It was cold. The schoolyard was blanketed with a thick layer of snow while icicles hung from trees and the metal bars of the playground. Harry leaned against the rough brick of Little Whinging primary school, shivering. His bony arms were crossed tightly over a huge stained jumper, his bright green eyes narrowed against the cold.
He had been allowed one pair of mittens, a ripped mustard yellow pair that had been Dudley’s years ago. Aunt Petunia had made it clear to him last month when she’d thrown them into his cupboard that he wasn’t getting anything else if he lost them. The mittens had lasted only one afternoon before Dudley’s friends had cornered him and tossed them down a drainpipe. Harry sighed, his breath visible in the air, he was lucky they hadn’t thrown him in after the mittens but now his hands were always stiff and chapped from the cold. His letters were all crooked when he wrote and that meant a teacher yelling at him and making him sit in the Careless Child Chair. At home, his chores didn’t get done on time because he was too cold to move fast and that meant more yelling and no food.
Snow blew against him and Harry hunched down, pulling the scratchy blue jumper he wore tighter to his small body. The shrieks of children playing were thankfully distant, his hideaway at the school too close to the rubbish bins for anyone to want to venture near the narrow alley where he’d hidden.
Uncle Vernon always dropped Dudley and him off early for morning recess on the way to work because Aunt Petunia thought the school bus was ‘dirty and common’. Of course, that meant more time that Harry had to avoid Dudley and try not to freeze to death. It wasn’t so bad in the warmer months but now it was almost Christmas; ice-crusted snow covered the ground and the air was so cold that it hurt to breathe.
Aunt Petunia always made sure that Dudley was well dressed on days like these with a expensive orange-brown wool coat that she cooed made ‘her little angel look like a prince.” Harry privately thought it made Dudley look even more like an enormous spoiled warthog. Dudley also had sheepskin gloves, a fur hat, and a ugly thick tweed scarf that Aunt Marge had sent one year so he could hardly complain about having to wait for school to open, especially as he spent the time with his gang thinking up nasty tricks to play on other people or deciding when and where he would beat Harry up.
It was different for Harry, he wasn’t allowed to wear more than a few of Dudley’s old hand-me-downs and even his bulkiest jumpers didn’t really help with the cold. He’d already been punished for ‘losing’ his mittens, asking for a hat or boots would have been suicide.
Harry sighed, blowing on his hands and proceeding to fog up the round wire-rimmed glasses he wore instead. He hunched into a smaller ball, trying to stay warm. At least Dudley’s clothing was plenty big on him, he could pull the ugly scratchy jumper down past his knees and tuck his hands up into the sleeves because Dudley was about six sizes larger than him. Harry was the smallest and scrawniest child in practically the whole school which came in handy when having to find good hiding places from Dudley’s gang but wasn’t so great the rest of the time.
He’d attended Little Whinging Primary for four years and nobody had ever liked him. He’d spent almost all of last year sitting in the Careless Child Chair because the teacher kept noticing he’d forgotten to pack his lunch. It wasn’t worth telling her that the Dursleys never packed him a lunch and he wasn’t usually able to get dinner either. One meal a day was the best he could hope for with his aunt and uncle and Harry had learned long ago to accept that and not complain. An empty stomach was better than what would happen to him if he dared tell about how things were at home. Even at nine, Harry knew there were some things you just couldn’t change, no matter how much you wished it would be different. Besides, everyone in Little Whinging believed what the Dursleys said about him, that he was a lying, stealing, little troublemaker who was probably pathologically disturbed as well.
Still, it was near Christmas and sometimes the teachers were nicer then and gave out sweets to the kids who did well. He’d never had any sweets before but they sounded good, Harry reflected as he rocked back and forth on his heels, shivering, snow sticking to his jet-black hair.
The school bell rang loudly across the playground and Harry jerked upright, stumbling toward the closest entrance to the school, keeping an eye out for Dudley’s gang. The side door of the school stuck a bit in the cold and Harry had to lean hard on it to force it open, his hands too numb to grip the door handle firmly. He shuffled in, gasping and shivering even harder as warm air washed over him.
His glasses immediately fogged up again and Harry sighed. He ducked quickly around a drinking fountain and pulled his glasses off. The world became so blurry that he had to shut his eyes to combat the dizziness as he used a sleeve to try to rub the condensation off the scratched lenses. He had to be careful when handling the frames, Dudley had hit him in the face so many times that his glasses were held together more with tape than anything else. Miraculously, they hadn’t shattered yet and Harry was hoping that they would last the school year. The Dursleys would never buy him anything if they could help it. The school nurse had given him the glasses last year and made a big show about it but Harry had seen the look of disgust she had every time she saw him in his ragged clothes and untidy hair.
* * *
Mrs. Fulton’s classroom was warm and even though the groaning radiator in the corner of the room made the place smell like old socks and dust, Harry didn’t mind. It was a relief to no longer be cold and that was worth dealing with Mrs. Fulton’s permanent bad mood. Harry glanced around, brushing ice particles from his dark hair and slipping into his desk chair quickly before anyone else arrived. He’d long ago perfected the art of keeping quiet and still when in a room and that usually got him through the first part of class without being called on. Other students were drifting in and Mrs. Fulton marched in after them, her lined face set in that halfway-scowl that all the teachers seemed to wear when the weather was bad.
“Sit down!” she snapped, glowering over her bifocals and Harry shrunk back in his chair, ducking his head and hoping she wouldn’t notice him.
Mrs. Fulton had never liked him ever since last year when she thought he’d turned her ugly curly wig blue at a parent-teacher conference. Harry hadn’t – or at least he didn’t see how he could have, but he’d been so worried at the conference about what the teachers would say to the Dursleys about him and well, somehow he must have caused things to happen. Mrs. Fulton had loudly accused him and Uncle Vernon had been so furious at him that evening that Harry really hadn’t expected to survive long enough to be in Mrs. Fulton’s class the following year.
“Quiet!” Mrs. Fulton ordered over the noise of kids trying to find their desks and dropping wet hats and mittens everywhere.
Malcolm, a friend of Dudley’s, shoved past him, nearly knocking Harry’s chair over in the process but Harry knew better than to protest. He held his breath, hoping Mrs. Fulton wouldn’t call on him to read aloud the day’s schedule from the blackboard. Mrs. Fulton’s handwriting was difficult to read up close, he didn’t have a chance at getting it right from where he sat, not when all the letters were blurry because his glasses weren’t strong enough. Thankfully, she called on someone else and Harry exhaled in relief. He fumbled for a pencil, trying to hold it in a hand stiff from cold as they started maths.
Maths wasn’t Harry’s favorite subject, but it wasn’t so bad. He knew most of the answers to the problems and the ones he didn’t were really hard. Besides, it always cheered him up to see Dudley struggling to answer the easy questions. It didn’t matter so much than that people didn’t like Harry or that he was small and odd. At least he wasn’t like Dudley who seemed to have everything but brains and manners.
