o─-o─-o─-─-─-─ WITHOUT THORN THE ROSE ─-─-─-─o-─o-─o
Disclaimer: I am not J.K. Rowling.
Warnings (READ THEM!): It is my intention that beginning in the second sequel to this story, a romance between Harry and young Tom Riddle will be a major plot element. However, this story and its sequels are not now, nor will they ever be, romance stories. There will be some minor slash in this story between secondary characters. There will be no graphic sex scenes. The M rating is for language and violence.
Notes: I have planned out a long series of stories, but I am working full-time on a Ph.D. in Mathematics so I don't have a ton of time to work on this. I definitely plan to finish the series, but it could take quite a few years to do so.
"Out of the fertile ground he caused to grow
All Trees of noblest kind for sight, smell, taste;
And all amid them stood the Tree of Life,
High eminent, blooming Ambrosial Fruit
Of vegetable Gold; and next to Life
Our Death the Tree of Knowledge grew fast by,
Knowledge of Good bought dear by knowing ill.
Southward through Eden went a River large…"
"…Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view;
Groves whose rich Trees wept odorous Gums and Balm,
Others whose fruit burnished with Golden Rind
Hung amiable, Hesperian Fables true,
If true, here only, and of delicious taste:
Betwixt them Lawns, or level Downs, and Flocks
Grazing the tender herb, were interposed,
Or palmy hillock, or the flowery lap
Of some irriguous Valley spread her store,
Flowers of all hue, and without Thorn the Rose"
—John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 4, Lines 216-223 & 246-256 [spelling updated]
o─-─-─-─-─ 1. GREEN LIGHT ─-─-─-─-─o
Harry's first memory was of swimming in green light. For a very long time he had no inkling that this comforting vision was a memory at all. To him, it was simply an old, recurring dream from childhood—like a bit of tattered baby blanket that still evoked nostalgia.
At Uncle Remus' cottage, where he spent many summers as a child, he liked to dive down as far as he could into the lake and stare back towards the light and try to recreate the feeling of being suspended in green. The colour was all wrong—the lake was a murky brownish-green, whereas the light in the dream had been like looking at the sun through leaves. But the feeling was close: the eerie silence, the crushing pressure, the cold, the inexorable force drawing him up towards reality.
Harry would surface with a gasp, and always a little disappointment. In the dark and the cold, he felt on the verge of understanding, and yet he couldn't stay there.
"Harry! Stop trying to touch the bottom!" his father would often call. This was his father's assumption—that Harry must be trying to achieve some foolish Gryffindor feat—and James stubbornly clung to this notion in the face of all evidence. Harry had never been prone to showing off. On the contrary, he was a decidedly secretive child.
Ron, on the other hand, was prone to foolishness and had often tried to swim down and touch the murky, cold bottom of the lake. Once, when they were eight, he had even given himself hearing damage doing it, and then his mother, Molly Weasley, had nearly given them all hearing damage fussing about it. Halfway through laying into Harry for giving Ron stupid ideas, however, Ron had finally opened his mouth.
"Like I would do anything that git thought was cool! He's a freak," Ron had spat, glaring at Harry scornfully.
And, just like that, Ron had been dragged off yelping to have his mouth scourgified and then spend the rest of the day in his room.
It was true enough, though. Harry was a freak, and he knew it. Everyone—the Weasleys, the Longbottoms, Uncle Remus, James—they all knew it. The adults pretended ignorance, and some—Harry's father a case in point—even seemed to have mostly convinced themselves otherwise, but the children were more honest. Harry had tried his whole life to hide his strangeness, yet somehow his true colours always bled through. A perfect example was Harry's strange affinity for the cold.
James was not the most observant of fathers, and normally only roused himself to do his fatherly duties when Harry asked for something. So he had never objected to Harry's habit of wearing summer clothing in winter, even when Harry tracked snow inside on his bare feet. This finally changed when Harry was seven. He had started day school with the other wizarding children in the village, and one day he'd learned that it wasn't a done thing to walk to school without a coat in freezing rain.
The Matron, Miss Stonehearth, had been incensed with Harry for his thoughtlessness, but when she apparated back from his house empty-handed, having confirmed his lack of proper clothing, the look in her eye had changed to pity. That look made Harry squirm inside, and prompted him to say,
"It's all right, Miss Stonehearth, I like the cold."
