"Young Mr Snape, isn't it?" Madam Bright nodded at him, indicating with a nod that she couldn't shake his hand. Seeing the frog guts she was elbow deep in Snape was relieved she didn't try. "Albus told me he'd secured my replacement at last. Can't say I was displeased to hear it was an old pupil of mine."
"It seems fitting somehow," Snape agreed, running one hand over the scarred old wood of the work table. Centuries of potions ingredients stained its surface, including the gore dripping from Madam Bright's hands as she weighed a handful of the guts on a small scale and tipped it into a jar.
Madam Bright didn't live up to her name, brown would have been more accurate. She seemed carved out of warm wood, from the rich amber of her eyes to the suspiciously umber hair that was not marred by a single strand of grey despite her advanced years. She wore a dragon hide apron over a stained old pair of overalls. A pair of driving goggles was pushed up and rested on her forehead, leaving faint lines in her milky skin.
Potion makers, Snape mused, usually showed the effects of long hours spent in the dungeons brewing their magical mixes. Those dedicated to the craft, like Madam Bright and himself, could be picked from a crowd.
"I was amazed to hear you invented the famous werewolf sleeping draught," she said, glancing at him from the corner of her eye as she worked. "Fine piece of brewing."
Snape agreed with a nod, not liking false modesty. It had been a fine piece of brewing.
"I'm guessing you stumbled on it by accident, eh?" she said with an evil chuckle. "I took a close look at the methods once you'd licensed it."
Snape shrugged. It was true. "Serendipity."
"Blind bloody luck more like." Madam Bright laughed again. "A brewer's best friend, eh?"
"Anyone could have had the accident," Snape agreed, picking a piece of lint from his shirt sleeve and flicking it away. "Discovering what I was left with after the accident, that's where the talent comes in."
Madam Bright snorted wryly. "Albus tells me you're raising your boy here," she went on, weighing and measuring the guts with absent precision.
"It won't interfere with my duties," Snape assured her.
"Good to hear." Madam Bright barked another brusque laugh. "Last thing I need is another ankle biter running around my dungeons. I see quite enough of the little bastards as it is."
Snape felt his heart warming to her.
"Anyway, Albus also assured me he'd have a tutor for the boy inside a fortnight."
"Did he?" Snape murmured.
"When he has, you come back and see me. You can sit in on some of the classes, get a feel for how things are done around here."
"I appreciate your time, Madam Bright."
"Dolly," the teacher corrected with a toothy smile. She looked rather like a brown crocodile when she showed her teeth, Snape mused.
"Severus," he said back, more because he felt he had to than because he wanted to. 'Dolly' looked equally as revolted by the polite conversation and seemed quite relieved when he bid her farewell and slipped out of the dungeon to pick Harry up from the headmasters office.
"Fairy Floss," he murmured and the statue hopped aside and revealed the staircase.
"And how was dear Dolly?" Dumbledore asked, looking up from his crayoning. Harry glanced up and smiled at him, then bent back over his absorbed scribbling.
"Traditionally I considered myself lucky if I emerged from a class of Madam Bright's without being rapped over the knuckles with her wand," Snape said smoothly, sitting down opposite the big desk and crossing his legs.
"So it went well," Dumbledore guessed. "Good, good. My life wouldn't have been worth living if she didn't like you."
"I imagine mine would have been considerably more difficult too."
"Perfessor," Harry said politely. "May I have the pink crayon please?"
Dumbledore handed it over and they watched for a moment as Harry bent back over his large square of paper, tongue tip poking from the corner of his mouth as he scribbled industriously.
"I understand Harry's getting a tutor?" Snape said blandly.
"Seemed like the best solution." Dumbledore smiled. "I have a nice young chap in mind for the job, Severus."
"Am I to have any say in this at all?" He attempted to keep the resentment from his voice.
Dumbledore's face softened and he laid his crayon down. "Forgive me for not mentioning this before, Severus," he said quietly. "There have been quite a few things to sort out. I shouldn't have mentioned it to anyone before you."