After maths it was history which Harry had liked until he’d been punished for asking earlier in the year about why the British Empire was called that and if it was true that they had taken lots of countries away from other people just to seem important. He’d been hauled to the headmaster’s office and lectured about things he didn’t really understand and then had had to bring a note home to the Dursleys saying that his communist tendencies needed to be dealt with. Harry wasn’t sure what a communist was, but Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia had been furious at him again and Harry had learned his lesson about ever asking a question in class.
* * *
When the lunch bell rang, Harry found a small bathroom to hide in. It was torture to have to be in the cafeteria smelling warm food and not have anything to eat, so everyday he hid in a toilet stall and hoped that someone threw part of their lunch away in the bin. Harry had once found half a Mars Bar that way. Most of the time there was nothing though and Harry distracted himself from his hunger by thinking about Christmas.
He’d never had a real present before and had long since lost any hope that the Dursleys would give him one. Instead, he focused on the good things about Christmas. There were sure to be better leftovers he could maybe steal from the fridge when the Dursleys weren’t looking and it was his job to decorate the tree because Uncle Vernon and Dudley were too lazy. Harry always had to follow Aunt Petunia’s instructions just so about which hideous ornament went where, but it was still rewarding to be able to smell the pine-scent of the tree and plug the fairy lights in. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia already had Dudley’s dozens of presents under the tree at home and though there wasn’t anything for Harry, it still looked nice with the tree’s lights shining on the brightly wrapped gifts.
The bell rang, signaling a short recess and Harry reluctantly left the warm bathroom. The caretaker had caught him hiding inside too many times already to risk trying it during recess even if it was freezing outside.
* * *
The playground was full of students and Harry ducked his head as a snowball sailed past. He trudged through the thick snow toward the swings but some of the older students were already there. He turned around, wondering if he could reach his hideaway behind the school rubbish bins without anyone noticing. A sharp blow to his back sent him stumbling, nearly falling. A chorus of laughter came and Harry heard the telltale grunting chuckle of Dudley.
There wasn’t time to consider the pain of the ice-packed snowball that had hit him, instinct alone kept Harry on his feet. He dodged another snowball and broke into a run. He could hear Dudley’s gang behind him but Harry didn’t dare look back. Normally, he was fast enough to run from whatever Dudley’s gang had planned but the thick snow made it impossible to move quickly enough. His trainers were so old that snow was forcing the upper part of the shoe soles apart, numbing his bare feet. Desperately, Harry wove through the crowd of students, aware that Dudley’s gang were close behind. There wasn’t anywhere to really run and all he could hope for was that he would tire Dudley and his friends out enough to give up the chase.
Harry ducked around the slide, skidding past the basketball hoop and ran into the field where small games of football were played in warmer weather. Snow had soaked his worn trainers and the rolled up ends of his jeans, slowing him down further. His thin chest heaved as the cold air sliced through his lungs, his heart hammering painfully.
Another snowball almost hit him and Harry dodged instinctively, twisting to the left in the hopes of reaching the schoolyard’s massive pine tree that he could maybe hide behind, only to halt suddenly as Gordon, another one of Dudley’s friends appeared behind the school’s battered obstacle course. Gordon’s wide face spilt in a grin and Harry backed up, aware that Malcolm was coming toward him, a snowball packed with gravel in his hand.
“Hey Dud,” Malcolm called over his shoulder, “let’s teach your freak cousin a lesson,” Harry swallowed as Dudley and his best friend Piers trudged through the snow toward him, sniggering at having caught him.
Most everyone on the playground had stopped to watch and Harry’s green eyes darted around rapidly, hoping to find a way out of this. Dudley had the same gloating look on his piggish face that Uncle Vernon would get whenever he hit Harry. Dudley’s gang weren’t as strong as Uncle Vernon but they were more creative in their punishments and Harry backed up, breathing hard. He had suffered years of violence and humiliation at the hands of Dudley’s friends. It didn’t seem that today was going to be any different.
They cornered him until Harry felt his back hit the trunk of the pine tree. He reached out for a branch, numb fingers almost touching the tree limb, wondering if he would still maybe have a chance to get away by climbing it when Malcolm threw his snowball. Harry only had time to turn his head, feeling a sharp sting of pain as ice and gravel cut into his cheek. Then they were on him, Harry gasping out a cry as he was shoved toward the ground. He knew what Dudley was going to do and he frantically struggled, managing a quick gulp of air before his face was shoved hard into the snow, a heavy boot forcing it deeper.
The world was black, his skin was burning with icy cold. He couldn’t breathe or see. Harry writhed, trying to get away but someone kicked him hard in the stomach and finally he grew still, conserving his energy. Experience had taught him how to hold his breath for more than a minute, but he could feel his body still trying to suck in air, choking on snow, strangling in the cold.
Suddenly it was over and Harry felt the weight against the back of his head leave. He pulled his face up, gasping. He fell backward, small dots appeared before his eyes as he struggled to stay conscious. He was at the base of the pine tree and each rough gulp of air in his burning lungs took in the scent of the delicate needles littering the ground around him. It smelled like Christmas, Harry thought dazedly before a sudden loud noise brought him fully back into awareness.
He dragged himself into a sitting position, still wheezing, clumps of snow sticking to his hair, his jumper white from being crushed into the snow. Dudley and his friends had scattered. A tall shape was coming toward him and Harry fumbled at the ground, searching for his glasses.
“Potter!” a shrill voice shrieked above him and Harry looked up, the blurred features of Mrs. Fulton visible now as she stood over him.
“How dare you –” the old woman began, voice shaking in anger. Harry bit his lip, forcing himself to hold back any sound as a thin hand curled tightly around his arm, yanking him further upright, “It’s not enough that we have to put up with your problems, but now –“ his teacher broke off, seeming too enraged to speak.
Harry swallowed, knowing where this was going, “I-I didn’t…” he could barely talk, fear and cold preventing coherent words so that Mrs. Fulton scowled down at him. Harry ducked his head, sure he’d be struck but still struggling to speak, “please…” he finally managed, “I need my glasses.”
Mrs. Fulton didn’t loosen her pincher-like grip on his arm but she paused long enough for Harry to dig out his glasses the rest of the way. One of the stems had broken clean off and the crack in his left lenses had spread across the entire glass, making it wobble precariously as he fit them on as best as he could.
“Come on,” his teacher barked, dragging him to his feet and marching him toward the school.
Harry tried to keep up, not wanting a worse punishment for resisting. He could hear Dudley laughing and other students whispering to one another but there wasn’t anything Harry could do about it.
“Please, Mrs. Fulton –“ he began as they neared the heavy doors of the school.
She cut him off with a sharp shake of his arm, “you know better than to be climbing that tree, if your cousin hadn’t warned me about you…” Mrs. Fulton left off in the middle of her sentence once more, slamming the side door of the school open and dragging Harry inside.
Harry’s show-covered shoes slipped on the linoleum and he almost fell, wheezing as his jumper pressed into his windpipe from where Mrs. Fulton had roughly grabbed hold of his collar. Even the blissful warmth of the school meant nothing when Harry knew where they were going. He wanted to tell her what Dudley had done to him, but he’d learned a long time ago not to try to explain himself. It just made things worse and no one ever believed him anyway. Mrs. Fulton shoved him forward and Harry winced as her fingers tightened around his arm again, yanking him down the hall.
