Snape lay motionless, his eye glinting in the darkness, and prayed he would quiet. He had held the child once. It didn’t settle well to think of doing it again. How like his father indeed, to care only for his own comfort and feeling. It could not be dawn, but here the boy was, wide awake and hardly minding if he woke others. Snape wondered if McGonagall could hear from her bedroom. From the general stillness of the place, he doubted it. And from the very manner of the infant’s distress, he was not surprised.
For Harry was unnaturally quiet. His sobs were no more than wet gasps. What might have been a splitting wail was instead only a faint, high whimpering. Perhaps, Snape considered, he did not wish to be heard.
The potions master raised himself. Too tired for wand-raising and incantations, he went to the lamp at McGonagall’s desk, and turned up the light himself. Temper strained, he went to Harry’s makeshift bed, and looked sourly down.
‘It is not an hour since Professor McGonagall tucked you in,’ he observed. ‘What can be the matter?’
Harry’s cries wavered. His too-bright eyes blinked in the sudden, low light.
‘In-deed,’ said Snape. ‘Now, be silent. Sleep.’
Harry’s lips trembled. He made not a sound.
This was not natural. Was it?
Snape paused, troubled, in turning aside. He would have liked to sleep, but Harry’s behavior surprised him. He had thought children noisy and demanding, utterly unmanageable, another chore added to an already long list. Harry Potter was the opposite. He had never seen an infant so entirely desperate, so very frightened, and alone.
‘Well. Mister Potter,’ said Snape. ‘You do not surprise me in the least.’
And, even as the last ‘s’ lingered on before the ‘t’ in a low, pronounced hiss, he reached into the child’s box and raised him in his arms.
Little Harry buried his face in the potions master’s breast.
If Snape was startled he did not show it. At least, he did not recoil or distance himself in any way from the infant. But his glance in that shadowed place was suddenly fierce, and he raised a hand to the child’s bowed head, stroking tousled black locks. He could feel Harry shuddering against him. His white lip twisted.
‘Why are you afraid?’ said Snape. ‘Who would harm you? Who would dare?’
The last dark phrase suited the potions master. He looked like a parent dragon at that moment, cradling Harry on his chest but somehow raging even as he comforted. If anyone had seen him, they might have thought he meant to hurt the baby himself, not recognizing the potions master’s violent desire to protect. But someone did see, and someone did recognize; Professor McGonagall had woken at Harry’s faint sobs and she stood now in the doorway.
Harry’s small fists tightened in the potion master’s robes. His whimper of distress was weak and muffled. Snape’s passion upset him, not knowing whether he was the cause or if the monsters had come for him again.
‘Shh,’ said Snape. ‘You are safe, little one. Shh.’
His tone had changed. It was low, almost sibilant, and if it was ungentle it was entirely calm and assured. McGonagall could not help but think how fitting it was he stood as Head of Slytherin then, younger than any previous head, because there was a kind of serpentine willfulness in him that was almost hypnotic. She could easily imagine a basilisk soothing its kin with a similar power. Little Harry hiccupped. Snape gazed dispassionately on that round, streaked face raised to his, into the wide, frightened eyes that sought him so desperately. His fingertips passed over the child’s brow and down his flushed cheeks.
‘Sleep,’ he said. ‘I will watch over you.’
The boy’s glance wavered. He still sniffled, but there were no fresh tears.
McGonagall watched Snape carry him to the sofa. She watched the potions master sit, then lean carefully to one side, his head against the chair arm and Harry cradled on his chest. Snape looked exhausted, but his every movement was deliberate and cautious, as if he feared the child would be hurt or frightened at any careless motion. Realizing he would not be replaced in bed, little Harry babbled with delight. He squirmed his way up until he nestled against Snape’s neck, and his little fingers reached to grasp a clump of raven hair.
Snape winced. He was used to discomfort, McGonagall knew, but this was a different, more innocent pain, and he did not resist it. She watched her former student close his eyes, his lean hand resting on Harry’s back.
Quietly, she stepped into the room.
Snape’s lids flickered as she neared him, but he only roused when the transfigurations professor bent and pressed his shoulder.
‘Minerva,’ he said. ‘What—is it?’
‘Will you let me help you?’ she asked. ‘Now, that you see how important it is?’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
‘He depends on you,’ said McGonagall. ‘He trusts you. I was not able to quiet him so swiftly and easily, nor has anyone else been. Don’t you see? Of all of us, Harry sees you as his protector. He has adopted you, Severus, whether you like it or not. Though from the looks of things, it seems as though you do.’
The potion master sighed.
‘I do not like it,’ he said. ‘I cannot help it.’
McGonagall sat beside him on the sofa’s edge.
