The usual disclaimers apply.
Much gratitude to my Beta – Marianne.
Ghosts of Christmas Past
Severus Snape rode the staircase to the Headmaster’s office with the usual scowl on his face. He had worn the expression for so much of his life, it had become a permanent part of him. Dumbledore wanted something, he was sure of it.
’Better not try talking me into taking part in that Christmas party he thought up,’ Severus groused to himself.
The Headmaster had decided to throw a Christmas party for children who had been made orphans by the Dark Lord and his sympathizers. A hundred or so of the little brats were going to be descending on Hogwarts on the day before Christmas, a day and a half hence.
Dumbledore’s office was empty but not silent when he got there. The table that held the shiny, mechanical gizmos that were Albus’ particular toys was the source of most of the sound in the in the room. The fire burned quietly, the tall case clock emitted its slow tock. The clicking and whirring that came from the seemingly mindless movements of the little objects created a soft backdrop of sound that was curiously soothing. Fawkes dozed on his perch on one leg, his regal head tucked out of sight under one wing.
“Albus has been detained for a few minutes. He asked that you wait.” The portrait of former Headmaster Dippet informed him.
Severus dropped into a chair, causing a snifter of brandy to appear instantly at his elbow. He took a tentative sniff and sighed. It was his favorite. This meant Albus was going to be asking for a particularly odious favor.
“Are your transfiguration skills up to snuff?” The seemingly casual question came from one of the portraits behind him. Along with all the former Headmasters of the school, there was a dizzying array of other pictures covering the walls. Snape had always assumed they were relations of Dumbledore’s, but he’d never bothered to either look closely, or ask.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your transfiguration skills, boy. Are they any good?”
Severus turned slowly, letting his scowl rake the pictures until he found the offender – a portly looking gent with a long white beard and Albus’ twinkling blue eyes.
“Excuse me, but I believe I am the Potions Master at this school, not the Transfiguration Professor.” Snape resettled himself in the comfortable chair.
He heard a soft snort. “Told ya’.”
Twisting around, he saw the bearded man’s neighbor, a tradesman by his dress, looking smug.
“I assure you,” Snape gave him a narrow-eyed glare, “that my transfiguration skills are more than adequate for any necessity.”
“Oh, good,” the blue-eyed man smiled.
Feeling as though he may have just taken a step into some kind of trap, Snape turned his back on the portraits and sipped his brandy.
“It’s a shame about Minerva breaking her wrist.” This comment, accompanied by a deep sigh, came from a friendly looking woman in a beautiful wine-red dress.
“Yes,” the bearded man agreed. “She was going to do so much of the toy making for the party.”
Snape closed his eyes. So that was it. The teachers who were able, were transfiguring toys for the children. Minerva had the lion’s share of the work to do, but she had broken her wrist yesterday in a fall on the icy streets of Hogsmead. Poppy had mended it, of course, but it had been a particularly nasty break and would be stiff and sore for some time.
“You can just forget it. I have too much real work to do.” Snape slouched down in the chair, stretched out his long legs and crossed his ankles.
“Of course, if you’re not up to the task...”
Snape didn’t bother to look for the owner of the voice. “That won’t work.” His voice was sour.
“It’s seems such a small favor. It’s not as though he wants you to dress up as Father Christmas,” the woman in the red dress went on in her soft voice.
Snape snorted and took a large swallow of brandy. “That’s Hagrid’s job.”
“Or an elf...” the woman’s voice trailed off.
“Flitwick.” Snape drank more of the brandy.
“Stick to your guns, son. Don’t let these do-gooders talk you into anything.” The portrait of Phineas Nigellus was wearing a scowl to match Snape’s.
“But it’s for the children!” A woman in a mobcap was twisting her apron in work-worn hands.
“I don’t like children.” Snape refused to look at the portraits.
“You used to like me.” At the sound of the child’s voice, Snape’s eyes searched the wall to his right.
