"Hermione, can we please go outside" Harry cried hopefully, having grown tired of the game of marbles they had been playing in his room. He was feeling a lot better than he had in the morning, and now that his energy had returned, all he wanted to do was be out in the sunshine. "Pleaassee?"
"Well," said Hermione, looking at her watch. "Are you sure you don't want to go up to the attic and look around? I'm sure there are a lot of fun things to do there. Besides, it is still quite wet and muddy outside."
"But Hermione, it's such a nice day," Harry said, not realizing he was wining as he tugged on the leg of Hermione's jeans. "It stormed all night, but now the sun's come out! I'm not gonna get muddy, I promise!"
"Well," said Hermione, looking down at him. "Alright, but just for a little while, okay? Then we have to come in for lunch."
"Yes!" Harry cried, running around her legs and dashing to the stairs. He danced down the steps and ran over to the chest in the sitting room that held all the shoes. He dug around for a little while, and found his wellington boots. Harry had seen some great puddles out his window earlier from the storm the previous night.
Hermione followed shortly, and Harry bounced up and down on his toes, making the metal clasps on his overalls jingle slightly. He liked the way it sounded and jumped up and down a few times on the porch while Hermione tied her shoes. When she came out he ran down onto the spongy grass, wet from the rain. He saw a nearby puddle and splashed in it. Hermione backed away to avoid the water.
"Oops, sorry, Hermione," he said to her, pausing for a moment. "Aren't you gonna splash too?"
"I haven't got any boots like yours, silly," she said. "I'll get my feet wet."
"Oh," said Harry.
"Do you have a game in mind, Harry, or do you just want to play in the puddles?"
"Just the puddles," he said with a shrug, giving a little jump and watching the splash land all around him.
"I think I'll read on the porch, then," said Hermione. "I'm afraid I won't be much fun without some boots of my own."
"Okay!" he said back to her, and she left for a moment to go get her book, and she began to read in the rocking chair on the porch, glancing off to the point every so often. Harry wondered what she was watching for. This, he quickly forgot however, the possibilities of all the deep puddles distracting him.
"Ribbit!" he said, hopping from puddle to puddle and pretending he was a frog. He looked up after the splash landed, staring at the window on the ground floor that was in Snape's room. The blinds were closed. He frowned. He wished that Snape would come out and play catch with him. That had been fun. But he knew Hermione would never let him bother Snape. She had told him he had a headache and was sleeping.
Harry sighed, stirring his boot in the water. He looked up again, and then saw something wonderful. Mud, and lots of it. There was a great big patch a ways away, sitting underneath a tree. Harry glanced at Hermione, thinking how Aunt Petunia used to get mad if he played in the mud. But Hermione wouldn't, he thought. He just had to be careful, and not get any in the house. Hermione was nice enough not to mind it if he stayed clean. Besides, he'd wash off his wellington boots in the puddle.
So, Harry walked over to the patch of mud. It glistened in the light, and was soft and slick. He glanced once more at Hermione, who saw him looking and waved cheerfully. Harry waved back, and she went back to her book, then, he stepped into the mud. It made a fantastic squelching noise, and the coolness made Harry's boots feel cold too. He put two feet in the muck, and grinned. It was thick, but slippery, and he slid his feet a little in it. Harry really wanted to put his hands in it, but knew Hermione wouldn't like muddy hand prints, so he restrained himself, but only just.
The mud squished and gushed as Harry stepped further into the deep wallow. A little voice in the back of his head told him that he was too young and clumsy to be walking around in the mud like this, and that he'd fall, but he brushed that voice off. That was the part of him that was no fun - the one that liked to be sensible. Harry was through with being sensible, so he squished around in the sloppy mud, grinning. He wondered how well the mud would splash if he jumped in it, like the puddle. He bent his knees, and pushed off.
"Uh oh," he said, waving his arms. His boots had stayed stuck, and he'd thrown himself off balance trying to jump. He waved his arms around for a while, and luckily, he got his balance again.
Feeling like he'd just dodged a bullet, Harry slowly pulled at his boots with his hands, and then dragged them up with his feet. They came loose, and he started to step through the mud toward the grass again, thinking that he'd pushed his luck a little too much. He was close to the edge of the mud patch when he stepped on something that was just beneath the slick surface. It was raised up, and felt like a tree root. Harry waved his arms as his boot slid. He saw the exposed bark of the root after his boot slipped across it, before the mud covered most of it again. Then, he slid backward, falling onto his bum in the mud with a soft slap. Bits of muck splattered his face, and he scrambled to get to his feet again, eyes wide with fear, his small glasses speckled with dirt. He was almost at his feet when he slipped and fell to his knees. At last, he found the tree root, still slightly exposed. Harry put his hands on it and pushed himself to his feet. He scrambled to get out of the mud, and when he was on the grass, he froze.