"Now, Harry, don't be silly. I enjoy a nice spring shower as much as the next witch, but that's an ice storm outside. You should have flooed in, if your dad didn't have time to side-along you."
"But…" he had protested, lower lip trembling. Even at seven, he could hear the anger towards his dad, and he didn't want her thinking the man wasn't behaving properly. "But I like cold. I can even do it myself, look!"
Then he had touched her tea-cup and focused intently, making the china grow frosty and the surface of the liquid become solid.
When he had looked up, beaming in pride, he found Miss Stonehearth ashen and trembling with her hand to her throat. Harry's face had fallen. He'd forgotten that his cold frightened people. James said it made him remember bad things, and he always drank a lot afterwards.
"Go and get ready for class now, dear," she had said weakly after a moment. "Tell the others I'll just be a moment."
After that, Harry had never willingly shown his ability again. Yet, time and again, the power had flared against his will. There was the time when a few of the other children had laughed at him on the playground for falling off his practice broom. He had been so upset that he hadn't even noticed what he was doing until they were all on the ground moaning and shivering. He hadn't gone back to school for a week after that. The Matron had explained to the children that what had happened was simply accidental magic, but that hadn't prevented the other children's wariness.
Another incident happened when he was walking home with Neville, who Harry didn't mind quite as much as the others. A sick-looking dog had darted at them out of the woods, and Harry had frozen it solid as it lunged for Neville's throat. But instead of thanking him, the other boy had vomited on Harry's shoes and run all the way home. Neville steered clear of Harry after that.
Harry's reputation amongst his classmates never recovered from these incidents. Of course, the other children had never thought much of him to begin with. After all, it wasn't Harry who had defeated a dark lord. It was his mother. James had made sure that everyone, not just Harry, understood that. No matter what claptrap Dumbledore might write in his opinion pieces for the Prophet, James' stance was firm. Lily Potter was the witch who had defeated You-Know-Who, and James would duel anyone who said different. Harry was just the Boy Who Lived, a title which, when invoked on the playground, had more than once prompted him to kick a classmate in the shins.
And so Harry resigned himself to finding companionship in books, and before long he had convinced himself that friends were not so grand, after all, compared to the infinity of knowledge he could amass.
Ron and Ginny were the worst of the children—they delighted in following Harry and tormenting him—but Tony and Ernie could be just as bad if they cottoned on. Tony was particularly annoying in that he always seemed to see more than the others, and frequently had ideas.
They had caught him, once, in the woods on the edge of town, experimenting with his powers. Harry had frozen a tree until it split open with a loud crack. Ron had been the only one to leap out of the bushes, but Harry had sensed the other three hiding. He could always tell who was near him, once he'd met them, but he hadn't yet realized that was abnormal.
"What did you do to that tree, you freak? That might've been a dryad¹ for all"—Ron broke off with a look of shock and disgust at what Harry held cradled in his hands. "What is that!"
"N-nothing," Harry answered tremulously, turning away so as to hide the dying bird with his body. He hadn't realized there were any animals in the tree, and hadn't meant to hurt them.
"It's a baby!" Ron shouted, face darkening. "You murdered a baby! I'm going to tell my dad!"
"No!" Harry yelped. "I didn't mean to—it was an accident. I didn't know there were birds up there."
"I bet you did. I bet you love going around freezing animals. You froze that dog of Neville's."
"It wasn't his, it was attacking him!" Now Harry was annoyed. He had saved the boy, and this was how Neville thanked him—by spreading lies about him?
The bird in Harry's hands twitched as if in response to Harry's anger, and he felt its heart, previously pattering as fast as wing beats, now stutter and stop.
"No!" Harry gasped, falling to his knees. He held the fuzzy black bird close to his face, cradled in his hands, and peered imploringly at it, stricken by remorse. "Don't die, birdie. Don't die."
Yet even as one part of Harry implored the bird to live, another part of him thrilled to know that he was witnessing this greatest of life's mysteries, death. Perhaps Ron saw the flush of excitement on Harry's cheeks, the glistening as he moistened his lips, or perhaps he only saw a familiar and convenient target.
