The vault had a cold, unused smell. Around him were piles of gold, silver and bronze. He had always sworn he wouldn't do this, but then he'd sworn a lot of things. Never to let anyone so close that he'd break an oath to save them, for one.
A whisper of a breeze curled around his legs, stirring the dust, forming shapes in his imagination.
"For our son." he murmured, as if in apology. Or appeasement.
Then he opened up the bag and began to fill it with gold.
"I can get it done, but it won't be cheap."
"Discretion is vital."
"That's why it won't be cheap. No one who buys this kind of thing wants it advertised. It will take a month."
Paper money had an odd crackle to it. It would never feel right, no matter how much he used it. But the Muggle's eyes lit up just as if it had been a hand full of gold he was clutching.
"I suppose I could come down a little on the price," she said doubtfully. But her eyes were fixed on the wad of bills and when her tongue darted out and moistened her lips hungrily he knew he'd won.
"I didn't think anyone would want such an old place way out here," she said while the signatures were drying on the bill of sale.
"I like old," he said.
"They're perfect." He fondled the jade lozenges, feeling the links of gold slither through his fingers like oiled silk.
"Once on they can never be removed, you understand that." It was a statement. Li knew he understood.
It was what he had asked for, after all.
The letter arrived by special delivery while his son was off surveying the Christmas decorations with his tutor. Through his numb shock he could only be glad of that. It wasn't as if he hadn't been half expecting it after all. But he still needed a moment to school his face, to mask his worry.
The gargoyle at the door loftily informed him that Dumbledore was away. He stood in the hallway staring at the smugly grotesque doorkeeper, the letter clenched in his fist.
So, it began.
Snape found Harry with Lupin, leaning on the balustrade and gazing in delight at the transformed galleries. "Look, daddy!" he exclaimed, pointing upwards. "Even the Fat Friar is decorated!"
"Hello, young fella," the ghost said, sailing serenely by, a necklace of transparent tinsel about his neck.
"He's not scary at all," Harry confided, eyes still darting about. "Look! There's Professor Flitwick. He's bringing real fairies to put on the Christmas Tree." The little boy shivered in anticipation. "I can't wait for Christmas dinner in the Great Hall."
"I thought it was Christmas presents you couldn't wait for," Lupin teased and Harry grinned back over his shoulder.
"I've asked for a shiny bell for my broomstick," he said with satisfaction. "What about you, Mr Lupin?"
Lupin stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Hmm, well, Harry. I couldn't ask for any better than some more of that wonderful ointment you gave me for my last present."
Harry looked smugly delighted. "P'haps someone will give you some," he said slyly.
"I hope so, Harry," Lupin grinned. "Cured my sunburn in a trice."
Harry looked gratified, then he frowned a little, small brow wrinkling. "How long is a trice?" he wondered.
Lupin snorted a laugh and glanced over at him but Snape couldn't muster more than a shrug.
"More than an instant but less than a flash," Lupin supplied and Harry frowned a little harder, obviously trying to work this out. "Look, Harry, there's Hagrid. Why don't you go say hello?"
Harry glanced down to see the huge doors shut behind Hagrid. The groundskeeper shook the snow off of himself and the tree he was dragging, causing a kind of mini snowdrift right there in the hall.
"Oh, Hagrid!" Harry called, waving. "Hie, Hagrid!"
"Harry!" The groundskeeper's voice boomed out and he raised a huge hand and waved back enthusiastically.
"May I go say hello, daddy?" Harry asked eagerly and Snape nodded absently. Harry didn't give him time to reconsider, he was away. In a trice.
The two wizards watched Harry race down the stairs and rush up to Hagrid, stopping just short of the melting snow and tilting his head way back to talk to him.
"I certainly hope Santa managed to find that bell Harry's been going on about," Lupin chuckled.
Snape shrugged again, eyes still on his son. Hagrid was holding up the tree and Harry was clapping his hands together in delight.
"Is everything all right, Severus? You're a little more quiet than usual."
"Do you know when Dumbledore's returning?" Snape asked abruptly.
Lupin frowned. "He's away till Christmas Day. He said he was hoping to make it back for dinner in the Great Hall."
"Christmas Day? Did he leave you any way to reach him?"
"No. Severus, what's wrong?"
"This." Snape pulled the letter from his coat and thrust it under Lupin's nose. The tutor leaned back against the balustrade and read the missive, eyes widening in shock.
"Christmas Eve," he read numbly. "Tomorrow? He can't do that!"
"He seems to think he can," Snape snapped back.
Lupin looked back down at the letter crumpled in his fist. "He must have waited until he knew Dumbledore would be away," he muttered. "Half the Wizengamut will be off as well. But to bring the hearing forward with only a day's notice! He can't do it!"
"So you've said, Lupin. But who's here to stop him? For all his assurances I notice Dumbledore has followed his own inclinations as usual, and left Harry and I to sink or swim."
"That's not fair!" Lupin defended. "How could he know Fudge would do something like this?"
"He should have known," Snape said stubbornly. "He told me to trust him and I did, and where has it led me?"
Lupin looked back at him determinedly. "There must be a way we can reach him. I'll get a message to as many of the old crowd as I can. We'll find him, Severus, I promise."
Snape shrugged off the reassurance, his mind already racing ahead. "You do that," he murmured absently, eyes still on Harry down in the hall. "I have my own tasks ahead of me." Robe swirling about his ankles Snape spun and headed for his rooms.
"Severus?" Lupin called after him. "What are you going to, oh, blast it! Hagrid!" he called. "Watch Harry for a minute, will you!"
Snape left Lupin behind him as he headed for the tower, plans racing through his head.
"Severus, will you bloody slow down!" Lupin caught up with him at the door to the tower apartments and grabbed at his sleeve as the front sprang open before him. "Are you listening to me?" the tutor panted.
Snape shook him off easily. "You're supposed to be looking after Harry today," he said curtly. "I have business to take care of-"
"Oh no, you bloody don't," Lupin said abruptly. And then he was pushing Snape into his and Harry's rooms and kicking the door closed behind him.
"Get out of here!" Snape ordered furiously. "I don't have time for this!"
"Why?" Lupin snapped. "Because you're going to bundle Harry up and try to steal him away? Are you mad?"
"I must have been," Snape snapped back, all his worry and anger bursting out of him. "Mad to trust Dumbledore! Mad to let you and your well meaning, ineffectual bloody Order anywhere near my son! Look where it's gotten me!"
"They were your Order too, once," Lupin shot back. "You trusted us with your life, trust Dumbledore now! He won't let-"
Snape laughed harshly, throwing his head back, twisting his lips with grim humour. "Trusted?" he hooted derisively. "With my life?" His mocking laughter turned to cold, bitter rage. "Not for a moment. Not for one bloody second did I trust your Order with my life. And I was never one of you," he spat, poking Lupin in the chest with his finger, forcing him back against the door. "Any more than I was one of them. I have always been on one side, and one side only. Mine!"
