle Severus took my hand gently in his own large one. He removed a handkerchief from his pocket, wetted it in the pond, and then began to gently cleanse the dirt off my palm.
I winced and gritted my teeth. It hurt, but I wouldn’t act like a baby again and cry over it.
“Forgive me if I’m hurting you, but I must get all the dirt off,” said my teacher. He continued washing my other hand. “When we return to the house, I shall put some salve on and bandage them.”
I nodded. “I’ll clean the kitchen, sir.”
“No need, I’ve already seen to that.”
I hung my head. “I’m sorry, Uncle Severus. I . . . I don’t know what happened. I followed my grandma’s recipe. I . . . wanted to make a cake for your birthday and instead I . . . mucked up everything. Except the potions,” I mumbled.
He put the tip of his finger under my chin, and raised my chin till I looked up at him. “What potions, Sev?”
“The ones you were working on yesterday,” I answered. I told him what I’d done in the lab before trying to bake the cake.
He was speechless. For long moments he didn’t say anything. Then he exclaimed, “Albus Severus, you finished all those drafts and brewed more PepperUp Potion besides?”
I couldn’t tell if he were angry or not, so I simply said, “Yes, sir. And I cleaned up afterwards. Are you mad then?”
“Mad? Mad? You foolish child! I am . . . astonished that you would go through so much trouble for me.”
“But it’s your birthday and I wanted to give you something besides a present. I wanted to make it perfect.” I murmured sadly.
“Perfect? Ah, Sev, there’s no such thing as perfect. But I thank you for trying.” He put his arm around me and I leaned into his shoulder.
Before I came along, Uncle Severus never had anyone to hug, so he wasn’t real good at it at first. But since then he’s got better at it. He hugged me tighter and I just put my face against his shoulder. He smelled of clean linen, and some kind of spicy aftershave. When I was old enough to shave, I’d have to ask him what he used, because I liked it.
After a few moments, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Come on, Mr. Potter. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
I stood up and followed him back to the house, where we cleaned up my hands and then I changed into other clothes. When I entered the kitchen again, I saw that it was spotless. “I made you breakfast,” I said, indicating the plate of warmed eggs, toast, and bacon.
“Thank you,” he said, then sat and ate it, along with a cup of coffee.
I had a cup too, though with lots of milk and sugar, because Uncle Severus likes his coffee strong.
Once we were done, Uncle Severus went and took down an old battered blue book from the top of the kitchen cabinet. He set it on the table in front of me.
The cover was worn and the lettering faded, but I could still make out the title. Blue Ribbon Recipes For All Occasions. “A Muggle cookbook.” I said.
“This was my mother’s. She used it frequently during my childhood.” My godfather said. He flipped through the pages until he came to a dog-eared page. “Here is the cake she always made me on my birthday.”
I looked at the recipe. It was for a devil’s food cake with chocolate glaze. It was almost the same as Granny’s. “Can I make this?”
“We shall make it together,” he said calmly.
“All right,” I said, thinking he didn’t trust me not to blow up the kitchen again.
But then he added, “Just like I used to do with my mother.”
I smiled. Then I went to get out the ingredients.
Together we made the cake, and Severus explained that the reason my first cake didn’t turn out was because I didn’t have a Spell-O-ven like Granny Molly, and that frosting wasn’t meant to bake in a regular oven. This time we did it right.
The cake came out perfect.
When it was cool, Uncle Severus helped me frost it. He let me lick the knife and the bowl afterwards.
Then we set it aside for later.
The rest of the day we spent relaxing. Uncle Severus read a novel on the couch and I did too. He was reading the classic Paradise Lost by John Milton. Grace was curled up on his stomach, purring like a motor. I was reading a copy of Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. I had read them many times before, when I was around seven, and they were an old favorite. I had just begun to read The Cat Who Walked By Himself when there came a soft hoot outside the window.
Uncle Severus rose immediately, gently placing Grace on my lap. This was a Muggle neighborhood, so we didn’t want anyone spotting the owl. He went to the window and opened it. A large spotted gray owl flew in. I recognized her as Serena, my mum’s owl. She had a rather large package in her talons.
