The last weeks of summer holidays were always busy for Poppy, filled with mountains of paperwork she had neglected over the course of the school year. There were health histories for every student and faculty member under her care to fill out. She did her best to stay up to date with the children at least, but she was so busy healing broken bones, burns and what not, that the work just piled up.
Today, she decided to tackle the adults’ paperwork. While the little ones sometimes were difficult about coming to see her, their teachers avoided her domain like the plague. Poppy had to practically drag them by the scruff of the neck from their offices to complete mandatory check-ups on them, before the Ministry lackeys descended on them with fines. She snorted, thinking about the oldest and the youngest of her adult patients, those two competing against each other to find new and creative ways to elude her.
The corners of her eyes crinkled in a predatory grin as her gaze settled on the latest edition of the Daily Prophet delivered just that morning, the sensational heading ‘Dragon Pox Strikes at Hogwarts’ screamed out of the front page of the periodical, the foreboding face of her young colleague glaring up at her out of the picture underneath. If she didn’t know faking that diagnosis was impossible, Poppy would have suspected the man of using the quarantine as a ploy to avoid his required start-of-term visit.
A knock on the office door startled her out of her musings, Poppy looked up, wondering who would seek her out so late at night.
“Come in,” she called, raising her eyebrows in astonishment when her midnight guest turned out to be the last person she might have expected, one of two anyway. “Headmaster, what a pleasant surprise.”
The old man’s mouth widened into a pleasant smile, the customary twinkle in his eyes brightened his lined face, telling her that the headmaster didn’t come with a social visit.
“Forgive my late call, my dear Poppy,” he began pontificating, but his hands were empty, raised in supplication, and she didn’t hesitate.
Her disarming and locking spells were quick, and she grinned as the man’s wand flew out of his gown sleeve and snapped into her outstretched hand. Albus looked at her with injured blue eyes, as if her attack was unprovoked.
“Was that really necessary, my dear?” he demanded mildly.
“I’m sure you want your privacy assured for the examination, headmaster,” she replied sweetly, blinking at the man innocently.
Dumbledore flinched as Poppy sent the papers on her desk sailing into the corner of the room, she transfigured her desk into a small examination table. She may not be a master of transfiguration, as her elusive patient, but she was competent on a small scale.
“Surely, tomorrow would be more appropriate,” the man protested. “I’m sure you are too busy and it’s quite late…”
“Nonsense! That would be silly to force you to return,” she cut him off with a smile, there was the possibility that the old fox could put her in her place even without a wand, but Poppy thought it would be too childish even for him. “Let’s get it out of the way, shall we?”
“As you wish,” Albus said in a disgruntled voice, beginning to unbutton his red nightgown with leaping lions patterned around the hem. “I should be glad you don’t apply the paddle to my aged backside, I suppose.”
Poppy’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline in astonishment at the comment.
“He complained about that, did he?” she murmured in satisfaction. “Good!”
“Poppy, you can’t attack your colleagues for missing appointments,” the headmaster shook his head disapprovingly. “Severus might be difficult, but he is an adult, and has a right to decide how much healing he would accept and when.”
“Difficult!” she huffed incredulously, stabbing her wand at the old man’s bare chest. “The man is impossible! I practically must tie him hand and foot to make him stand still for a ten minute medical, because he’s too busy! He’s even worse than you, and Merlin knows what I have to do to get you here! No, Albus, he deserved a taste of his own medicine, I just wish I knew how to make that spell work without being so furious! Take a deep breath.”
Poppy listened to the rhythmical pounding of the headmaster’s heart for a few moments, studying the diagnostic parchment at her side. She instructed the man to lie on his back so she could run deeper scans over his abdominal region.
“Your cholesterol is elevated,” she informed him afterwards, summoning a sugar-free lollipop and awarding it to her surprisingly well-behaved patient. “I’ll have an elf deliver your potions as well as new dietary instructions in the morning.”
Dumbledore made a face, reminiscent to the one a child who had been denied sweets might don, very satisfying.
“You know they won’t let me have it, before studying it thoroughly,” he complained in disgruntlement.
Poppy ignored the comment, leaving her employer to dress as she returned her desk to its original shape and function. She laid the man’s wand on the desk, and busied herself straightening her paperwork.
“I’ll set your optical and dental checkups for Monday,” she informed the man distractedly, as she read through his diagnostic parchment again.
