A/N: This fic takes place pre-OotP and was mostly written before the book came out, though it was posted after. This is the ORIGINAL version of this chapter. A revised version is currently being written. See my Author's bio for details.
It was August 28. It was officially the worst day of Harry's life. He had always been very accepting of situations, most likely because of living with the Dursleys, but this was just unfair. Life could be so cruel sometimes…
For Harry, the summer after his fourth year began as a living hell. Apparently, the Dursleys hadn't been as forgiving with the Ton-Tongue Toffee incident as they had with previous ones. Now, along with the usual punishment of being weighed down with chores, they had started abusing him as well. Now, Harry was used to Dudley and his gang roughing him up a bit, and the occasional slaps and hair-grabbings from his aunt and uncle, but now it was different. He had never been truly afraid of his uncle before, but now, as Harry's "punishments" got worse, he noticed a strange gleam in his uncle's eyes that gave a plain message to Harry: even though his uncle was beating him with more passion than he had ever before, he clearly was restraining himself from doing what he really wanted to do: kill him.
However, Harry had a streak of pride, or maybe it was embarrassment, that would not allow him to ask for help. So, he continued to write to his friends like nothing was going on, saying "Yes Dudley is still a big fat cow" and the occasional "Can't wait for Hogwarts" but nothing that could give his friends the slightest clue about his situation.
As life for Harry was gradually declining, a family moved in a few houses down, the Stensons. One day, while Harry was trimming the hedges, the girl came and talked to him. It was a brief conversation as Harry insisted he needed to finish his chores. (He also was afraid of what the Dursleys would do to him if he were found talking with the new neighbor. What if Harry's abnormality affected what they thought of the Dursleys?) She was a year older than Harry, with curly brown hair and freckles and was a little pudgy (though if she had two clones, they could still all hide behind Dudley standing side by side). A few days later, after a few other brief visits by the girl, her mother came over saying that Dakota, her daughter, had seen Harry working in the yard and wondered if he could do some work for them. He could even stay for dinner. Well, the idea of getting rid of Harry for a whole day, along with making a good impression with the new neighbors appealed to his uncle and so Harry somberly followed the lady back to her house.
'Great,' he had thought, 'Now I get to do all of the neighbors chores too.'
But when he got to the house, there were no chores to be done. Mrs. Stenson
proclaimed that, from what she saw, he was "doing far too much work around that house for a growing boy's own good. By the looks of you, you've already pulled your weight, now it's your cousin's turn, and he could pull the whole house!" She giggled at her pun and left into the kitchen. Dakota walked in carrying a few movies asking him which one he would like to watch. At this point, Harry was utterly confused, as any normal person would be. This girl that he had met just the day before for about two minutes had him being treated as if he was part of the family. Instead of answering her question he just blurted out one of his own.
"Wait, I'm not here to do yard work?"
She looked at him with a look that was cheerful but still a bit nervous. "Umm…no, I thought you'd like this better than doing chores all the time. From what I've seen, that's all you do all day. I thought that this would be a nice little surprise, unless you don't want to be here. I won't be offended if you go home."
"Oh no, this is great! I was just a little confused at first. Are you sure though?" he quickly recovered. He was relieved. At first he had thought it might have been some cruel joke.
"Of course. So do you like action or comedy?" She smiled holding up the videos.
That night he met Dakota's dad over dinner. Harry enjoyed himself immensely. They had asked him questions with genuine interest without being nosy like many of his other neighbors (Aunt Petunia being their ringleader).
At first Mrs. Stenson would come over every few days to request Harry's assistance with some chores until Harry just began to go over there every day after his chores for at least an hour. It was great for him as the Dursleys had basically stopped feeding him and he now could get food without having to sneak it. It was like he was just part of the Stenson household and was always greeted with cheerfulness. It was nice to have a few hours a day without looks of hate and disdain. Aside from his times at the Burrow, these times were his favorites ever spent during summer.