"It's not that I object to Harry having a tutor," Snape said, somewhat mollified. "I'm just not sure I can afford it."
"Ah, here I must put my foot down, Severus," the headmaster said firmly. "The tutor will be employed directly by me."
Snape was shaking his head. "Educating Harry is my responsibility," he began.
"I agree. But since any tutor who is employed will be living in Hogwarts, which is in its entirety my responsibility..." Dumbledore paused to let him take that in. "It can't be just anybody Severus. It must be someone we trust implicitly, not only with access to the grounds but with Harry as well. And I don't believe you have the kind of contacts I do in locating and hiring someone qualified."
Snape had to admit to himself that he wouldn't have a clue where to begin finding such a person.
"Besides, I have some other duties in mind for this young fellow, so it's only fair I employ him. All right?"
Snape nodded, seeing the sense of this. "I will get to meet him though?"
"Of course, of course!" Dumbledore said jovially. "And while we're on the subject of finances and such... I should have mentioned James and Lily's vault-"
"No," Snape said.
"Harry is their legal heir after all-"
"No," Snape said again.
"Severus, I understand your feelings in this matter, but raising and educating a child can be a financial-"
"No," Snape said again, this time meeting the headmaster's eyes firmly. "I can afford to take care of my son. Once Harry is of age he may do what he wishes with the contents of his parents vault. Understood?"
Dumbledore nodded, picking his crayon up again. "Understood."
Harry laid down his crayon with a happy sigh. "Finished," he said with satisfaction. He scrambled off the chair he was kneeling on and held the paper in front of his father. "See, daddy?"
Severus looked, understanding immediately that Harry had inherited his artistic ability, which was, unfortunately, nonexistent. "I see," he said, noncommittally.
"This is me," he said, indicating a small figure with spikes of black hair crayoned in all over his very round head.
"Obviously," his father agreed.
"And this is you." A much taller figure, his black crayoned hair longer and hanging down like sheets on the sides of his thinner face.
"Why do I have six fingers?" he felt obliged to ask, feeling that accuracy in a drawing was as important as artistic sense.
"That's your wand." Harry frowned. "I might make it longer."
"That might be helpful." Snape studied the picture. Hogwarts was pictured in the background, towers and pennants and all. Dumbledore was also recognisable, although he was quite small and could only be told apart from the doll Merlin by his distressing lack of moons and stars. "Who is this?" he asked, indicating the figure on Harry's other side, holding his hand.
Harry peered over the page. "That's Mrs Taylor," he explained. "She's my Year One teacher. She was nice to me."
"Everyone looks very happy," Snape said, studying the wide crayoned grins the figures wore. With a long finger he pointed out the exception. "Except me."
"You're happy too," Harry said seriously. "But you don't smile with your mouth like everyone else."
Avoiding Dumbledore's gaze Snape kept his eyes on the brightly coloured picture. "How do you know I'm happy then?"
Harry pointed to a pink blob on the drawn figure Snape hadn't noticed before. "Your smile's in your heart, daddy."
"What a perceptive son you have, Severus," Dumbledore said softly.
Snape gave in to Harry's request that his picture be fixed to the wall in the small kitchen.
"Cos Aunt Petunia always put Dudley's pictures on the fridge," he said, surveying his masterpiece with satisfaction.
Understanding the sentiment if not the details Snape stood back and watched his son's face. Did Harry truly see the heart in him? Or was the little child merely making excuses for his emotionally cold father?
"I wish Mrs Taylor could see it," Harry said. "She always said I was a good drawer."
"And a good reader too," Snape recalled, boiling water with a wave of his wand and pouring it into a pot with a few spoonfuls of tea.
"Uh huh," Harry agreed. "She was the bestest teacher ever."
Glad to hear at least one Muggle had shown the boy some kindness Snape added milk to his cup and poured a glass for Harry.