In an otherwise deserted landscape filled with snow, stood a small child of ten. She had long black hair and black eyes. Her thin frame was wrapped in a worn cloak, two sizes too large for her. Snape stared at her as though at a ghost. After a long minute, he turned his gaze to his boots.
“I know you did, Sev, though you always pretended not to.”
Snape cleared his throat. “What are you doing here, ‘Lest? You don’t have a picture at Hogwarts.”
“Mummy brought me.” The little girl scuffed the snow with an old boot.
Snape closed his eyes. Celest’s mother had been on the Ravenclaw Quidditch team. She was part of a team picture that hung in the trophy room.
“You shouldn’t be here.” He repeated stubbornly.
Long-denied memories flooded Snape’s mind as he was transported back to his childhood – an unhappy, lonely childhood. While not lacking in material comforts, the love was scarce. A thin, ugly child with a naturally taciturn disposition, secluded on a remote estate, Snape hadn’t had any friends. Until his little cousin, Celeste, had come to visit, that is. She was two the first time she came, Snape eleven. For some reason, she had attached herself to the boy, and simply would not be discouraged. She had toddled after him everywhere, and cried when he managed to escape her.
He had a vivid memory of a grubby little child of three, clinging to his trouser leg, grinning up into his scowling face and declaring, “I love you, Sef.”
As she grew, and her visits became a thrice-annual event, she still remained fixated on her cousin. Her father died when she was five, and she became a quiet, mournful child, happy to sit with young Severus in silence for hours as he read or studied. Perhaps this was why he tolerated her. Perhaps it was the look of loneliness behind her eyes. He used to transfigure toys for her at school, and smuggle them home. Making her laugh became the goal of the serious boy, and he would compete with himself to see how long it would take to accomplish this on each visit. When she was eight, her mother had married a Muggle – a poor one, at that – and they were no longer allowed to visit the Snape household. When she was ten, her family was killed in a Death Eater raid.
It was Snape’s first raid with his new “friends.” He was twitchy with excitement and the fact that he had no clear idea of what was to happen. They hadn’t told him much as he was the most junior member of the group. He was assigned to stay close to one of the older members and basically not get in the way. They had attacked a hall full of Muggles taking part in some sort of Christmas celebration. People had run screaming into the night as the Death Eaters struck down as many as they could. Snape had his wand clutched in his hand but did not use it. Fire billowed from broken windows, and confusion reigned.
A child’s shrill scream of terror brought the chaos into focus for him. He followed the sound and found four men, including his mentor, shoving a little girl around between them. At first Severus was confused until he realized that they were tearing at her clothes and laughing. Bile rose in his throat as he understood what was about to happen. Flames shot into the air as the roof of the building collapsed behind them, and in the bleeding light of the fire he recognized Celest.
He lunged forward and grabbed her around the waist, pulling her back against his chest. She kicked and clawed at his arm, and struck out at the others who were still reaching for her.
“Steady, boy! You can’t have her for yourself, but if you hold her for us, we’ll give you a turn when we’re done.” The men burst out laughing and closed in on Severus and Celest.
Stunned, Severus saw the hands reaching for his little cousin; saw her clothes ripped away even as he held her. He looked into the masks of the men and saw only fevered madness shining from their eyes.
Celest screamed again as one of the men raked her bare belly with his nails, drawing blood.
Panicked, Severus acted without thinking. He brought his wand up into his cousin’s back, and for the first and last time in his life, uttered the killing curse.
Celest went limp against him and the men drew back.
“What the hell?!”
A rough hand reached forward and wrapped around her neck, feeling for a pulse.
“Damn! She’s dead.” The voice was rough with disgust. He jerked her body from Severus’ grasp and tossed her aside like a broken doll.
“Come on. It may not be too late to find another.”
The men took off around the burning building, and Severus dropped to his knees beside his only friend.
“Come on, boy!” His mentor yelled at him. “We’ll find something for you.”
Severus quickly pulled the girl’s torn clothing over her body, covering as much as he could. Gently, he passed his trembling hand over her face, closing eyes that were still wide with terror.
