Even miracles take a little time...
Harry still holds on to some hope as a small child. As long as he listens to Aunt Petunia properly, as long as he doesn't say anything to make Uncle Vernon angry, as long as he does all the menial tasks assigned to him obediently… maybe they will like him eventually. Maybe then he can be accepted into their family.
It's a sunny, bright day when that hope shatters. He comes back into the house from weeding the garden for hours, tired and sweaty and desperately in need of some water, only to find Dudley sitting at the kitchen table and guffawing at the television.
"Hey, you!" he yells at Harry in between mouthfuls of food. He never calls him Harry, it's always freak, or weirdo, or sissy.
"Look." Dudley motions to the television and Harry looks over to see a cartoon girl scrubbing the floor, wearing rags and wiping the soot on her face away with the back of her hand.
"This Cinders girl is just like you!" Dudley says excitedly, overjoyed at what he clearly considers to be a genius discovery. "Dressed in rags, does all the chores, always dirty, and no one wants her. Even her parents are dead!"
A sharp pain goes through Harry's chest and his hands tremble.
"I guess that makes you the ugly stepsister then, Diddykins." Harry retorts as calmly as he can and leaves the kitchen before his cousin can process what he said.
He hates the new nickname that his cousin takes to calling him, but his curiosity gets the better of him and he ends up borrowing a book of fairy tales from his primary school library.
He lies in bed and stares up at the dusty cobwebs on the cupboard ceiling after he's finished reading, blinking drowsily. His last thought before falling asleep is: If I'm Cinders, does that mean one day someone will come to save me too?
His fairy godmother comes years later, once he's already given up all hope of escaping the Dursleys.
He is a giant man instead of a plump, motherly figure. He breaks down the door and carries a magical umbrella instead of a wand, and he asks Harry if he would like to go to Hogwarts—a school for witchcraft and wizardry—instead of a ball.
"Yer a wizard, Harry," Hagrid tells him and Harry wonders if Cinderella felt like this when she had been transformed by the spell.
Happy and excited, but so afraid. As if he could blink and everything would disappear and he would go back to being just Harry. The unwanted boy, dressed in oversized clothes, with an overactive imagination that he used to invent magic and cope with his pathetic life.
It's not quite the pumpkin carriage he imagined, but as he boards the Hogwarts Express, he thinks with satisfaction that it will do just as well.
Hogwarts is unlike anything he could have imagined. It is full to the brim with life and magic, welcoming Harry into its arms like a mother welcoming its child home. Harry throws himself into studying this new world and arming himself with knowledge. With hope.
The more he knows, the more information he seeks, the more he can convince himself that this is real. He has had too many dreams like this, but for once he wants to believe. He doesn't want to return to reality.
At one point, he remembers that Cinderella met her Prince Charming at the ball.
"Sorry, Cinders," he chuckles to himself as he sits in the corner of the library, finishing his Transfiguration homework. "But I always thought that a prince saving the day was too unrealistic. In this world, the only thing you can rely on is your own hard work."
"What was that, Harry?" Hermione frowns from the seat across him.
To his right, Ron continues to snore.
That's right, who needs a sodding prince? He has friends now—real friends!—and he wouldn't trade them for anything.
The excitement of this new world lulls Harry into a false sense of security and he forgets one crucial detail.
The spell wears off at midnight.
For him, midnight is the day he returns to Platform 9 ¾, when he goes back to the Dursleys. When his trunk and all the wizarding robes in them are taken away with a disdainful sniff from Aunt Petunia. When he returns to his oversized rags. When he is once again Harry Potter, the Unwanted. Harry Potter, the Helpless.
And he has never hated himself as much as he does in that moment.
Another day spent doing his assigned chores and having Uncle Vernon scream at him for an hour (accusing him of having learned to be 'rebellious at that freak school' for no good reason besides how unruly his hair is), leaves Harry exhausted.
He lies on the bed and remembers the first time he imagined he was Cinders. He has his own room now and is no longer the boy in the cupboard under the stairs, but everything is still the same.
A few days later, the Dobby debacle happens. His room is locked, and bars are placed on his windows. He spoke too soon about things being the same; he forgot that things can always get worse.
