Those of you who follow my livejournal already saw all but the last couple lines of this, and I had not originally meant to include it in the actual story because I think of Cat as being Harry's story and this is decidedly not his point of view. On the other hand, a lot of you have been with me for, what, almost six-and-a-half years now and have still with greater or lesser patience, been waiting for the great unveiling of Everyone's Discovery of The Truth, so it seemed kind of cheap to have it happen while Harry was unconscious and thus not include it. I had to write it either way in order to figure out what the heck they were going to do next, because this fixing him thing is rather overwhelming and hard to think about a step at a time.
At any rate-um-sorry for it taking me three years to update? I'll try to do better next time? *hides* Hopefully it's worth the wait!
Oh, also, there have been a couple inquiries lately about the possibility of someone taking over my fic, so I figured I'd give a general answer: I have absolutely no intention of letting anyone's word but mine being the canon of Catechism. On the other hand, this is a fanfiction community, and we don't ask permission to write spin offs and AUs of fics or Catechism wouldn't exist :p If you need my blessing, you have it, but you shouldn't need it. I won't necessarily read it, and I certainly won't promise to incorporate your version-but write away, let me know if you feel like it, and believe me delighted at having inspired writing even if I disagree with every word you type!
Severus's lips tightened slightly as he again checked the results of his most recent tests. He had been narrowing in on the issue for the last three days, and over the past two hours since classes had finished, had finally come to a conclusion. And tested it. And retested it. And again. Each time, he got the same results.
He started down at the pale green potion with its faintly acrid odor for a long moment, then he carefully cleaned his workplace, and then strode through the halls, mind racing, face empty. He didn't bother speaking to the second-year Gryffindor careening through the halls who stopped abruptly, staring at him through fearful eyes, just passed him by and made his way to the hospital wing.
Sweeping in, he rapped once on Madam Pomfrey's office door, and then stepped inside at her call.
"Severus? What is it?"
His lips pursed slightly, and then he asked, "The blood drawn from Mr. Potter. You are quite sure it was a good sample? Not contaminated in any way?"
She blinked, too startled even to be offended. "Of course. Why-?"
"Then I must speak to the headmaster. Pardon me." He strode away again, thoughts whirling faster as he moved more quickly through the halls, glaring impatiently at the gargoyle as he spat out the password, and then climbing the steps to the headmaster's office.
"Severus, my boy, how good of you to drop in," Albus said with every appearance of sincerity.
"There is something wrong with the Potter boy," Severus stated without prelude.
Albus sighed. "He is shy, it's true—"
"His blood shows signs of famine magic," Severus interrupted sharply.
Albus froze. "What?"
"It's not a potion. There are no traces of the ingredients that would mark any of the known potions. But the signature is the same. The effect."
"There has not been a famine," Albus said softly, eyes intent.
"Blood doesn't lie."
"Wild magic is wild, Severus. An untrained child could no more make a starvation cure than—"
"No. Not if it came on all at once," he agreed. "It must have been long term. Starting slowly. A nutrient here, a shortage there. A few calories boosted. And then it grew as his diet shrank. His magic instinctively learning to fill the gaps. Which, without potions, is—fascinating," he added.
"But his magic could never do such a thing—" Albus broke off, his eyes missing their sparkle, fingers splayed whitely on his desk.
"If he were being fed," Severus spoke the words Albus could not. "No. It couldn't. The boy is being abused, Albus."
"How sure are you?"
"Then we must retrieve him. Immediately."
"What?" The startled demand made both of them turn to the battered hat resting on the stool in the corner. "Retrieve him? From where?" it demanded.
"From his family," Albus stated, rising slowly and advancing on the hat. "The family that you gave us no idea starved him."
"You gave me no idea you were sending him back! What were you thinking?"
It was more than a trifle disconcerting to hear that level of panic coming from an inanimate object, Severus decided. Even a lifetime of magic could not make it otherwise.
"We were thinking that he had suffered an accident and needed to be away from magic! How dare you not tell us of this?" Albus demanded, his power, for once, riding in his voice, booming, threatening.
"Because I had no idea you were going to send him back, and you would have made things worse," the hat said shortly. "You must go. Get him."
"There is no time," the hat said sharply. "All explanations can wait. Get him out of there."
Albus began to ask another question, but Severus understood the level of urgency in the hat's tone, and lightly touched the emergency portkey he always carried to get him beyond the wards of Hogwarts, and then disapparated, reappearing in a clump of bushes a block from Potter's house.
Immediately, it was apparent that things were far worse than he had expected even from the hat's frantic tone. The raging fire was a bit of a giveaway.
He stood still for a long moment, eyes flickering about the scene, taking stock. Rushing in before he was certain of the situation would help nothing. The house on fire was certainly Potter's, and the clutter of muggles around it, presently comprised entirely of neighbors intrigued by the scene rather than officials sent to fix it, was staring and shouting and basically being of absolutely no use at all. Flames were flickering out the windows in the back, and the forward windows were back lit then covered in soot. A boy with serious weight issues was struggling to get into the house, held back by a tall man in extremely good shape, who was shouting at him to wait for the firemen, that he couldn't go in there.