It seemed only seconds later that they were standing in the headmaster’s office, Mrs. Fulton ranting in her furious screechy voice about Harry once again climbing school property. Harry stared at the headmaster’s desk, trembling. He hated this drab narrow little room, hated the way it made his stomach cramp with fear just standing on the ugly brown carpet or hearing the loud humming of the headmaster’s computer. He could see the headmaster out of the corner of his eye – a tall, paunchy, balding man with a hard face.
When Mrs. Fulton finished her tirade, the headmaster stood and Harry shrank back, gasping as Mrs. Fulton tightened her grip on his arm. Harry had seen that look on adults before as the headmaster glanced over at him. It wasn’t so much disgust as cold disregard. They had interrupted the headmaster and Harry would pay for that on top of everything else.
There was no speaking now as the headmaster reached up to the top of the tall metal file cabinet, his gray suit jacket wrinkled from hours of sitting, his thick fingers curling around something and bringing it down. It wasn’t a cane, at least it didn’t look like the canes that old people used but it was a long thin piece of wood, well polished if worn, and everyone called it the cane. Harry had seen it more than anyone else had. His breathing sped up with fear, his eyes wide behind his broken glasses.
Don’t cry, Harry told himself firmly, don’t be a sniveling idiot.
It was terrible to look up though and meet the man’s eyes. Harry had been hit enough to know when it came, to see the way the adults who struck him would look at him just beforehand. Contempt, revulsion, hatred, Harry was used to seeing those emotions everyday when he served the Dursleys their breakfast but what frightened him the most was the savage gleam in the eye just before the blow, the way people always looked so pleased when hurting him.
“Hold out your hand,” the headmaster snapped and Harry swallowed hard again, shakily lifting his left hand, palm outward.
His fingers were cold, the tips red and scraped from digging through the icy snow for his glasses. The headmaster made him wait, he always did. He seemed to like watching as the shaking grew worse, knowing the way that fear was cutting through Harry’s insides. The white polished cane moved from the headmaster’s left hand, to his right, then raised up. Mrs. Fulton was digging her sharp nails into his shoulders to hold Harry there, the radiator in the room was vibrating and spitting out dust and stale air, and Harry was wishing all of this was over.
The cane made a high-pitched noise as it tore through the air, so fast it was impossible to see. One moment it was high above him and the next it had slashed across Harry’s open palm. The pain was instantaneous and Harry bit his lip hard to hold back a cry, tasting blood in his mouth. A streak of white-hot agony surged along his hand and he jerked it back instinctively only to have Mrs. Fulton grab his thin wrist and force his palm back out. The next blow landed where the first had and Harry shook violently, determined not to make a sound, no matter how bad it got.
It hurt, it hurt worse than when Uncle Vernon hit him. That was terrible but this was continuous, the headmaster’s teeth bared as he struck, the blows forcing Harry’s hand down only for Mrs. Fulton to yank it back up, her face grim, justified as it grew worse. Harry didn’t know when it ended. He swayed, his ears ringing, his breathing tight and audible in the room. He didn’t dare look at Mrs. Fulton or the headmaster, he watched the snow falling outside the window and wished he were back out in it.
His hand was burning, he couldn’t move his fingers without extreme pain and already Harry could see the white line along his palm had widened, the edges purple and raw. He wanted to be far away, needing the numbness of snow, the cold to bury him completely so he didn’t have to feel this way. But instead he was in this small office, watching the headmaster set the cane on the edge of his desk and turn back to his computer, ignoring them both as Mrs. Fulton’s sharp nails dug into Harry’s bony shoulder and steered him out of the room.
Harry was shuddering as she pushed him down the hall. The pain in his hand was terrible and Harry glimpsed his own reflection in the waxed floor, his face dead white, his expression still except for eyes that were wide with terror. They passed classrooms of chattering students, brightly colored posters, and rows of lockers but it was all a blur to Harry. His hand hurt all the way to the bone, throbbing up into the shoulder that Mrs. Fulton was gripping hard. Still, Harry did not make a sound, keeping his head down as she shoved him into her classroom. A hushed silence settled over the students and Harry glanced up only briefly before returning his stare to the stained carpet.
“Everyone,” Mrs. Fulton demanded loudly, “what is the school rule about climbing trees?”
“CLIMBING TREES IS NOT ALLOWED!” The class immediately called out, having memorized the school rules the first few weeks of class with Mrs. Fulton. Harry inhaled sharply, wishing he were home in his cupboard instead of here with everyone staring at him.
“Mr. Potter was caught climbing trees on school property, what does this mean?”
“THAT HE WAS BAD!” The class responded as a whole although a few mumbled it, looking down at their desks.
“That’s right,” Mrs. Fulton declared zealously, “Potter here is a bad child and he will sit in the Careless Child Chair for the rest of the week. He will also spend this afternoon writing ‘I am a disrespectful and disobedient child’ three thousand times.”
There was some whispering after this, a few nervous titters and Dudley’s signature laugh as Harry was shoved toward the Careless Child Chair set deliberately away from the others and close to the window where the cold wind whistled through cracks. He didn’t care, it was a relief to sit, to no longer feel Mrs. Fulton’s nails cutting into his skin or hear that sharp shriek of the cane as it slashed through the air toward him.
Paper was set in front of him and a broken pencil. Harry reached for it, trembling so hard that the first few letters were illegible. At least, he had had the foresight to offer his left hand for the caning. There was no way he’d be able to hold a pencil if his right one had been hit like that. Carefully, Harry tried moving his fingers of his injured hand a bit, hissing at the pain. He bent his head over his desk, pretending to be busy with writing his lines while secretly trying to inspect his left hand. It didn’t look like it belonged to him. His wrist was dark with bruises from Mrs. Fulton holding it still earlier and swelling had distorted the flesh. It was purply and bloody in places, that streak of white along the palm so ugly and shocking that Harry couldn’t look at it anymore. He rested it on his knee as best he could, scratching out the words I am a disrespectful and disobedient child for the eighth time.
Over and over he wrote the sentence, continuously swallowing past the lump that kept rising in his throat. He wouldn’t cry, he wouldn’t. He was nine, not two anymore. But just the sound of Mrs. Fulton’s voice lecturing on nouns made it hard to stop shaking. A loud noise came down the hall suddenly and Harry jerked his head up, staring along with the other students. Mrs. Fulton half-turned from where she was writing on the board when the classroom door banged open. Harry felt all the color drain from his face as Uncle Vernon stormed in. The terror from before was nothing compared to this. He hadn’t even thought of what his punishment at home would be but now Harry could think of nothing else as Uncle Vernon looked wildly around the room, his usually carefully parted hair askew, his large walrus mustache bristling.
“Mr. Durs –“ Mrs. Fulton began, shocked.
“Dudley!” Uncle Vernon yelled, gesturing quickly toward his son. Harry stared and so did Dudley, obviously expecting it to be Harry that Uncle Vernon was looking for, but now Harry saw that it wasn’t anger turning Uncle Vernon’s face that ashen color, or making him shove chairs out of the way, mindless of the children still sitting in them, in order to grab Dudley by the arm, “get your things later, son –“
“Mr. Dursley!” Mrs. Fulton protested but Uncle Vernon just waved her aside,
“Wife’s sick,” he grunted, “we’re on our way to hospital. Hurry up, Dudley!” they left with another loud bang of the door.