"And that hasn't bloody changed a bit!" Lupin shouted, knocking the poking finger away. "You're still thinking only of yourself in all this! Think, you blasted Slytherin fool! This is what Fudge has wanted all along! You breaking the rules, stealing Harry away! Why, he won't even have to prove his case in a court if he can snatch Harry away under the law!"
"He makes his law up as he goes along!" Snape shouted. "How can I fight that!"
He broke off, chest heaving, eyes fixed on Lupin's. The tutor's thin face was red with rage, his hands clenched by his side. But his eyes were dark and filled with as much worry and anger as Snape felt within his own breast. Closing his eyes against the sight Snape looked away, denying the other wizard any right to share in his pain.
"Dumbledore will come," Lupin said lowly. "I know he will. Let me go now and send word to everyone I can."
"I'm not stopping you," Snape said listlessly. "Go, send your messages."
"And give you time to set some crazy scheme in motion?" Lupin demanded. "What life will Harry have away from here?"
It was a question Snape had asked himself a thousand times over the last few months. But he had no choice. Because...
Because every time I wonder at what kind of future Harry will have away from our world I find myself imagining Fudge trying to take him from me. Literally ripping him out of my arms. I see the dawning realisation on Harry's face, watch the tears well in his eyes, feel those little hands clutching at me like claws. And I know I cannot let him go. I will kill anyone who tries to take him, and then what will become of my boy?
But he didn't say any of that.
"We'll manage." He met Lupin's eyes again, his determination like stone within him. "And you won't stop me."
"Yes, I will," Lupin said, stone in his own eyes. "I will if I have to bloody sit on you."
Snape's hand was on his wand almost without his bidding. To his amazement he found himself facing Lupin's own wand. They stood, wands out, the tips of wood, dark and light, almost touching one another.
"You wouldn't dare." Snape found his voice.
"I'm afraid I would," Lupin admitted. "And I'm reasonably sure you would too. And then where would Harry be?"
Neither lowered their wands for a moment.
"I am not your enemy here, Severus."
Frustrated at the stalemate, years worth of annoyance spilled out. "Why do you call me that?" Snape demanded. "You know it annoys me."
"That's usually why I do it," Lupin admitted. "Why will you never give me the benefit of the doubt?"
"Because I don't care enough to."
Lupin stifled a laugh. "Fair enough."
Neither wand wavered.
"You know," Lupin went on conversationally. "I used to talk a lot about us getting on better, for Harry's sake, remember?"
Snape stared back at him stonily.
"But I didn't really mean it. I know you and I will never be friends."
"The phrase 'not in a million years' comes to mind."
"Exactly," Lupin agreed. "We'll never be best buddies, and, be honest, the thought's pretty horrifying."
"Right. But there's no denying one fact, Severus. You and I have known each other for most of our lives, one way or another." Lupin shrugged. "Hated one another, but that's beside the point. We share a history and now we share a bond, whether you like it or not." Lupin lowered the tip of his wand a fraction of an inch. "Harry."
Snape slowly followed the movement with his own wand.
"Harry is what is important here, Severus. We're in this leaky, manky old boat together. For Harry." The wand lowered another inch or so.
Again, Snape followed the movement. "I could curse you into oblivion, you trusting Gryffindor fool," he said, just to make sure Lupin understood that he had thought about it.
"You could," Lupin agreed. "But whatever else I think of you, Slytherin, I don't think you that great an idiot. You know Dumbledore is your only chance. Harry's only chance." The wand now rested by Lupin's side.
Snape lowered his own wand, feeling weary all of a sudden.
So the werewolf didn't think him that great an idiot? And yet he seriously thought that Snape had loaded all his eggs in one basket, that he had trusted Dumbledore would come through for him?
Well, better to let him think that for now.
"Maybe if the hearing had gone ahead as planned," he said aloud, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "But what chance do we have now?"
"What chance if you try to leave here with Harry? Or do you really think Fudge isn't sitting somewhere right now rubbing his hands together in glee, waiting for you to do something so foolish as to try to spirit Harry away?"
Snape shook his head. He didn't doubt that was what Fudge was doing.
"He wants you to panic," Lupin said quietly. Urgently. "He's counting on your love for Harry. He's trying to use that love against you."
And he might have succeeded. If I had sat back for the last three months and trusted our fate to anyone else.
"So what do you suggest I do?"
"Trust Dumbledore, just that bit further. Trust that he won't have put himself out of all reach."
"And if he has?"
"Then trust as many friends as we can gather to see that some kind of justice is done. We won't let Fudge have it all his own way. For Harry's sake."
Snape's thoughts spun. Would it be better to let the hearing go ahead and hope for the best? And then, when all hope was finally lost, take Harry and leave this world behind forever?
Didn't he owe it to Harry to give him every chance for a future in the world that was his birthright?
Could he risk putting Harry through it? Himself through it?
How could he not?
"For Harry," Snape finally said bleakly.
They spent the afternoon sending owls off to everyone they could think of, a dozen just cast adrift in the wide world with the order to find Albus Dumbledore. If an owl could look doubtful these did, all the same they set off gamely enough, fluttering in different directions into the lowering sky of a December day.
Return owls began arriving within the hour, reporting further messages sent along the line. Hope rose and fell, one or two seemed sure they could get a message through, but none were definite. None could set their minds to rest. Finally, as night fell, they were out of options.
"I'll wait here," Lupin said wearily, clenching and unclenching fingers tired from writing the seemingly endless messages. "If there's any news I'll call you."
"After Harry is in bed I'll unlock the Floo and start calling around." Snape grimaced at the crunch of bones under his feet as he waded out of the owlery. He had never seen the place so empty. They had almost cleared it out.
"Severus," Lupin called.
Snape stopped and looked over his shoulder.
The tutor opened and closed his mouth. "You, er, I... We'll catch the seven o'clock port key from Hogsmeade, right?"
A flippant remark would have been satisfying at this point but Snape was beyond teasing his old adversary right now. "I'll be there," he promised instead, noting the relief in Lupin's eyes. So the werewolf wasn't sure of him even now, he thought as he made his way down the dark paths to Hagrid's cottage. Well, he was right to be nervous. Part of Snape still screamed at him that he should be bundling Harry off and carrying him away.
Invisibility cloak ready. Floo to Diagon Alley. Disappear into Muggle London and make our way to the little house I have waiting, the new names, the Muggle life.
The lights of Hagrid's hut shone out over his garden and vegetable patch, outlining small scurrying creatures as they rustled in the vines. Harry was laughing and so was Hagrid, big, booming laughter, carrying through the stout walls and closed door. Snape paused by the scarecrow, listening to the innocent joyful sounds from within.
This was the life Harry knew and loved. This was where he belonged.
Harry answered his knock, eyes still alight with laughter, face sticky. "Daddy!" he greeted excitedly. "We've had the best time! Hagrid picked me up and I was up on his shoulders, ever so high! Higher than my broom flies!"
Snape nodded tightly, unable to stop himself from touching Harry's shoulder, shaping his hand around its small vulnerable curve.
"Thank you for taking Harry on such short notice," he said politely to the huge man who was seated at his oversized table.