Severus cast a quick charm to become inconspicuous and moved around to the back where the fire was the worst on the principle that Harry was most likely to be found in the worst possible place. He cast a spell to fireproof his clothes, damped one sleeve and held it across his nose and mouth, and moved forward into the house. The fire had clearly started in the basement, and a quickly muttered "Point me" assured him that his charge had lived up to expectation and was, indeed, somewhere below the stairs, which were awash in flame, mostly following the lines of paint that had been spilled across them. He moved down them as carefully as he could, all too aware of their weakened structure.
At the bottom, he took in everything at a glance, which was good as there was very little time to observe. Two flaming husks marked the end of Harry's aunt and uncle, huddled in a corner and reaching out back towards the stairs-following their last point, he found a set of metal shelves collapsed and lying unevenly on the floor. Uneven because one side was held up by the boy he had come to find, his one free arm reaching out towards his family. That arm was blackened and burning, and his clothes, too, were on fire. Severus extinguished them with a word, cast the cabinet off the boy, and lifted him. He didn't have time even to see if he was alive or dead-the most important thing was to get him out, because if he didn't leave now, the question would be answered even if it hadn't been already.
Coughing raggedly, he cast the child over his shoulder, hurried back up the crumbling stairs, and pushed out the back door, casting Harry down on the ground as soon as he was far enough away that the house felt merely warm behind him instead of hot or burning. He dropped to his knees beside the boy and leaned forward, searching for some sign that he was still alive. He was badly burned, but not as badly as he should have been given the circumstances, which gave him hope. Where he was, he should have been worse off than his uncle, but instead… but of course the fire wasn't generally the true danger, but the smoke.
He reached for the boy's wrist to take his pulse, froze, and switched to the other wrist, the one that didn't look like it would crackle and flake if he touched it. Laying two fingers across it, he waited, focusing, hoping—
"Is he okay?" The voice was trembling and thick with tears, and he looked around to discover that the overweight boy who'd been trying to get into the house earlier had come around and was staring at him, the man who'd been holding him back still with him, one hand on his arm, standing between him and the house as though to prevent any further attempts. "Is—Is Harry okay?" the boy repeated.
Severus turned back to the child on the ground, moved his fingers a bit—and felt an impossible load of tension slip from his neck. "He's alive," he offered, answering the boy's question as best he could. "You're—"
"His cousin. Dudley Dursley."
Severus's eyes narrowed. "You lived with him?"
"Good." He rose, gathering Harry with him as he did, and approached the other boy, pulling a pocket watch out of his jacket pocket. "Touch this, if you please, Mr. Dursley."
"Here now, just what do you think—" the other man started, moving protectively between them.
"This is none of your concern," Severus stated coolly. "We have recently become aware of some … inconsistencies that Mr. Dursley should be able to help us resolve, and thus his presence is required."
"Are dead," he said shortly, not entirely able to keep his satisfaction at the fact out of his voice. He knew very little of the Dursleys, but if they could raise a child in such a way that he developed wild famine magic—then they deserved worse than they got. Hold the watch, please, Dursley."
The boy stepped towards him, face pale, but the man moved between them again. "I don't know what you think that's going to do," he said shortly, "but Dudley is my student and he's not going anywhere with you!"
"Charming," Severus sneered. "Very well then, join us, do. You can touch it first to see it doesn't bite," he added.
The man frowned at him. "Andd just what is touching it supposed to accomplish, then, eh?"
"I don't know who you are," Severus said sharply. "But this child is badly injured and I must get him to medical attention—"
"Good things the ambulances arrived, then," the other man interrupted, waving one arm back towards the front of the house, where sirens were shrilling and people shouting.
"Sir," Dudley said softly before Snape could swear at the other man. "You can fix him, right? Better than our type could?"
"We can," he said shortly. It was true. At least for these burns—if he wasn't dead yet, he'd be fine within a couple days. Everything else, well, that remained to be seen.
"Right then. I'm going," Dudley said, darting around his teacher to lay one finger on the pocket watch and look expectantly at Severus.
"Good," he said shortly, and activated it just as the other man moved to grab Dudley's hand back, brushing against the watch in the process. There was the usual twisting and spinning and pulling sensation, followed by the bright, clean health room with Poppy looking around at them in concern.
"What the bloody hell was that?" Dudley's teacher demanded.
Ignoring him, Snape moved forward to lay Potter on the nearest bed and turned to the mediwitch. "He was caught in a fire," he stated succinctly. "Extreme damage to his right arm, some other burns, and smoke inhalation."
She nodded sharply and moved forward, wand extended. Both of them knew she could get more accurate information more quickly with a few spells than he could possibly explain, so he stepped out of the way and moved towards the fireplace.
"Here, now, what are you doing with that?" the adult muggle demanded, standing in her way.
