Harry Potter was a skinny three-year-old with a mop of unruly black hair. Aside from an unsightly scar on his forehead, his only distinguishing feature was the brightness of his green eyes.
At the moment, the boy was sitting by the window in the front room of a spotless and orderly house at Number 4, which was just like any other house on Privet Drive, right down to the precisely trimmed lawn.
The boy had been alone all afternoon, his Aunt and cousin having gone out. He didn't mind, though. His cousin, who was named Dudley, was twice his size and a bit of a bully. That morning he had amused himself by tracking mud in from the garden to muck up the kitchen floor as Harry mopped it. Aunt hadn't noticed, but had noticed that the job wasn't finished, and Harry had gone without lunch.
He had searched through the cupboards (those he could reach) and eaten a few of the crusts Aunt saved for when she and Dudley fed the ducks at the park. He was still hungry, but not achingly so.
Although his head didn't reach over the windowsill, the boy was quite amused by the view of a blossoming tree and a patch of startlingly blue summer sky complete with a cloud that looked a bit like a bunny.
The glass dulled the sounds, but the boy heard an occasional car go by. He was listening for the sound of Uncle's car, because if Uncle came home before Aunt and Dudley did, Harry would have to hide in his cupboard and be very still, like a mouse.
Harry's ears perked up. It was the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man, whom he sometimes heard when Aunt, Uncle, and Dudley were not home. Once he had even seen the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man, and he had looked like a Very-Severe-Looking-Man, with a black coat with shiny buttons and black boots with shiny buckles.
He even had a Very-Severe-Name.
"They are not at home."
"I can see that. May I wait with you?"
Harry liked the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man almost as much as he liked the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man. He couldn't like him just as very much because, for one thing, he had never seen the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man, and so could not be sure that he was as Soft-Looking as he was Soft-Sounding. Besides that, the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man hardly ever came, while the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man had come, oh, at least as many times as Harry had fingers.
"If you insist."
Harry did not hear anything for a long time, and he grew worried that they might have gone away.
"I was hoping..."
The Very-Severe-Sounding-Man was very good at saying 'No.' He was even better than Aunt. Harry knew if the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man said 'No,' to him, he would obey even quicker than he obeyed Aunt... though perhaps not as quickly as he obeyed Uncle.
"I haven't seen the child in two years, Severus. He's my best friend's son. It can't hurt..."
The Very-Soft-Sounding-Man was always hoping to see a child. Harry often wondered who the child was.
"Unless the Muggles raised hell, you mean."
Harry didn't know who the Muggles were or which house they lived in, but the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man and the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man spoke about them a lot, and they sounded not too unlike Aunt and Uncle.
"Oh, them! They needn't even know about it. Just let me slip in and --"
Harry sighed with the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man. He felt very sad that the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man wouldn't see the child.
"Have you seen him, at least? Arabella's reports are so worrying..."
"I haven't seen him. I make sure the wards are still in place, and I leave. I have no other business here, and I have important work waiting for my return."
The Very-Severe-Sounding-Man was always talking about his Very-Important-Work, so Harry thought he might work with Uncle.
"But you aren't worried?"
"Worried? Why should I be? Dumbledore is satisfied."
"Well I'm NOT!" said the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man, who didn't sound very soft just then.
"Take it up with him, then. I won't compromise the wards by letting all and sundry traipse through whenever they please."
"ONCE, Severus. Just ONCE."
"I told you, no."
"If I... I'll let you test your potion on me."
Harry thought the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man sounded like a Very-Anxious-Sounding-Man.
"If I let you do this -- and this being a big 'if' -- it happens on my terms."
"We go in at night, you see the boy, and we get out before anyone wakes."
"Come back at midnight. That's my last round."
"Thank you, Severus."
And then the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man and the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man did not say any more, but Harry heard two loud pops, like Uncle's old car used to make sometimes, and then it was Uncle's car screeching to a halt in the drive, so he dove for cover in the cupboard under the stairs, forgetting most everything he'd overheard.
Harry rocked back and forth, unable to settle on the lumpy mattress and fall asleep. He was very hungry, and his bottom hurt an awful lot.
It was very, very late at night, and there was no light. His cousin Dudley had told him what happens to little boys who sleep alone with no light on. He knew that Dudley woke up at night sometimes, because he could hear him howling for Aunt. He always heard Aunt going into Dudley's bedroom after that. She never did that if Harry cried at night. He thought maybe she couldn't hear him all the way down here in the cupboard, but he never tried to howl like Dudley, because then Uncle might hear him. Uncle didn't like it when Harry made too much noise.