"It was a real pleasure," Hagrid smiled through his bushy beard. "Did you and Remus get everythin' all sorted out?"
"For now," Snape contented himself with saying. "Come, Harry. You look as if you've had your supper, but I think a bath is in order before bed time."
"Bye bye, Hagrid," Harry waved. "Bye bye, Fang. Bye bye, Omar."
"Omar?" Snape murmured as they negotiated the paths, his wand held in front of him to light the way.
Harry looked guilty. "He's Hagrid's other pet," he murmured, then swiftly changed the subject. "Daddy! Guess what? Hagrid makes his own cakes, and his own jam! He says the fairies in the woods show him the way to wild fruit, do you think that's true? Are there fairies in the woods?"
Snape allowed the subject of Hagrid's other pet to drop. "There certainly are, Harry," he said sternly. "And they bite, so don't even think about asking Hagrid to show you any."
Harry looked even guiltier.
Harry's Hagrid stories went on through bath time and continued through the nightly ritual of combing the tangles out of his hair. Even the subject of Christmas dinner in the Great Hall was only vaguely mentioned, and even then only because Hagrid was going to be there. Finally the boy wound down as he was snuggling back on the couch, holding his mug of cocoa.
"Daddy, this is too hot," he complained.
"Blow on it then," Snape advised, and Harry puffed out his cheeks and blew wetly over the mug's rim.
"Daddy?" Harry said thoughtfully. Snape instantly recognised the tone Harry used when he had been turning something over in his mind for a while. Had the boy heard any part of the argument he'd had with Lupin that afternoon?
"Is Santa really real?"
Nonplussed, Snape blinked over his cocoa at his son. Harry was wearing his thick green dressing gown and his newest slippers, as he had already grown out of last winter's. He was snuggled back against the worn tasseled cushions of the heavy old couch, his feet sticking out in front of him.
"Santa?" Snape repeated weakly.
"Uh huh." Harry blew on his cocoa again and sipped at it carefully. "I used to think he might be, but he never brought me any presents. Then Dudley said he was just people's fathers really, or men with pillows in their shirts."
"Pillows," Snape said, catching up. "I see."
"But then I came here and things I thought weren't really real, like dragons and stuff, well, they are. So is Santa? Real I mean?"
"Hmm." Snape wondered if he had ever believed in Santa Claus. He honestly couldn't even really remember being Harry's age, beyond a vague recollection of staying in his room as much as possible to keep out of trouble. So he certainly couldn't recall believing in jolly old men who bought presents to children. Like Harry, presents had been few and far between in his childhood.
"Remember what I told you about your aunt and uncle, Harry? Well, that applies to your, er, cousin as well."
Harry considered this. "You mean he was lying?" he wondered. "Cos Dudley would tell fibs all the time. Whoppers."
"Because," Snape corrected. "And don't start a sentence with the word because."
"Yes, daddy," Harry said obediently. "So he was lying then?"
"Probably. Who knows?" Snape contented himself with saying.
Harry nodded. "I think so," he decided in satisfied tones. "Santa probably just couldn't find me cos, I mean because I wasn't here with you where I was supposed to be."
"Yes," Snape agreed, a hollow ache in his chest. "Where you were supposed to be." He knew he should say something to Harry about what was coming, warn the boy in some way. But he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Harry was happy, but more than that he was content. He felt safe. Secure. It would be cruel to destroy that fragile sense of safety.
It isn't too late to run.
Fortunately the chime warning him of approaching visitors drowned out that annoying little voice in his head. Lupin was approaching and Snape felt his heart speed up. Was this good news?
"It's news anyway," Lupin panted, leaning against the door jamb with one hand and waving a piece of crumpled, much folded paper in the other. "I am so out of shape," he wheezed.
Snape snatched the paper while Harry peered interestedly around his legs.
"Hello, Mr Lupin," he said. "What's news?"
"Go back and finish your cocoa," Snape ordered absently, eyes devouring the tiny scrawled hand writing. "What is this?" he demanded of Lupin. "Who is this person?"
"It's signed B.S," Lupin said, pointing to the squiggle at the bottom. "You remember? Bedelia Slocombe? Dumbledore has had me send her several letters over the last few months, and last time he was away at Halloween that was where he told me to reach him."
Snape turned the letter over in his hands, the reverse side was blank and smudged with ink. "But all it says is that she's contacted him and he'll be back for the hearing. It doesn't say where he is, or even where she is!"
"But it says he'll be back," Lupin pointed out. "We did it, we found him!"
"So she says," Snape said, thrusting the paper back at the tutor in frustration. "It's not much to pin our hopes on, is it?"
"It's more than we had an hour ago," Lupin said in exasperation. "It's better than no word at all, right?"
"Is it?" Snape said moodily. He glanced over his shoulder at Harry, who was obediently holding his cocoa but was also leaning over the back of the arm chair and clearly trying to take in as much of their conversation as possible.
"You're not still thinking of doing anything foolish, are you?" Lupin said uneasily.
"You mean anything else foolish, don't you?" Snape snapped. "Oh, go to bed, Lupin. We have a long journey ahead of us tomorrow, remember?"
He shut the door in the tutor's face.
"Time for bed, Harry."
Harry yawned widely, knuckling his eyes as he snuggled back against the snowy white pillow. Snape tugged the covers up and sat down in his usual place on the side of the bed.
"Harry," he murmured, "I've decided we should go to London tomorrow."
Harry's sleepy eyes widened. "Are we going to see Li again?"
"Not this time. I have some business to take care of. Perhaps when it is over we might go back to that shop you like so much."
"The toy shop!" Harry enthused.
"Perhaps." Snape stroked the coverlet, long fingers tracing the rich dark fabric. All evening he'd wondered how to approach this, how to begin. Sitting here by his boy's bedside it all became very clear. He took a deep breath.
"You know I love you, don't you?"
Harry's small brow wrinkled and he tilted his head. "Yes," he said with certainty.
Snape breathed out. The swift sureness of that reply warmed him. "And you know, no matter what, that I will never leave you behind again, don't you?"
"Yes, daddy," Harry said again.
Little fingers fiddled with the counterpane and Snape stroked them with his own hands, hands that were so like his son's.
"So if anything were to happen, if either of us should get lost, or, or separated, then I don't want you to worry. No matter how long it took, no matter how hard it was, I would find you."
"I know you would," Harry said confidently. "Don't worry, daddy. I won't get lost. I promise."
"Thank you, Harry," Snape whispered. "That's my good boy." He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a handful of jade and gold. "I have an early Christmas present for you, Harry."
Harry gazed at the shimmering bracelets as his father separated them and laid them out on his long hand.
"One for each of us," Snape said huskily.
"What are they?" Harry asked curiously.
"They're magic, Harry. Deep magic. I wear one, see?" He fitted the thin chain around his wrist, the tiny jade lozenges glowing dully against his sallow skin. He held up the smaller one. "Will you wear this one?"
Harry nodded and held out his hand trustingly. "Li has a green bracelet like this too," Harry recalled, watching as his father fastened it around his narrow wrist.