Severus's teeth grated slightly in frustration. If not for the fact that Harry's heavy cousin would no doubt raise a fuss, he'd simply hit the man with a full body bind. If not for the fact that they needed said cousin to answer questions, he'd bind them both and call it good. But as it was, diplomacy was, perhaps, a wiser choice, although right now he would very much prefer a spot of violence.
"Let her see to him," he said sharply.
"Look, I don't know who you are—or where we are or how the hell we got here—but the boy's clearly in trouble, and we need to get him to a hospital!"
"We are in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Madame Pomfrey is our resident medi-witch. And she is far better than any muggle hospital could ever hope to be," he said sharply. "The sooner you allow her to do her job, the sooner the boy will be healthy and well again."
"Witchcr—You're a nutter," the man said, jaw dropping.
Dudley took advantage of his shock to put an arm on his arm and guide him out of the mediwitch's way. "No, really," he said. "Magic's real. Harry's a wizard. That's why—" He flinched and cut himself off.
Severus's eyes narrowed and two long strides landed him directly in front of the boy. "'That's why'," he repeated, "what, exactly?"
The boy looked up at him and then back to his feet. "That's why they hated him," he finally muttered. "I mean—I guess that's why. That's what they said it was."
"They said they hated him because he was a wizard?"
"Well—no. I mean they never said they hated him. They said they loved him."
Severus's clenched his jaw for a moment and reminded himself that snapping at the boy would not have the desired effect. "Then the loved him because he was a wizard?"
"N—no," Dudley said, lips quivering. "They said they loved him, but—but—" he broke off, shuddering, and his teacher put an arm around his shoulders, glaring at Severus.
"That's enough of that—Dudley has just lost his parents! His cousin is in bad condition! The last thing he needs is to be—to be interrogated by you!"
"And if I cared about his needs that might have some relevance," Severus sneered. "But instead I'm more concerned about the boy on the couch-the one who not only was trapped in the basement in a fire, but who had apparently been living in famine conditions for an unknown period of time while being cared for, though the term is hardly appropriate, by the parents of this tub of lard!"
"Here now! There's no call for-"
"There is every call for doing whatever needs to be done so that I can find out what I need to know in order to have some hope of possibly helping the boy-I don't say fixing him because I rather think that might be too large a task for anyone."
"Famine conditions?" Dudley asked, voice barely a whisper but drawing the attention of both men. His face was white and blotchy and he was holding his own elbows and shivering a bit.
"Yes-What's this about famine?" his teacher demanded, jutting out his chin. "Obviously there's no famine-this is England, man, and he was in the same house as this one-obviously there was food."
Severus turned the full weight of his gaze on the boy. "Yes," he agreed. "Clearly there was food. Now tell us, boy. Did he eat it?"
Dudley bit his lip.
"What's that supposed to mean?" the other man demanded.
Severus didn't answer, just looked steadily at the boy before him, who finally jerked his head slightly to one side.
"They said he was bad and didn't deserve to eat," he whispered.
"What?" his teacher demanded, suddenly more focused on Dudley then on Snape.
"They said that when he was bad he didn't deserve to eat," the boy repeated. "And when he got hungry anyway it was defiance. And-and-and then they'd let him eat, but he'd be punished. And even then he didn't eat much. I never-I never really thought about it," he admitted, dropping his gaze. "I just-it was just the way things were, you know? Only-only everything I know now about nutrition and diet and-and everything you've taught me," he said, looking up to desperately meet his coach's eyes, clearly upset, "he wasn't eating enough to live. He really wasn't."
"A human can get by on remarkably little, sometimes," his coach said, clearly focused on the problem to avoid concentrating on the more important issue.
"But not as little as him," Dudley insisted. "It was like, I don't know. A piece of bread once or twice a week. Sometimes a little dry salad or something, but mostly just the bread."
"That's impossible," his teacher said flatly.
"No," Severus disagreed, rocked by the words, even though he'd been expecting them. "Not for a powerful wizard who's untrained. After training it would be impossible, probably, because his magic would be more diffuse and controlled-he could, perhaps do it deliberately, but the magic wouldn't take care of it for him. But in a child-if it started gradually and then grew ever worse... yes. It's possible." He shook his head. "Well, of course it's possible. He did it," he added, turning a glare on the boy on the bed, who Poppy was fretting over frantically.
"But that's-wizard?" the man demanded. "That doesn't make any sense!"
"You're currently at a school of magic in Scotland," Severus said tiredly. "You got here via a portkey, which is a magical transportation device. Currently, a witch is dealing with minor burns with a flick of her wand and a few words-soon she'll transfer to potions for his more serious injuries. Are you truly trying to convince yourself that magic doesn't exist?"
The man slumped a little, staring around the room, taking in Poppy working over Harry and the open cupboard with its rows of neatly packaged potions. "This is impossible," he whispered.
"No," Dudley said. "It's real. Magic's real. I was always afraid of it."