"Sorry I mocked you for relying on that prince of yours, Cinders," Harry talks to the empty room, wondering if he'll lose his mind one day from the loneliness. "Maybe I was just jealous. Maybe I wished someone would come to save me too."
He can feel his eyes turn misty and hurriedly pinches his hand so hard the skin breaks. He pinches it until he can't remember why he was sad anymore and focuses on the pain. The pain means that he is still living and breathing, and that's a good thing, right?
It has to be.
It happens when he drifts off to sleep. Ron and the twins come to rescue him with a flying car and Harry is overjoyed.
Maybe this is it. He thinks with excitement. Maybe this is the day I leave them for good.
He listens with anticipation as Fred and George tell Mrs. Weasley about what they had seen.
"They were starving him, Mum!"
"There were bars on his window!"
She is clearly distressed at the information and smothers Harry in her embrace.
"Don't worry, Harry. Just sit down and eat breakfast with the others. You're safe now."
Harry smiles widely and thanks her.
He should have known that adults always tell lies.
"You mustn't blame yourself for the way the boy's turned out, Vernon. If there's something rotten on the inside, there's nothing anyone can do about it."
Harry bristles with anger at Aunt Marge's words, hating the way they stab at his insecurities. That he was born with something inherently wrong with him, something that made him unable to be loved.
He takes deep breaths and tries to calm down, but then the woman snidely insults his parents and Harry's self restraint snaps.
"You turn her back!" Uncle Vernon screams at him once Marge has floated out of sight, his face purple with rage.
But Harry has already grabbed his trunk and his wand is in his hands.
"Stay away from me," he threatens them in a low voice. Dudley cowers behind a chair and Aunt Petunia looks like she might faint.
He doesn't care.
No one is going to come and save him.
So he might as well take matters into his own hands.
It's a little funny when Harry thinks about it. He has fought off Voldemort's shade, a basilisk, and a horde of dementors. He has done things grown wizards could not go through and survived. Yet, every summer he returns to being the silent, unwanted addition at Number 4 Privet Drive, with no power to even get a proper meal.
"Eat. No complaining." Aunt Petunia curls her upper lip in derision.
She has finally woken up to the reality of Dudley's obesity and has been trying to persuade her son to willingly eat his diet meals by forcing Harry to follow the diet too.
Only Harry's portions aren't even a quarter of his cousin's. He has no need for a diet but gets the diet portion of the diet food. It isn't fair, but then again, it never is.
Harry stares at the sparse vegetables on his nearly empty plate and thinks that he might as well not eat at all.
Thank you, he writes to Ron and Hermione, for the birthday presents. But especially for the cakes, I don't know what I would be eating if you hadn't sent those.
He plays it like a joke and Ron responds in kind.
Hermione's response startles him.
What do you mean you don't know what you would be eating?
Harry hesitates but then shrugs and thinks that there's no harm in telling her. It's not like she can change anything.
Harry. He notices that her usually neat handwriting is sloppy and there are ink blotches and crossed out sentences on the parchment.
Has this ever happened before? Have your relatives always starved you?
Not always, he writes back. But often enough.
He tells her of the cat flap through which his meals came in second year and the bars on his windows. Of before Hogwarts where he would go to bed without dinner if Dudley told Uncle Vernon that he was trying to catch a teacher's attention in primary school.
He expects words of sympathy. "Oh, Harry! That's awful!" or maybe "That's so unfair, Harry!"
What he gets is a single sentence:
Harry, can you tell me your address?
What on earth would she need that for? But throughout the years, he has become accustomed to listening and trusting in Hermione so he sends Hedwig off with his answer.
There is no response, but two hours later, the doorbell rings.
"And who are you?" Aunt Petunia glares down at the familiar looking girl on her doorstep.
"I am Hermione Granger," her steady, determined voice reaches Harry's ears. "And I have come for my friend."
"You've got the wrong house," Aunt Petunia snaps and tries to close the door.
"Harry!" Hermione calls out as she shoves her foot inside the door and keeps it open. "Pack your things. We're leaving."
Harry jolts out of his frozen state from the top of the stairs and goes to do as she says. His movements are stiff and clumsy and he thinks that he must be dreaming. This can't be real.
"Now look here, girl. I don't know who you are but that boy is my ward and you aren't going to waltz into my house and just take him," Uncle Vernon says menacingly as Harry is bringing his luggage down.