Severus took it, and fed her a small piece of a chicken liver treat, he kept a small bag for the owls who happened to stop by. Serena gulped it down, hooted her thanks, and then flew off, her parcel delivered.
“It’s from your father,” said my mentor, before I could ask.
“I wonder what he sent you?” I was bursting with curiosity.
“You shall see after dinner.”
“After dinner? Why do you want to wait so long?”
“Because then I have something to look forward to besides dessert.”
“Oh. I guess that makes sense.” I flopped back down on the couch.
I must have fallen asleep, because next thing I knew, Uncle Severus was shaking my shoulder and it was time for supper.
Inside the package was a full course dinner, as well as a brightly wrapped gift in silvery paper. Mum and Lily had cooked it as their part of the gift, and it was preserved with magic so that it tasted fresh even though it had been made hours before.
Mum had made small ducks stuffed with wild rice, raisins, and almonds, and a raspberry sauce to go over it. There were buttered green beans, and small dinner rolls with butter. She had even packed a bottle of honey wine, shrunk to fit. Uncle Severus let me have a small glass, to celebrate with him.
The dinner was wonderful, Mum is a great cook, though not quite as good as my dad.
I put candles on the cake, though I could only put twenty-five. I lit them and sang Happy Birthday. Grace joined in, meowing off-key. We both laughed at her, and she glared at us, offended. Then we had the cake and some more coffee. Only this time Uncle Severus said to drink some milk with my piece, because otherwise I’d be up all night. I didn’t argue, even though I was sure coffee didn’t affect me that way.
Nothing has ever tasted as good as that cake. Sorry Granny. We both ate two slices.
Then it was time for the presents. Uncle Severus opened mine first.
He removed the paper from the flat package first. “A book of poems by Robert Frost. One of my favorite poets. In a handsome leather bound edition.” The book was bound in soft blue leather with the title and author stamped in gold leaf on the cover. “You know me too well, lad. I do love my classic literature.”
“I know,” his love of books was one I shared. “It was one I didn’t see on your shelf.”
“That’s because my father destroyed my copy one evening in a drunken rage,” he told me quietly. “I always meant to replace it, but never got around to it. Thank you, Sev.”
“There’s more,” I said, indicating another package, a long thin one.
“A new black oak cauldron stirrer,” he picked it up, and examined it. It was made of grade A black oak, and was crafted by a master carver who was also a Potions Master. “Very nice. But the book was enough.”
“No, it wasn’t. You’ve given me more than that,” I argued softly.
From Dad there was a fine frame of silverwood. In it was a picture of a young boy wearing Hogwarts robes of green and silver, smiling at a slender red-haired girl wearing robes of red and gold. The boy laughed and the girl twirled about, giggling. With a start, I recognized the boy as my godfather and I knew the girl had to be my grandmother Lily, who had gone to Hogwarts with him. Dad included a note with the picture. He said he found this picture in a box while cleaning out Grimmauld Place years ago and had always intended to give it to Severus, but kept forgetting until now.
My godfather looked at the picture and smiled. His smile was somewhere between happiness and sorrow. I understood. The picture brought back a good memory, but also reminded him of one he would never see again. “I remember that day. We were fourteen and it was a perfect spring morning. Hagrid snapped this picture as we walked beside the lake. I never realized she had kept it.” He carried the picture into the living room and placed it upon the mantel.
Then he turned to me and said, “This has been a most memorable birthday, Sev.”
“Even though the cake exploded?” I asked. I was still smarting over that stupid mistake.
His lips twitched into a smirk. “That, in part, is what makes it unforgettable.”
“Aw, Merlin!” I groaned. “I really wanted everything to be perfect.”
“It was, Sev.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because it was shared with you, godson. And that is all I need to consider my birthday perfect.”
I grinned at him. “Happy birthday, Uncle Severus!”
My dad had taught me that it’s better to give than to receive, but my godfather taught me that the best gift isn’t something you buy, but something you share with someone you love. It was a lesson I’d never forget. But just in case I do, I’m writing it down.
** See the story The Substitute for the full tale of Harry, Hedwig, and Severus.