The medi-witch expected that the headmaster would flee her domain without delay, after reclaiming his property, but a rustle of paper told her otherwise. She looked up, narrowing her eyes at the newspaper the man seemed to be perusing attentively.
“Young Snape found an innovative way to evade me this year,” she muttered sourly, referring to the article. “Have you found a replacement for his classes yet?”
“What?” he glanced at her with shuttered eyes. “Ah, no, not yet, but I will approach our previous colleague about returning for the year.”
“The year?” Poppy exclaimed in dismay. “Surely, not nearly so long! Severus is a strong and healthy man, even Dragon Pox shouldn’t hold him down for more than a few months. Who’s the healer in charge of his case?”
Dumbledore pursed his lips, his lined face became tight and fox-like, giving her a shrewd look.
“If I remember correctly, it is you in the paperwork,” he said blithely.
Poppy’s eyes just about bugged out of her face in outrage.
“Me?! I’m not even certified for such cases! And I certainly never agreed to any such absurdity!” she ranted quite vocally, prompting the old madman to cast a privacy shield over them. “What are you playing at, Albus?! Severus needs specialist care that I’m not qualified to provide!”
“As it happens,” the headmaster stated mildly when she ran out of oxygen. “Your credentials include home care for Dragon Pox patients, and Severus requested it be you. There is no danger of spreading the contagion, I assure you.”
Poppy gaped at him, she certainly knew nothing of any such certificate with her name on it, and the suggestion that the slippery Slytherin would welcome her involvement in the case was preposterous at the very least. She eyed the newspaper that Albus was still holding, and gasped as the realisation struck.
“He IS faking it, and you’re helping him!” she hissed through gritted teeth, narrowing her eyes into furious slits. “Falsifying my credentials, and who knows what else to cover your tracks! I should summon the Aurors this instant!”
That was an empty threat, and both of them knew that. The stronger wizard would have plenty of time to memory charm her before she reached the Floo. She leaned back in her chair, considering the situation. There had to be a reason why her secretive employer had admitted to as much as he did, and the only one she could see was that he needed her aid in keeping this deception going.
“Why should I take part in this… this farce?” Poppy demanded disgustedly, hardly believing that she was even considering covering up the younger man’s no doubt illicit doings. The war was over and done with.
The old codger had the effrontery to smile broadly at her, he summoned a chair for himself, transfiguring it into a luxurious armchair with a simple dip of his wand.
“To protect the innocent, my dear woman,” Albus said serenely, sitting down and pulling something out of a pocket. He glanced at the item with a soft expression, before handing it to her.
It was a photograph. The first thing Poppy took note of was Severus’s face, unblemished by pox and more relaxed than she had ever seen it. His head tilted back, resting against the high backrest of the rocking chair, his lips parted slightly as he snored. The second thing was the small child curled in the man’s lap, his face nestled in the crook of Severus’s arm, hidden behind a curtain of messy black curls.
“I don’t understand,” she breathed.
Poppy felt very out of place standing on this run-down muggle street, she felt self-conscious in the strange suit that the headmaster transfigured for her. The outfit was very peculiar, and from the odd looks she was getting from passing muggles, she was sure they shared her opinion about the strangeness of the clothes. She found it quite upsetting, she had very carefully chosen the outfit from the old Muggle Studies book she had from her school days, but none of the muggle women she saw wore anything remotely similar.
It wasn’t difficult to find the right street in the industrial town, and the correct house was pulsing with magic strongly enough that she would have to be blind to miss it. Poppy took several minutes to examine the quarantine ward that Dumbledore erected, she was aware there was a key magicked into the framework of spells that enabled the ‘patient’ to escape his confinement, but she couldn’t trace a sign of it.
An insidious voice in her head began whispering that she had been taken in by a skillful manipulation, and that the touching fable about a small boy in need of care and protection was exactly that; a fable. She very much feared that once she passed through that ward, she would be committing herself to look after a very ill man who was too stubborn to consent to professional help. Although why Severus Snape would consent to her assistance, when he treated her like a leper since he was eleven years old. Maybe she should step back, summon a Dragon Pox specialist from St. Mungo’s and be done with this sham of a home visit, but the images of the child stopped her. Albus had never told her the boy’s name, but he had shown her a photograph where a lighting-bolt scar was clearly visible on his forehead.