"When I first went to school all the other kids thought I was dumb," Harry revealed, following his father back into the sitting room and accepting the glass. "But Mrs Taylor knew it was cos I needed glasses. She got the school nurse to write a note and Uncle Vernon had to buy me some." Harry shivered at some unpleasant memory. "He sure was mad."
"It seems we owe your old teacher a debt of gratitude," Snape said as lightly as he could manage. It was getting harder for him to hear of all the Muggles casual little cruelties to his son. Had he once imagined Harry would survive a childhood of such neglect? Because his father had?
Snape shook his head at his own foolishness. No wonder Dumbledore had seemed so doubtful about his stubborn pronouncement. Suffering did make you strong, but it was a brittle kind of strength that rendered you easy to break with the right kind of pressure. It left you vulnerable prey to all sorts of predators.
Harry finished his milk and licked his lips. "What's a toota?"
Snape snorted. "A tutor," he corrected.
"That's what I said. You said I was getting a toota. What is it?"
"Like a teacher," Snape said. "Except you would be the only student in the class."
Harry thought about it for a while. "But who will my friends be?"
"I thought you didn't have any friends?"
"Only cos Dudley beat up anyone who talked to me," Harry said indignantly. "I thought I'd have friends at my new school..." He trailed off. "It doesn't matter," he said quickly. "I don't care. I don't want to go back to my old school! I don't want to go back to Privet Drive!"
"Harry," Snape interrupted over the boy's babble. He reached over and grasped the boy's hands firmly, bringing him to his feet before him. Harry avoided his gaze but Snape took his pointed chin between thumb and forefinger and deliberately caught his eyes. "Listen to me, Harry," he said insistently. "You're not going back to your aunt and uncle, do you hear me? Not now, not ever. No matter what."
"What if I'm bad?" Harry said faintly.
Snape shook his chin gently. "Not even if you were the baddest boy in the whole world," he said intensely, willing the child to believe him. Could a five year old understand any of this?
"Are you sure?" Harry whispered. Pleaded.
"I'm sure. Because you're my boy, Harry. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you before, but I'm here now, all right? And I'll never leave you behind again."
Harry searched his face and something there must have been more reassuring than his father's weak words because his tense little shoulders relaxed and he nodded, the smallest nod. "kay," he said quietly.
Dinner was quiet and Harry was nodding off into his jam pudding, so Snape tucked him into bed without his evening bath. He wanted to mention the closet and the small hoard of food but Harry's eyelids were drooping and he finally decided they had spilt enough emotions that night.
Obviously Harry still had some fears that words alone could not allay. When Snape checked on him before retiring to his own bed he once more found the child curled up with his doll and his night light at the bottom of the wardrobe.
"Fit as a fiddle!" Madam Pomfrey announced. "We might just prescribe you a tonic though, Harry," she said brightly. "Put some muscles on those arms." She rummaged in her store cupboard but Snape forestalled her.
"There's no need to use any of your tonics, Madam Pomfrey," he said politely. "I am quite capable of brewing anything you suggest for Harry."
"I have some right here," the mediwitch protested.
"Harry will only take potions I brew for him," he said insistently and Poppy raised a brow.
"Of course," she agreed, smiling comfortably. She rummaged in another cupboard and pulled out a jar. Harry's eyes lit up at the coloured sweets inside. "For being such a brave boy," she said, glancing at Snape. "If your father says it's all right?"
Snape inclined his head and Harry accepted a lolly on a stick, bright blue and shaped like a pixie.
Madam Pomfrey pulled out another lolly and nodded down the ward where a heavily wrapped student lay staring at the ceiling. "See that young fella there, Harry?"
Harry nodded, his mouth busy with the treat.
"His name's Charlie. He decided he'd try and get rid of his freckles and ended up getting rid of half his skin too."
Harry wrinkled his nose, eyes wide. "Gross."
"Quite," Madam agreed. "It's growing back but the poor chap's a bit bored while his friends are in class. Want to go and keep him company for a bit? He might appreciate this Sugar Pixie too."