"Freak!" Ron yelled, as he pelted Harry with a handful of dead leaves and dirt. Harry scarcely heard the children's footsteps pounding away, so entranced was he by the wonder cradled in his palms.
As the bird died, something else was being born. It took shape from within the bird, leaking out from its open beak: a tiny white wisp, smaller than a grain of rice, and yet as bright as the moon at midnight. Squinting at the light, Harry could spy currents and eddies within it of every colour, so vivid that the rest of the world seemed grey by comparison. He watched, spellbound, as the wisp of light drifted apart like smoke and disappeared.
Harry stared into the space where the light had faded for a long, silent moment. The inside of his head felt like a great forest where the crack of apparition had made every creature stand rigidly still and alert. Finally, Harry looked down at what was cradled in his hands, and saw that it was simply a discarded shell. He tucked it beneath a moist layer of dead leaves, wiped his hands on his trousers, and set off home.
¹ Dryad: tree nymph (i.e. female spirit of a tree) from Greek mythology
That night, as James was watching a Quidditch match on the Omnivision, Harry pondered how to phrase a question to his father. It had always been difficult to ask James important questions; Harry had never much liked games of chance, and not knowing whether James would cuff him or kiss him was a particularly unpleasant one.
When the game broke for a series of sponsor's messages ("Sleekeazy—don't leave home without it!"), Harry cleared his throat.
"What," James asked flatly, not looking away from the screen, where a swarm of sparkling pink fairies was applying hair potion to an absurdly grateful witch's hair.
"Er…well…I was wondering…"
"Out with it," James urged, and swigged his firewhiskey. The noxious fumes of the liquor turned Harry's stomach.
"Is there such a thing as a soul?"
James frowned. "Of course there is, lad, how else would wizards and witches get Bonded? It's an oath on your soul."
"Er…yes, but sometimes, when people say things, it's just…" Harry paused, thinking how to explain. "It's like when people ask you how you are, and you always just say 'fine', whether you are or not."
"Hmph," James snorted, wiping his nose on his shirtsleeve. "Half of what people say is just to hear their lips flap, and the other half's to tell you where to stick your broom."
Harry sighed, and glared at the Omnivision, since it wouldn't be wise to glare at his father. A wizard was enthusiastically applying a potion to his broom handle and winking suggestively at the screen. Harry squeaked in surprise as a hand descended on his head. His body tensed, but quickly relaxed, as James tousled Harry's messy black locks and drew the boy to his side for a one-armed hug. This occurrence was rare enough that Harry tensed again, not sure how to react.
"Don't worry, son, your mum's with the Light. You can be sure of that."
Although Harry knew perfectly well that this was nothing but a sop, he nevertheless felt something tense inside him relax at these words, and he buried his face in James' shoulder, inhaling the cherished scents of pipe smoke and firewhiskey, floo powder and that special unique scent that was his father's alone. Every second wrapped in that warm, strong embrace seemed stolen.
James' response, though it had warmed Harry, didn't help at all with his new quandary. Was what he had seen a soul passing from this world or wasn't it?
"What's put you onto this?" Remus asked quietly, sipping his steaming cup of tea.
"Erm…" Harry chewed a biscuit and squirmed on his hard chair. He and his 'uncle' were sitting across from each other at the dining room table, and had been dissecting the Sunday Prophet until Harry's question had popped out. "Well…"
Remus smiled and waited patiently. He was a good listener, never putting words in Harry's mouth or becoming overly impatient.
"I saw a bird die the other day," Harry revealed hesitantly, "and…well…"
"Mmm," Remus murmured, eyes shifting to look into middle distance. "You're wondering if birds have souls?"
"Well, that, and other things."
"What does a soul look like?"
Remus blinked, and his eyebrows twitched slightly upward. Then he smiled. "You know, that sounds like a question Lily would have asked."
Harry frowned down at the last of the chocolate chip biscuits Remus had brought. Harry's uncle always brought food on his visits, as if he thought Harry might not be eating enough. He had used to visit more often, but James had taken to shouting at the soft-spoken man of late, and now Remus only came on Sundays.
