At first, he hadn't been sure of what exactly he was seeing. He thought it might be a dark brown rat lying under a black leather glove.
Although they were indigenous to the UK, Harry had never seen a bat in person...not up close, anyway, unless you counted that disastrous trip to the zoo on Dudley's birthday five years earlier. And since those specimens had been housed in a large, glass terrarium, he didn't count it.
The fact that he'd never gotten a good look at one in the wild was hardly surprising. Though not exactly endangered, Britain's bat population was waning, and as such the creatures were protected. Plus, being shy, quiet and nocturnal, one was not likely to find a bat very easily – unless, of course, one had specifically gone bat-spotting.
Harry hadn't been looking for this bat. He'd stumbled across it while weeding the vegetable garden.
He'd only arrived home from Hogwarts six days previously, but Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia already had him hard at work. Aunt Petunia was determined to win a neighborhood prize for her vegetable garden this year, so this meant plenty of extra work for Harry. In truth, he didn't mind. The hard, physical labor was nothing he wasn't used to when he was at the Dursleys'; it kept him from thinking too much about Sirius, and by the time he fell into bed at night, he was too exhausted even to dream, which was a relief.
Harry had gone straight out to the garden immediately after making breakfast for his family. With summer coming on fast, he preferred doing the garden work during the cooler morning hours. Though not as talented with plants as, say, Neville Longbottom, he did enjoy being outdoors and helping things grow. Plus, it was nice to spend part of his summer around living things that held no animosity toward him, like his family did. Now that he didn't have Hedwig, the plants were better than nothing.
Shortly before the school year ended, Hedwig had reinjured her wing. Harry had taken the suffering owl straight to Hagrid.
"Well, Harry, she's in a righ' state," the half-giant rumbled, examining the uneasy bird carefully. "Should heal up proper, tho'. You'd best leave 'er with me…I'll have 'er right as rain in a month's time, then send 'er on home to yer."
Hermione, seeing the look on Harry's face at this news, had added reassuringly, "Don't worry, Harry. We'll write to you often, and you can have letters ready to send back with the owls we send."
"That's right, mate," Ron had added encouragingly. "Give me a chance to burn off some of Pig's endless energy!"
But it hadn't only been worry over her well-being and anxiety at being without a means of communication with the wizarding world that had Harry troubled. Hedwig was more than just a pet – she was his friend and familiar, and no one had any idea (because he had never told them) how much time he spent talking to her during the summers. And now, with Sirus only just gone, Harry would not have Hedwig to talk to about him.
He had just been going over this again in his mind when his hand had brushed against the dead bat under a cabbage leaf.
Harry's eyes first registered the leather glove, then the dead rat, then he whipped his hand away in disgust. On closer inspection, he saw that it was not a dead rat, but a dead bat. Fascinated, he raised the plant leaf for a better look.
A sudden clout on the ear propelled him sideways, knocking his glasses askew.
"Boy! What are you lollygagging around for?" Uncle Vernon towered over him, purple-faced, mustache bristling. "Didn't you hear your aunt tell you to get this garden weeded?"
Fixing his glasses with one hand and rubbing his throbbing ear and head with the other, Harry glared resentfully up at his uncle, but forced himself to stay civil. Daily shoves and cuffs aside, he'd managed to avoid one of Vernon's full-out thrashings thus far, and he wanted to keep it that way.
"Sorry, Uncle Vernon," he said quickly, gritting his teeth to keep back a rude remark. "I just got distracted a bit when I saw this dead animal."
Vernon took a closer look, then grimaced in disgust. The look on his face was usually one he reserved for Harry.
"Well, get rid of that thing, boy," he grumbled. "And don't put it in the bin where it will smell the place up."
Uncle Vernon turned on his heel and strode toward the driveway. "And heaven help you if you don't have your chores done by the time I get home!" he snapped over his shoulder.
Muttering darkly to himself, Harry turned back to the plants. He could almost feel the belt against his back already. Nothing he could do about it, though. With a sigh, he pulled on his gardening gloves and reached for the dead creature under the cabbage leaf. He was not squeamish about touching dead or disgusting things (he'd never get through Potions, Care of Magical Creatures or Herbology if he was), but no point in taking any risks…bats were known to carry rabies. It might be fun to leave it in Dudley's bed...he wondered how suicidal he was feeling.
As Harry lifted the fragile creature in his gloved hand, he thought he felt a fluttering in the area of its breast.
Not dead, after all.
Harry inspected the little creature closely. It appeared to be a common fruit bat, with rich, dark brown fur and black, leathery wings. A light froth around the fox-like snout was tinged with red. It's eyes were half-shut, glazed with pain and stupefaction. One of the wings appeared to be torn at the shoulder, as though it had been grabbed by a predator.
Holding the bat in his hand, Harry sat back on his heels and considered for a moment.
Probably he should put the creature out of its misery. But the idea of killing anything, even in mercy, repulsed him. Even after hearing the prophecy in Dumbledore's office, he still had not come to terms yet with the task before him. Besides, Voldemort was different – he'd murdered his parents, and countless others. This small animal in his hand was just a bat, uncomprehending and helpless.
Maybe he should just leave it where he found it. But that would almost certainly condemn the bat to death. Injured as it was, it would not be able to fly off if one of Mrs. Figg's cats came by.
He could try to cure it himself, Harry thought. Keep it in Hedwig's cage, protect it until it was well enough to fly on its own. As always, he'd privately built up a store of potion remedies (some he made himself, some he nicked from Snape's stores) to help through another summer of Vernon's "discipline."
Aunt Petunia would go to pieces if she found it, but she never came in his room anymore – he was expected to keep it clean himself. Dudley wouldn't come into his former "second bedroom," either – nothing there to interest him. No, the only intruder Harry would have to worry about would be Vernon, and Vernon only ever came into his room to punish him. With any luck, there wouldn't be a problem.
Mind made up, Harry rose, the bat still in his hand. He pulled the glove off his right hand with his teeth and, using it to cover the bat in his left hand, returned to the house. Aunt Petunia was getting ready to go shopping; Dudley wasn't home yet from spending the night at Piers's. He'd have plenty of time to get his new pet settled, then get back to work on the garden.
The stinging in his ear seemed to have abated with the this new preoccupation. For the first time since arriving "home," Harry felt…cheerful. He didn't know if he could help the bat or not, but it would be nice worrying about something so small and mundane for a change. And one other thing: the bat would be no replacement for Hedwig, might even be terrified of him…but certainly wouldn't despise him for just being Harry.