Casting a surreptitious Notice-Me-Not charm on herself, Poppy began the strenuous task of adding her magical signature to the ward, wondering if her fabricated credentials would be accepted by the magic. She was winded by the time the ward flashed green briefly, and she entered through the rickety gate, with the confidence she didn’t feel. The front yard was empty, and the poorly-maintained house didn’t seem like the best place for raising children. Doubts crept in again, but a peal of childish laughter from behind the house dispelled them instantly.
The corners of her mouth curled upwards in an excited smile, and her legs changed direction for the back garden, eager to meet the boy hero who had been hidden away for the past six years. The sight of the little boy hanging upside-down from a tree limb ten metres high was totally unexpected, and the surprise made her voice turn rather shrill.
“Get down this instant, boy!” she shouted in outrage, fists on her hips in disapproval. “Are you trying to break your foolish neck?!”
The impact of her words was far from what she wanted to achieve, the child in the tree jerked in surprise at her shout, and suddenly he was falling. Poppy fumbled for her wand, knowing she wouldn’t be fast enough to save the boy from a serious injury, but well before he crashed into the ground the most ingenious spell caught him, flipped him the right side up, and gently deposited him on the lawn.
Poppy’s legs went weak with relief, and she was dumped much less carefully on her bum.
“What a nice…” she gasped breathlessly, blinking at the child in front of her. “Spell.”
The boy just stared at her with a wary expression, giving her the opportunity to study his face. There was the famous scar she had been expecting, almost hidden behind messy long hair, and large emerald eyes he inherited from his mother, but his other features were completely different from what the Daily Prophet’s artists imagined them to be. That shouldn’t be a surprise, with half of his genetic pool differing from the expectations, but it was still a huge shock to recognise pieces of her grouchy colleague in the boy. The child’s face was an equal melding of both his parents’ characteristics, softened and smoothed into a fragile young person.
“I apologise for startling you,” Poppy said with a smile. “Are you alright?”
The boy opened his mouth to respond, but then he changed his mind, he pursed his lips, staring at her with narrowed, considering eyes. She almost laughed in delight, seeing Severus’s thinking face copied almost exactly by his son.
“I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” he finally said in a quiet, hesitant voice.
“That is very wise of you,” Poppy applauded kindly, she pulled herself to her feet, stretching out a hand for the child to shake. “I am Poppy Pomfrey, and I came to see you.”
Far from reassuring the boy, her words seemed to have the opposite effect. Green eyes grew wide with fright, and between one moment and the next the boy bolted for the house, leaving her alone and completely bewildered. She followed at a more sedate pace, catching the sight of the boy flying through the door that just swung open. He smacked bodily into one Severus Snape, and Poppy gasped, expecting the man’s explosive temper to show itself.
She hurried her steps, wondering what she could do to stop the man from lashing out at the child, but rather than raising his hand to strike, as students under his care were all too familiar with, his arm shot out to steady the boy. Poppy watched with baited breath as her irascible colleague scooped his son up, patting him gently on the back, comforting the child who clung to his neck so hard that she was certain it hurt.
“What is it, little monkey?” Snape murmured in a voice so alien that Poppy blinked, not believing that the soft-spoken man before her was the same person whose rages were legendary throughout Hogwarts. “I said I would be coming out to watch you, didn’t I? Sshh, calm down.”
“But it’s her!” the boy wailed into Severus’s ear, making him wince in pain. “It’s Mrs. Mann! Don’t let her take me away, father! Don’t!”
“Foolish dunderhead,” the man muttered, rolling his eyes at Poppy, letting her know that she had been noticed at last. “It’s Madam Pompfrey, and we were expecting her visit.”
“She looks like Mrs. Mann,” the boy insisted miserably.
Poppy had no idea who the dreaded woman was, but the comparison made her feel sullied even so, she wasn’t used to children quaking in fear at the sight of her.
“Who is Mrs. Mann?” she asked in a morbid curiosity once they were settled in the living room with tea and biscuits, Harry perching in his father’s lap, shooting mistrustful looks at her from behind his long lashes.
“A character in a movie Harry and I watched last night,” Severus explained, nodding at the large box standing on a small table in the middle of the room. “The superintendent of the orphanage that Oliver Twist was raised in.”
“And she’s horrid to the children,” the boy piped up disgustedly. “Beating them, and starving even!”