Everyone was staring, mouths open and Harry felt weak with relief. Uncle Vernon hadn’t even looked at him, hadn’t thought about punishments or anything. Of course, that probably meant that Aunt Petunia was really sick for Uncle Vernon to come charging in and be so short-tempered with Dudley. Harry didn’t know if he should feel guilty or not. He didn’t like Aunt Petunia and she hated him but well…she was better than Uncle Vernon or Dudley. She didn’t hit him all the time and occasionally she let him out of his cupboard or fed him, if she remembered.
* * *
Class continued after sometime and Harry returned to writing lines. No one seemed to remember that he didn’t have a way of getting home until after the buses left and the caretaker found him hiding in the bathroom. Harry had thought about walking but he didn’t know how far it was to Privet Drive and it was really dark outside. He’d made up his mind to hide in the bathroom and try to run water on his injured hand but that had hurt so much that he must have made some sort of noise because the caretaker had found him.
Now he sat in the front office on an uncomfortable yellow plastic chair, watching as the receptionist and a teacher that he didn’t know whispered about him loudly.
“— uncle came earlier in the day, I’ve tried calling their home,”
“We could drop him off –“
“They’re probably still not home, couldn’t we see if –“
Harry chewed on his lower lip, rubbing his arm. He wanted to pull his jumper sleeve up and see how bad the bruises were but he didn’t need any more attention drawn to him. The unfamiliar teacher seemed to be in favor of dropping him off at a police station and letting them handle that but the headmaster had refused before abruptly leaving.
Harry wasn’t an idiot, he knew why the headmaster had said no. If the police saw the mark on his hand than the school might be questioned. Although, Harry didn’t think they’d get in trouble. He had been punished often enough before by the school and by the Dursleys and no one seemed to think it wrong. Still, he kept his injured hand tucked into his sleeve and his face down so the cuts and bruising from the playground wouldn’t be so noticeable.
There was a large wreath on the front of the receptionist’s desk and Harry distracted himself for awhile by sneaking peeks at it. It looked like the pine branches were real and Harry wanted to touch it but knew that would be asking for trouble. Still, it looked rather festive in the front office and that made him brave enough to glance up at the receptionist who had gone back to filing paperwork after the other teacher had left.
“Do you need something?” she asked in the tired sort of voice adults seemed to always have around him.
She didn’t act like she would hit him though and Harry’s stomach was tight with hunger as he saw a bag of opened crisps near her computer. He forced himself to look away from the food, concentrating instead on the brightly colored Lost and Found box she had on her desk of random gloves and scarves that students had misplaced.
“Tape, please,” he whispered and she frowned,
“What?” she asked and Harry cleared his throat, trying to speak a little louder, glancing nervously at the headmaster’s office door although he knew that the man had already gone home for the night.
“Can I borrow some tape for my glasses?”
He thought she might refuse as she stared at him, looking over his huge clothing and windblown hair but after awhile she slid a roll of sellotape across her desk and went back to filing papers. Carefully, Harry gathered up the tape in his good hand and returned to his chair. He took his glasses off and tried to figure out what needed fixing the most. It was rather hard to tape things one-handed but Harry was finally able to get the crack in the lens better sealed and patch the frames back together as well as he could. He returned to the receptionist desk, not wanting to irritate her as he set the roll of tape down.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
She didn’t look at him, only gave a jerk of her head in a nod and Harry quickly moved back to his seat. He couldn’t blame her for being irritated, she had apparently been stuck watching him until his uncle came and got him. Harry didn’t think it would help to tell her that Uncle Vernon wasn’t going to show. He knew the Dursleys and they would be furious if he didn’t stay at the school since he had to be there the next day anyway. It would be a waste of a trip on their part and Harry settled as well as he could into the chair, knowing it would be a long wait.
The office was cold and he felt incredibly tired from everything that had happened that day. He was trembling slightly, unsure anymore if it was the terrible fear from earlier or the chilly room. Harry looked down at his covered hand. He was afraid to look at it. The skin felt like it had that time that Uncle Vernon had held his hand against the stove when Harry had burnt breakfast. Small shocks of pain kept traveling up his arm, making his bruised shoulder ache. Harry lay his head on the uncomfortable sloped back of the yellow chair, trying not to move too much and make his hand hurt worse. He was so tired, the room all blurry as his eyes kept trying to close. Only the unfamiliar setting and the constant pain in his left hand made it impossible to sleep. Still, Harry was drifting off when he heard the door to the front office open, cold wind blowing in from the open outside door.
“Where is Mr. Potter?” a harsh voice demanded and Harry’s eyes flew open upon hearing his name.
The voice was low and precise, almost frightening in its intensity, but it was nowhere near as strange as the man it belonged to. He was tall and thin and wore a long black wool coat that brushed the floor as he strode up to the receptionist’s desk.
The man’s skin was extremely pale, contrasting with his dark eyes and long black hair. Harry had never seen a man in Little Whinging with long hair before. Once, he’d seen a street musician with long hair when out shopping with the Dursleys in London and Uncle Vernon had been disgusted enough to treat them all to a long rant about weirdo vagrants and no-good rabble-rousers on the car ride home, shooting dark looks at Harry the entire time as if Harry were to blame for all the world’s bad hair.
Still, Harry rather liked how the man’s hair was, it was thick and straight and somewhat greasy but it suited his sallow complexion and harsh features. The man had a large hooked nose and prominent cheekbones in a long thin face, his eyes were shadowed and not dark brown as Harry had first thought but instead a chilling black. He looked like he was from some far away place, almost like a villain out of a storybook. He didn’t look like anyone Harry had ever met before, yet he spoke as if he knew who Harry was, as if he had been searching for him. The receptionist stared at the man, mouth partly open, clearly appalled and terrified at the unusual longhaired stranger showing up after hours.
The man’s eyes narrowed, “I asked you a question, where is the boy?” he hissed, emphasizing the last four words so that Harry found himself instinctively standing. He’d always answered better to ‘boy’ than to his own name. After all, the Dursley’s didn’t call him anything but ‘boy’ or ‘freak’ anyway.
The man’s gaze snapped toward him and for a long moment they stared at one another. Snow was melting along the man’s coat, his black eyes intense and unreadable. He looks like me, Harry thought, me at the end of a hard day. It wasn’t really true. They were both pale and dark haired but their similarities ended there. Still, there was something in the man’s stance, the way he was watching the whole room even as he kept his eyes locked on Harry’s that made Harry recognize a sort of kinship between them.
The constant fear that he’d held in all day – an entire lifetime of days – suddenly seemed to fade away. For the first time that Harry could ever remember, someone had come looking for him. Someone powerful and terrifying and strange. Strange like Harry was strange. Harry breathed in sharply, unsure of what he was going toward and if it would be worse than what he’d already experienced that day, but somehow feeling as he approached the man that maybe he would be safe for a little while. He stopped in front of the man, hesitantly tipping his head further back to meet that piercing gaze once more.