As usual Harry looked to him for confirmation and Snape nodded, glad for a moment alone with the mediwitch.
"Dumbledore told me a bit of the boy's history," she said as soon as Harry was out of earshot. She shook her head in dismay. "Imagine Harry Potter being raised by such unfeeling Muggles! Nothing makes my blood boil like cruelty to a child."
"But he's fine?" Snape confirmed. "Physically?"
"He's small for his age," Madam said, biting her lip a little. "Definitely undersized. By the look of his wrist bones he's been underfed, which is a bit of a worry. Their little brains are growing so rapidly at this age!"
Snape swallowed hard, glancing down the ward at Harry, now chatting animatedly with the older boy who had the Sugar Pixie firmly in his mouth.
"Now, don't fret yourself," Madam advised, which was easy for her to say after scaring him to death. "He seems quite bright, for all the neglect he's suffered. And the tonic I've prescribed will help all the good food and fresh air he's getting now do its job." She fixed him a stern glare. "And mind! I said fresh air, don't keep him down in those dungeons of yours day and night. Don't think I've forgotten how peaky you were as a youngster!"
Not for the first time Snape reflected that teaching at a school he had left barely ten years before was not going to be a doddle. He had vivid memories of Madam Pomfrey and her foul tasting tonics and her biting good sense. Of course he also remembered how cool her hands had seemed on his brow when he had suffered a fever in his first year. She had sat by his bedside all night, he remembered now, something his own family wouldn't have dreamed of doing.
The memory decided him. He had been toying with the idea of confiding his worry about Harry's fear induced habits with the older witch, and now he thought might be the time.
Madam made him a cup of tea while she listened and when he was done she sat and nodded her head, nibbling on a lemon biscuit and sipping her sweet tea.
"Poor little chap," she said, her eyes soft. "He'll need a lot of reassurance from you, Severus."
"I'm doing my best," Snape returned. "But surely there's something else I can do?"
"Sounds to me you're doing all that can be done. My only suggestion would be to have a quiet word with him about his stash. Explain that food kept that way will go bad without a spell to preserve it. Reassure him that he's not in trouble. Buy him a box of biscuits or some blocks of Honeydukes chocolate, something he can keep in his drawer. Make him feel better."
"Is that all?"
Poppy chuckled. "What were you expecting? A potion you can brew and pour down his throat? No, Severus. The oldest cure of all is the only one that will work on little Harry. Time."
Snape shook his head, wishing he could confess what he was feeling, how unsure he was that he was the right caregiver for the child, how he was afraid Harry somehow sensed that his father had never really wanted him, had planned even as he took him from the Muggles to abandon him all over again, here at Hogwarts. But he couldn't confide these deep dark thoughts, in the end his habit of privacy was too hard to break.
"I know that doesn't seem like much," Poppy said with an understanding nod. "But, look, Severus. Watch Harry for a moment."
Severus looked at Harry who was listening to the student talk, nodding his head. He watched his son turn and glance at down the ward at them before turning back to the young patient.
"He does that," Poppy said quietly. "Every minute or so. Doubt he even realises himself what he's doing."
"He's still so unsure," Snape said flatly.
"He's five years old," Poppy reminded him. "Reassuring words are fine and he will remember them. But it's proof he needs and only you and time are going to provide that. Once he settles down and comes to truly believe that you're not going anywhere then the other behaviours will settle down, I'm sure of it."
Snape picked up his cooling tea and sipped it, feeling better than he had since the night Harry had grown so distressed. Down the ward Harry was laughing and clapping his hands together, his high voice mingling with the chuckles of the young patient.
"Charlie said his mum and dad took him to a place where there were real live dragons, daddy!" Harry said excitedly as they walked out into the sunshine as per Madam Pomfrey's orders. Snow still covered the grounds, weighing down tree branches and blowing in gentle flurries up against the standing stones. "Have you ever seen a dragon?"