"This is special, Harry. Watch." Snape pulled out his wand and touched its tip, first to Harry's new jewellery and then to his own. The jade shapes sprang into glowing life, just for a moment illuminating carved sigils and devices in their surfaces. Then they faded and with a tiny shudder the bracelets faded from sight, seeming to sink into the very living flesh of their arms.
Harry exclaimed in wonder, flexing his fingers and turning his hand around and around.
"It's gone!" he exclaimed.
Snape rotated his own wrist. "No, it's not," he said quietly. "Concentrate, Harry, the way I've taught you when we're mixing potions. Can you feel it?"
Harry wrinkled his little brow, eyes closing. "I can!" he said, eyes springing open in amazement. "I can feel it, daddy! Can you feel yours?"
"I can," Snape confirmed.
"Why did they disappear, daddy?"
Harry's face was alive with innocent curiousity and Snape didn't resist the urge to stroke his cheek, to push a soft wing of black tousled hair behind one ear.
"They disappeared because they are magic, Harry. Secret magic."
"Ooh," Harry breathed. "What do they do?"
"Remember how I said I would always find you, Harry? Well, this is how I will." He touched Harry's wrist and then his own. "As long as we both wear these I will be able to find you wherever you are in the wide world. And when you're old enough I'll teach you how to find me too."
Harry gazed down at his wrist, long little fingers exploring the pale unmarred skin, then reaching out to run over his father's bony wrist.
"But why are they invisible?"
"That's the secret part, Harry." Snape swallowed hard. He had just performed deep magic on his own little child. He had just bound Harry to him in a way the boy wouldn't even begin to understand for years and years. He hoped one day he would understand why such a drastic step had been necessary. "You see, if it was visible then someone might try to take it off us, or block its power. But while it is secret then it is safe from all our enemies."
Harry blinked up at him, eyes wide and a little myopic without his little round glasses. "Is this just our secret, daddy?"
Snape nodded. "Just ours, Harry," he said hoarsely. "No one else can ever know. Not Neville, or Mr Lupin, not even Professor Dumbledore. Not anyone."
"Just ours," Harry murmured. His fingers touched his father's wrist again, then slid confidingly into the palm of his hand. Snape wrapped his own fingers around the trusting little hand that lay in his. "All right, daddy."
Harry slept the happy dreams of a child confident that he would be waking up on Christmas Eve and that would be only the beginning of his fun.
Snape didn't sleep at all.
The early train was packed with shop workers grimly girding themselves for a hectic Christmas Eve behind the tills and counters of the London stores. Office workers hugged bottles and bags full of gaily wrapped presents, probably already anticipating a noon finish and a slap-up Christmas party all afternoon.
Even a few hardy shoppers were already about, wistfully hoping to beat the rush and find that perfect last minute gift at a knock-down price.
The train was full.
Unwilling to budge up next to some Muggle stranger, Snape pressed himself into a corner at the end of the carriage and drew Harry close to him, letting the boy lean against his legs and peer out of the nearest window. Snape stared down at his own feet, uninterested in the grimy grey scenery of the suburbs and smoke blackened tunnels, and desperately trying to pretend he didn't know Lupin, who was hunched up on a seat only inches away.
The tutor had discarded his robes for the occasion, but had unfortunately exchanged them for a pair of ancient grey trousers and the most disreputable cardigan Snape thought he had ever seen. The shoulders sagged, the pockets bagged, and great runs and snags in its weave caused complicated patterns like spider webs all over its back. Fortunately he covered the whole ensemble with a grey cloak, unfortunately it wasn't in much better shape than the rest of the outfit. Out of the corner of his eye Snape watched as Lupin pulled one of his never-ending supply of chocolate bars out of his pocket and broke off a piece.
Lupin popped it in his mouth and then held out the bar to Harry with a whimsical smile.
"I'd like the boy to stay clean," Snape snapped, giving up all hope of pretending he didn't know the other wizard.
Lupin obligingly broke off a chunk and held it to Harry's lips. "There," he said as Harry cast his father a guilty glance and accepted the treat. "No sticky fingers."
Over Lupin's shoulder came a gurgle and Harry stifled a chuckle and tugged at his coat.
"Look, daddy," he snickered. "The baby wants some chocolate too!"
"Don't mind my greedy lad." A smiling black face appeared as the lady behind him twisted in her seat. The baby on her shoulder gurgled again and then broke out into a wide gummy grin, proudly showing off a handful of snowy white teeth. "He can spot a sweet at fifty paces."
"Can I share a piece with him?" Lupin said with a charming smile, already breaking a morsel off of his bar. "It's Christmas after all."
"That's very kind of you," the lady smiled back and Lupin handed her the chunk of chocolate. Harry laughed aloud as the tyke clapped pudgy hands and opened and closed his mouth with loud smacking sounds in anticipation. Snape could only roll his eyes and shake his head at the spectacle they were becoming as the formerly listless passengers around them seemed to come to life, smiling and chuckling at the happily munching baby.
"Say taa," the lady said to her cooing baby. "Say taa to the nice man."
"Daa!" the baby said, squealing and arching his spine in excitement.
"Show-off," his mother said fondly.
Harry waved at him and the baby waved back, showing off his teeth again in a wide smile. Harry wrinkled his nose and the baby laughed and reached out with his starfish hands, opening and closing them eagerly.
"The baby likes me," Harry said in happy surprise. He let go his father's legs and leaned against Lupin, reaching out one hand and letting the baby grab it with his pudgy fingers. "Hello, baby," Harry said softly.
Passengers smiled and nodded around them again but Snape tuned them out, cynically aware how sappy sentiment would quickly turn to annoyance if the baby started wailing. His attention was fixed on Harry as Lupin gently caught him around his waist to hold him steady against the swaying and rocking of the train. Harry's small pale hand held the smaller darker one with a kind of wonder, his long fingers stroking skin even finer than his own.
Yes, Harry belonged in the magical world, but to the six year old all the world could hold wonders, as long as he could look over his shoulder and find his father there. As long as he had someone of his own who loved him.
No matter how the hearing today went, no matter what anguish might lie in their immediate future...
They would make it through. Together.
It was ten AM on Christmas Eve and of Albus Dumbledore there was no sign. Snape sat with Harry on a hard wooden bench in the Atrium and looked around at the people that passed them by. The huge room was decked with tinsel and sparkly lights, but the faces of the passing workers said that, Christmas Eve or not, this was just another day at the Ministry of Magic.
Snape wonder how many members of the Wizengamut and the Council had been tracked down at such short notice the day before the holiday. He wondered if even now they were sitting somewhere discussing Harry like he was some case. Like the specimen Fudge saw him as, when he wasn't considering him a political tool.
"I don't believe this." Lupin sat down next to Snape with a bump. "Can you believe they've scheduled the meeting in a courtroom? Arthur told me they haven't even used those dungeons since..." He grimaced. "For five years!"
Snape shot Harry a quick glance but the boy's attention was fixed on the coloured stars blinking on and off above his head to the accompaniment of faint tinkly music. He was humming under his breath.
"No word on Dumbledore?"