One day, Harry arrived home to extreme tension. Uncle Vernon had lost his big account. Harry quietly snuck up to his room, hoping that the drinking binge that his uncle was on would make him pass out. He lay in bed hardly daring to breathe, listening for any indication of his uncle's actions. He could occasionally catch a few words being slurred out to Aunt Petunia, mostly about how it was very suspicious that his biggest client found another company with lower prices. Harry's heart began to pound. All of a sudden he heard a drunken yell, "It's that boy that's doing this! Him with his abnormality!" Harry knew what was coming when he heard the thundering footsteps. He quickly glanced at the windows but was just reminded that escape was hopeless being that Uncle Vernon had put more heavy-duty bars up at the beginning of the summer. Instead he closed his eyes. He knew that pretending he was asleep was hopeless, but he frankly couldn't think of anything better to do at the time.
He heard his door slam open and felt his arm being nearly ripped out of its socket as he was torn from his bed. Next thing he knew he was being slammed up against a wall and his uncle's hands snaking around his neck. His head swam from lack of oxygen causing his uncle's already slurred words to blur into a slow buzzing. Suddenly he was thrown to the floor and the hands gone from his neck.
"Well answer me boy!" his uncle drunkenly growled. Unfortunately Harry was too busy gasping for air to answer, not that he had heard the question in the first place. He felt a sharp pain in his stomach and then his chest as his uncle kicked him. Harry rolled up into a ball to protect his stomach as he thought that one more kick would bring up the meal he had just had. This just infuriated his uncle who stepped over him and then kicked him in the back, which made Harry whip back out of his ball. His glasses had been thrown away from him in the fall. What remaining vision he had began to swim and grow white. His last coherent thought as his torso was undergoing a final downpour of kicks was, "Hey, I always thought it gets black when you pass out." Then, as the world got blindingly white, he was drowned in the comforting darkness of unconsciousness.
The next day, Harry went through his chores mechanically, the pain in his stomach and arm and the soreness of his throat only occasionally dragging him from the thoughts that he was lost in. He couldn't decide whether to go to the Stensons' house or not. If he went there was the risk of them discovering his awful secret, but the lack of his presence might cause some questions over at their house that could end in them coming to find out what was wrong. The thought of the Stensons confronting the Dursleys about him caused the latter argument to win, so after his chores, he pulled on Dudley's old turtleneck, which sufficiently covered his bruises and walked over.
He had told them that he couldn't stay long because he had a bit of a cold (thus explaining the warm clothes during summer) but Kota had gotten a new horror movie that she refused to watch alone. At the first scary point in the movie, Kota jumped and grabbed the shoulder that had almost had an arm disconnected from it and despite his efforts, Harry gasped in pain. He had hoped it would be covered up with him saying that she had scared him, but Kota was suspicious and promptly poked his shoulder again. Harry couldn't help but wince.
"What happened to your shoulder?" she asked, forgetting about the movie and also grabbing the attention of her father who had been reading the paper.
"Uh nothing. I have to go." He quickly started to get up but Kota wouldn't let her curiosity go uncured.
"Let me take a look at it, Harry, I used to be in a first aid class." Harry began to protest but Kota grabbed the collar of his shirt and yanked it down sideways, hoping to reveal the infliction to Harry's shoulder, but let go of it with a gasp when she saw the livid bruises on Harry's neck. Harry knew he was in trouble. The bruises distinctly shaped like handprints couldn't be covered up as easily as previous injuries had, so he decided that leaving would be the easiest solution. He turned saying he had to go but found that Mr. Stenson was blocking his way, his mouth hanging slightly open and his eyes puzzled.
"Wait a second there, Harry, let me take a look at that," he said reaching for Harry's collar again. Harry took a step back muttering that it was nothing and that he had to go, his eyes searching frantically for an escape.
Mr. Stenson repeated Kota's action but pulled the neck straight down. Harry silently cursed Dudley's huge shirt as the collar stretched down enough to reveal the fresh bruises on his neck for the second time of the night. Harry was at a loss for words mumbling that it was nothing while trying to figure out some explanation.
"Kota, stay here. Harry, come with me." It was the sternest and most serious voice that he had ever used in front of Harry. Harry tried once again to state that he needed to go, but it came out as a sort of desperate plea that Mr. Stenson seemed deaf to. Mr. Stenson placed his hand on Harry's back and led him into the kitchen. Harry had to clench his jaw to prevent crying out in pain.
