"Harry, I'm telling you that she is the one, and I don't want to hear any more of your comments about her either," James said. He sawed at his steak.
Harry didn't know if he was supposed to respond, and so he didn't say anything, just stared down at his own plate, laden with pieces of cut meat, slivered carrots, and a half-eaten roll.
"It's about time I started thinking of myself for once and not just you," James said. He caught his son's gaze, before Harry ducked his head again.
Harry almost questioned aloud how often his father really thought of him, but thought better of it.
"Do you understand me, Harry?" James asked, after his son had remained silent for too long.
"Yes, sir," he answered, though his mind screamed at him to say differently. How could he ever like this woman? His father had barely been seeing Frances (that he knew of) for over 2 months, and already she had pinched his cheeks, spanked him (as if she had the authority), and sent him to time out more times than he could remember. With Frances in James's life, Harry had become an even bigger burden than before, and though he tried to tell James how unfairly Frances treated him, James was convinced that Harry was acting out because of jealousy.
How could I ever be jealous of a witch with such a fake, ugly smile? Harry thought bitterly. He would rather die than be jealous of her.
"Harry…" James took a deep breath, as if he were going to stop himself, and then went on anyway, "Damnit, just clean up your food and go to bed."
Mutely, Harry did as he was told, carefully putting away his dishes, avoiding eye-contact with his father to better sedate him, and finally making his way up the stairs to his room where he stood and stared at himself in front of the mirror until James slamming a door down the hallway jolted him out of his reverie.
He attempted one more time to flatten his hair and cover his scar, but he knew that it was too short. James didn't let him keep his hair long enough to cover it, even though Harry begged at least once a month to be allowed to grow it out. But it didn't seem to matter. What Harry wanted was never big enough. In fact, he felt nothing about him was not enough - his height, his Gryffindor bravery. He couldn't stand up to his dad or that Frances woman. He could never stand up for himself when his cousin Dudley was wailing on him, and he certainly could do nothing to stand up to the Dark Lord who had killed his mother.
The scar seemed to laugh at him, reminding him of all that he would never live up to, all that made him disgusting in his father's eyes.
Harry himself grew disgusted with looking at himself, and he dragged himself away from the mirror and into bed. Under the blankets, he played his usual daydreams in his head, the ones where he was finally at Hogwarts, away from his mean relatives who babysit him, away from his dad's disappointed looks, and most of all, away from Frances.
Harry struggled to collect his breath. He realized, through the pound of his heart, that his world could, indeed, get much worse. It had been hard to imagine previously with such despair clouding his mind, but now he saw it with an awful clarity.
Ms. Frances Potter was standing in front of him, his mother's ring on her veiny hand.
"I didn't want you ruining our special day," James told Harry sternly when the boy finally coordinated his body enough to ask why he wasn't invited to the wedding. "Now, come kiss your new mother."
"My, he's grown so tall!" A lady with gray hair exclaimed. Harry smiled, for she did not look as if she would have spoken nicely about him if she did not mean it.
"Hopefully he'll grow a bit taller, Minerva, if he wants to follow in my footsteps," James said with a smile. Harry could not tell if his father was trying to warn him that he was straying away from those footsteps. Though, it seemed that he would be following very closely in them, given that he had no say in anything about his life. His dad had married Frances without even telling him, and now they were at Hogwarts where Harry had to live now!
Live in a school? Surely I'm dying! Harry had thought when he heard the news.
After more greetings of other staff members, James led Harry to the place that would now be called home. It wasn't that he hated it. It's just that he hated it. His room was obnoxiously decorated in Gryffindor colors. There was a giant mirror on one of his walls that Harry planned to cover up as soon as possible. It's not as if he ever liked what he saw in the mirror. And his room was despairingly distanced from his dad's (and Frances') room. Harry had a feeling that it wouldn't take them long to forget about him.
James went to a staff meeting, so Harry was ordered to help Frances (she's your mother now Harry! Stop being such a brat!) with supper. There, she was leisurely peeling potatoes the muggle way.
"I know things have been hard on you Harry, but you've just got to push through these things now, son. When Minerva McGonagall is gone, your father will be Head of Gryffindor. It seems silly for him to have such a weak-willed son, don't you think?" The lady said, by way of conversation.
Harry tried his best not to look at her long brown curls or her caked on muggle makeup. He especially averted his eyes from her breasts, which always seemed to poke out like little marbles. It embarrassed him. He could barely look at the woman without blushing madly, let alone survive when she gave him those big hugs where his face was smashed between the two mounds!
"Yes, ma'am." Harry responded automatically in agreement, as he stirred the soup.