"But-Why?" his teacher demanded. "If it is real, doesn't it make-doesn't it make anything possible? Doesn't it-"
"Yes, yes, all well and good, except that not everyone can do it, not everyone who can do it has the same abilities, and not everyone is sweet and kind," Severus snarled. "It hardly causes a utopia, though I'd certainly rather live with it than without. But it is certainly real. And I would say there is some reason to fear it-it can certainly be used badly. But-what-how could they treat a child like that?" he demanded of Dudley.
"I-I don't know," he whispered. "It's just how it always was! They always did, and it never occurred to me that it might be wrong or that there might be some other way of being because-because that's how it was."
"And nobody outside the family pointed out the error of your ways because they didn't know he existed," Severus considered aloud.
He nodded jerkily. "Mum and Dad always said nobody could know about him. That it wasn't safe. That someone would come after him."
"As well someone should come after a child who is starved and who knows what else!" Severus snapped.
The boy flinched back. "I'm sorry," he choked out. "I didn't know! I should have, but I didn't. And—and—and then he left and everything changed. Mum was always angry because she had to do everything and mostly she didn't, so the food wasn't as good and it was always messy—and Dad was always angry about something, mostly about the food and the mess and both of them were just—and then he came back." The boy shivered. "And it was like—it was like I finally saw, and I knew it was wrong, and I tried—I tried to treat him better, but he just—" he broke off, shaking his head. "He's so, so, so, so fucked up," he finally finished.
"Language," his teacher snapped automatically.
Severus had to smile slightly. "I rather think any lesser phrasing would denigrate it to meaninglessness."
"Huh?" the boy asked.
"I don't think you could get it across without swearing," he explained.
He nodded solemnly, tightening his grip on his elbows a little. "You have no idea," he said.
"Give me an idea, then."
"He—He thinks it's right."
"Thinks … what, exactly, is right?"
"Everything. Everything they said and did. He thanks them when they beat him, because they're trying to help him get better. He's—he truly feels guilty about getting hungry. He—He thinks they're the best people in the world. That everything they say is true and everything they do is perfect and—"
The boy snorted, though it sounded almost more like a sob. "Oh, he thinks I'm perfect, too," he said. "Me."
"Good," Severus said. "We can use that, at least."
"Use?" the boy's teacher demanded. "He's a boy himself, not a shovel or a car!"
Before Severus could respond, the door opened and Albus, in all his colorful glory stepped into the room, twinkling benignly at all. "Ah, here you are. You neglected to inform me of your return, Severus," he said reproachfully. "And we have guests, I see!"
"Potter's cousin," Severus stated, waving one hand towards the boy. "And his teacher. The boy might be useful."
"Ah, lovely-and their names?"
"The boy's Dudley Dursley. I didn't catch his teacher's," he stated.
"My name is John Thompson," the adult stated. "And I'm not a teacher, but his coach or sensei-his Judo instructor. And I greatly resent this man's treatment of him! Dudley has just lost his parents, and-"
Albus frowned. "Lost his parents?" he repeated. "I promise you, my reputation for omniscience is not completely deserved-I have not yet heard the results of Severus's mission, beyond that Harry was in need of medical attention upon their return. Please elucidate!"
"There was a fire," Severus stated. "They burned. Harry, too, but not as thoroughly."
"Good God, you're talking about Dudley's parents!" the teacher-John-exploded, moving forward angrily.
"Yes, and if they weren't dead when I found them, they very likely still would be now!" Severus roared back. "Forgive me if I don't feel regret at the passing of two sadistic lunatics who could completely destroy the mind and soul of a child in their care!"
"Even if all of that is true-"
"It's okay," Dudley mumbled, tugging at the man's arm. "He's-He's right."
"That doesn't change the fact that they were your parents, and you just lost them!"
Dudley's knuckles where white, and his face almost equally so, by now. Severus suspected his elbows would wind up with hand shaped bruises from how he was clutching himself. Anyone who saw would be worried about child abuse in that household, he thought bitterly. The boy looked up at Albus. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I never-"
"My dear child, of course," Albus interrupted. "I am sure you're as blameless in this as Harry himself. Severus is simply thrown a bit by everything that has happened-we only just discovered that things were not all well in your home, and he set out immediately to retrieve Harry-and was met, I see, with a situation rather out of control."
"It was always out of control," Severus said grimly. "We just didn't realize it."
"Apparently true," Albus admitted with a sigh. "I cannot believe..."
"There's no use believing or not believing. We have to decide what to do," Severus stated.
"Indeed, my boy," Albus agreed, brightening noticeably. "And with that in mind, it is very good indeed that you brought young Mr. Dursley back with you. Would you, Mr. Dursley, be willing to assist us in our attempt to return Harry to himself?"
"To himself?" he repeated uncertainly.
"Yes, indeed, to a confident young man with power within him in more ways than one! I believe it would be impossible without your aid, to be honest, because at this point, not only are you likely to be the only one among us who he might trust and listen to, but you also are the most intimately acquainted with what has happened to him."