Whether he found Dumbledore, or Dumbledore found him, he didn’t remember. He only knew kindness without condemnation, gentleness when he wanted to bury himself in hell. Albus had saved his life and his sanity.
“Sev?” The child’s voice wavered with uncertainty.
Snape ground his teeth in an attempt to regain control over himself. The residents of the other portraits had all busied themselves with other things, turning their backs on the room.
“Why have you come?” Snape’s voice was barely steady.
“It always made you happy when you made me toys and I laughed. Maybe if you made toys for the other children, you’d be happy again. You’ve been so sad, I...I just wanted to try and help.”
Snape felt himself start to tremble, and took a large swallow of brandy. “I should have protected you.”
The little girl sighed. “You did the best you could.”
Snape shook his head slowly, his eyes closed. “I murdered you.”
“You saved me from those men, Sev.”
He sat silent, his eyes closed.
The little girl shivered, wrapping her cloak more tightly around her as the wind tossed the bare branches of the trees in the picture. In the distance, a woman’s voice called.
“I have to go.”
Snape looked at the picture, meeting the little girl’s eyes once more.
“I’m sorry, ‘Lest.”
She gave him a wan smile. “It’s all right, Sev, really. I’m with Mummy and Daddy.” She glanced over her shoulder as the voice called again. “I miss you, though.”
Snape sat staring at the empty landscape, his world in turmoil.
“I’ve never heard such rubbish!” The portrait of Phineas Nigellus was pacing in his frame.
Snape erupted out of his chair. “For once in your life, hold your tongue!” His face was livid with anger, and he pointed his wand at the portrait.
Nigellus held up his hands in a placating manner. “Easy, sonny. I...I wasn’t talking to you. It was, um, something Sterns said.” He waved vaguely out of the picture.
Snape shoved his wand back up his sleeve, dropped back into the chair, and drained his brandy glass.
The gizmos continued their frenetic dance and the tall clock chimed the hour in deep, sonorous tones.
“You know,” the woman in the red dress spoke shyly, “no one need ever know.”
Snape surged to his feet and crossed to the Headmaster’s desk. A long scroll lay open, covered with a dizzying number of names. McGonagall’s name was at the top. He snatched it up, rolled it hastily, shoved it in an inside pocket of his frockcoat, and left the room.
For most of that night and the next, he worked. Next to each child’s name was the toy that they most wanted. The house elves kept him supplied with an array of items to work with. A pinecone became a plush bear, a string of wooden spools a little train with wheels that turned and doors that opened.
In the small hours of the morning, the day before Christmas, Snape levitated the results of his labor to the Great Hall, and tucked the presents under the biggest tree.
Snape stood, hidden from sight, behind the edge of a curtain by a small side door of the Great Hall. The rafters rang with squeals and laughter as the children opened their presents. Hagrid looked rather like an erupting volcano in his suit of red, and Professor Flitwick was the perfect elf. Dumbledore, on the other hand, looked – to Snape’s eyes – absolutely ludicrous dressed as an elf, handing out toys.
Snape felt a slight draft as the door behind him opened and McGonagall appeared beside him.
“You have a habit of turning up in unexpected places. Why aren’t you out there enjoying the frivolity?”
Minerva raised an eyebrow at him. “I’d rather parade around the school halls in sexy underwear than dress up as an elf. What about you? You could join the party?”
“I’d sooner parade around in your underwear...” He let one corner of his mouth turn up slightly.
Minerva studied his face. The lines were more relaxed than usual, the thin lips were without their usual sneer, and the eyes were softer.
“You did an outstanding job, Severus.”
Again, there was a quirk of the mouth. “When do I not?”
McGonagall made a small sound of annoyance, but didn’t rise to the bait.
“Albus was in seventh heaven when he discovered that whole sack of Christmas crackers you threw in.”
Snape shifted, but didn’t meet her eyes.
“I saw, you know. I know it was you.”