Uncle didn't like it when Harry dropped things, either, and Harry had done that while washing the dishes after supper that night. That was why Harry's bottom hurt, and why he was hungry, and why he couldn't fall asleep. That and the monsters who eat children who sleep alone with no light on.
"Done. You can step through."
Harry's eyes opened wider in spite of there being nothing to see in the pitch blackness of the cupboard. What was the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man doing inside Aunt and Uncle's house? He had never come inside before.
The Very-Severe-Sounding-Man lit a lamp.
"You can wait here if you'd rather."
The Very-Soft-Sounding-Man was in the house too!
"Do you take me for a fool? Stay behind me, Lupin. Let's get this ridiculous excursion over with."
Harry pressed his cheek against the dirty floor and through the strip of light under the door he saw shadows passing by the cupboard.
"Are you sure you know where he sleeps?"
"No, but there are only two bedrooms besides the master suite. The Muggles' boy looks like an over-inflated beach ball, so I rather doubt you'll mistake the two."
Harry was confused. Dudley was the one who looked a bit like a beach ball, and there was no Muggle family living at Aunt and Uncle's house, or any other little boys besides Dudley and Harry.
"Just so we're clear, Lupin. We go in, you have your look, and we're out of here."
"I've already given you my word, Severus."
Their voices faded away as the stairs above Harry's head creaked and flakes of plaster came raining down on him.
Very confused and now a little frightened, Harry huddled under the only thin blanket he had, hunched down in a corner of the cupboard where the shelves were particularly low.
They came back down the stairs presently, having not found what they were looking for, of course.
Harry pressed hard against the wall and pretended he was invisible. Sometimes that worked with Aunt. Once or twice it had even worked with Uncle.
"I don't understand it. Is there another room?"
"No," said the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man, who sounded very severe indeed just then.
"Could they have sent him to stay somewhere else? Have they ever done that before?"
"Of course not; don't be ridiculous. He should be here."
"Oh, be silent and let me handle this. We're standing here like a pair of Muggles. Point me, Harry Potter!"
The sound of his own name startled Harry, but he was too frightened to move. Still as a statue -- like the little stone cupid at the park that Dudley liked to kick -- he stared at the strip of light under the door, which had suddenly brightened.
"Look, Severus, there's a door."
"That's just a cupboard. Let's go around, through the dining room. The brat may have fallen asleep on a divan somewhere."
The light dimmed, and Harry held his breath -- like the time Dudley had pushed him into the swimming pool, even though Harry couldn't swim very well -- as they walked past the cupboard door.
"Wait," said the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man. "What's this?"
To Harry's horror, the shutter over the grate in the middle of the cupboard door was tugged open. A grid of light was thrown against the wall and the shelves with the jars and tins.
"Just a cupboard," the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man said again, impatiently. "Come --"
But the door handle was tugged hard, though the door didn't open, being locked.
"It's locked! Severus, why is it locked?"
"How should I know?" the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man said in a voice that was very short-tempered. "Here -- Alohomora!"
The door handle was tugged again, and then again, but the door still didn't open.
"It didn't -- hold on, I see something -- there's a latch on this side. Severus, why is there a la-- Severus, what is this?"
Then Harry heard the most awful sound he knew. It was the clink-clink of metal against metal, and the rasp of leather against wallpaper. It was the sound of Uncle's belt being taken down from its peg.
"What --" the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man cleared his throat; he had sounded a little choked. "What does it look like, Lupin?"
"That's -- oh my God -- get the light over here -- is that blood on it?"
"Yes," said the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man, who didn't sound severe at all. In fact, Harry had barely heard him.
And the very next thing Harry heard was the sound of the latch being drawn before the cupboard door was thrown wide open.
Blinded by the sudden light, Harry somehow remembered to duck his head, burying his face in the blanket. It was very hard to keep pretending to be invisible, but he knew he had to. He was quite sure that the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man could hit just as hard as Uncle -- or at least almost as hard.
Either the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man or the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man was breathing very hard and fast, like Uncle after chasing Harry up the stairs.
"I don't see anything -- I -- there's... is that a mattress? They can't possible be --"
"Be quiet, Lupin. I see him."
Harry's heart thudded into his empty stomach. Pretending to be invisible didn't work any better on the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man than it did on Uncle.
"In the corner, under a filthy blanket."