Dudley sank into himself a bit. "I-I mean of course I'll do what I can," he stammered. "But I don't think-I mean-I'm not at all sure I'll be any use."
"No worries there, my boy. I think first you had best tell us what we have to deal with beyond the issues of food Severus discovered. We have one other who knows a great deal about the issues, but it, it seems, has not yet decided how much to inform us of," he said, eyes narrowing slightly behind his glasses.
"'It'?" demanded Mr. Thompson.
"A hat," Albus said innocently, smile resuming, bright and cheerful. "You'll meet. But first, are you hungry? A spot of tea would surely not go amiss. I'll have them brought up, since I'm sure none of us are willing to leave Harry right now, and over it we can discuss what, exactly, we are dealing with."
Dudley looked a little green at the thought of food, but his coach nodded his head sharply, with a look of extreme relief. "Tea would be welcome," he said.
"And, in fact, it is perfectly okay to leave," Poppy chimed in, finally leaving the bed Harry was in and moving over to them. "I wasn't able to do as much as I wish without risking his hearing beyond redemption. At last, I sank him into a magical coma deep enough that his magic shut down—" She held up a hand to stave off response as both Severus and Albus moved to frantically object to the measure. "Without this measure, I could not save his life without losing his hearing. There was no alternative. With his magic shut down, he has no awareness of outside magic, and thus cannot hear it. He will recover far more slowly without his own magic working with my potions and spells, but he will heal. And once we can complete the potion to take care of his hearing, we can revive him and finish the process far more quickly. For now, he is … safe. He will live, even heal a bit, and won't be in any pain. If it were to last longer than a month there would be serious risk of reviving him from it—but we only need another week, and that should be perfectly manageable." She hesitated, then added, "Besides which, this may well be for the best. Surely we need some time to come to terms with what has happened and formulate some plan as to how we handle it?"
Reluctantly, Severus settled back a little, and saw Albus do the same.
"Very well, then," the headmaster said. "Certainly if we can avoid permanent damage to his hearing, we must do so. And … as you say, it can be considered a sort of grace period. I assume there is no chance of him waking until you rouse him?"
"None," she verified.
"Let us sojourn, then. We shall have tea, and I will arrange a meeting of the House Heads to see what we consensus we might reach. You, as well, of course, Madame Pomfrey. And the hat, I think. Dudley, we will certainly need you present—and Mr. Thompson, you may remain if you wish—but surely you must return home?"
Mr. Thompson folded his arms and jutted his chin out mulishly. "I'm not leaving Dudley with you," he stated. "If he stays, I'm not going anywhere."
Dudley, looking infinitely relieved, didn't argue the point.
"Excellent, excellent. Then of course you'd be most welcome. Do you, perhaps, need to notify anyone, or—"
"If I could make a quick call…?"
"Ah—on a telephone? I'm afraid such things don't work here," Albus said. "We could have a letter delivered, however. Or we could take you somewhere—of course to return immediately."
Mr. Thompson hesitated, and finally turned to Dudley. "Would you be okay without me for a half hour or so? Just while I pack up and let Lucy know what's going on?"
Dudley bit his lip, but nodded. Then he hesitated. "You're not gonna wipe out his memory or something, are you?" he asked.
Albus smiled benignly. "Of course not. I'll have your school and the rescue services informed that you're in safe hands—we do have some contacts in the muggle world, and some story will be made. Have you family that should be informed? Or anyone else you'd like a message given to?"
Dudley hesitated, then nodded sharply and pulled a stubby pencil out of his pocket. "Got a piece of paper?"
Albus drew a large sheet of parchment from—somewhere, and passed it over with a flourish.
Dudley looked at it rather as though it were a snake for a moment, then moved over to a table and jotted down a few quick notes. "The first number is Aunt Marge. The second one is Clarence. Just—tell them I'm okay? Marge—she won't want to come, but she'll feel it her duty. But if you tell her everything's taken care of—she won't. She'll accept it. Though—oh lord, what about a funeral?" he asked. "Do I have to arrange it? Or—or—I mean—"
"Everything will be arranged," Albus said.
"You won't—I mean—they were rotten," Dudley said. "I—I know that. I do. But you won't—do it wrong, will you?"
"If paperwork is found, we'll arrange everything as they've planned," Albus promised. "Otherwise, we'll do it as you'd like. Funerals aren't really for the dead, you know. They're for the ones left behind, and thus whether they were good people or … not, is not relevant. Would they like something big?"
"Big…ish," he said slowly. "But … ordinary. Very, very average. Except bigger. But nothing to make people talk."
He nodded solemnly. "Very well. Allow me to arrange transportation for you, Mr. Thompson, then I'll set the other arrangements in motion."