"Yes." Snape leaned over and pulled Harry's hood up, tucking it around his face and fastening his cloak more tightly around his chest. "Perhaps we'll go see some in the summer holidays."
Harry beamed. "How many sleeps away is that?"
"I've no idea,' Snape admitted. "But don't worry, the time will fly."
"Can we make snowmen?"
"Not today, you need some gloves and a scarf. Today we'll just walk down to the lake and look for the giant squid."
Harry gazed at him in disbelief. "A giant squid?" He sighed in pleasure. "This is much better than TV," he confided.
Vowing to find out exactly what this 'teevee' was that Harry kept mentioning, Snape contented himself with a nod.
There was an invitation to afternoon tea with Dumbledore hovering outside their door when they got back to their rooms and they just had time to tidy up before arriving at the round study. Harry rushed in to say hello but darted quickly back behind his father's legs when a stranger rose from the seat near the desk.
Rather wishing he had someone's legs to hide behind Snape took in this visitor with surprise. An elderly witch wearing a long green dress stared him up and down and he resisted the urge to make sure his hair was still slicked down. A huge red handbag sat on Dumbledore's desk, but it was the stuffed vulture that caught Snape's attention, attached as it appeared to be to a towering hat.
"Ah, Severus, Harry. Meet Emerine Longbottom and her grandson, Neville."
Snape looked around for the grandson, finally spotting him cowering behind the far side of the desk.
"Harry, meet Neville," Dumbledore, said, gently touching the other boy's back and urging him from his hiding place.
Harry looked up to his father for confirmation and took a small step forward. Dumbledore nodded towards the small round table, now laid out with a checkered board and small translucent stones.
"Neville's bought his favourite game to show you. Would you like to play?"
Harry nodded eagerly and with a gentle pat Neville stumbled forward nervously. His little face was round, his brown eyes wide and nervous.
"It's just Gobstones," he whispered.
"I don't know how to play," Harry returned.
Neville looked surprised. "I can show you," he volunteered and Harry nodded and trotted over to the table. Neville followed him, tripping a little on the corner of a rug and righting himself with a nervous glance over his shoulder.
His grandmother tutted. "Such a nervy boy," she said loudly. "Can't understand it, his father certainly wasn't. NEVILLE!" she boomed and everyone else in the room jumped. Neville almost slid out of the small chair he was sitting in. "Sit up straight, boy!"
"Y-yes, Gran,' he stuttered.
"Can't understand it," the old witch muttered and Snape rolled his eyes at Dumbledore. He straightened his face quickly as she turned her gimlet gaze on him. "Suppose you know the family history," she said brusquely.
Snape nodded, wondering how much she knew about his history.
She nodded back. "Just as glad not to have to explain it. Proud of it, of course. That Frank and Alice gave their lives for the cause. Well, might as well have been their lives. But it's not an easy tale to tell. My only child, dontcha know."
Snape was beginning to understand her abrupt short hand pattern of speech, but with his newfound experience of Harry he had to wonder how easy it was for the five year old Neville to cope with. No wonder he was a nervous wreck.
Emerine cleared her throat. "Suppose Albus has told you his suggestion? Must say it'd solve a few problems for me."
Dumbledore interrupted gently. "Actually, Emerine, I didn't like to mention it until I'd spoken with you." He waited for her curt nod before turning his attention to Snape. "Young Neville should have started school last year, Severus," he began quietly. "He's the same age as Harry. But Emerine has been worried about sending him to school."
"Suppose I'm smothering the boy a bit," she admitted with a harsh bark. "Been schooling him at home, but Albus thinks the boy could do with some company. Maybe rub some of the corners off him."
Snape glanced over at the boy, round little face bent over the table as he showed Harry the pieces. One of them spat in his face and he drew back, chuckling as he wiped the smelly liquid from his nose. Harry was giggling, wrinkling his own nose. There didn't seem to be any corners on the boy that Snape could see, he was soft and round and fragile looking.