Remus often compared Harry to his mother, using these remarks as springboards to share titbits of Lily's life. Yet, though he cherished learning about the mother he had never known, it made Harry uneasy to be compared to her. Lily was almost a mythic figure to Harry, like a goddess. James had told Harry so often of how his mother had saved Harry's life with her magic, sacrificing her life for his, that Harry could recite the story like scripture.
"She was very interested in philosophy. I think she learned about it in the muggle world, and she wanted to know how—"
"I'm not talking about philosophy," Harry cut in abruptly, eager to nip another rambling session in the bud. "I'm talking about reality."
"But that's just the thing, Harry. You'll find many references to the soul in wizarding culture, and there are even highly developed magical theories of the soul, but there's no hard evidence yet."
"But…" Harry frowned and nibbled the last biscuit. "But surely they've studied it…"
"They—the Unspeakables, and some of the Academagicians—may have, but it's very hard to pin down something you can't even see."
Harry opened his mouth to snap that of course you can see it—then closed it with a sharp click of his teeth.
"Hmm," was all he said.
"I'll send you a book," Remus promised.
Remus did indeed send a book—three books, in fact—but none of them were exactly what Harry wanted.
The first was a book for children about the 'facts of life': where babies come from, and what happens when your pet kneazle dies. Remus had included an apologetic note in this book, explaining that he wasn't sure how much Harry had learned at day school about wizarding beliefs. Harry knew what his uncle really meant was that he wasn't sure what sort of tripe James had been filling Harry's head with. From this book, Harry learned that children were to be told that, upon death, souls "return to the Light from whence they came".
The second book was a reference guide to common rituals such as Bonding spouses, blessing children, and bidding farewell to departed loved ones. Harry learned from this book that if one filled one's house with enough symbols of light and exhorted the soul strongly enough, one could help guide one's loved ones to the Light. He wondered what Lily would have made of such pandering drivel.
The third book, Remus had written, might be a bit advanced for Harry, but he could hold onto it until he was older since it had belonged to Lily. Harry opened it in the middle and read "The view we have just been examining, in company with most theories about the soul, involves the following absurdity: they all join the soul to a body, or place it in a body, without adding any specification of the reason of their union, or of the bodily conditions required for it."¹
As Harry was frowning thoughtfully over this statement, a slip of paper escaped from the book. Picking it up, he saw that it was a receipt from a store called Barnes & Noble—was that in Diagon Alley? Recognizing the £ sign dotted several times on the receipt, Harry realized this must be a muggle book. He sighed and set the book aside. If wizards couldn't see souls, muggles definitely couldn't.
And so it was that Harry Potter, at nine years of age, found himself longing for what men have feared and fought throughout the ages—an intimate acquaintance with death.
¹ From "On the Soul", by Aristotle
Flourish & Blotts • Diagon Alley • Ex libro, ad linguam, ad virgam¹
1 February 1989 M.E.²
Dear Mr Potter,
Please find enclosed your shipment of four (4) books, as requested by owl order on 28th January.
Into the Light by Fauss Lumiere
Encounters with Death by Filos Thanatos
A Survey of Recent Developments in Magical Theory by Clark Scribbensham
Dark Rituals and How to Disrupt Them by Claudus Ritus
Should you have any difficulty with your order, please do not hesitate to contact us by owl at any time.
Manager, Flourish & Blotts
¹ Latin: 'from book, to tongue, to wand'
² M.E. = Muggle Era
Flourish & Blotts • Diagon Alley • Ex libro, ad linguam, ad virgam
15 March 1989 M.E.
Dear Mr Potter,
We regret to inform you that at the present time we are unable to fulfil your owl order. Please refer to the list below for an explanation, and do not hesitate to owl again with any further requests. We look forward to your continued business in future.
Oulden Rygts¹ – access restricted by Department of Magical Law Enforcement
Wicchedome of Soules – access restricted by Department of Magical Law Enforcement
Deth and Other Develes – out of print; consult used bookshop
Please be aware that according to current regulations, we are required by law to keep records of all requests for restricted books and to make these available to the D.M.L.E. upon request.