“I’m here,” he said softly, offering a very small tentative smile.
For a moment the man looked uncertain, eyes glancing toward the cuts on Harry’s face and the pathetic state of his glasses before his expression became purposefully blank, as if all emotions were being shut off. On anyone else it would have been frightening but Harry knew all too well how much easier it was to hide how he felt rather than give anything away. The man crossed arms over his chest, gaze flickering away.
“Get your things, Mr. Potter. I’ve been instructed to escort you back to Privet Drive,” he directed impatiently.
Harry blinked, unsure of what he was supposed to grab. He didn’t have a school bag, the few workbooks he had were in his desk along with papers full of the lines that he’d been writing that day. He had nothing in his school locker. That would have been asking for trouble from Dudley’s gang if he’d kept anything there.
The receptionist was still staring but the man ignored her, “Move, Potter,” he instructed and Harry jumped at the sharp tone. He really wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do. He didn’t have anything to collect. He stared down at the scuffed carpet.
“I-I’m ready,” he whispered and the dark-eyed man frowned,
“Don’t be ridiculous, where is your bag and your coat?” He demanded and Harry chewed on his lower lip. Never had he felt more like telling the truth than he did now. He didn’t care if the man was stern and odd, he was the only person who had ever really spoken directly to Harry and Harry didn’t want to disappoint him.
“They’re not here right now,” Harry finally mumbled, afraid to meet the man’s eyes. He didn’t want the stranger to think he was lying. Clearly, the man did but he jerked his head in negation, turning away. Harry watched as the man glanced over at the receptionist, speaking in that same cutting tone as earlier.
“If the boy’s relatives come for him this evening, tell them I’ve already taken care of the matter.”
“I – but –“ the receptionist trailed off, open-mouthed, “who exactly…”
The man lifted an eyebrow slightly, voice laced for the first time with something almost like dark amusement, “inform them that Professor Severus Snape was the one to escort the boy back to their home. Petunia Dursley will no doubt recall my name.”
Harry stared up at the man, shocked that he and Aunt Petunia had even a passing awareness of one another. Aunt Petunia couldn’t stand anything out of the ordinary and there was no way that the stranger in front of him was ordinary.
Professor Snape turned toward him, dark eyes locking sharply once more with Harry’s, he gestured wordlessly and Harry stepped forward, quite willing to follow the strange man wherever, even if he did have to end up going back to Privet Drive. The professor moved toward the front desk, ignoring the woman who scooted her rolling chair back at his approach, he quickly pulled a pair of dark green mittens with pine trees on them from the Lost and Found box.
“Here,” the man stated, thrusting the mittens at Harry who took them with trembling fingers.
“Sir, you can’t!” the receptionist protested, quelling as the professor glared at her,
“Explain to me the point of having these discarded items displayed here if they are not meant to be readily available for a child who is improperly attired for the cold weather?” the man hissed, before turning away in clear dismissal, “Besides, I’m sure he’ll return them tomorrow,” he remarked in the sort of tone that implied he couldn’t care less where the mittens ended up.
Harry gazed up at Professor Snape, shaking and feeling that lump in his throat from earlier. He had never been given anything before as nice as this. It didn’t matter they were only his for the evening and that his left hand was too sore to want anything on it, it meant a lot that the professor had even thought about him at all. The Dursleys would have just screamed at him for being so stupid as to lose the one pair of mittens they’d given him earlier. They certainly wouldn’t have stolen something from the Lost and Found bin for him.
“Come along,” the man directed harshly and Harry followed him out the door, confused at what was happening but unable to be afraid.
It was freezing outside and Harry hesitated as they crossed through the automatic front doors, bracing himself for the sharp wind. Snow was falling in loose spiraling patterns, visible in the soft glow of the streetlights along the walkways. The air was so cold and brittle it felt as if pieces of it were sticking in his lungs. Harry glanced around quickly, automatically moving closer to the professor when he saw how dark it was outside. The long-haired man did not speak nor slow his stride as he stepped down the concrete stairs and moved across the school’s front lawn, coat billowing slightly in the cold breeze. The ground crunched beneath Harry’s damp shoes as he followed Professor Snape, trying to stay in the footprints the man left in the snow but still managing to get ice inside his trainers again.
The man stepped unto the icy sidewalk and Harry hurried to his side, forcing his exhausted limbs to move faster. There wasn’t a car nearby and Harry felt a conflicting mix of dread and happiness as he realized that they would be walking back to Privet Drive. He wasn’t sure he could make it all that way, he was so tired and it was really cold. Still, he would have longer with this mysterious Professor Snape who somehow knew his name. Harry chewed his lower lip, trying to work out if he could ask questions or not. The Dursleys hated whenever he opened his mouth but maybe the professor wouldn’t mind him asking one or two things.
“You haven’t put those mittens on yet,” Professor Snape suddenly spoke. He wasn’t really looking at Harry as they walked but he had paused below a lamppost, arms crossed sternly over his chest once more, “do it before you get frostbite. It’s negative six degrees out and far too cold to be wandering around without a hat or gloves, let alone a coat.”
Harry halted. Snow was falling a little heavier now and he couldn’t feel his toes very well. His right hand was still gripping the soft mittens he’d been given, holding them to him as if Dudley’s gang would suddenly appear and snatch them from him. He didn’t want to move his left hand anymore than he had to but the professor had been very kind to get him the mittens and was obviously impatient with Harry for not minding. Disobedience was the first thing that led to a punishment and although Harry didn’t really think the man would hit him he didn’t want to find out. Quickly, he tried to pull one of the mittens unto his good hand, fumbling at the knitted cuff and nearly dropping it as he had to move the fingers of his injured hand to tug at it. A small sound left him unbidden and he shuddered at the intense pain jarring up through his arm.
Professor Snape inhaled sharply and Harry flinched, backing up a step, “I’m sorry!” he gasped immediately, hoping the apology would be enough to quell the man’s anger as the professor stared white-faced down at his damaged hand.
The man swept forward, kneeling suddenly on the sidewalk so that he was nearer to Harry’s height. Harry trembled, confused at the odd gesture but knowing better than to resist as Professor Snape reached out a hand and very carefully took hold of Harry’s wrist. Thick snowflakes were flickering in and out of the yellow light from the lamppost, gathering on their clothing and dark hair. The professor didn’t hurt him like Mrs. Fulton had when he touched his wrist. His long thin fingers felt strong and warm to Harry, his hand much bigger as he cupped Harry’s injured palm in his own and held it between them so the light above shown on it.
Harry swallowed. His hand had swollen in places, the white mark across his palm especially horrible when surrounded by the dark purple bruising. Blood had dried along part of his hand, his fingers aching with numbness. Harry didn’t know if it was the cold or if nerves in his hand had been damaged but it felt like pins and needles all through his left arm now. Even the invisible pressure of the snow hitting his skin and melting against it hurt.