"Every child should have a friend or two," Dumbledore said pointedly. "And young Harry is facing a lonely schooling here. So I thought, Severus, since I am employing a tutor for Harry anyway, and since they are the same age..."
Snape frowned. He had no objection to Harry being schooled with another child, in fact it sounded ideal as Harry himself had expressed the desire for company. He just wasn't sure Neville Longbottom would have been his first choice.
"Feel better in my mind if he was safe here at Hogwarts during the week," Mrs Longbottom was saying and Snape raised a brow as he tuned back into the conversation.
"During the week?"
"The boy's a bit young to floo back and forth every day," Dumbledore proclaimed. "So he'd board here during the week and visit his grandmother on weekends."
"Most weekends," Mrs Longbottom interjected.
Suspicion was raising its ugly head and Snape was learning to listen to it when he was dealing with Albus Dumbledore. "And where exactly would he be boarding, during the week?"
"Well, you have an extra room in your quarters," Dumbledore reminded him. "And after all, Severus, how much harder is it to take care of two boys than one?"
"Twice as hard?" Snape suggested bitingly. "Really, headmaster, this is a ludicrous idea." He turned his attention to Mrs Longbottom. "I don't mean to be rude," he said insincerely. "But I am still getting used to having one child on my hands, I doubt I can cope with another so soon."
"Oh," Mrs Longbottom said. "Shame." She glance over at the boys and Snape followed her gaze reluctantly. Harry now had an arm slung around Neville's neck and they were surveying the board with satisfaction, while the round faced boy smiled happily and pointed out another move.
"They seem to be getting on like a house on fire," Dumbledore said. "Think how nice it would be for Harry to have someone around who's the same age. Just the same age," he finished pointedly.
Mrs Longbottom nodded. "Same age," she finished disconsolately. "Even have the same birthday."
Snape met Dumbledore's blank gaze, sitting up straighter in his chair.
Two children the prophecy could have concerned.
Destinies tied together.
He looked at Neville with new eyes, studying him side by side with his son. Same age, same date of birth. Both parents lost to the Dark Lord. For a wizard these were powerful omens. The headmaster's face was still suspiciously blank but Snape knew the battle was already won.
These two boys had a remarkably similar past, and now it seemed they had a shared future.
"Perhaps it's not such a bad idea," he said stiffly and Emerine blinked at him.
"I say. Awfully grateful, dontcha know. Getting a bit old to handle a growing boy."
Dumbledore clapped his hands together. "Excellent!" he beamed. "Tea?"
Harry and Neville sat side by side as they ate their cakes and drank chocolate milk. By the time tea was finished they were getting rather silly, laughing at each others milk moustaches and snitching bites from each others cakes. Snape could feel the beginnings of a headache as he contemplated sharing endless evenings with these two encouraging each other.
Still, Harry looked as happy as he had ever seen him and there was no doubt the other boy was already a good influence on him. Looking rather shocked at Harry's slurping his chocolate milk Neville patiently explained that it was better manners to sip quietly. Snape had lost count of the number of times he'd made that very suggestion in the last few days, but where he had been roundly ignored Harry listened closely to Neville and emulated his every move.
"Raised by Muggles," Snape said unapologetically to the disapproving old witch watching the scene. She sniffed.
"To think James and Lily's boy should be raised like that," she muttered, then caught Snape's eye. "Er, he was James' boy as far as I knew for a long time," she explained and Snape inclined his head.
"He was," he said politely. "But he's mine now."
Mrs Longbottom nodded firmly.
Harry was ecstatic to learn he was to be 'tootered' with his new best friend Neville and he talked about it all the way back to their rooms, ignoring the curious glances of the students they passed in the hallway enroute.
"He's going to sleep in the spare room, daddy," he told his father, reaching up to grasp his hand.
"Yes, Harry, I know," Snape said patiently. "I was there, remember?"
"But his home is still with his Gran and his Great Uncle, isn't it?"
"And you're still just my daddy, aren't you?"
Snape squeezed his little hand gently. "No one else's," he promised.