Manager, Flourish & Blotts
¹ Middle English spellings checked at University of Michigan electronic Middle English Dictionary
James almost never took firecalls, and Harry was in charge of reading the owl post, so it was easy to get away with skipping school once or twice a week, and Harry relished the freedom. He usually spent his time in the woods around Ottery St. Catchpole, climbing trees and splashing in the brook. Now that he had a mystery to contend with, he spent more and more time investigating that, as well. It was on a day such as this that Harry finally made progress in his investigation of souls.
Harry had managed to catch a mouse by freezing it until it lay curled up and shivering, and he was about to freeze it solid so as to get a look at its soul, when a rustling in the leaves below alerted him that there was a snake coiling itself about his feet. He stood stock still, and the hair all over his body stood on end as the greyish-brown snake's long, black, forked tongue flicked out to taste the air and brushed his bare leg.
Harry had known for years that he was a Parselmouth; indeed, it was the very first secret he had ever kept from his father. But he had never bothered with speaking to the scaly creatures, much. James seemed to have a phobia of them, and most snakes were not intelligent enough to make interesting company. Harry thought the ability overrated, in fact, and would gladly have exchanged it for the ability to speak to birds or horses.
"Don't you dare bite me," Harry hissed at the snake.
"I wouldn't bite the likesss of you," the snake replied in a whispery hiss of a voice. "You'd tassste horrid. Now drop the moussse before I decide to sssee how you taste after all."
Harry arched an eyebrow at the unusually talkative serpent, and quickly formulated a plan. "Say, sssnake. How many mice can you catch in a day? Or other things. Birdsss or whatever."
"I don't eat birdsss, you imbecile. Do I look like I can fly?" the snake groused, winding its way determinedly up Harry's leg in the direction of the mouse. "And if I wasss any good at catching mice, I wouldn't need to take yoursss, would I?"
"Oh," Harry muttered, disappointed. "Well, can you maybe tell me sssome areas where there are lots of animals like mice and rabbitsss?"
The snake slithered up Harry's torso uninvited, making Harry squirm, and continued down his arm. "Why should I tell you? You'd just go sssteal all the good food," it replied resentfully.
Harry raised his arm up as high as he could. Oddly, the smooth, cool feeling of scales on his skin was not unpleasant.
"I'd let you eat them," Harry offered. "I jussst want to watch them die."
The snake's mouth snapped open at an obscenely wide angle, and Harry wisely dropped the little rodent down the gullet. The snake turned then, and appraised Harry, tasting the air around him repeatedly as Harry brought his arm down and held the snake up before his face. Its eyes were rich amber with black slit pupils, and its scales were a magnificent coat of armour. The creature was about a metre long, brownish grey with a long black stripe crossed at right angles by smaller strokes that extended down the length of its body.
The snake tilted its head. "What do you want to watch thingsss die for, human, if not to eat them? Are you a sssadist? A necrophiliac?"
Harry frowned and wondered if it was quite normal for snakes to know such large words. The ones he'd met before were not nearly so eloquent.
"No," he explained, "I don't like particularly killing thingsss. But it's not like it destroysss them. Their souls go on, I think, just somewhere else. And I make sssure they don't suffer. It's just, I'm trying to figure out how souls work. For some reason I'm the only person who can sssee them. I've been conducting experiments…but I need more souls. I wish I could store them somehow…they alwaysss fade away…" Harry trailed off, staring in frustration off through the trees. When he looked back at the snake, its eyes were closed, and it was drooping off his arm like a wet tube sock.
"Hey!" Harry yelled. "Are you even listening, you ssstupid reptile?"
The snake grumbled, and opened one eye at Harry. "You humansss…so talkative, and ssso boring."
Harry looked askance at the creature before him. "Are there other sssnakes like you?"
"What do mean by that?" the snake demanded, as though it were offended.
"Ahaha…" Harry rubbed the back of his head nervously. "Nothing, nothing…ssso, how about it? You tell me where the mice are and I'll catch them for you."
"Nah," the snake replied, slithering off his arm and down his body.
"Why not?" Harry demanded, yanking it back by the tail.
"Sssleepy. Need a sunny rock."
"What? C'mon, all the mice you can eat."
"No mice—rock, rock! Sssun!"
"Are all snakes this stupid?" Harry wondered aloud in English, and the snake snarled at this, fangs flashing. Harry threw the snake into the leaves several paces away from himself, but, after a couple seconds of thought, trotted after it as it wended its way through the woods toward a sunny glade.