Harry's fingers clutched the tattered blanket tighter. He knew it was a little dirty and had a few holes, but sometimes he thought he could still smell Mummy on it if he closed his eyes and tried hard enough.
The Very-Severe-Sounding-Man and the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man stopped speaking, and Harry knew it meant that at any moment now he would be snatched up and dragged out of the cupboard -- maybe by his hair like Aunt sometimes did, or by his arm like Uncle usually did.
That was a very bad thing to do, he knew, but stuffing his fist into his mouth was too late to muffle the sound.
"Harry? Harrykins? Look up here Harry-darling..."
The Very-Soft-Sounding-Man was sounding the softest Harry had ever heard him sound.
"Come on Harry, baby, give me your hand and I'll help you out of there."
Harry wasn't going to do something so silly as give the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man his hand, but the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man's hand found his anyway.
Harry looked up finally, but he still couldn't see anything except a very bright light and two dark shapes crowding the doorway.
The Very-Soft-Sounding-Man tugged on his hand, and Harry reluctantly crawled out of his hiding place.
Just as he feared, he was snatched up, his head reeling from the sudden motion, and then -- of all things to happen! -- crushed against the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man's very soft and fuzzy jumper.
The Very-Soft-Sounding-Man babbled nonsense into Harry's ear, of which Harry caught only 'poor darling' and 'those vicious beasts' -- he must have meant Aunt Marge's dogs -- and 'take you away'.
"Take him away where, precisely?"
Harry tried to turn to see where the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man was, but the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man was holding the back of his head too tightly.
"What do you mean, where? Wait till Albus hears about this...!"
"Dumbledore will send him right back here, Lupin," said the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man in a very low voice. "And you will never get this close again."
"What do you mean he'll send him back here? DO YOU SEE WHAT THOSE MONSTERS DID TO HIM?!"
Monsters. Dudley was right. There were monsters who did terrible things to little boys who didn't have a Mummy.
He couldn't help it, and started to cry.
"Shut it, Lupin! That spell's not going to keep the Muggles asleep with the two of you howling your heads off down here!"
The Very-Soft-Sounding-Man patted Harry's back, which hurt a lot. Harry bit his lip and didn't cry anymore. He knew better than that, anyway. He'd only forgotten for a minute because of the monsters.
"Look, Severus, I'm walking out of here, and I'm taking Harry with me. You're going to have to hex me if you think you're going to stop me."
There was a silence. Harry was a little afraid for the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man, because he didn't think it was a good idea to argue with the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man when he sounded so very severe.
"I didn't suggest leaving him."
"That's what it sounded like to me!"
"Then you're not listening. If you take him out of here, Dumbledore will know about it, and he will put an end to it. We need a plan."
The Very-Soft-Sounding-Man's chest rose up and down very fast, like he had been running. "Then you damn well better come up with one, Severus!"
"Let me think, damn you!"
The Very-Severe-Sounding-Man thought for a very long time.
"All right. All right. Look, the next two checks are by Vance, and she won't come too close. I can fool the wards for that long. We can take him out, and Dumbledore doesn't have to know about it until we've thought of a real plan."
"What about the Muggles?"
"I'll put a spell on the cupboard door. Any time they think of the boy and come looking for him, they'll forget what they were looking for."
The Very-Soft-Sounding-Man took a very deep breath.
"Do it and let's get out of here."
The cupboard door was shut and locked. The Very-Severe-Sounding-Man muttered some words Harry didn't quite hear.
They were moving, but the Very-Soft-Sounding-Man didn't let Harry raise his head to see where they were going.
"Wait until I give the word."
The Very-Severe-Sounding-Man muttered many, many words.
"Go. Walk straight to that hedge and stop."
Harry knew they had walked out of the house because a cold wind nipped at the bare skin on his arms, neck, and legs.
"Do you think he'll be all right if we Apparate?"
"You're asking me?" said the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man. "I've certainly never Apparated with a child."
"I think we must risk it. I don't see how else we'll -- where are we going, Severus, in any case?"
"Spinner's End. Do you know it well enough?"
"I... No, not well enough. I think... maybe... you had better take Harry."
"What --? No, we'll both hold on to him, and you take my arm besides."
Harry felt another hand grasp his leg.
"Let's do it. On three. One... two --"
Harry did not hear the Very-Severe-Sounding-Man get to three. The last thing he felt was a terrible squeezing, like one of Dudley's hugs but worse; much, much, worse. Then he felt nothing at all.