Harry squeezed back.
Annalee Taylor put out her cigarette with trembling hands. Ten years she'd managed without smoking, now here she was picking up the bad habit like she'd never left it behind. The police officer in the car finally stopped talking into her radio and Annalee raised a hand in farewell as they started the panda and pulled out of the school's long sweeping drive.
She had a class full of Year One students waiting for her, and the deputy headmistress would not be pleased about having to take over while she spoke to the police again, but still Annalee lingered by the drive, sitting on the scarred old bench where mothers usually sat waiting for the afternoon bell to ring to pick up their little ones.
No one had ever waited for that little boy. He'd walked home with his aunt and cousin but it was always abundantly clear that Petunia Dursley was only awaiting her own boy, not her nephew.
No matter how many times she told herself she had done her best she was still painfully aware that she could have done more. Should have done more. But with thirty five years olds in a class there was always so much to do, so much going on. She'd chased up the school nurse hadn't she? Made sure the boy got glasses from his stingy uncle. Praised him, encouraged him.
Annalee closed her eyes as she remembered the surprise in his slanted green eyes whenever she'd praised him. Like he wasn't used to even the smallest word of encouragement.
She'd raised the question of neglect in the standard form, chivied the deputy head mistress into signing it, made sure it was sent on, received promises from the department to look into it.
What more could she have done?
Newspaper reporters asked her that now. Isn't there more you could have done? How could a five year old disappear without trace? Do you blame the Department of Child Welfare? Why didn't they act?
She had some questions of her own, as it happened. Like, why do you all care so much about skinny little Harry Potter now? Where were you all when he was here and could have been helped?
Now the police asked questions too, but the Dursleys stubbornly insisted the boy's father had come and taken him away. Except they didn't know the man's name, couldn't describe him, didn't even know how he knew where Harry was, let alone that he existed at all...
The really rotten part of it all was that they would probably get away with it. There was no evidence anything sinister had happened to the boy. There was barely any evidence the child had existed at all. When the police had asked for a photograph of him only one could be found, his Year One school picture taken the month before Christmas.
As far as Annalee Taylor was concerned that said everything one needed to know about the Dursleys.
"Oh, Harry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."
She was wondering if she had time for another quick fag when a voice called her name, a familiar voice, close by.
And then there he was standing in front of her, panting a little from running down the drive.
"H-Harry?" she stuttered and he grinned at her.
Her eyes ate him up, disbelief still stealing her voice. He wore a thick black velvet cloak with little plackets for his hands, which were warmly covered with supple leather gloves in a softly sheened dark green. Peeping below the cloak were dully gleaming little black boots and on his head a curious hat, almost like a night cap, its point hanging over one shoulder and ending in a thick green tassel.
"Harry," she breathed, tears now blurring the impossibly beautiful vision of the little lost child, looking happy and a little plumper in his thin face.
"Hello, Mrs Taylor," he said, looking a little shy. "Did you miss me?"
She'd never hugged a student before, the Education Department frowned on it, but she reached out now and engulfed his thin little body, cupping his silky black head, the soft velvet of the tasseled cap plush beneath her fingers. She breathed in his scent, clean, wholesome, surprisingly spicy, like an exotic foreign deli.
"Harry," she said again, pulling him back to study his surprised little face. "Where have you been? Everyone's been so worried!"
Harry reached out a gloved hand and patted her cheek reassuringly. "It's all right, Mrs Taylor," he said kindly. "The Perfessor said you were awfully worried about me. I'm good, Mrs Taylor, really good. I'm with my daddy!" He gestured with his pointed chin over his shoulder and the rest of the world came back into focus. On the edge of the drive a tall figure stood, long black cloak swirling around his ankles in the early February breeze. He also wore a long pointed cap with a tassel resting over one narrow shoulder, beneath it long jet black hair hung down, obscuring most of his face as it was teased and blown by the wind.
He didn't move, merely stood, watching them both, but Annalee suddenly felt chilled to the bone. Her flesh prickled and she shivered.