"I wish you'd call me, mum, Harry. It'd make me feel so much better about myself and being a part of this new family," she said giving him a pointed look.
"Sorry, mum," Harry responded, trying his best not to sound neutral.
She smiled one of those creepy smiles where her cheeks were all tight and her eyes were dark. They seemed to be reserved especially for him.
"Good boy. Now, I'm sure that this move has been hard, but think of all the fun you'll have! There are all these kids to play with. You can probably even sit in on some classrooms and things," she said, as if she were trying to sell him a vacation home.
Harry didn't think anyone would want to play with a nine-year-old.
"I'll be assisting Madam Pomfrey this year and your father will be teaching Defense, so you won't be able to see us during the day, but I'm sure you'll survive won't you?" she asked.
"And let's not forget that your uncle is teaching Potions again this year. You could visit him, although I don't know why. He's still so mysterious. I never understood why Mother and Father wanted two children," she said. Harry wasn't sure if she was still talking to him.
"Isn't your brother older than you?" Harry asked anyway. His next thought, "therefore, if your parents only had one child, you would not have been born" did not actually make it out of his mouth.
"All right, boy, you can go elsewhere," Frances said, tossing him an angry look as she set a knife to the potatoes.
"What. Are. You. Doing. Here?" Severus asked in an icy voice from the other side of the room. The black-robed man had four potion bottles help in his hand. A quill scratched on a half-rolled sheet of parchment beside him, and more bottles were hovering above the table in a long line.
Harry thought it looked like he had interrupted at the worst possible moment, but he also thought that he couldn't exactly breathe yet. The weird fall he'd taken from his bedroom had landed him right by the Potion Master's large mahogany desk and had taken his breath away on impact. He looked backward for some sort of chute, but only saw a solid brick, dungeon wall that perfectly matched the other ones in the room.
"I-I-I-I…" He didn't know what to say. He didn't know if he should stand. He didn't know if the professor wanted him to look him in the eyes when he spoke. He'd only met then man once!
"Stand up, Potter, and present yourself. One does not fly into someone's classroom in his pajamas at break-neck speed without explanation," He said, darkly.
The boy scrambled to stand and make himself somewhat presentable, though neither was an easy feat.
"I'm so sorry professor! I was only trying to see if I could take that mirror from my wall, honest! The next thing I know I landed on your floor! I'm awfully sorry, sir. I'll be going now, I guess."
Harry began crab-stepping to the door when the professor told him to stop.
"You do not even know your way around the dungeons, Potter, let alone back to your quarters," the man said.
"Oh, I guess I would get lost," Harry said. "Hogwarts is really big! I remember dreaming about it and trying to picture myself in classes and stuff. I thought it'd be so fun." His face said that he had been mistaken in that thought.
Severus wondered why the boy was offering so much conversation. At the Head Table, he had heard the boy said previous little but for "Yes, Sir," "No, Fran-mum." Severus had even heard a few teachers mention the boy's tacit nature in passing. Why was the boy striking conversation with him of all people? Granted, he was now the boy's uncle, but they had only met during a quick introduction on the Potters' first day at Hogwarts.
"You say that you thought it would be fun? You do not think so now?" the professor questioned.
Harry looked guilty.
"No sir, I mean it's great. It really is." He was a terrible liar.
It appeared the boy did not feel compelled to express his real feelings. Severus understood. He would be damned if he ever told anyone how he truly felt about his sister marrying his deceased best friend's husband and moving to Hogwarts of all places.
"I guess I wish I was really going here so I could learn more things," Harry offered in truth.
"Your parents have not secured a tutor for you?" the man asked with a raised eyebrow. He noticed Harry stepping farther into the center of the room.
The boy explained it like his dad and Francis had. They were simply too busy right now. In the meantime, Harry had been given some textbooks to read by himself.
"And how is that panning out?" Snape asked.
Harry admitted that the books were kind of hard to understand. A lot of times he had to read them over and over again. And he didn't like working alone, since he got distracted by nearly everything, especially the noises in his quarters that sounded like ghosts.
Severus studied the child. James and Frances should have already enrolled him in tutoring; he seemed bright enough and was certainly willing. He hadn't met many nine-year-olds who were that self-aware.
"So how come I ended up in your classroom, professor?" The boy asked, pushing grubby glasses back into place on his nose.
"The question is 'why' not 'how come' Mr. Potter, and of that I am uncertain. You say you were trying to remove a mirror in your room. Why would not ask for assistance? Did you feel a tugging sensation at your navel?" Severus asked. He silently cancelled the spell that kept the potions hovering over the desk, and they clinked neatly onto the table.