‘You can’t do this alone,’ she said. ‘There is no guarantee we can bring him back. What he faces is very powerful and now, in this state, he hasn’t a hope of defense. I know that you are willing to shelter him, Severus, and even to give your life for him if you must; I don’t doubt that for an instant. But you have never raised a child before. You haven’t cared for him twenty-four hours, and already you look worn to the bone. You take too much upon yourself. You will be no use to Harry, dead on your feet.’
‘I do not understand what you are asking,’ said Snape. He did look pale, even more so than usual. ‘You tell me to protect him, then say that I have no ability to properly do so. What do you want of me, Minerva? Will you take him?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I want to impress on you how important it is that you are with him. Leave your class, for a few days at least, until you have gotten used to him. You are allowed sick leave. And I will be glad to grade those papers you have piled on your desk. It is important that he bond with you, Severus—it is important he trust someone.’
Snape’s mouth twisted. ‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘the reason he does not trust you so easily is that all of you try too hard.’
It was a cold thing to say. McGonagall did not bat an eye.
‘I am sure you know more about it than I do,’ she said. ‘Now. Will you let me help? I’ll begin by doing this.’
And, before he could protest she gently uncurled Harry’s little fists from the death grip he had on Snape’s hair.
The child stirred. With a sleepy smack of lips, his pudgy arm reached and flailed until his hand came to rest on the potions master’s bare throat. At once he turned to this new source of warmth, much softer than cotton robe. Snape hissed quietly as the sleeping infant pressed near, damp, sticky skin and small, kneading hands. His eyes turned on McGonagall. There was relief in them, now that Harry was not torturing his scalp, but also something like cold desperation.
‘I do not know why he should cling to me,’ he said, lowly. ‘I am not ready for this. I cannot forget who he is, Potter’s son. Please, Minerva. Take him. You are right, I am not strong enough. If I should fail him, I could not bear it. I could not—I could not—if my own spitefulness should betray him—do you not see? Here.’ He began to raise himself. ‘Take him now, while he is quiet. He will be none the wiser.’
‘No, Severus!’ McGonagall spoke sharply. She seized his shoulders, and held him. ‘You can’t.’
‘For his sake,’ said Snape. ‘I beg you.’
There was agony in his strained voice. McGonagall pressed him back, firm but gentle, troubled to see that he had not the strength to truly resist her. For a moment she was silent, stroking long, black strands of hair from his grey forehead, quieting him as if he, too, were an overanxious child. He breathed in ragged gasps, catching like sobs, but he made not a sound and Harry did not wake.
‘Do not let it grieve you so,’ said McGonagall. ‘What if he is James Potter’s son? What if he is Lilly Evans’ son? He has neither of them, and is in your care entirely. Of all of us, we who are able to look after him, there is great love in you, Severus, for this babe. I do not know if it is for Lilly’s sake alone. I begin to doubt it. If you trouble yourself over everything else, at least do not doubt that you prize Harry as your own, and would not harm a hair on his head even if the Dark Lord threatened to tear you limb from limb. I saw it all. I saw it in the way you held him; I see it in the way you comfort him. Do not be afraid to love, Severus. For his sake, give of yourself, this once if never again.’
‘You will help me.’ He caught her hand in his own. His lean, long fingers were shaking. ‘Minerva, help me.’
She had never seen him so distraught. McGonagall did not know if it would be a bad or a good thing, for Harry to wake and realize. But all pretense of calm was gone now, and she saw clearly how very new Snape was to this strange mix of responsibility and dependency, of duty and thralldom. She had never married, never had children of her own. And yet she was struck by the feeling that much as Harry looked to Snape, the potions master looked to her. She had been his teacher once, and he had learned to respect her then, though she had failed to protect or help him. This was a second chance to honor that respect, if she could.
‘I will help you,’ she murmured. ‘You’re not alone in this, Severus. If you should feel yourself overburdened, do not hesitate to come to me. I can at least offer some respite. Will you remember to do that? Severus?’
His shivering had turned violent. He was on the edge of collapse, his frantic mind tearing to shreds what little confidence was in his heart. McGonagall wondered what she had done, when moments before he had seemed so peaceful.
‘Severus?’ she said again, more earnestly. ‘What is the matter?’
He did not reply.
And Harry, upset by his helpless agitation, woke.
At first the infant was silent, his eyes open, his expression drowsy. Then, discomfort set in. He began, again, to cry.
Snape froze. His body was coiled and tense.
Harry reached for him, seeking one to reassure, to deny him nothing.
Harry could not speak. But his fear was more eloquent than any words.
Snape lifted himself once more. He caught the little one to him in a fierce embrace.
McGonagall could not help but watch. It felt odd, to see something so intimate, the mutual need of parent and child satisfied at last in a strange agony of surrender. Snape’s white lips found the little one’s head and for the first time he kissed that messy shock of black hair. He, who had loved but never known love, was at last overcome. And Harry, who did not understand what had been said or brought to light while he slept, responded to his surrogate father’s attention with a fearful surprise soon replaced by joy.