Lupin shook his head. Just then a clerk in a grey robe and a tinsel head dress hurried towards them, hastily consulting a clip board. "Severus Snape!" he intoned. "In the case of the paternity of Harry Potter! Please proceed to Courtroom Ten on the lower level."
"That's us!" Harry said, jumping to his feet. "Is this the business you're doing, daddy?"
Snape caught his narrow shoulders and turned the boy to face him, automatically pulling a hanky from his pocket and wiping a smudge from one round cheek.
"You have the most amazing skill for getting grubby, boy," he said, trying to even out his breathing. Inside his ribcage Snape could feel his chest beating so hard he was surprised it didn't make his robe flutter. "This won't take too long, Harry, all right?"
Harry nodded and rubbed at his cheek where his father had wiped it.
"I need you to be quiet, be still and above all be good. Understood?"
"Yes, daddy. And then we can go to the toy shop?"
"All being well."
Unable to put it off any longer Snape stood and nodded to the harried looking clerk who nodded back, tinsel slipping over one eye for a moment and making him look like a rakish and rather festive pirate.
"This way," he said, indicating the elevators. "Please follow me." They followed him into the elevator, Harry still humming to the tinny Christmas carols that echoed around the dingy old lift. Workers trooped in and out as the elevator sunk down to the lowest level, disgorging them in a stone corridor. "This way," the clerk said again, setting a swift pace. "The Council and Wizengamut are already seated. Here we are." He stopped outside grimy old door with an enormous lock. "Have a nice day and Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas," Harry called back over his shoulder.
Snape stopped in the doorway as the ancient old wooden door creaked open. Ahead of him was the dungeon court that figured in so many of his memories and dreams. As far as he knew it was only used for the direst of cases and he couldn't help wondering what message Fudge was trying to send to him by using it today.
Directly ahead of him in a beam of bright magical light was a high wooden chair and even from here he could see the dull metal chains resting on its arms.
"They have got to be kidding with this," Lupin muttered behind him.
"Come in! Come in!" Fudge's cheerful voice called. "Sorry about this dusty old room, very busy time of year, what?"
Snape forced himself to step over the threshold, a quick glance assuring him that Harry didn't seem to be affected by the atmosphere of the place at all. In fact he was looking around with interest and as his eyes adjusted to the light Snape saw that both sides of the room flanking the chair had people sitting on the serried benches.
"Professor Snape," Fudge greeted him happily. "Good of you to come on such short notice! As you see we've only managed to contact a dozen or so Council members, and five members of the Wizengamut. But never mind, they're credible witnesses all for the test to come."
"Look, daddy," Harry said in a sibilant whisper. "That wizard has a parrot!"
"Ah, young Master Harry," Fudge said, his smile stretching. "The reason we're all here. Would you like to take a seat, young fella? Right here in the middle? Best seat in the house."
"Is that necessary?" Lupin interjected from over Snape's shoulder. "Can't he sit with us?"
Fudge smiled again. "There are procedures, young man," he said condescendingly. "The boy must be in plain sight for the test after all." He held out one hand. "Harry?"
Sidestepping him neatly Snape led Harry to the seat and lifted him up on it. "I trust the chains won't be necessary?" he said lightly over his shoulder. "Remember what I said about being good, Harry," he said more quietly to his son as Fudge sputtered behind him. "I'll be sitting over there, so make sure you behave yourself."
Harry looked around at the dusty old seat curiously, but gave an amiable nod all the same. "All right."
Lupin was taking his place behind a table Fudge indicated and Snape followed him, eyes scanning the gathered wizards. It was obvious straight away who was on the Council and who the Wizengamut. Council members tended to look like Fudge; neatly groomed with conservative robes and hair styles. Whereas the Wizengamut all seemed more along Albus Dumbledore's lines, sporting long beards and garish hats. The five all wore plum coloured robes with a silver W on the breast. And as Harry had pointed out one had a parrot sitting on his shoulder, a huge grey and scarlet bird who noisily cracked a nut with his powerful beak and dropped the shells with a clatter onto the stone floor.
From his seat Harry waved at the bird and was rewarded by a screech from the parrot and a wave from the five members of the Wizengamut. The boy ducked his head a bit shyly at the enthusiastic waves, but smiled gamely back anyway.
Fudge strode to the back of the high ceilinged room and stepped up onto a podium. "Witches and wizards, Council Members and esteemed Fellows of the Wizengamut," Fudge said grandly. "Once again I apologise for the short notice in this case."
"So you should, young man!" a tall thin witch called down. She had a round fat turban on her head, rather like a silken cabbage in colour and shape. "What on earth was the hurry? I've a turkey at home waiting to be stuffed!"
Her fellow Wizengamut members nodded their heads in agreement. The parrot squawked loudly.
"My dear Madam Slocombe," Fudge said sweetly. "As I have already explained the Ministry received confidential information that we felt behooved us to move this hearing forward in this manner."
"What information then?" Madam Slocombe demanded.
"He said confidential!" A member of the Council said shrilly. "D'you want me to explain what that means, Bedelia?"
"The day I need you to explain anything to me, Lottie Lambkin, will be the day I turn in my crystal ball!"
"Please!" Fudge said as Mrs Lambkin made as if to stand up. "Ladies, please! There is an important matter to take care of today!"
"And there are children present," the wizard with the parrot said quietly. Everyone glanced at Harry who was watching the exchange from his seat with interest. The wooden chair was so big his little legs were sticking straight out in front of him.
Mrs Lambkin cleared her throat and settled back onto her bench.
"Er, right," she mumbled.
"Although I would like to ask, Minister," the wizard continued. "Why exactly you felt the need to hold the hearing in this of all places?"
Witches and wizards around him nodded fervently.
"In the worst possible taste."
"Considering the boy's history."
"That the Boy-Who-Lived should be exposed to this place!"
"Ladies and gentlemen, please," Fudge said stiffly.
"The poor little child!" Madam Slocombe said dramatically, flinging out her hand towards Harry, who at that moment was exploring the pocket of his cape and emerging triumphantly with a hand full of coloured sweets.
"He seems rather unaffected by it to me," Fudge observed dryly as Harry unwrapped one and began sucking on it enthusiastically. "And as I have explained this is a very busy time of the year and we are short staffed due to a seasonal bug making the rounds of the departments."
The wizard with the parrot spoke again. "I hope that at least we're waiting for Albus Dumbledore before we begin?"
Snape took his glance from Harry and flicked it at Fudge. The Minister assumed a disappointed expression and shrugged.
"Of course we'd like to," he said regretfully. "But as I said, pressing matters force us to move forward with this. After all though, we hardly need his presence just to verify this test, do we? Not with so many distinguished members of our community to observe?"
Members of the Council nodded their heads although some looked around a little uneasily. To a witch and wizard every member of the Wizengamut shook their heads and muttered under their breath.
"Fine," Fudge said, a little testily now. "If I may get this proceeding started? We are gathered here today to witness a Standard Parentage Test which will be administered by an impartial wizard of the Ministry's choosing."