"Say, sssnake…" Harry started, trying a friendlier tone. "I was wondering…what happens when a snake diesss?"
The snake glared at Harry. "Kindly remove yourssself from my presence, you detessstable wretch. I'm going for a nap and I don't need you pessstering me."
"Yeah, well," Harry blustered, seriously annoyed. Animals were so much more helpful in stories. "That'sss exactly what I'll do if you don't answer me—I'll tie your tail to a tree branch and leave you dangling. How do you like that?"
"I'll bite you."
The snake paused in the leaves and regarded Harry implacably for a moment, tongue flicking out to taste the air between them.
"Fine, you odiousss little human. What happens when a sssnake dies? It rotsss and gets eaten up by other creatures. Maggotsss. Other snakes. Sometimes a dog. Then they die and get eaten by sssomething else. Ergo, we are all made of corpses."
Harry blinked. It was a certainly a unique point of view. "No, look, I don't mean the body, that's just a—a vessel. What happensss to the being that was in the body?" Harry couldn't disguise the hunger in his voice.
"How the bloody hell ssshould I know? I'm just a sssnake!"
Harry sighed. He couldn't argue with that. "Well, have you ever seen anything come out of the body when something diesss?"
"Sometimes they piss and shit themselvesss. Is that what you're looking for? I can give you sssome right now."
"No," Harry recoiled in disgust. "Are all snakes ssso…vulgar?"
The snake hissed a laugh. "Vulgar? Of course we're vulgar. We're creatures that ssslide around on our bellies all day. What about you, hatchling? What sssort of creature are you?"
Harry frowned at the snake, whose head was cocked to one side, studying him. "I…I don't know."
"Perhapsss you're a snake, then. Would you like to come down here and try it out?"
Harry considered, then got down on his hands and knees and stretched out on the crackling bed of dried leaves. He pressed his arms to his sides and rested his chin on the ground, eye-to-eye with the snake.
"Good," the snake murmured. "Now, hatchling. Close your eyes and be ssstill." Harry obeyed. "Do you hear little feet rustling? Little hearts beating? Do you sssense heat nearby?"
Harry was silent a long moment. Then he felt it. First, the life directly in front of him, the snake. Then, a smaller life, ahead and to the right, foolishly coming nearer. He didn't hear the creature, nor did he feel its heat with a snake-like sense. Rather, he sensed its light. The harder he focused on the impression of light, the more clearly the analogy stuck, until he was really seeing a silhouette of light, with his eyes shut. The nearer light was a wispy ball about the size of a marble that throbbed red and green in slow, steady pulses. The farther light was a grain of rice that fluttered blue and yellow.
"Now," the snake whisper-hissed. "Ssstrike!"
Harry struck with a focused bolt of his ice-power, and the farther light flared and coruscated wildly, like a candle blowing in the wind. Then it steadied, and the colour faded to white, and finally the little wisp of light drifted away into nothing.
Harry opened his eyes just in time to see the snake devour the mouse whole. "Greedy pig," he muttered.
"Never," the snake snapped, "compare me to a mammal."
"You ssseem pretty mammalian to me," Harry muttered, rising a bit on his elbows.
"Do you see teatsss on me? Do I seem the type to let hatchlings attach themselves to me like leeches and suck out my…excretionsss?"
Harry grimaced, trying to ignore the accusatory look the snake was giving him, as though since he was a mammal and a child he might try to nurse her. "Are you even a girl?"
"Obviousssly, dimwit," the snake snorted, looking him over speculatively. How Harry knew that her completely immobile face currently looked speculative was a mystery. "Well, you do strike your prey with ssstyle, at least. And you are rather warm and tree-like."
"Tree-like!" Harry exclaimed, then frowned as he was not sure whether he was being insulted or complimented.
"I suppose I could be amenable to sssome sort of…arrangement."
"Sssure," Harry agreed sourly. "I give you all the food and warmth you want, and I get what? Creative new insultsss?"
"Precisssely," the snake hissed in satisfaction. "And I can watch your back. When I'm awake that is."
Harry glared at the snake for a moment. "Ssso you're basically good for nothing." The snake hissed a laugh. Harry grunted and stuck out an arm. "Well, climb on," he demanded grouchily. "What ssshould I call you, anyway?"