The following evening, John found himself seated in a comfortable chair around a good-sized table. Perfect-sized, in fact. He could have sworn had been smaller before they started crowding in, but by the time they were all settled, each had excellent elbow room without there being any extra space. Except for the space for the hat at Dumbledore's left side. And how daft was it that a hat had a space to itself? But after the last twenty-four hours or so, he wasn't sure he could be shocked any more, so he just settled a little more comfortably in the chair, clapped a reassuring hand on Dudley's shoulder, and took a moment to look around.
Dumbledore, Snape, and the mediwitch, Pomfrey, he'd met the day before. The others had been introduced to him as they entered, McGonagall, who, with her stern face, bun, and square glasses, looked the most like a teacher of them; Sprout, a rotund little woman with smile lines currently twisted into a concerned frown; and Flitwick, the tiniest adult he'd ever seen, who was jittering nervously in his seat. And the hat, which was large, battered, and looked almost as though it had a face on it.
He poured a cup of tea from the pot on the table, unsurprised to find it piping hot. He'd spent a couple hours at home the previous night, and then had returned for most of the day today, just to put everything in order. Evan could watch the dojo for a little while, and Lucy—didn't understand, because he hadn't even tried to explain, not when he didn't have time to do it right. Not when he didn't have proof, either. But she trusted him and had heard about the fire, and when he said he had to go somewhere with Dudley for a time, and that he wouldn't have access to a phone and that he'd be back as soon as he could, she'd nodded, kissed him, and told him he'd better leave his copy of the car keys, because heaven knew she'd lose hers at least once before he came back if it was to be more than a day or two.
His thoughts were interrupted by Dumbledore clearing his throat to gather there attention, and nodding solemnly. "Since we're all here, and everyone's settled, we'd best dive right in, hadn't we. So then. Why don't you start from the beginning, Mr. Dursley."
"But-But I don't know the beginning! I don't remember. It's always-it's just how-just how it's always been."
"Very well, then, tell us how, exactly, it's always been."
Dudley nodded convulsively. "Okay," he muttered. "Then-then he's always been-been bad. I mean, that's what they said. That he was bad. And that his parents were bad. And that magic was bad. And that, some day, the wizards would take him and try to make him think it was okay, but it wasn't, and if he thought it was, he'd be even more bad. And they said they were trying to help him, trying to make him good. Only-But. Well, I already told you, sir, about the food," he said, looking sideways at Snape. John took a sip of his tea, though its heat didn't do much to thaw the chill in his stomach at the thought of what Dudley had explained the day before about food.
Snape nodded and offered for the others' benefit, "He wasn't to get hungry because he didn't deserve food. Hence the famine magic."
"I ... see." Albus said.
Sprout leaned her face a little into her clenched fists as though to prevent herself from saying anything, McGonagall's already-thin lips drew thinner, and Flitwick started tapping a quill rapidly against the side of the table, eyes averted.
"And-well, I mean, they beat him, of course," Dudley said. "Because he was slow getting things done and defiant and-and just bad. And he always thought it was okay-right. That he deserved it. I mean, he always thought that, as far as I remember. He'd apologize whenever he got hungry or, you know, didn't know something, even if he'd never been told. And things like that. And they'd say they were disappointed. And they'd beat him."
"Of course they would," Snape said, mouth tight.
"Well, yeah," he said, as though it was the most natural thing in the world—and John reminded himself that it was. For Dudley. That making it seem unnatural was what he'd been working on for the last months. Not about the cousin, because he'd had no idea about the cousin, of course. But in general. To understand that just hurting people was unacceptable. He was finally starting to understand why he was so much harder to get through to than anyone else he'd worked with in the past. He'd had students from abusive households before, in one way or another, but never one with it so … comprehensive. And never aimed so completely carefully at one and not another.
He sighed, and asked what he had to. "When you say 'beat', I'm thinking you mean more than a couple whacks on the bum to remind him to do better?"
Dudley flinched a little again, and nodded. "Well-I mean-Yeah. Dad would never do that. He didn't touch him. Not with his hands. Because Harry's badness could, you know, rub off." He shifted as he said it, as though aware of how ridiculous it sounded. "I mean, he'd never touch him bare-handed. He'd punch him sometimes, but he'd make sure to hit clothes. More often he used a belt or a stick or something. Sometimes he'd just keep going. Sometimes he'd stop. I-It didn't occur to me at the time. But somehow, the punishments were always lighter when there was more that needed doing in the house. I mean, they'd always-almost always-leave him well enough to do the cleaning and whatnot. Even when they were awfully angry. But if he'd already done everything, it was more likely to be bad. Real bad, I mean."
He forced out the next question, knuckles white on his cup. "And by 'real bad', you mean..."
"Bad enough he couldn't stand up, I guess."
"And would you say that happened often?"
"Not more than once every couple weeks," he said with a shrug, and God, that was it. That more than anything else hammered it home—that he didn't think that was so very often. "There was too much they wanted him to do for more than that. Mostly. And if they were real mad they sometimes wouldn't beat him at all, just lock him in his cupboard. Because that's what got him the most."
"His … cupboard?" Dumbledore asked for them all.