Snape snorted quietly while next to him Lupin huffed a cynical laugh. "Impartial, right," the tutor muttered.
In his wooden seat Harry seemed to be growing bored, he was fiddling with the chains piled on the arms of the chair, running long fingers over their chilly links. Even as Snape watched the child hefted a manacle with two hands and lifted it to his eye, looking around the room as if through a telescope.
Lupin huffed another laugh while Snape only waited until Harry turned his manacle-telescope towards him. Then he frowned pointedly.
Harry hastily dropped the manacle back on the arm of the chair before wiping his dusty hands over the legs of his robe.
"And now," Fudge said in satisfied tones. "Our impartial tester."
The wizard with the parrot stood up on the Wizengamut side, but then stopped still in astonishment as another wizard bounded out of the Council ranks and hurried to Fudge's side.
"Jackson Churl," Fudge went on, gesturing to the small round man, who bowed as deeply as his girth would allow, then set to opening his briefcase. It was a dark shiny black like the robe that he wore and the sleek cap of hair on his head.
"What is the meaning of this, Minister?" Madam Slocombe said in amazement. "Was it not agreed that Elder Kendrick would be performing this test?"
Fudge shook his head. "That was the suggestion put forward," he conceded graciously. "But it was decided a less interested party would be better suited."
Elder Kendrick sat down slowly, one hand lifting and absently stroking his birds scarlet plumage. He seemed quite calm about the whole thing, but Madam Slocombe's face was turning an angry purple.
"Surely you're not suggesting Elder Kendrick would be any less than impartial?" she gasped in disbelief.
Meanwhile Jackson Churl had laid several items on the desk before the Minister, including two round hand mirrors which shone silver and flashed in the dungeon's dull light. With a gesture of his short stubby wand the wizard spelled the two mirrors to lift, where they spun gently for a moment in front of his face. Then, with another gesture they flew to the chair where Harry sat and flanked him, one at each shoulder.
"Ooh," Harry breathed in excitement, glancing from mirror to mirror. "Magic!"
"No one is impugning Elder Kendrick's impartiality," Fudge said firmly. "But as he was suggested by Professor Dumbledore, and the Professor does seem to have interested himself greatly in the results of this test..." he trailed away suggestively. If possible Madam Slocombe swelled even more.
"So it's just Professor Dumbledore you're impugning?" she demanded.
"If I may have quiet, please?" Jackson Churl called out irritably. He looked around the room at the assembled wizards and witches as they quieted around him. The light from the slowly revolving mirrors shone and sparkled on the tiny round glasses that perched, seemingly by magic, on the bridge of his nose. "Thank you. This spell requires some concentration. Now, I'm well aware I stand before some of the greatest proponents of the magical arts in our land," he continued with another small bow. "So I would like you all to carefully study my methods and my spell." He nodded at Madam Slocombe and Elder Kendrick. "So there can be no question later of any impropriety."
Snape was watching his son, who was sitting with his legs crossed now, dwarfed by the huge chair and lit as Churl was by the slowly revolving mirrors. Even after all these months Harry was still enthralled by magic and he was sitting now, glancing back and forward between the mirrors, eyes wide behind his little round glasses. He was sucking on another sweet and from where he sat Snape could see the smudge of sticky dust on his cheek. The wizard felt his heart aching in his chest. The child could not possibly know his fate lay in the silvery reflective surfaces hovering on either side of him.
The spell was complex, the wand movements precise, the words of the charm long and complex. Around the dungeon witches and wizards on both sides leaned forward on their benches and studied the spell being performed with rapt concentration.
Finally: "Reveal!" Churl shouted, and a flash appeared at his wand tip, split in two and collided with the surfaces of the mirrors, which now froze in place, their surfaces dimming. Holding his breath along with everyone else Snape watched as the surfaces grew cloudy, swirling grey lit with shots of gold.
Churl was frowning. "Something's wrong," he said in puzzled tones.
Next to Snape Lupin's hands were clutched together, but Snape found himself curiously calm as he sat back on his bench. He'd known this was coming and it was almost a relief now that the other shoe had dropped.
"Please tell us, Mr Churl," Fudge said loudly. "What should have happened?"
"The faces of the boy's natural parents should have appeared in the mirrors," Jackson Churl said, still frowning in puzzlement.
"Can you think of any reason why they would not?"
"Only magical interference," Churl said promptly.
Fudge cast Snape a significant look and then turned back to the other wizard. "What sort of magical interference?"
Churl shrugged. "Who knows? Any sort of Transfiguration charm that affects the boy's appearance or physical form might be responsible."
Members of the Council had their heads together, muttering and nodding. They too were casting suspicious glances his way but Snape ignored them, eyes back on Harry. With no more flashy magic to entertain him the child was growing bored again, and was currently leaning perilously over the front of the chair and peering curiously underneath it.
Members of the Wizengamut were also muttering together, Madam Slocombe at their center. She was shaking her head and gesturing vigourously. Around her witches and wizards nodded, as did Elder Kendrick's parrot, who then squawked and cracked another nut.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" Fudge said loudly, and the mutters and squawks died away. "As you have all observed a problem seems to have occurred in the test."
Harry straightened in his chair and huffed a bored sigh.
"In light of this development I have no choice but to declare this hearing over until such time as we can identify the magical interference that is blocking the spell."
Harry's face brightened and he slid forward on his chair.
A hand clutched Snape's arm but he didn't think of shaking it off. His gaze was fixed on his son.
"Unfortunately as this matter has not been sorted out to the satisfaction of the Council I'm afraid we cannot allow the child's circumstances to remain unchanged."
Now Harry frowned, as if suddenly realising that he was the focus of all eyes in the room.
"Oh no," Lupin moaned under his breath, but Snape still gazed on Harry, bracing himself for what was to come.
"Therefore it would seem prudent to change those circumstances at this time," Fudge droned on.
Harry frowned harder and he turned and looked at his father, a small crease of worry running right through the distinctive scar on his forehead.
Snape saw the worry and his fists clenched.
"My judgement at this time," Fudge intoned grandly. "Is that the child should be taken into the custody of the -"
"I don't think that will be necessary."
Every head in the room snapped around as a bright voice intruded into Fudge's speech, including the Minister himself.
"Dumbledore!" he gasped.
"Thank goodness!" Madam Slocombe announced ringingly.
"Professor!" Harry called, climbing to his knees on the wide seat and waving. "Hi!"
Snape closed his eyes, relief like liquid gold running through his veins, filling him, lighting him, but at the same time weighing him down, making him slump wearily onto the bench.
"Hello, Harry," Dumbledore said happily, strolling into the center of the room and extending one long fingered hand. He tousled Harry's hair fondly. "Are you being a good boy?"
Harry nodded emphatically then rolled his eyes. "Yes, sir, but this is taking forever!"
"Let's see if we can speed it up, hmm?"
Fudge found his voice again as Harry nodded fervently. "See here, Dumbledore, you're very late indeed!"
Dumbledore turned a charming smile on him. "I was quite far away when the message arrived," he explained. "It seems that a great many messages to me had been waylaid." His smile sharpened slightly. "Something I'll have to look into."