"That is exactly what I'm going to do." Hermione lifts her chin and coldly looks at him, as if she's dealing with a toddler. "Don't try to act like you care for him now. We all know you don't."
She finally notices Harry standing awkwardly with his luggage and a radiant smile breaks out on her face.
"Harry!" She elbows Uncle Vernon out of the way and goes to him.
"Hermione," he responds dryly.
"Is everything ready? You don't need any help to pack?"
Harry shrugs and looks down at his trunk. "It's all that I have."
Her face becomes stony again and she takes a deep breath. "Well, at least that makes this quick. Come on then."
She grabs his hand and leads him towards the door.
"You little bitch—"
Uncle Vernon's hulking frame blocks the way.
Harry feels a shiver run down his spine at the pure hatred on his uncle's face, but he knows that look and he knows these signs. He instantly puts himself in front of Hermione and pushes her back, holding his arm out protectively.
"Don't you dare call her that." He glares back at his uncle with hatred of his own.
"Mum says no one's allowed to use those sticks in the house." Dudley's terrified voice comes from the side and Harry turns around to see Hermione pointing her wand at his uncle.
"This isn't a house," Hermione states emotionlessly. "It's a prison. And I'm taking Harry out of it."
"Y-you're not allowed to do magic outside of that freak school!" Dudley yells. "Mum said so!"
"Oh?" Hermione raises an eyebrow and smiles at Aunt Petunia, but there is no laughter in her eyes. "Try me."
His aunt's face pales.
"Vernon," she whispers. "Vernon, let them go."
Hermione ushers him into a car and gives him a brief introduction to her parents before squeezing the living daylights out of him with a tight hug.
"You're safe now, Harry." She embraces him as if afraid that he'll disappear once she lets go. "You're never going to go back to that horrible place."
Harry finally realizes that he's been trembling all this time—from fear or excitement or disbelief, he doesn't know.
He doesn't say anything back. Even if it's Hermione, he doesn't dare to hope.
The clock strikes at midnight and nothing has ever stopped it.
The Grangers' house is situated in a well off neighbourhood—the kind that even the Dursleys wouldn't turn their noses up at—and Harry is at first a little nervous to enter. Mr Granger, seemingly having seen his hesitation, lightly pats his shoulder and announces in a loud voice that it was about time Hermione's best friend 'that she could never stop rambling about' finally paid them a visit.
Their home is neat and orderly, but also bright and spacious. The walls are covered with pictures of Mr Granger, Mrs Granger, and Hermione in her stages of growing up. In the living room, Hermione's various awards and merits of achievements from her primary school days are still proudly displayed on a shelf.
"Come on." Hermione grabs his hand after he's had the tour and leads him upstairs. "We can talk in my room."
They're both sitting cross legged on her bed when Hermione receives a letter from Dumbledore.
Harry watches as her brows furrow with worry while reading it.
"What does it say?"
"Something about your mother's blood protection. He says it's fine that you're staying with me now since we were going to go to the World Cup soon anyway, but that you must return to your relatives next summer."
"Oh." He squashes down the faint feeling of disappointment and reminds himself that this is the answer he knew was coming.
"Hermione!" Harry stares at the letter on the ground that's been torn in half.
"Nonsense! It's a load of complete and utter nonsense!" Her voice rises with fury. "I wrote to him about what they did to you, I included every detail you told me. How can he read that and still say you have to go back?"
"Everyone probably already knew," Harry says quietly. "I remember trying to talk to McGonagall, Madam Pomfrey and some others about it and they looked sorry for me. Not surprised."
"They knew?" Hermione's eyes narrows dangerously. "Knew that they starved you? That they locked you up with bars on your window? That they treated you like a child slave? And they did nothing?"
"It's not so bad," Harry gives a weak laugh and tries to lighten the situation. "At least I don't sleep in the cupboard anymore."
"C-cupboard?" Her eyes widen and she freezes for a moment before promptly bursting into tears.
"Don't cry," he takes her into his arms awkwardly and pats her back. "I'm fine. Really, I am."
She sniffles. "You won't cry so someone has to do it for you."
When was the last time he cried? Harry doesn't remember. Tears are useless when no one cares if they are shed.