"Under the stairs," Dudley said. "It's where he slept and that. Where they put him when they didn't need him for anything. I don't think he hated the cupboard, exactly, it was just when it was locked. He was always really, really eager to do, you know, anything, when he came out after he'd been in a long time."
"And a long time would be...?"
"More than a day?" he offered uncertainly. "I mean, once when my aunt was there he was there for a week. But that wasn't because of anything he did, just because she couldn't find out about him."
"How is that possible?" John asked. "I mean-you mean locked in entirely for a full week? Or he was only allowed out for water and whatnot?"
"No," Dudley said. "That week he didn't come out at all. He had a gallon of water, I think. And a bucket, but he wasn't supposed to use it. His cupboard smelled awful when she left. Mum and Dad were furious that he didn't hold it. They said he was horribly defiant and had no respect, and wouldn't let him clean out the bucket for a week as punishment." He flinched. "And that's completely mental, isn't it. Only-only it never occurred to me at the time. And that sounds mental too, doesn't it?"
John focused on trying not to break his teacup. And on trying not to think of a little boy—under ten, God knows how much younger, he couldn't force himself to ask, not now, not yet—locked alone in the dark with no food, a little water, and a filthy bucket that he knew he'd be punished for using, and—Jesus. When Dudley had run into the dojo the previous afternoon and begged him to help because his father was going to kill his cousin—he'd thought he'd been exaggerating. He'd thought the cousin was being beaten and needed rescuing, sure—but now he thought maybe it had been nothing but the truth. He finally realized that Dudley was almost completely white and staring at his hands, which were clenched in front of him, and pulled himself together, clapping the boy's shoulder again and pouring him a cup of tea.
"Here, drink. We're—shocked, 'course we are. But it's not your fault, Dudley. We're not mad at you," he added, with a sharp glance around to be sure nobody argued the point, because Dudley was feeling worse about this than any of the rest of them possibly could, and there was no need to make it worse for him. But none of them showed any sign of countering his statement, so he settled back down and watched as Dudley sipped the tea, a picture of abject misery.
After a long moment, when nobody else offered any immediate questions—and John for one was too upset to consider it—in part because he was almost certain by now that every question, every answer would only make him more upset, Dudley spoke up himself. "So-how are you going to fix him?" Dudley asked, biting his lip.
"I should think it's more a matter of how we are going to fix him, Mr. Dursely," Albus said slowly. "I rather think you'll find you have a non-trivial part in the proceedings." He hesitated, then turned to the hat. "What would you say is the most prevalent problem?"
"The boy hit it. The problem is that Harry believes it's right," the hat said.
John blinked, and stared, and then subsided, because given everything, it was just too much effort to get excited about at talking hat. Beside him, Dudley was gaping.
"Believes it so thoroughly," the hat was continuing, "that it forms the basis of his beliefs. The foundation. Everything he thinks is hinged on the fact that he is bad. Magic is bad. And the Dursleys are perfect."
"And why, exactly," McGonagall said, voice thin and hard, painfully polite, "is it that this is the first time we're hearing about any of this?"
"Because knowledge was the only leverage I had," the hat snapped back. "By holding the threat of revealing the truth to you over his head, I forced him to listen to me as I made my first attempts at breaking through to him. Furthermore, I rather strongly suspected that if the truth got out, his family would get … punished, and that would only more strongly reinforce in his mind everything they said. Had I any inkling that he would be randomly returned to them—but there. Perhaps I should have spoken up, but I continue to believe that but for the random fact of this potions accident, my course was the safest."
"And did you make any progress?" Snape demanded.
"Some. I made him … uncomfortable," the hat said.
"Surely what we need to do is make him more comfortable, not less!" Sprout said. "He has had enough discomfort to—"
"And that's the other reason why I didn't wish to let you know," the hat snapped. "You are completely mistaken. If you comfort him and reassure him he will only see it as attempts to trick him. He'll grow ever more certain in the truth of what his family told him because you will be behaving precisely as they said you would! He needs to be perfectly uncomfortable! He needs every foundation of his mind to be shattered, every comfortable belief torn asunder! If you try to make him comfortable, you will ruin any chance of him ever getting past this."
"So, what, you suggest that in order to make him feel at home we should—should beat him and lock him in a closet?" she demanded.
"No," the hat snarled back. "I suggest that we make him question and doubt the precepts of his reality in hopes that it will eventually crumble away and he can form a healthier, more realistic one. I suggest speaking to him calmly and logically, and not coddling him or fawning over him or pitying him. I suggest not speaking ill of his family and their methods at this time, questioning only the results, not the methods. I suggest making certain that he eats regular, healthy meals and gets used to the idea that he needs to. Mostly, I suggest letting me deal with it, because the wrong words could destroy any chance we have of saving him!"