“Oh, that’s awful,” Poppy said sympathetically, throwing a wary glance at the box. It didn’t appear the horrible woman was inside the box any longer, but why Severus would allow someone like that near his son, she had no idea.
“And you look just like her!” Harry accused angrily, giving her such a glare that she recoiled.
Poppy was about to chastise her colleague about imprinting his dislikes on the boy, but before she could say a word the man spoke quite sharply.
“Mind your tone, boy,” Severus scolded his son, lifting the child slightly by the armpits, and delivering a hard smack to the seat of his trousers with his free hand, making Harry grunt with pain. “Madam Pompfrey is your elder, and you will show her proper respect, Harry, if you don’t want me to administer a spanking you won’t soon forget, with our guest watching. Is that understood?”
She was appalled by the threat, but the boy’s mortified look told her that the child was more dismayed by the idea of an audience than the harsh punishment itself. That told her enough about how strict Severus was with his own flesh and blood, her blood boiled with irritation, remembering how much care Slytherin students often took when sitting.
“I’m very sorry, miss,” she heard the child’s timid voice, and she saw his shoulders tensing warily. “I meant no offence, please, forgive me.”
Ignoring the irritating man for the moment, Poppy concentrated on the suddenly very polite boy.
“There is nothing to forgive, child,” she said kindly. “How about we start over? I am Poppy Pompfrey, and I am very happy to make your acquaintance.”
“I’m Harry,” the lad said to the wall behind her, clearly holding to his politeness with fingernails. “I’m happy to meet you, too.”
Severus snorted at the poor performance of manners from the boy, but rather than get angry again, he hugged the lad to his shoulder and patted his back gently.
“Madam Pompfrey isn’t going to take you anywhere, Harry,” he said tiredly. “You don’t need to worry.”
With a start, Poppy realised that the boy’s shoulders were shaking with silent sobs.
“Of course not!” she exclaimed in dismay. “Dear child, I am not taking you away, I promise. I am a medi-witch at the school your father works at, and I need to speak to him.”
The boy turned his head to look at her, his eyes were wide and frightened, his cheeks were wet but he wasn’t crying, now.
“Is my father sick?!” he demanded in sudden concern.
“No, no, he just missed his last appointment with me,” Poppy reassured the lad hurriedly, trying to pretend she couldn’t feel the scorching glare Severus was directing at her. The foolish man had to see the necessity of making the boy more at ease with her presence, didn’t he?! Lowering her voice, she added: “I think he’s a little scared of being examined, you see.”
The sound of teeth grinding together was quite jarring in her ears, but at least the man had sense enough to remain quiet as his son gasped in surprise at the suggestion. He straightened his spine, a determined look on his little face.
“Don’t be afraid, father,” the boy said earnestly. “I will stay with you the whole time, I swear!”
Poppy looked at her colleague with what she hoped was a professional demeanour, but she was doubtful her eyes were anything other than mirthful. The man’s face was completely blank, letting her know he was furious.
“Thank you, Harry,” he drawled, eyes flashing angrily. “That would be very… Welcome.”
The child slid to the floor, and took his seat next to Severus on the sofa, grasping the man’s larger hand in his own. He met Poppy’s eyes expectantly.
“Can you make it so father doesn’t have headaches anymore?” he asked worriedly.
The man exhaled in exasperation, but waved a hand for her to get on with it.
“I’ll do my best, Harry,” she assured the lad, smiling broadly as she continued. “Don’t be frightened, Severus. It won’t hurt at all, I promise.”
The wry look on the sour man’s face almost made her laugh, Poppy managed to keep a straight face only because she was afraid Severus would curse her with something nasty if she let her hilarity show. She concentrated on running the mandatory scans, taking her time to explain to the boy what she was doing and why. Harry was thrilled when she lingered on cardiac diagnostics, letting him listen to the magnified beats of his father’s heart.
Severus sat through the tests with patient dignity at first, but as she moved to the scans she wanted to run, but didn’t have his consent for, her patient’s eyes filled with the desire to commit murder, even as the hand his son held remained relaxed. Poppy cocked her head to the side in thought, as she ran through all the paediatric scans she would need to perform on Harry next time she came. She had her doubts about the ferocious man’s ability to raise children, but from what she could see Severus was mild and calm with his son, more so than she had ever seen him with even the favourite students.
“Did it hurt, father?” the boy asked as soon as she finished the last scan and started rolling up the readout parchment.
