The first time Harry Potter saw his guardian he had been laying on his back in the utter dark, listening to the sound of his heart struggling weakly to beat in his chest. It was hard to tell if he was asleep or awake, but he remembered blinking once, slowly, and seeing him there, leaning over his sickly form. The man's face was pale and aristocratic, with neatly defined bones and flawless skin, and his eyes were impossibly dark and deep, two bottomless pools of shadow. Harry gasped, weakly, but that was the extent of his reaction, for thirst stifled his voice and hunger sapped his strength.
He didn't know how long it had been since Uncle Vernon had cast him into the dark. Eventually they would have to open the cupboard if only to deal with the stench; Harry had heard Petunia complaining already, but Vernon was still vexed and reluctant to release his nephew. At this point, Harry could hardly remember what it was that he had done to incur his uncle's wrath. It didn't really matter.
Harry couldn't speak, but this strange, impossible figure gave him a soft smile and laid a hand with long, slender fingers on his chest, above his clenching heart. It was a cold, soothing touch that seeped through his bones and relaxed the tension that had risen in his shoulders.
"They are pitiful, are they not?" the man had asked, quietly. His voice was clear and articulate, with an indecipherable accent and a slow tempo. "Jealous, fearful, pathetic creatures. Do not hate them, Harry Potter, for they are not worth even your scorn."
The pangs of hunger and the dry rasp in Harry's throat subsided as the being which Harry could only assume was an angel lightly brushed his fingers across Harry's pallid skin.
"I am no angel, my fated child," the man said, blinking slowly. His hand came to rest on the side of Harry's face, and the cold sent gooseflesh cascading down Harry's neck. "I am the relief for those who are dying, the guide for the lost and the redeemer of the broken. Take heart, my child, for it is not your time." A this, the man gave him a gentle smile, and the pangs of hunger that plagued Harry seemed to melt away to nothing. "You shall see me again."
Against his will, Harry's eyes became heavy and consciousness slipped from his grasp, even as he reached up to hold the dark figure's fingers against his face.
He was awakened by Vernon hauling him bodily from the cupboard and throwing him into the bath. Petunia, looking unnaturally pale and shaky, gave him a peanut butter sandwich and a tall glass of milk, and Harry could only wonder what she had seen that had shaken her so deeply.
When he saw himself in the mirror, he knew.
"Who are you?" the boy asked, staring intently at nothing. Chaos had erupted in the kitchen of Number 4 Privet Drive when Vernon Dursley reached out to take his nephew by the hair, only to hit the ground with tremendous force, shaking the windows and rattling the plates on the table. Petunia had screamed, Dudley had worked his jaw soundlessly, but Harry hardly blinked, gazing intently at the dark, ethereal figure that had appeared moments before the man had collapsed. The gigantic, walrus of a man was gasping and clutching at his chest, and his dark haired, skeletal nephew paid him nary a sidelong glance.
The ghostly image peered at him through a darkened hood. Although the kitchen was well-lit, shadows played deeply around the man's familiar pale skin. Harry stepped back as Petunia rushed past him, grasping the phone like a lifeline and barking hysterically into the receiver. Torn between escaping the mayhem and staying to have his question answered, he hesitated at the threshold, then turned and ducked into the sitting room. He hadn't expected the ghost to appear before him, much closer this time, and his breath caught in his throat.
He recognized that face.
"I am Death," the man said, although Harry knew at once that this was not a man at all, but something beyond mere flesh and blood. Beyond time itself.
"I know you," Harry said quietly, and at once Death's form shifted, becoming solid before his eyes. His dark black cloaks remained, but his hood fell, revealing high, aristocratic features and black, featureless eyes.
"Yes," said the primordial being, reaching out his hand to brush his fingers against the scar on Harry's forehead. The boy shuddered and felt pain lance through his skull at the place where those fingers touched his skin. "He who has escaped my embrace, and he who reviles my existence. Truly, I say to you, your life belongs to me. I should only reach out to take it…"
His hand passed into Harry's chest, and the boy felt numb. His limbs had frozen stiff, and he could only blink in surprise as his heart beat in the grasp of Death. Then, Death withdrew from him with a wan smile, dragging his fingers across Harry's skin and sending gooseflesh across his trembling body. He fell to his knees the moment Death's hand left him.
"Ah, but you knew that already," Death said softly. "Rise, child."
Harry regained his feet immediately, slightly unsteady. "You…killed Uncle Vernon."
"Vernon killed Vernon, child," Death corrected him, kneeling so that they were face to face. "I only chose the time of his passing. If it was necessary, which I assure you it was, then it is better that it was done quickly, before he laid his hands upon you once more."
"I don't understand," Harry said, frowning. The expression was especially striking on his deathly visage, but Death only smiled.
"He made his choice," was all the pale being said. "I have a vision for you, fated child. Do you want to hear it?"
Harry shrugged, hugging himself about the midsection with his gangly arms.
"There are wretched creatures in this world. Ghastly, corrupted things which exist in a tortured imitation of Life. Beings which have eschewed my embrace. One such creature gave you your scar and killed your parents. You could help me protect others from the same," Death elaborated, gazing at him intently.
"Couldn't you simply take them?"
Death chuckled. "I cannot violate the sovereign will of any soul, no matter how ruined it might be. In the past, I have raised judges and champions to enact my will on Earth."
"I am just a freak." Harry replied, looking away and gnawing his bottom lip. He started when Death's cold fingers grasped him gently by the chin and directed his face so that their eyes met.
"I care for you, my child," Death whispered, and his eyes seemed to swallow Harry's thoughts. "Serve as my mortal instrument and I will grant you power beyond your human imagination. I have no need for heroes who are great of their own power; with faith and dedication even the lowliest of Man can serve me well."
It seemed, in this moment, that there was no choice. Harry could hardly think, let alone articulate a refusal. And he didn't know if he wanted to refuse, anyway.
"What do I have to do?" he found himself saying.
Death smiled, a true expression, and Harry found himself flush with delight. "That is enough. Remember this as a covenant between us, and know that I am with you."
Then, he was gone, and Harry listened to the sirens of the ambulance as it screamed down Privet Drive, arriving much too late to save Vernon Dursley from his heart attack.