Hermione's emotional response baffles Harry. He has never had anyone get so righteously angry or cry tears of grievance for his sake. It's a foreign feeling, like he's stumbling in the dark and might fall down at any moment.
"I won't let them take you from me," she murmurs into his shirt. Her voice is hoarse and as she raises her head, he can see that her eyes are red from crying. But her jaw is set in a stubborn line and her hand is clenched into a fist at her side.
"I can report your relatives to the muggle authorities if nothing else works, but I have a nasty premonition that it won't be so easy if there's magical interference. In that case, we can go big. Threaten to take this to the Daily Prophet, expose the complete incompetence of the adults who failed to do anything about this. It's time to finally use your Boy-Who-Lived title for some good—I doubt magical society would be happy to know that their poster boy is being treated so horribly by muggles. We should let Sirius in on this too and see what ideas he has.
"Of course, this all depends on you, Harry. I won't do a thing if you don't want me to and we can plan this together. Just know that I'll fight for you."
Hermione gets up from the bed and starts pacing on the floor, continuing to ramble on with her ideas, and a small smile slowly forms on his face.
For once in his life, Harry allows himself to believe.
On the first night Harry spends at Hermione's house, neither of the teenagers can fall asleep. Mrs Granger sympathizes and sets up some snacks and an assortment of movies for them in the living room.
Hermione is still operating on overdrive planning mode, but when she sees how tired Harry is, she settles next to him on the sofa and lets him rest his head on her shoulder.
"You sure you don't want to sleep?"
"Yes," Harry says. He knows it's silly, but he doesn't want to risk falling asleep and waking up at the Dursleys somehow.
"Well, tell me what interests you." She looks at the VCR movie tapes and starts to list their options. Back to the Future, Star Wars, Alladin, Robin Hood, The Little Mermaid, the Black Cauldron, Cinderella…
Harry involuntarily stiffens at the mention of the last one and Hermione says lightly. "Hmm, I didn't peg you as the fairytale type."
"It's the story of my life," he says absentmindedly and then instantly wishes he could take it back.
"What do you mean?"
"It's silly," Harry lifts his head from her shoulder and swallows hard. "Childish."
Hermione takes his hand and squeezes it. "Somehow, I doubt that."
He doesn't know if it is the earnest look in her eyes or the tired, emotional state he's in that leads to him speaking.
"It's something Dudley used to call me when I was little. Cinders. Cinderella. He meant it as an insult, of course, saying that a pathetic and weak boy like me deserved to be compared to an even more pathetic and weak girl. Honestly, I really hated the nickname. But at the same time I couldn't help but think we were truly alike."
Hermione's fingers tremble on his hand, but she says nothing and Harry grows afraid.
"I'm not weird or a sissy," Harry tries to explain, not sure if he's trying to convince her or himself. "Who hasn't imagined another, more magical life? You won't believe how shocked I was when Hagrid came and told me I was a wizard! I thought that reading all those fairytales had made me unable to discern dreams from reality."
He doesn't tell her that, back then, he latched on to the idea of his life being a fairytale because it made the days go by more easily. Because he desperately wanted to believe in a happily ever after.
Hermione lets go of his hand and Harry's heart chills, but the next moment she is wrapping her arms around him and tucking her head against his shoulders.
"You know, when I was young Cinderella was my favorite princess."
Whatever Harry expected her to say, it isn't that. "Why?"
Even if she's just trying to change the subject, he's curious in spite of himself.
"She was trapped in that mansion with an evil stepmother and stepsisters, living the life of a servant despite being a daughter of the family. Honestly, living in that type of environment, wouldn't you have expected her to grow up with a twisted personality and have nothing but resentment in her heart? If it was me, I would have hated the world and everyone in it for being so happy while I suffered. But even after everything she was subject to, she still woke up in the morning with enthusiasm and tried to live her life the best she could. They treated her cruelly, but she didn't lash out at others from the pain and was still kind and compassionate. Isn't that amazing? People say she's the weakest of the princesses in these fairy tales, but I think she's one of the strongest."
Harry is stunned and subconsciously denies her words. "She wasn't that strong. If she was, she would have fought back instead of accepting her fate. If the fairy godmother hadn't intervened, she would have remained powerless for the rest of her life."