“No, Harry, it didn’t hurt one bit,” Severus answered softly, squeezing the child’s hand before extricating himself in order to dress.
“Your father was very brave,” Poppy praised with a broad smile, going as far as to conjure a sticker with colourful frolicking birds she hoped the lad would enjoy. “Here you go, Harry. That’s for you, for being so helpful.”
“Oh, thank you, miss,” he grinned widely, staring with wonder at the animated birds. “It’s amazing!”
“Why don’t you go upstairs and find some place to stick it in your room?” Severus suggested mildly.
“Really?” the boy asked shyly, his green eyes sparkling in excitement. “Where can I put it, father?”
“Wherever you fancy, Harry,” the man sighed, running a hand through the child’s messy mop, making it worse. “Go on.”
The boy skipped for the stairs, but climbed slowly, one hand on the railing. As excited as he was, Poppy would expect him to fly upstairs, but the boy didn’t hurry his sedate pace until he reached the top of the dark staircase.
“If you make me your guinea pig ever again,” Severus hissed in a low threatening voice, bringing her attention to the glowering man in front of her. “I’ll curse you with that paddling hex you enjoyed so much, only I’ll make it permanent!”
Poppy rolled her eyes, not impressed by the man’s anger or his ridiculous threat, both of them knew that the misfortunate event was her magic running amok in fury, she doubted either of them could replicate the effect at will.
“It was necessary, and you know it,” she snapped impatiently. “The boy needed to relax, and forget his fear of me.”
Severus made a disgusted face, but thankfully ceased his angry comments, which was more wisdom than she was used to seeing from the irritable man. She tapped her chin with a forefinger in thought.
“Harry seems very attached to you already,” she mused aloud. “I didn’t expect to see that.”
Rather than appear pleased by Poppy’s compliment, her colleague closed his eyes, tilting his head back in exhaustion.
“Not attached,” he sighed. “Clingy, anxious, and frightened that I’ll abandon him at the first opportunity. There was an incident a few days ago, and since then he doesn’t let me out of his sight for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s exhausting, he’s been following me around like a little shadow, and nothing I say or do seems to be helping.”
Poppy’s forehead creased in concern, Albus had told her how the boy came to be with Severus, and some anxiety was only to be expected after the tumult of changes he was experiencing. Unfortunately, there was no easy solution, no potion that would instantly cure the child’s fear of another seperation.
“You must be patient with him,” she said encouragingly, but received only a glare in return.
A shuffling of little feet let them know that the object of their concern was in earshot again, the boy was nervously peering at the adults from the bottom of the stairs. Severus heaved a deep breath, before calling to the lad.
“Come here, Harry,” he called softly.
“I wasn’t eavesdropping,” the boy hurried to assure them fearfully, his eyes flickering between the two adults watching him. “I didn’t mean to!”
With another sigh, her colleague reached out for his son’s hand, and pulled him into his lap.
“How about showing us those crazy acrobatics now, monkey?” Severus suggested mildly, touching Harry’s hair with his lips briefly. “If I get a heart attack, Madam Pompfrey will revive me.”
“Okay,” the boy whispered meekly.
Watching the timid child jump from one branch to the next without hesitation, despite the staggering height, was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. The boy was absolutely fearless, the fearsome Severus Snape, on the other hand, stood white-faced clutching his wand with a death grip.
“Stop worrying, Severus,” she said in amusement. “He’ll be fine, those wards are wonderful, the boy is quite safe.”
The man looked at her out of the corner of his eyes, so she explained about the child falling out of the tree when she had startled him. Severus’s face darkened into a grim mask with the telling, and she decided to change the subject.
“How do I resemble the woman from the box?” she asked. “Perhaps, I should endeavour not to be so similar next time I come.”
That made the man turn to face her fully, a sneer on his face reminding her that Severus Snape was the same condescending brat she was familiar with, only softened at the edges.
“The woman from the box?” he scoffed, his lips stretching into an unpleasant smile. “I imagine getting rid of those bulky skirts would be sufficient, you look like a Victorian matron.”
“They are muggle clothes!” Poppy protested in indignation.
The man chuckled darkly, and when he finally deigned to explain his mirth, she blushed. Really, how was she supposed to know that muggle fashions changed yearly? Apparently, her ensemble had been out of fashion for some 150 years...