"Th-that's your father?"
"My daddy," Harry said proudly, pulling back and standing in front of her, smiling happily. "He came and got me from my aunt and uncle, Mrs Taylor. He thought I was safe with them, but when he found out I was unhappy he came and got me."
"But - but, Harry," she said, a million questions crowding her head, blocking her tongue. "Where have you been?"
"I told you," he said patiently, rather as if he was the adult and she the little child. "I'm with my daddy. He's awfully sorry he left me behind afore, but he says he won't do it again. I have my own room, Mrs Taylor, and my own bed. And toys! And clothes too, of my very own."
The joy and contentment on his thin little face was so clear, so in contrast with all the horrible, grubby, violent ends she had pictured for him over the last weeks that she couldn't help the tears that blurred her vision once again. She touched his face, stroking his fine, flushed skin just to assure herself that he was alive. That here was one neglected and abused little boy who had found a happy ending.
"And he's good to you?" she asked, knowing the answer already from the joy in his slanted green eyes, the happy smile that curved his lips. "No one hurts you, or makes you do anything you don't want to?"
Harry shook his head. "That was aunt and uncle, Mrs Taylor," he reminded her. "My daddy looks after me and pertects me. Oh!" He widened his eyes and reached inside his cape, withdrawing a folded piece of paper. He handed it over to her with another shy smile. "I almost forgot! I drew this for you."
She opened it with trembling fingers, marveling in the back of her head at the thick richness of the paper, its soft edges making it look almost handmade. A crayoned picture greeted her and she smiled tearfully as she recognised Harry's style straight away.
"That's me, Mrs Taylor," Harry said, pointing to a little figure standing between two larger ones. "And that's my dad." Long dark hair and a bright pink heart in the middle of his chest. "And that's you, see? You're smiling at me, like you always did."
"Oh, Harry," she whispered. Had she always smiled? Couldn't she have smiled more, done more? Harry was here and safe, but what if he hadn't been? What about the next Harry who needed help?
The man on the end of the drive must have called, although the voice sounded soft in her ears. Harry stepped back, out of her reach, smiling and nodding. "I have to go, Mrs Taylor. My daddy's calling me."
"But, Harry," she said hastily, reaching out to him. "You can't go yet! The police, the school, your..." She was going to say his family, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. If Harry had a family then it was the tall dark man who took care of him, fed him, clothed him, put that smile on his face.
All the same, formalities had to be obeyed, so with one hand she reached for Harry and with the other she groped in her pocket for her mobile phone. Nimbly Harry was skipping back and then he was running down the drive, the green tassel on his hat streaming out behind him.
Long arms were extended and Harry reached out and leapt up, thin little hands locking around his father's neck as the tall man straightened. Harry lifted one hand and waved at her, and for just a moment they stood there, father and son, the sharp February breeze teasing cloak and long dark hair. This was a sight that would stay with her, imprinted on her mind, the tall dark man in his swirling cape with the child on his hip, two faces turned to her.
Harry smiled and his father inclined his head briefly before turning on his heel with a snap of his cloak. Almost between blinks they were an impossible distance down the road.
Annalee Taylor did all the right things, she called the detectives handling the case and showed them the crayoned picture. She nodded confirmation at the film from the CCTV cameras that covered the school drive and caught little Harry but not the dark haired stranger with him.
Police cars quartered the area but no trace of Harry and his father were found. Annalee sat in the staff room with a WPC, drinking strong hot cups of tea. Funny that she didn't feel the need for a smoke now, the sweet tea was enough, and soon the questions would be over and she could go back to her class.
She looked down at the crayoned picture open on the table between them. Harry's father didn't look frightening in the picture, despite the fact that he didn't have the wide drawn on grins she and Harry had. Perhaps it was that absurd pink heart on his chest. She cocked her head, only just noticing that his right hand had six fingers, one rather longer than the rest. She wondered why sparks seemed to be coming out of it...