“And you will not repeat what you saw to anyone.” He gave her a narrow-eyed look.
Albus pulled a cracker with a child, and a cloud of red and gold sparks billowed into the air accompanied by a loud bang.
“He’s worse than the children.” Snape snorted, but there was no bite to his words.
“I suppose I should go join the party.” McGonagall sighed a bit wistfully.
Snape straightened away from the wall. “I think I will go back to bed.” He gave McGonagall a smug grin when she scowled at him. “I’m a little behind on my rest.”
She gave his arm a brief squeeze. “Thank you, Severus.”
He nodded and slipped out of the door, heading for his chambers.
Snape’s rooms were warm and welcoming. The elves had the fire roaring, and there was a lavish selection of items from the kitchen spread out on the table. In the center, where he couldn’t miss them, were two presents in bright holiday paper. He picked up the smaller one and ran a hand over it. It was from Minerva, and from the feel of it, a book. She always managed to find one that he hadn’t read, and he set it aside with a smile. Perhaps he wouldn’t be going to bed early after all.
The second gift was from Albus, of course. Even if it hadn’t had a tag, no one else ever gave him anything. Besides, who but Albus would use ribbon candy to tie up a present. Snape tugged the bow loose and absently bit off the end. At least it was cinnamon, and not some nasty, overly sweet, fruity flavor. The shimmering paper fell away, and Snape froze as he stared at the empty, snowy landscape of the picture that had hung on Dumbledore’s wall.
With a brief shake of his head, he turned it face down on the table. He would not hang the picture.
Fixing himself a plate of food, he moved to his favorite chair by the fire. He opened Minerva’s book on his knee, and settled in for a comfortable evening.
That night, he dreamt he was a child again – fifteen, perhaps. It was winter, Christmas time, probably. He and Celest were building their annual holiday snowman. It was rather crooked, but she loved it. The first year they had built one, Severus had found an old blue robe with gold stars for the snowman to wear. It had a matching hat with a broken point. The snowman’s eyes were dried apples, and the nose was a big pinecone. Every year, Severus carefully put the robe and hat away to save it for the next season’s masterpiece in snow. Celest laughed with delight as Severus lifted her up to place the hat squarely on the snowman’s head.
Snape awoke slowly as the dream faded, and stretched languidly under the warm quilt. It had been a pleasant dream, unlike most that he had.
With a sigh, he rose, shrugged into his heavy terrycloth robe and slippers, and after a stop in the bathroom, wandered into his sitting room. The fire was well tended, breakfast awaited on the table in covered dishes, and a pot of fragrant coffee steamed gently on the table by his chair.
Knowing the breakfast would still be warm and fresh whenever he decided to eat it, Snape poured a mug of coffee and went to look out the window.
A blanket of snow covered everything, making the world look fresh and new. It was still snowing lazily, and the diffuse light softened the landscape still further. The Forbidden Forest looked more enchanted than foreboding, and Hagrid’s hut looked cozy as smoke rose fitfully from the chimney. A flock of colorful birds competed nosily for the seed Hagrid had spread for them, and he caught a glimpse of Mrs. Norris trying to sneak up on them from behind the woodpile.
Smiling to himself, he turned away. He became still as his eyes fell on the painting, now hanging on the wall over his desk. The house elves must have hung it when they tended the fire that morning. It looked different and he moved forward for a closer look.
The little stone cottage in the background still had smoke rising from the chimney much like Hagrid’s hut, but the foreground had changed. There was a lumpy snowman standing under a tree. His stick arms held the sleeves of a blue robe with gold stars, and a broken hat sat upright on his head. The eyes were apples, the nose a pinecone. Something was covering its chest, and Snape leaned over the desk to see. Hanging at an angle from a piece of string around the snowman’s neck was a sign. The lettering was crude and childish, but boldly made and easy to read.
I love you, Sev.
Snape reached blindly for the desk chair, and sat heavily. For a long time he sat and stared at the painting before getting up and eating his breakfast. He had decided the painting could stay.