In the privacy of the kitchen, Mr. Stenson ordered Harry to take off his shirt. His mind raced through all of his options, but since all of them required the use of magic in front of Muggles, he reluctantly and slowly took off his shirt. He couldn't look at Mr. Stenson while he demanded that Harry tell him who had done this. His mind was a state of pure panic. What would Uncle Vernon do when he found out that Harry let the secret out? 'Well let's just say he's not going to hold back this time,' nagged an annoying little voice in the back of his head. How would Hermione and Ron react when they found out he was dead? Hopefully, they'd mourn for a significant amount of time. And then maybe they would stop denying their feelings for each other and admit their love while comforting each other. It was so obvious that they liked each other. 'Wow my mind's sure rambling,' he had thought before he realized that Mr. Stenson had been calling his name.
He looked up at Mr. Stenson not bothering to try masking the terror in his eyes.
"It was only this one time!" he blurted out as if that would make it all better. But the yellow bruises beneath the blue ones told otherwise and apparently Mr. Stenson didn't miss that. His eyes were full of fury.
"Harry, you're staying here tonight. You can stay in the guest bedroom." He began to march out of the kitchen. Harry grabbed his shirt and quickly pulled it back on while starting after Mr. Stenson.
"Wait! Don't talk to them! It really isn't bad and I'm leaving for school in September anyways. Please!" They were now in the living room and by the look on Mrs. Stenson's face, Kota had told her what happened to the extent of her knowledge. The two females looked scared and bewildered, but Harry didn't really care. There was a more pressing matter.
"Kathryn, Harry will be staying the night. Give him some painkillers. I need to have a talk with the Dursleys." Ignoring Harry's pleas, he marched straight out the door, slamming it behind him.
The half hour or so while Mr. Stenson was gone was spent seated at the kitchen table with the two females trying to soothe Harry who was trembling and constantly glancing at the door. When Mr. Stenson returned nursing his right fist, he simply stated that he was going to get help the next day and that it was time to go to bed. The two adults lead the two teenagers up the stairs, then splitting off with Mrs. Stenson making sure Dakota went to her room lecturing her about not visiting Harry's room that night, and Mr. Stenson guiding a still-shaking Harry into the guest room. He was carrying a bag that Harry hadn't noticed before, which he explained held as many clothes of Harry's that he could grab. Harry meant to say thank you but could only manage a feeble nod of the head.
Mr. Stenson closed the door to prevent Kota from hearing him. "Listen Harry, what the Dursleys did to you is very wrong. No one deserves that but especially not you. Everything will turn out all right, okay? Now try to get some sleep. You'll be staying with us for a while." He gave Harry a comforting smile and then left the room, shutting the door gently behind him.
Mr. Stenson called Child Protective Services the next day, but as they were certain that there was no immediate danger and were very busy with more urgent cases, along with the fact that Uncle Vernon had a few friends in high places over there, it took a long time to get a social worker to come out to investigate, too long. Harry's bruises had all disappeared except for the faintest sign of them, and apparently that wasn't enough evidence. The social worker talked with the Dursleys who assured him that they would never do such a thing to their darling nephew and didn't understand what these people were talking about, but their nephew was a bit of a delinquent and having no parents had sparked a desperate need for attention. They knew Harry was a chronic liar, but they didn't realize he would do something this low for attention. They apparently also confided their belief that the Stensons were brainwashing Harry and playing into his delusions since they had always wanted a son and this was their perfect chance. Therefore, it was decided by the court (with a judge that knew Vernon Dursley personally) that it was in fact dangerous to leave Harry with the Stensons and that he would be immediately placed back with his aunt and uncle, only being allowed to see the Stensons with his relatives' permission, which ended up being only when they were going out and Mrs. Figg wasn't able to watch Harry.
Harry had surprisingly been able to keep all of this from anyone in the wizarding world, not mentioning his home life at all in his letters, aside from a few brief mentions of some new neighbors. (He had explained to the Stensons that Hedwig was trained like a carrier pigeon.)