Professor Snape still had that blank expression but his eyes were like dark coals, burning in his pale face as he looked carefully at the mark slashed across Harry’s bloody palm. Harry shivered, blinking rapidly against the falling snow and that lump that was back in his throat as the professor took care not to touch the injury, his fingers very light against Harry’s wrist when he saw the bruises already there.
“Did this happen at the school?” the man demanded quietly but he sounded as if he already knew.
Harry looked away, staring at the edge of the curb where the white snow had turned all gray and slushy from cars going by, “I did something wrong,” he whispered around the tightness in his throat, “I always do something wrong.”
Professor Snape’s black eyes slid away from his, glancing instead at the school in the distance. A dark look crossed his face but his hand was still very gentle as he inspected the injury. Harry blinked, suddenly afraid again that he might cry. It wasn’t even the pain that was making the stinging in the corners of his eyes worse, it was the way the man in front of him hadn’t shouted at him once, or told him he deserved it. He knew the professor was furious, but at the school, not at him. No one had ever treated Harry so gently before, or expressed anger that someone had hurt him. It was all very strange.
“This will need to be tended to,” the man finally spoke, his dark hair falling forward as he tilted his head, studying the injury, “how many times were you struck?”
Harry tried to remember but details felt hazy and unreal. He’d been trying so hard to not think about what was happening once the caning had started that only the heart-pounding fear was still easy to recollect.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled, finding it very hard to meet the professor’s piercing gaze.
The man stood, being extremely careful not to touch the mark on his palm as he let go of Harry’s hand. He no longer looked stern, now he seemed filled with a wild sort of anger, his lips drawn into a thin line, his eyes narrowed.
“They had no right to do this to you,” he hissed abruptly and Harry startled, frowning in confusion.
Professor Snape’s agitation toward a caning seemed largely misplaced. Shouldn’t he be angry with Harry for getting into trouble, for having to come find Harry and bring him back home? Why wasn’t he yelling at Harry and hitting him for being so terrible? Disobedient and disrespectful, Harry remembered with a sinking sensation, knowing that he’d be stuck writing those words down until long after the break.
He was shaking hard, his body so cold it felt like lumps of ice were attached to his ankles instead of feet. Perhaps the professor realized this, or perhaps he didn’t feel like speaking any longer. He began walking again and Harry followed, grateful the man had slowed his pace a little. They were definitely in Little Whinging, the row houses looked the same as the ones on Privet Drive but the street was different and Harry squinted up at the streetlights, trying to work out where they were.
It was late enough that the area was deserted of people and cars but they passed a few houses that shone with red and green lights and small outdoor trees all decorated. Normally the sight would have cheered Harry up immensely but he was so tired and everything seemed to hurt. He stumbled over a crack in the uneven sidewalk, flushing as the professor paused. Harry didn’t want Professor Snape to think he was wasting the man’s time. He tried to move faster but he didn’t get more than a few paces further before he tripped again on a clump of ice and fell sideways, nearly landing in the dirty snow if not for the professor who grabbed his sleeve to keep him from toppling over.
Harry swayed, putting out his uninjured hand to steady himself and ending up holding unto the professor’s coat to stay upright. He looked away, ashamed that he was acting so childish but too exhausted to stop himself from wanting the small kindness that the man had shown him earlier. The man stared down at him, frowning. He didn’t seem angry, only as if he were thinking very hard about something. Harry shut his eyes for a moment, wishing he didn’t have to go back to Privet Drive.
It was too cold to speak and it seemed like Professor Snape had come to that conclusion as well. Without a word, the tall man leaned down again, still steadying Harry who swayed once more. Harry wasn’t sure how it happened, he thought that the man might have picked him up or perhaps Harry had fallen forward in his weariness, either way the professor was carrying him now. Harry’s eyes widened, his body stiff at first, unsure of what to do as the man continued walking. He’d never been carried before, the Dursleys would have just as soon as dropped him and there had never been anyone else. Perhaps his parents, but Harry couldn’t remember them more than a sharp pain across his forehead and all that green light from the car crash that had killed them.
The professor was warm and Harry tentatively leaned his head against the man’s shoulder, the wool of the man’s coat slightly itchy against his cheek. He didn’t care anymore if he was too old to be treated like a child, no one had ever been so nice to him before. He could hear both his and Professor Snape’s hearts beating in the silence, the snow falling on them and melting against the man’s warmth. Harry closed his eyes, holding tighter to Professor Snape.
He thought about how every time that Dudley had had the smallest of scrapes, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon would make a huge fuss and smother his cousin in gifts. Harry had hated that, hated all the attention Dudley received, knowing that half the time his cousin faked illness or injury in order to get a new toy he wanted. But this was better than any present Dudley had ever got, just to have someone notice he was hurt and to carry him when he couldn’t walk anymore. I bet this is what it’s like to have a father, Harry thought sleepily, too tired to be shocked at how bizarre his thoughts had become.
He was half-asleep when the professor slowed his steps and Harry lifted his head a bit, blinking through snow speckled glasses. He felt his stomach sink as he realized that they were at Privet Drive and Professor Snape was standing in front of number four where Harry had spent eight miserable years with the Dursleys. All the lights were off, except for the tree that sparkled behind the ugly lace curtains covering the large picture window of the living room.
Even the promise of a warm house and a few hours of sleep in his cupboard felt hollow compared to what it had been like to have someone look after him like the professor had. He shifted a bit in the man’s arms and slowly, Professor Snape set him down on the front walk. Harry expected the professor to leave him there but the man stepped forward, glancing toward the dark house and the empty drive.
“Your relatives have not returned yet,” he stated when Harry gave him a quizzical look as the man walked with him up to the front of the house, “it would be remiss of me to leave a child without supervision.”
Harry blinked, not sure what the professor meant but feeling more than a little nervous that it seemed more and more likely that the professor might meet the Dursleys. Everyone the Dursleys met were told how horrible Harry was and if they told Professor Snape about him than the man would hate him and Harry might as well throw away the mittens that the man had stolen for him because none of it would matter anymore.
It was snowing a lot harder now and Harry stood shaking, too troubled to try to work out how Professor Snape knew who he was or where he lived as the man stepped up to the front door and opened it without knocking. Harry frowned, he was sure that Uncle Vernon would have locked the door before leaving, even as upset as his uncle had been. Uncle Vernon believed very firmly in not trusting neighbors to call the police if ‘hooligans’ ever decided to break in.
He followed the professor inside, relieved to be out of the dark cold. The professor shut the door and strode down the short hall into the sitting room as if it were his own home. Harry moved slowly, glancing around in case Uncle Vernon was still about and would hear them.
The living room glowed from the lights of the large tree that Harry had painstakingly decorated. The tree though was nearly lost under a huge mound of presents that took up the entire living room, a few even spilling into the hall. It seemed that Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia had added even more gifts than what had been there in the morning. The professor raised an eyebrow at the pile, a sneer crossing his face. Harry shrugged awkwardly when the man looked over at him, wincing as that hurt his sore shoulder.
The man gestured to the sofa, “sit here, I need to see to your hand,” he stated, not bothering to remove his dark coat or boots that were tracking snow into the living room.