"So what if she couldn't fight back? Quiet strength is still strength. Cinderella wasn't powerless, Harry." Hermione squeezes her arms more tightly around him. "She was a survivor."
A lump forms in his throat.
"And if she was here right now, I would tell her well done. Well done on getting through every day. Well done on living well up to this point."
You're a survivor, Harry.
You did well, she is telling him.
Harry looks at the blank television screen and it's as if he can see his childhood self staring back at him. The boy is skinny, his shirt is entirely too big for him, and the green eyes behind his taped together glasses are too wary and serious to belong to a child.
"You did well," he says hoarsely.
The boy looks surprised but slowly reveals a large, gummy smile.
Harry always tries to escape the shadows of his childhood, but he can never truly leave it behind. It comes up again years later, after the war has been fought and won and the young boy in oversized clothes has turned into a young man ready to face the world.
"Harry, are you sure you want to attend this Halloween party?" Hermione pokes her head into his room at Grimmauld Place. "Mum and Dad would understand if you don't."
"I'm fine, Hermione. My parents wouldn't want me to sit at home miserable every Halloween. Besides, Sirius has his costume ready and everything."
"And you?" Hermione raises her eyebrow.
He coughs and points at the robes on his bed. "I'll go as a... wizard?"
"Oh, honestly." She rolls her eyes and pulls out two sets of costumes from her beaded bag. "You're lucky I know you so well."
Harry's eyes widen as he stares at the costumes in her hands.
"Yes," Hermione suddenly looks a little uncertain of herself and explains: "I thought you might like it, but if not we can—"
"No," he interrupts her. "It's perfect."
Once they've both changed, Harry looks down at the billowy blue sleeves of his tunic and tight, light blue pants and suddenly regrets his earlier enthusiasm.
"I look ridiculous."
Hermione puts her hands on her hips. "Don't be silly, you look beautiful."
"Easy for you to say," Harry makes a hand motion towards Hermione's gold and white royal suit ensemble. "You look utterly dashing."
She walks towards him slowly, a mischievous little grin on her face.
"What is it?" He eyes her suspiciously.
Hermione's expression smooths over into a serene mask and she lowers her head in a graceful bow before taking his hand and kissing it lightly.
It's unfair, Harry thinks. It's been years since they've gotten together, but she still manages to catch him off guard and surprise him with moments like these.
"Will you do me the honour of being my partner for this ball?"
He laughs loudly and lifts her up into his arms, with no intention of letting her go no matter how much she protests.
"This Cinderella thinks the ball can wait…"
The after credits of the movies started to roll and Harry finally felt a little sleepy, but he refused to close his eyes before telling Hermione one last thing.
"You know, all this time I think I was waiting—for someone to notice, for someone to come and save me." Harry laced his fingers with hers and spoke normally, as if he was describing someone else's story. "And today, when I had already long lost all hope, there you were."
"You saved me too," she said softly. "No one else noticed I was gone. Only you."
The troll incident — Harry had nearly forgotten about it, but it's clear that Hermione never has. Maybe he shouldn't be surprised. Maybe this was just a thing of theirs.
Maybe they were destined to always be saving each other.
Hermione pats down her thoroughly tousled hair and anxiously smooths out the wrinkles on her costume. "Harry, we're late! Come on, Sirius already left without us."
Harry leisurely ties his cravat around his neck and winks at her. "Cinderella always arrives fashionably late."
She groans when he leans down and takes even longer to manually tie his dress shoes.
"Have to tie them just right, Hermione." He chuckles at her deadpan expression. "After all, if they're not loose enough to fall off, how will you find me when the clock strikes midnight?"
Hermione rolls her eyes and points her wand at his shoes and they instantly tie themselves. "I've already memorized every inch of you, I don't need a silly old shoe."
"Wherever you are," she leans her face close to his and whispers. "If you need me, I'll always find you."
The light was still on and faintly illuminated the dark, narrow space which a cluster of spiders had long made into their own home. The main inhabitant of the Cupboard Under the Stairs had, however, already fallen asleep. His thin body was curled up on the edge of the small bed and his glasses were folded at the side.
The book of fairy tales lay open above his blanket and he had been too drowsy to read the last page.
"And they lived happily ever after..."