Even though he had to go back to the Dursleys, he was back to his life of the occasional slap or hair-pulling, since the social worker had threatened to visit before the end of summer. His uncle was constantly saying, "Just wait until the next time I see you boy. Why don't you come back at Christmas holiday?" with a menacing gleam in his eye and an evil smirk on his lips.
On August 28, Harry went over to the Stensons to get out of the Dursleys' way while they had some of Uncle Vernon's business clients over to dinner. (Harry's record with dinner company apparently wasn't to their liking.) Kota was the only one home, and Harry went over how to use Hedwig to write letters back to him and what Hedwig liked for treats. Kota told him that he should come home from his boarding school for Christmas. He could stay with them and the Dursleys would never even know. The two were in high spirits when Kota's parents arrived home, but their moods took a giant dive when they saw the somber looks on the adults' faces.
They told Harry and Kota to sit down; there was something very important that they needed to be told. Harry asked if he should leave, but they said no, he should hear this too. They had just gotten back from the doctor's where their fear had been confirmed. Mr. Stenson had a form of cancer. Harry's mouth dropped open and his eyes grew wide. They went on explaining how they found out and that they were going to try the best they can to fight it. Harry knew little about cancer, but from what he'd seen on those hospital dramas with Kota, they were usually given an amount of time they had left to live. Harry desperately felt the need to know this but bit his tongue. It wasn't his place to ask. Kota hesitantly voiced his question.
"Well, it's just an estimation, many patients live ten times as long as they first guess without even being cured...but they have said that I've already had it for a while and well...they estimate about six months," Mr. Stenson said hesitantly as though he wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing in revealing this information. Kota let out a sob and Harry gasped. That was so soon. And he was going to be at Hogwarts until at least December!
'It's probably best that way,' Harry thought, 'they need to spend time together without me hanging around…wait. Hogwarts. Magic. Maybe…' His thoughts were interrupted by a comforting arm over his shoulder. He looked up to see Kota crying into her dad's neck and Mrs. Stenson sitting next to him on the couch gently telling him that the Dursleys had said that he needed to be home in about five minutes, and that she was sorry to end his summer this way, but it would all be okay. Harry looked at her in disbelief. He had never heard anything that could be further from okay. She quietly said to have a good time at his school, not to worry too much, and that they would love to have him during his Christmas break, and the Dursleys wouldn't even have to know.
Harry walked back to the Dursleys in a daze, faintly taking in that there were no extra cars in the driveway and it was therefore okay to go inside. His daze stayed with him all the way to his room, not even noticing Dudley's comment about him looking deranged.
Sitting on his bed, he suddenly remembered his idea earlier. Maybe there was a wizard cure! He could research it and ask his professors. He had never heard of a wizard getting cancer so they must have a cure! This hope gave Harry a determination that stayed with him the next few days.
On September 1, Dakota stopped by offering to drive Harry to the train station. Despite Uncle Vernon's hate of the Stensons, the offer was too tempting to deny and soon Harry's trunk was in the back and Harry was silently sitting in the passenger's seat with Hedwig in his lap, while Dakota drove on in equal silence.
"I just can't believe it, Harry." Her voice sounded weary and raspy, probably from crying so much.
"It just isn't fair," Harry sighed, stroking Hedwig through her cage. They remained silent for the rest of the car trip, lost in their own thoughts. Nothing they could say seemed important enough to voice; everything seemed trivial now.
Kota parked and walked with Harry inside, carrying Hedwig's cage while Harry dragged his trunk. They stopped near platform 9 ¾ and said their goodbyes. She had wanted to see him onto his train but he said that he needed a few minutes alone to recoup before getting on. Kota gave Harry a hug, which he returned without embarrassment and whispered in her ear, "I'm going to find a way to fix this."
She laughed and broke the hug, wiping away a tear. "That's what I like about you Harry, forever thinking you can change the world and that it's up to you to do so. The only thing I want you to do is come home at Christmas okay?" He gave a nod of assent, and with a sad smile, she turned and walked off.
Harry turned and looked at the familiar barrier. He reminded himself that he would be able to help and took a deep breath before walking towards the barrier, his trunk and Hedwig in tow.