Fudge looked a trifle shaken. "Of course," he agreed hesitantly. "But in the meanwhile I was just about to make my judgement-"
"So I see," Dumbledore said, keen eyes scanning the cloudy mirrors. "It all appears to be in order."
Fudge smiled triumphantly.
Dumbledore stroked a thoughtful hand down his long white beard. "I wonder though, if we might not have a second opinion before we make an announcement that may very well destroy two lives. Yes?"
"Hear hear!" Madam Slocombe called, and around her the Wizengamut broke into applause. Fudge looked even more shaken when some of the Council members joined in the applause, one or two rising to their feet.
Jackson Churl was peering down his nose through his tiny little glasses. "A second opinion is not necessary," he said pompously. "Everyone here watched me perform the spell. I don't make mistakes."
"It takes a brave wizard to claim such a thing!" Dumbledore exclaimed. "And as you're so sure I'm equally sure you won't object to a second opinion? Elder Kendrick?"
Elder Kendrick sprang to his feet and nodded to Dumbledore, before stepping out of the ranks of benches and walking down the stairs. His parrot rubbed its beak against his lean cheek for a moment, then took off with a squawk and sailed over to Harry's chair, where it perched atop a pile of chains on the arm.
"Hello!" Harry said in delight.
"Hello," the parrot echoed, then raised its crest up and down a few times as Harry giggled huskily.
Dumbledore turned to Snape and Lupin for the first time and gave them a quick smile.
"Merry Christmas, boys," he said, then dropped a wink.
Snape's energy came back and he sat up straight again. Whatever else you thought of the annoying old wizard he had the knack of instilling confidence in one. Fudge certainly seemed flustered. He was sitting forward in his chair, fingers clenched together on the table before him.
Elder Kendrick went straight to the mirrors and peered at their foggy surfaces, tilting his handsome greying head one way and then another. Jackson Churl watched defiantly. Finally Elder Kendrick pulled out his wand and touched its tip to the nearest mirror.
The assembled watchers gasped in unison as the mirror transfigured with a hollow pop, and Elder Kendrick reached out with one hand and deftly caught the transfigured item. He turned it over in his sinewy old hand for a moment before holding it up for the room's inspection.
It was a rubber ball.
"Wow!" Harry said, clapping his hands.
"The mirrors used in this spell cannot be transfigured ones. That explains the magical interference." Kendrick touched his wand to the other mirror and let it fall to the ground, where it bounced a few times and disappeared under Harry's chair. The child instantly scrambled off and groped for it but the occupants of the room were too busy to notice. Around the dungeon wizards and witches stood, some shouting, some clapping, some booing.
"It's all a fiddle!" Madam Slocombe was booming.
"It was an honest mistake!" Lottie Lambkin shrieked back.
Fudge, his face red, had climbed up on his chair and was bellowing for order, next to Snape Lupin had his head in his hands and was panting as if he had just run a race.
"Thank goodness for Dumbledore," he breathed.
"And his penchant for dramatic entrances," Snape muttered. But he didn't say it very loudly.
Harry emerged from under the chair with the rubber ball in his hand, dusty and grinning.
"Well then," Dumbledore said quietly, but oddly his voice could be clearly heard over the babble, and within moments it had died away again, as all eyes turned to him expectantly.
He reached out and took the small red ball from Harry's hand.
"I bought those mirrors in good faith," Jackson Churl stuttered, his glasses slipping further down his nose. He shrugged, suddenly not appearing as smugly self confidant as before. "You can see how that would happen?" he appealed to Dumbledore.
The old wizard looked down his long nose at him. "Sit down, Jack," he said kindly and Jackson shot back to the Council side and fairly leapt up the steps and onto a bench in the back row. "Well then," Dumbledore repeated. "Let's try this again, shall we?"
Harry was lifted and sat back on the chair, the parrot flew back to his owner's shoulder and the spell was begun again. Elder Kendrick produced two round mirrors from his voluminous cape and Harry settled back to watch as more magic was performed around and on him. This time when the light left Elder Kendrick's wand it settled gently on the surface of the now still mirrors and everyone leaned forward for a better look as the reflective surfaces glowed golden then cleared with the suddenness of clouds parting on a sunny day.
And there they were. First Lily Potter as she had appeared that day, flushed and pretty, her dark red hair secured behind each ear with emerald green combs that perfectly matched her eyes.
And Severus Snape, younger, cheeks thinner, eyes dark and hooded.
"Look, daddy!" Harry said excitedly. "It's like TV! And there's my mum too!"
Applause broke out over the child's excited cries, Lupin was slapping Snape on the back and Fudge's mouth was turned down. Dumbledore only nodded.
Snape's eyes were fixed, not on his own face in the mirror, not even his son's excited countenance, but on Lily Potter's shining image. There was a soft smile on her face, as if she knew a secret no-one else shared, and for just a moment as her image began to fade Snape imagined he saw one other image in the mirror, a lean brown hand that rested on her shoulder. She almost appeared to be laying her cheek to the back of that hand as the image faded and disappeared utterly.
"Oh, they're gone," Harry said in disappointment.
"Well," Dumbledore said over the hubbub. "That seems final enough." He turned to face Fudge as the sounds around him faded again. "Minister? It seems it's time for the pronouncement."
Fudge bit his lip for a moment and then seemed to screw his courage up.
"Thank you, Professor," he said stiffly. He stood, holding onto the edge of the table with a white-knuckled grip, flags of red in his plump cheeks. "But I think, as the Presiding Judge in this case, that it is up to me to decide when a pronouncement should be made."
"Certainly, Minister, certainly," Dumbledore said amiably. "I just thought, as the test is concluded, and the results, as we have all seen, are conclusive...."
"Yes, so it seems," Fudge said waspishly, his voice a little shrill. "But I did not convene a full meeting of both the Council and the Wizengamut, at your request, I might add," he said accusingly. "Merely to perform this test."
Dumbledore raised one white brow, innocent astonishment on his face.
Here it comes, Snape thought to himself. He remembered Fudge's threats all those months ago. His hints that even if the test went Snape's way that the judgement wouldn't necessarily be in his favour. What rabbit could Dumbledore pull out of the hat to counter those threats?
"You astound me," Dumbledore exclaimed. "After all, Cornelius, I only insisted on so many of our brethren here today so that things could be done openly, and above board." Suddenly all pretense at innocence was gone and Dumbledore's expression grew grim. "So far," he said, his tones now cold. "It has not gone well."
Now the red flags in Fudge's cheeks faded, leaving him looking pale and drawn. His hands gripped tighter as he seemed to flinch from the elderly wizard, whose usually smiling blue eyes seemed hard and cold now, like icy sapphire.
Snape didn't blame him. Dumbledore was on his side, but even he could feel the chill radiating off the old wizard. And behind him, every member of the Wizengamut had gone quiet and still. Their faces were shuttered, their eyes, even in the dimness of the cavernous dungeon, seemed to shine with brittle ice.