Harry hesitated in the doorway. He wasn’t really allowed to sit on the furniture, at least not unless he was cleaning it or something. Still, he was so tired and he didn’t think Professor Snape would trick him or harm him, not after the man had done so much for him. Tentatively, he crossed the living room, being careful to avoid stepping on any gifts. Harry sat on the very edge of the sofa, a horrible dull flower-patterned monstrosity that Aunt Petunia seemed to have thought would compliment the equally horrible wallpaper.
He was very careful not to move his left arm more than he had to, trying to keep his breaths shallow as he settled his injured hand, palm-up against his leg. The aching stabs of pain in his hand were worse than before, his fingers impossible to move now with how stiff they felt from the swelling and the pain. The professor knelt in front of Harry, looking at the injury closely, but not touching it this time.
“This needs treatment,” he said quietly, his brows drawn close together, his mouth set once more in that thin line.
Harry bit his lower lip, hoping that Professor Snape didn’t think he was too weak to handle a caning, “it’s fine,” Harry whispered, ducking his head so that his messy black fringe fell into his eyes, “I can take a punishment.”
“You should not have been injured like this, there’s no call for what they did –“ the professor began in a sharp tone before abruptly cutting himself off. When he spoke next his voice was far calmer and controlled, only his eyes were still flashing with a fury that Harry didn’t quite understand.
“Where does your family keep their healing supplies?” Professor Snape stood, eyeing the room with a scowl as if it disgusted him to no end to be anywhere near the pile of presents or the portraits of Dudley set on every available space.
Harry frowned in thought, grimacing as snow melted from his hair and ran into the back of his collar. He felt slow with fatigue and was struggling to avoid the instinct to lean back against the plushy couch. The comfort of sleeping somewhere warm wouldn’t be worth the telling-off he’d receive from the Dursleys for getting their furniture messed up.
“I think that the plasters are upstairs, but I’m not allowed to go up there except when cleaning,” he mumbled, sinking into the couch cushion despite himself.
“Where is your room then?”
“What?” Harry asked, confused and the professor frowned, glancing around the small living room impatiently once more,
“If you are not allowed upstairs, where do you sleep?” he questioned and Harry blinked, rubbing his eyes tiredly behind his broken glasses,
“Oh, in the cupboard,” he replied softly, hoping that would answer the man’s questions well enough. It was hard to keep talking when all Harry wanted to do now was lie on the couch and fall asleep watching the lights shining on the tree.
“What cupboard?” Professor Snape demanded, seeming agitated again and Harry tried to remember if he had done anything to upset the man. He knew he wasn’t supposed to tell about how things were at home but that was the Dursleys’ rules, things were different with the professor, he wouldn’t hate him for sleeping in a cupboard, would he?
“The one underneath the stairs,” Harry whispered hesitantly, staring at the streaks of dirty water his shoes had left on the clean carpet.
He jumped, biting his lip as the professor strode out of the room without another word. The open doors of the living room showed most of the hallway and Harry climbed awkwardly partway unto the couch arm in order to watch Professor Snape. The man had his cupboard door unlocked and was standing in the hall looking into it. It was hard to see his expression and he didn’t say anything, just stood there for a long time before closing the cupboard door. Harry met the man’s eyes fearfully as Professor Snape glanced over at him in the living room.
“Stay there,” the man instructed quietly, “I will get bandages for your hand.” He went up the stairs and Harry sank back down against the couch, his left hand throbbing, his mind whirling with exhaustion.
It had been such a long day. He hadn’t thought it would ever end this way, with someone taking care of him. It was terrible, really, Harry thought, that it had to end at all but he knew better than to pretend that Professor Snape would stay. The Dursleys would be livid the moment that they came back from the hospital and found the door unlocked with Harry inside. Maybe Harry could tell the professor to lock him in his cupboard before leaving, that way the Dursleys would know it wasn’t his fault. Not that it mattered, Uncle Vernon always thought Harry was responsible for anything odd or dangerous that happened, even if Harry had been sleeping at the time or in a different room.
Floorboards creaked overhead and a few seconds later the professor was coming down the stairs and crossing the room to kneel in front of Harry once more. He had a collection of large plasters in one hand, some bandaging, antibiotic cream, and a shining blue liquid in a strange shaped bottle that he seemed to have pulled from his coat pocket instead of taken from the Dursleys medical supplies.
Silently, he reached for Harry’s injured hand, being very careful when Harry hissed in pain as his wrist was touched. Neither of them spoke. The man’s breathing was controlled, muscles in his jaw tight, but again Harry got the distinct impression that Professor Snape was not angry with him. It hurt to have his hand touched and Harry chewed at his lower lip to hold back sound, startling when Professor Snape stopped instead, waiting for the pain to pass rather than continuing examining where it hurt.
“There are two children’s’ rooms upstairs, I was under the impression that your cousin and you are the only children here.”
The man’s voice was oddly calming, even if he was still upset about something. He wondered if Professor Snape had thought he was lying about the cupboard, but then the man had seen it, so he knew someone lived there. Harry frowned, too exhausted to work it all out. The professor seemed to be waiting for an answer and Harry swallowed, trying to ignore the hot stabs of pain moving up and down his arm as the man began to lightly apply antibiotic cream to the edges of Harry’s palm.
“That’s Dudley’s second bedroom, Sir,”
Professor Snape’s black eyes narrowed and Harry shrugged, mumbling an explanation as best he could, “Dudley has a lot of stuff and he breaks most of it after a few times playing with it, so they put all the broken things in the second bedroom and that way he still has space for new things.”
Something shifted slightly in the man’s expression but it was hard to say what it was. Professor Snape paused and glanced contemptuously at the sprawling mound of gifts around them.
“The presents under the tree are his then?”
Harry blinked, rubbing his eyes once more, “Er, yes,” he murmured, trying to stay sitting upright even when it was so tempting to think of lying down for a bit on the sofa, “Dudley always throws a fit when he doesn’t get at least thirty presents for Christmas.”
“And what do you receive?”
The question surprised Harry, no one had ever asked before about gifts for him. It was just understood that he wouldn’t be getting any. Besides, the professor had given him mittens, those were a present, weren’t they? He couldn’t think well anymore, fidgeting instead with the ripped hem of his massive jumper.
“Oh well, I’m not really their son,” he finally mumbled, avoiding the professor’s eyes, “it’s – it’s different.”
Professor Snape didn’t respond, but his hands were lighter than ever on Harry’s injury, barely touching it as he spread the antibiotic cream across the white slash on Harry’s palm. Harry closed his eyes tightly in response to the pain, swaying with dizzying exhaustion. Somehow he found himself leaning against the man, shivering and fighting to hold back a whimper. He hadn’t cried once during the caning, he wasn’t going to start now. The professor had stilled the moment Harry had rested his dark head against the man’s coat and Harry knew he should pull away but he couldn’t make himself move,
“I’m sorry, it’s just – you’re warm,” he whispered, peering uncertainly up at Professor Snape who looked down at him. The man’s hook nose and dark eyes made him look even more like a storybook villain except for the way he was watching Harry, clearly unsure what a scrawny little boy was doing clinging to him, but apparently deciding not to stop him.