"I didn't want to bother anyone, sir. And it just felt like a slide, actually. You know the muggle things on playgrounds-"
"I am well aware of what a slide is. I grew up in a muggle town with your new stepmother by Lily, in fact." Flaming Merlin! That was not supposed to be said!
Not only was the boy talking freely but Severus was, as well? Repressing an aggravated sigh, Severus stopped the scratching quill and busied himself with taking vials to the a row of shelves.
"Lily my mum? You knew my mum? What was she like? Did you ever go to school with her?" Harry asked. "Please tell me something about my mum!"
"Hush!" The professor scolded. "There is no need to become overexcited. I will tell you at another time, but you should be getting to bed. It seems as though you were prepared to," he said, gesturing to the boy's blue striped sleepwear.
It was a good way to avert the question. He did not particularly wish to speak of Lily, but since the boy seemed practically starved for information of her, he might be able to aid him a bit. But that was a matter for later, because it was 9:40 and the boy most likely was supposed to be in bed forty minutes ago. He did not want any more conversation with his sister or James Potter than he needed, so he thought it best to get the boy back before any problems arose.
"Well, I suppose I will have to lead you back to your quarters myself," Severus said, ignoring the voice in his head that told him a house elf could always do it for him.
"Hey Uncle Severus, could you help me with this?" Harry asked, doodling lightly in his textbook.
The man looked over his stack of essays to Harry, who was now a regular in his office, thanks to the mysterious "chute" from his bedroom, which Severus thought Albus probably had something to do with.
Harry came almost nightly to receive help on his lessons, because his imbecile parents had hired a tutor who mostly left Harry to his own devices and (Harry did not openly admit this, but Severus surmised) intimidated him.
"Quit doodling in your book, Harry. You must respect the tools that help you learn," Severus said as he came over. Harry looked appropriately chastised as Severus glanced at the problem that Harry was pointing to.
"I believe I went over this example in the notes I gave you. Where are those?"
Harry pulled out some parchment from under his book and looked through slowly. He was not a very quick reader yet, Severus had found. Actually, it was because of his slight dyslexia that his parents had done very little to help the boy deal with. He suppressed a growl. James Potter was not only an irresponsible teenager, but he was also an irresponsible adult who seemed to care more for drinking bends at Hogsmeade than for his son's education.
"Oh! It's just like this one right here, right? Only that 5 is a 2 down here and-"
"Harry what happened to your arm?" Severus suddenly questioned. Harry's sleeve had risen, revealing a red lash mark that extended from his wrist.
The boy nervously pulled the cuff of his sleeve down and averted his eyes quickly.
"Oh, that? I dunno. Can't remember," He mumbled, suddenly extremely intent upon solving the fraction.
"I believe you do know, Harry, and you will show me. Now," Severus ordered, his gaze darkening.
Harry did not hesitate at the sound of his uncle's serious voice. He carefully rolled up his sleeve to reveal an arm laced with multiple red welts. He looked away from his uncle's face and his arm, because both were making him nervous.
Severus picked up his arm with the care that he took with volatile potions and studied the wounds.
"What happened?" He asked again, this time a bit calmer.
"Miss Parlor was mad 'cause I read too slow to her," Harry said in a quiet voice.
The professor sighed and fought to control his reaction. That damn tutor had hexed the boy for something he could not even help.
"When did this happen? Have you put anything on it?" He asked, channeling his anger into concern for the boy. He knew better than to ask what his parents had done about it, because clearly they did not know.
"Yesterday, sir, and I couldn't find anything in the house," Harry mumbled, chewing on his lip.
"I am a potions teacher. Did you not think of coming to me?" Severus asked as he led the shuffling boy to the other side of the room to a large sink. He rolled up Harry sleeve to his armpit and placed his arm under a warm stream of water.
The boy hissed at the contact.
"You seemed busy yesterday and I didn't want to bother you…"
"I am never too busy to help you with something like this, Harry," Severus said with an urgency Harry was not expecting. He moved the boy's face to look at his. "Do you understand?"
Severus cast a drying spell and accioed a bottle of skin healing potion.
Harry drank the dose obediently and watched in fascination as the red marks faded to pink and then blended back into the pale skin.
"Thanks, Uncle Sev." Harry said, and he hugged him for the first time, throwing his weight into the slender man's chest.
Harry didn't expect the tears to come. But they seemed to just leak out, as if the hug was squeezing out all the sadness that he tried so hard to pretend wasn't there. For a moment, he wished his Uncle Severus could be his dad, and then he could have these hugs all the time, and he was sure Severus would not let him sit in his room for hours, alone and scared like he did now.
"You're welcome, child," the man said, and he brought his hand to the boy's head, wishing, too that he could be more for Harry.