And suddenly they were no longer a collection of eccentric old witches and wizards with tattered hats and daft hair styles. Suddenly Snape was reminded that he was sitting opposite some of the most powerful magical beings in the entire world. He knew he was not alone in this realisation. The Council seemed to be holding their collective breath, Lupin seemed frozen beside him and even Harry was still and silent, staring wide-eyed at the wizard towering over him.
As for Fudge, his legs seemed to lose their strength all at once, and with a bump he sat back on his seat.
"Cornelius?" Dumbledore said.
Snape blinked, as if awakening from a spell. Had he imagined those last few moments, that cold chill, that air of menace?
Dumbledore's amiable expression was back, he absently reaching into his pocket and pulled out a sweet which he offered to Harry. The boy smiled and accepted it.
"Cornelius?" he said again. "Anything to add?"
Fudge looked as if he had plenty to add, but it was also clear his spirit was broken. He looked around the serried ranks of wizards and witches and obviously did not see as much support there as he had perhaps counted on. If Snape had been a kinder man he might even have felt some smattering of pity for the small wizard before him.
But he was actually a rather vindictive man and it was with a great deal of real pleasure that he watched as Fudge cleared his throat and shook his head.
"No, Professor," he said weakly. "That all seems to be in order."
"Then I'll take it on myself to declare the findings, shall I?" Dumbledore said comfortably. "Here goes then. It is the finding of this court, before the Council of Magical Law and the assembled members of the Wizengamut, that Harry James Potter is the legal and physical son of Severus Snape and the late Lily Potter, nee Evans. This finding is absolute and may not be challenged again under Wizarding Law."
Dumbledore turned to Snape and extended his hand. "Congratulations."
Snape reached out and caught the proffered hand, relief and joy filling him.
"Can we go now?" Harry said in a long suffering tone, and around him wizards and witches began to chuckle and then laugh aloud as some of the tension in the room broke. Harry looked surprised at the reaction and grimaced apology at his father before hunching his shoulders and sitting back in his chair.
"Well, it is Christmas," Dumbledore chuckled. "And I'm sure we're all eager to get back to celebrating it. But if you would all bear with me for just one more moment?"
Snape frowned in puzzlement as Dumbledore twinkled another wink at him.
"I'm going to exercise a very old power of the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamut," Dumbledore smiled. "A bit of a cheeky one, actually. But I was a friend of dear James and Lily, and flatter myself that I know what they would have wanted if they could have foreseen this. I also count myself a friend of young Severus here. As well as this little chap." He nodded at Harry who smiled stickily back at him.
"So I take the liberty of bestowing a new name on young Harry," he said happily. "Or at least adding another name to his already impressive one. Ladies and Gentlemen I present to you: Harry James Snape Potter!"
"Hearing adjourned!" Fudge snapped into the stunned silence, obviously at the end of his tether.
Applause broke out around them again but Snape heard and saw none of it, all he could see was the dawning joy on Harry's face as the boy slid off the seat and bounded towards him. For once in his life not caring whose eyes were fixed on him Snape jumped to his feet and met his child halfway, catching him in mid leap and engulfing him in a tight embrace.
"Did you hear, daddy?" Harry was burbling excitedly in his ear. "I'm Harry Snape Potter now!"
Snape tilted his head back and peered into his son's face. "Is that all right?" was all he could manage.
Harry nodded shyly. "I've wanted it for ever such a long time," he confided in a murmur, little fingers holding tight to his father's velvet collar.
"Have you, my Harry?" Snape whispered thickly. "I'm glad."
"Now everyone knows I'm your boy," Harry said in tones of great satisfaction.
"They certainly do," Dumbledore said at his shoulder. "Severus, some folk would like to add their congratulations to mine. Be nice, hmm?"
Today Snape felt he could be nice to just about anyone. He even thought that if Sirius Black himself appeared before him, he would kill him quickly instead of dragging it out as he'd always planned. He hefted Harry onto his hip and turned to face the hoard, but before he did he touched a hand to Dumbledore's heavily embroidered sleeve.
"Professor," he said softly. "Thank you."
Dumbledore inclined his snowy white head with a smile, but the eyes he turned to Snape's were surprisingly serious. "No thanks are necessary, dear Severus. I owed you both this much, at least."
The toy shop was as mad as Snape remembered from the year before. Seemingly insane last-minute shoppers carried their purchases to harried shop assistants while children tore up and down the aisles, or pressed their noses against various displays. Harry joined their ranks, running from one display to another, indistinguishable from the other children in his green cloak and long tasseled hat.
Now he was at the Christmas tree and he skidded to a halt before it and gazed up in wide eyed wonder at its glorious shimmering decoration.
Unbidden in Snape's mind's eye came an image of exactly a year before and his first glimpse of his son. How different that old image overlaid on this one! That Harry had been smaller, thinner, face worried and drawn. His clothes had been baggy and worn, even his glasses had been too big. That Harry had been neglected and abused, starved of love and attention. Alone.
This Harry stood taller, his cheeks rounded and flushed with the healthy colour of childhood. He comfortably wore the robes of a young wizard and when he glanced over his shoulder at his father it was no longer as the child frightened of abandonment and seeking reassurance. It was just as a little boy sharing the wonder of this moment with his parent.
His green, almond shaped eyes shone with it and now in Snape's mind's eye was that image of Lily in the mirror that morning. Odd how he never really thought of her much, when her eyes looked at him from his son's face every day. Mostly he remembered her as Potter's wife, a clever witch, a near stranger.
But now Harry's eyes were conjuring up that image of her, smiling so serenely in the mirror at the precious secret she held within her, and Snape closed his own eyes and brought her to the forefront of his mind. She was Harry's mother. She had accepted Snape's seed and had carried Snape's child within her. The incredible intimacy of that burned through him for the first time.
She had given birth to Harry, and even if the child was never intended to be his, that gift could not be taken lightly.
Snape opened his eyes again and gazed at the marvel that was his son.
When he spoke softly, under his breath, it was to Lily.
The fire was low in the grate, the cocoa mugs were empty and Harry was curled up on his father's lap, enjoying his last moments of Christmas Eve before bedtime.
For Snape it was all still a daze. Months had been spent in worried planning and preparations and it was difficult to believe that none of it was now needed. All the same, that little cottage in the country wasn't going anywhere. Nor that ornate box full of gold and Muggle money, magically hidden in the stones of its fireplace. Snape added them to the cards held close to his chest, the allies he had gathered, that wall he was building to protect his son.
The future still lay ahead of them. Enemies still lay in wait for them. And somewhere out there, wounded, crushed, but still seething with malice, their greatest enemy bided his time.
But for right now Harry James Snape Potter was as safe as any child could be.
And as loved.
"Daddy!" Harry exclaimed, and Snape looked down at him in surprise.
"You're smiling!" Harry accused.
Snape felt the unfamiliar muscles pulling in his cheeks but huffed a discouraging raspberry anyway.
"No I'm not," he said firmly.
Harry studied him a moment longer, then smiled a small smile himself. "Okay," he said simply. Then he leaned his head back on his father's shoulder.
And they saw out Christmas Eve together, gazing into the flames.