“It’s alright,” the man finally responded and he shifted so that Harry could lean against him for support as the pain worsened.
The treatment wasn’t anywhere as bad as when he’d been hit and Harry clenched his teeth, determined not to fall apart. Soon, the professor was finished with touching his palm and started rolling back Harry’s jumper sleeve to inspect the boy’s wrist.
“Where are you from?” Harry asked, unable to avoid glancing up once more at the professor’s face and long black hair that spilled down his shoulders, hanging limply in his face as he bent his head to study Harry’s hand.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, you just seem different than anyone around here,” Harry replied softly, wincing as the professor moved his wrist very carefully, seeming to be checking how much ease of movement Harry had. The man’s larger hands stopped again as the jostling caused Harry’s huge sleeve to slip further down, revealing most of the boy’s pale stick-like arm and ugly yellow-brown bruises near his bony elbow
“Did you get these bruises from one of the teachers?” Professor Snape demanded harshly and Harry frowned, momentarily forgetting where he’d gotten those particular marks before a vague memory of Uncle Vernon grabbing him a few days ago to throw him into his cupboard surfaced.
“No, those are from before,” he answered easily, brushing his black hair out of eyes and squinting curiously up at the man, wondering why the professor was glaring at the marks on Harry’s arm with such anger.
“Before today,” Harry mumbled sleepily with another shrug.
The man didn’t say anything for a long time, seeming intent on applying antibiotic cream to every small scratch or bruise visible on Harry’s arm. He picked up the bottle of blue liquid, uncorking it and pouring a small amount into Harry’s open palm. Harry braced himself not to pull back, prepared for the pain of anything touching his injured hand but quite suddenly the pain was gone, a mild tingling replacing the stabbing sensation from before so that Harry stared. Professor Snape gently rubbed the strange blue liquid into each injury, even though it didn’t hurt anymore.
Harry sat open-mouthed, eyes wide behind his taped glasses. The man slipped the bottle into his pocket and reached for the bandaging. It was bizarre to Harry that he was able to finally move his fingers, that the swelling was going away, and it hardly ached at all wherever that strange blue liquid had touched. Maybe Professor Snape was a doctor. He wanted to thank the man, but the words stuck in his throat and Professor Snape was busy applying plasters to where it had hurt the worst and wrapping bandaging from Harry’s fingers to his elbow. All Harry’s other aches and pains seemed a lot worse in comparison, but he knew better than to be ungrateful for what the man had done. The last caning hadn’t been anywhere as bad and Harry hadn’t had full use of his hand for days.
He opened his mouth to thank Professor Snape when the phone rang, the shrill sound piercing the quiet and causing Harry to flinch violently, cowering instinctively against the man. For a moment, the professor’s arm came around him in a protective gesture that seemed to startle both of them worse than the phone had. It rang again and Harry shuffled back against the sofa as Professor Snape stood, kicking a gaudily wrapped present aside to reach the phone receiver that sat on the end table with the flowered skirt that Harry always got yelled at for not dusting properly.
Harry watched, wide-eyed, as the man picked up the phone, not saying anything, merely listening for a moment before hanging up. Frowning, Harry stared at the man, it seemed almost as if Professor Snape had been waiting for the phone to ring for now he turned to Harry, speaking with an air of distraction.
“Your relatives are on their way back, your aunt is well enough now to have already checked out of the hospital.”
“Oh,” Harry said, his voice very small. He knew that meant that the man would leave now. Professor Snape hadn’t even taken his coat off, he was only staying until the Dursleys got back and it was probably better that he leave rather than meet Uncle Vernon after more or less breaking into their home.
Harry cleared his throat and tried not to think about how angry his relatives would be at him for everything that had happened that day. It bothered him more to know that his time with the professor was over and now he would have to go back to where everyone treated him like he was something too disgusting to look at.
“Thanks for getting me at the school, Sir,” he whispered, staring down at his ripped shoes, “and for taking care of my hand, it feels a lot better now.”
Professor Snape didn’t say anything and when Harry looked up he was still standing there in the living room, watching him closely.
They studied each other for a long time, Harry wanting to memorize the man’s unusual features, his black magnetic gaze, and the scratchiness of his wool coat when he’d held Harry. All of these things were important and would be good for him to remember when a bad day came. He knew now at least that there were people who could be kind to him and that the professor had been one of them.
“The place where I am from –“ Professor Snape began, breaking off unexpectedly before speaking again, his voice filled with sudden tension and uncertainty, “there is space there for you.”
The words seemed to hang in the air, Harry’s green eyes growing larger behind the cracked lens of his glasses, his limbs beginning to tremble as he realized what the man was offering. But really, who was he to think the professor wasn’t just trying to be nice to him again? There couldn’t possibly be somewhere in the world where he’d live that wouldn’t have the Dursleys there as well or someone as equally horrible yelling at him or hitting him. He was stupid to even dare to want the things that other children had.
He hunched his shoulders, looking away from the professor, staring at Dudley’s presents that were suddenly sickening to see, regardless of how pretty the tree lights looked shining on them. It didn’t matter anymore, all Christmas had ever meant for him was chores, why should it mean anything else? He shook his head, rubbing angrily at his face as that burning sensation in his eyes came stronger than ever.
“That can’t be, there’s never space for me,” he mumbled bitterly, startling as the professor crossed the room in a few strides and knelt before him once more. Fingers carefully touched his jaw, turned his head so that their eyes met again.
“This time, there is.” Professor Snape stated and all uncertainty had left him, his gaze fiercely assured. Harry’s lip trembled and he bit down on it, speaking only when he knew he wouldn’t cry,
“How can you be sure?”
A tenderness was suddenly visible in those ink-black eyes, the man’s face softening very slightly though he spoke with the same intensity as earlier, “because this place has been waiting for you, for a long time, Harry Potter.”
Harry swallowed, laying his uninjured hand tentatively on the sleeve of the man’s black coat. He was shaking. For years he’d hoped that someone would come and take him away from the Dursleys, but still he hadn’t thought it would ever happen, that it would be someone who had taken care of him the way a father would have. Slowly, he gave a small nod, unable to speak.
It seemed that the professor understood. The man rose to his feet, carefully taking hold of Harry’s hand and helping the small boy down from the couch. He led Harry to the front hall, faintly lit by the multi-colored fairy lights on the tree in the living room.
A cold breeze blew over them when the man opened the door, the wind shaking the front windows. Their breath rose in visible vapor, the outside appeared dark and mysterious with streetlights and decorated trees gleaming in the distance. Harry looked up at the strange man standing beside him.
“Is it –“ Harry hesitated and Professor Snape turned, snow from the open door swirling down over them, “is it a good sort of place?” Harry whispered.
The professor looked down at him for a long while, his black gaze unwavering. The man reached out very gently, already the motion seeming more familiar to him as he scooped the small boy up into his arms, ever mindful of Harry’s injured hand. Harry lay his head against the man’s shoulder, hope filling him so that his chest hurt with things he did not know how to say.
“It is…magical,” Professor Snape replied quietly and with that they stepped out into the night, Harry’s green eyes shining like stars in the glow of snow-covered streetlights as they walked far away from Privet Drive.