James Potter learned that his son had gained a familiar when, upon reaching down to tousle his son's hair, his hand encountered a cool, slick, reptilian surface that was poking out the collar of Harry's shirt like a monstrous tentacle.
"Eeeee!" he shrieked, backing up so fast that he banged into the counter and knocked the casserole Molly Weasley had sent over into the sink, which was currently scrubbing dishes. The casserole he'd been planning to serve for dinner was promptly scrubbed down the drain and the dish was stacked in the drainer.
James looked between his son's new familiar and his ruined dinner with equal magnitudes of horror, then turned and drained the rest of the Ogden's.
"No snakes in the house," was all he said, "and it's your turn to get dinner. Then you can explain that—that thing." It might have been Harry's imagination, but he thought James might have been trembling as he regarded the reptile with fear and disgust.
Two cans of Spaghetti-O's later—it was a mixed community, and those muggles did make cheap, tasty food, after all—James got a rather lacklustre explanation.
"I found her in the woods," Harry said, assuming a calculatedly innocent look. "She's really, er…interesting."
"Do you even know if she's poisonous?"
"Of course not," Harry replied smoothly, trying not to assume the sheepish grin that always gave away his lies. "Anyway, she wouldn't hurt anyone. She's agreed to be my familiar."
"Agreed…?" James stared in puzzlement for a second, then dropped his spoon in horror and clapped his hands to his head. "No. Ohhhh—no. Harry, tell me you can't talk to that—creature!"
Harry just dropped his head and stared at his hands, which were writhing and wrestling each other in his lap. He was angry, but for some reason his throat stuck when he tried to speak in his own defence, and tears begin to gather in his eyes, hot and stinging.
"Please, gods, Lily," James prayed, looking up at the ceiling. "Why did you do this to me? I didn't sign up for this."
Harry clenched his jaw in fury. It wasn't his fault he could talk to snakes, and it certainly wasn't his mum's. Besides, why was it even bad? And why did he always have to get teary when he was angry at his dad? It was so stupid.
"I'm yours, too!" he bit out, glaring through his fringe at his father. He mercilessly squelched a sob, but a little squeak came out, and snot started to drip from his nose. He angrily maintained eye contact with his father. "Half my blood's yours. Why do you always have to—blame—h-her…? I'm your son, too!"
James stared darkly at Harry, shaking his head, and suddenly it dawned on Harry. Something that would explain all of this: why Harry had freaky ice powers while James couldn't stand the cold; why James loved zipping through the wide open sky on a broom while Harry preferred dark, enclosed spaces; why James' hair was wild and curly while Harry's was stick straight; why James' skin was a healthy tan while Harry's was morbidly white; why James had terrible eyesight, while Harry could see like an eagle.
Harry released a small sob, lower lip trembling. "U-unless you're…unless you're…not?"
James' eyes softened, and he seemed to sag, as though he'd been holding a weight of years aloft, and it had all come tumbling down.
"Son…" he started. "I am your father. I'll always be that. But—I'm not your blood, no."
Harry buried his face in his hands and doubled over. A great pain and sadness welled up inside him. Nothing made any sense. Everything was upside down, and there was no one there he could trust to guide him through this darkness. He felt so alone.
"I've wanted to tell you so many times…"
"Yeah," Harry cried, voice breaking on his sobs. "Every time I bollixed something up, you've wanted to tell me, 'No son of mine would be such a l-loser!'"
"That's not fair!" James cried, bringing his fist down on the table. "I've done my best!"
"I didn't even have a coat for winter until the Matron at school found out!" Harry burst out.
"Damn it! I've put food on this table. I've put a roof over your head. I'm not perfect! I'm not Lily!" He wiped a hand over his face, seeming to sober at the memory of Harry's mum. "But I haven't given up…and that hasn't always been easy, you know!" He pointed a finger at Harry. "You haven't exactly made this a walk in the park, you know. So what if you didn't have a coat? You don't need a damn coat. What's a man supposed to do with a boy like that? I've done my best."
Harry looked at him through a veil of tears, struggling to maintain the last shred of composure, and thought, My God. This is his best. This is his best.