Dumbledore cleared his throat. "Yes, well, yours will be one of the voices in the discussion, but I do not think you will be the only one speaking to him. But, for all that I don't like it, much of what you say makes sense. For now, we must refrain from treating him as he expects to be treated, although of course we also cannot treat him as he feels he deserves. It shall be an uncomfortable balance, and I require anyone who feels they cannot walk it to stay away from him until he has reached a less fragile point," he said, eyes moving around the table, meeting those of each of the others.
John glanced down at his hands, folded so tight they were white from lack of blood, and forced himself to relax them.
"We shall work on the physical first," Dumbledore continued. "Currently Harry is in a magical coma, and shall remain so until the potion for his hearing is completed. We shall put him in a private apartment and see to it that only those of us here now speak to him. And only those of us who feel we can maintain emotional distance. I hardly believe it necessary to tell all of you that all of this-all of it-is in the strictest confidence and must not leave this circle. If asked, Harry was in a fire at his muggle family's house and his healing may last some time. Nobody can see him for now. Our first priority upon his waking must be the healing of his physical wounds, and the assurance that he eats. Any encouragement in his understanding of the necessity of eating is good."
"Perhaps literature on nutrition," Pomfrey interjected. "Indeed, perhaps muggle literature or nutrition, since he is, perhaps more likely to believe that."
Dumbledore nodded solemnly. "Excellent.
"I-" John realized his voice was inaudible, coughed, sipped his tea, and tried again. "I can help with that. I've got books and resources."
"Wonderful," Dumbledore said. "The next priority is trying to break down his … beliefs. You said that the core is that magic (and he, himself) is evil, and your parents and you were perfect, Mister Dursley?"
Dudley swallowed audibly, and nodded. "The core is—the core—I mean, I guess it's his catechism," he said softly.
"His … what?" Flitwick asked.
John frowned. "His catechism? You aren't catholic, are you, Dudley?"
He shook his head. "'Course not! They're heathens, and—" he broke off, flushing. "Um. Not like—not that catechism. Just—you know—questions and answers. That's always what they called it. His catechism."
"Ah. And do you know this catechism?" Dumbledore asked softly.
"Sure," Dudley said. "He said it every day. More, sometimes."
"Be so good as to recite it to us."
Dudley frowned. "Both parts?" he said. "It's weird doing both parts."
"Please," Dumbledore said quietly.
He nodded, squirming uncomfortably in his chair. "Okay. Um. What are you. I am a freak. Who was your father. James Potter. Bully. Alcoholic. Wizard. Freak—" He broke off as McGonagall dropped her teacup and swore.
Dumbledore held up a hand. "Please hold all comments until he is finished," he said, face wizened, eyes faded and tired. "Mister Dursley, please continue."
He shot a glance around the table, and then dropped it to his hands, and continued, voice barely a whisper and yet clearly audible as nobody else made a single sound or motion, locked onto his words. "What did he think of you. I was a disappointment and an inconvenience. Who was your mother. Lily Potter. Spoiled brat. Whore. Witch. Freak." John sucked in breath through his teeth at the thought of making a kid say that about his mother, much less making him say it every day, and judging by the horrified looks on the others' faces, they were thinking about the same. And that Snape, who mostly had remained more aloof than the others, at that he looked fit to kill someone.
"What did she think of you," Dudley continued, his whisper flat, as though he were saying each word unrelated to the others rather than as a meaningful whole. "I was a disappointment and an inconvenience. How did they die. In a car accident. They were drunk and at fault. An innocent was killed. How did you get your scar. My father was drunk and angry. He hit me with a whiskey bottle and it broke and cut my forehead. They didn't have a doctor see to it, so it scarred."
They all of them seemed to have to use an effort of will to keep from calling out at that one. John figured they knew how he got the scar, and that wasn't exactly it.
"Why are you here," Dudley continued without pause. "When my parents died you kindly took me in. How do we treat you. Far better than I deserve. You give me clothing, shelter, food, and discipline. Do we give you too much discipline. No. I am bad and you are trying to make me better," he said, voice speeding up a little as though he were trying to get it over with. "You only punish me when I'm bad, but I'm bad a lot. But I know it's my own fault and I am grateful that you care enough to try. It is a further sign of how bad I am that I do not change. Do we love you. You love me even though I'm bad. Even though nobody else could. Even though my parents didn't. Even though I don't deserve it. You only punish me because you want to help me. Because you love me." He finished the last few sentences all in a rush, and then bit his lip. "That's it," he muttered, not looking up.
John shot a look around at the pale faces. They'd been upset all along, but seemed far more unbalanced by this than by the description of the physical abuses the boy had faced. And reasonably so—it was incomprehensible and overwhelming. He didn't even know how to start dealing with it.
"One thing at a time," Snape suddenly said, voice harsh. "As Albus said—we focus on the physical first."
McGonagall, her eyes covered by a hand nodded sharply.
Dumbledore nodded, his face looking more ancient than any John had ever seen, the lines in it deep and his eyes faded and weary. "Thank you, Severus, for the reminder. The big picture is—overwhelming. We will start with tiny steps and see where they can take us."