What had he done? Fear spread throughout his body, and it took him a few moments to realize he was shaking. He was so dead, and he knew it. Memory after memory of getting Aunt Petunia's floor dirty had come back to him, and he was terrified. Harry kept his mouth shut tightly, trying to keep the quivering sob from leaving his lips. He had to be quiet, otherwise Hermione would see him. But what could he do? He looked over to the seashore. Perhaps he could go in the water to wash himself off, just deep enough to splash a little water on himself.
Then he remembered Mrs. Weasley asking him not to go in the water alone, because she thought the current might be too strong if he got too deep without anyone to watch him. He hung his head, for he didn't think it was wise to add disappointing Mrs. Weasley to his naughty list. Then he heard Hermione gasp.
"Oh, Harry, what happened?" she asked, running off the porch and down to where he was standing, sniffling and dripping muddy water, his face splattered with mud.
"I fell," he said through trembling lips, afraid to look up at her. "I'm sorry! I'm soo sooo sorry!"
"I'm not angry," she said.
Harry shut his eyes tightly, thinking of Aunt Petunia, luring him toward her, acting sympathetic, only to throw him in a cold bath and scrub him until his skin felt raw, then make him stay in his cupboard without dinner. And that was if he was lucky. He was pretty sure Hermione wouldn't do this, but some small part of him, the part that had learned to survive long ago, disagreed from experience.
"Come on, Harry, you need to get cleaned up," said Hermione, holding out her hand.
"What do you mean?" Harry asked, staring at her open hand with hesitation.
"I'll run you a bath," she said, puzzled. "You can't go around the house like this. You have to get yourself cleaned up."
"You will not track mud all over my clean house!" screeched Aunt Petunia in Harry's memory.
"NO!" he shouted, stepping back from her as though he had been burned.
"Harry, what -" Hermione began, alarmed.
"NO NO NO!" Harry cried, running away from her and slipping with his muddy boots. "I DON'T NEED A BATH!"
"Yes, Harry," said Hermione, bewildered, "you do."
"NUH UH!" he cried, turning around so that he was facing her from about ten feet away, his fists clenched as he tried to fight the tears.
"Harry, what's wrong?" Hermione asked quietly, holding out her hands.
Harry backed away unconsciously, remembering Aunt Petunia's bony fingers, reaching out grab him by the scruff of his neck.
"I WON'T HAVE A BATH!" he cried, feeling his chest grow tighter, the tears flowing down his cheeks without his consent.
Severus apparated to a slightly different location near Bell Point than the one had left from. He had noticed it from a distance upon his departure from the rocky seaside, and hoped it would serve as a good apparition point, as it too seemed to be out of the wards. It was a grassy hill a ways away from the cottage, and to his relief, it served its purpose well. The ground was smooth and less stony here, making it easier to land, thankfully. He had decided before apparating back that he would enter through the back door of the house to minimize the risk of being seen, which came in through the laundry room. Part of it was that he thought the landing would be better, and another part was that he had no desire to be seen, for he was sure that he was white as a ghost from his trip to Privet Drive. He wished he had known of the hill before, so that he would not have had to risk being seen as much by going out the front door. But he was glad that he found another place to come and go from all the same, and as he tried to calm his breathing, he walked carefully down the sloping hillside toward the house.
He did not see anyone around the back of the house, and gained entrance to the laundry room unseen. It was dim in here, and Severus tiptoed across the hall to his room. He took off his robes, then got dressed again in muggle clothing so Potter wasn't suspicious. He tried to calm his shaking body, his mind still ringing with all that Petunia had said. But he knew he had to put it out of mind for the moment until he could properly assemble the evidence and give Dumbledore a presentation that couldn't possibly be ignored. He wondered whether or not Dumbledore already knew all of this. He hoped he didn't, because the alternative was too painful to consider.
As he stepped out of his room he strained his ears to listen for Miss Granger and Potter. They were probably upstairs, he decided. He was just about to call for them so that Granger would know he was back when he heard a loud cry from the front of the house.
Suddenly worried, he walked quickly to the front door and out onto the porch. He looked around, spying Miss Granger, who looked on the verge of tears.
"What on earth -" he began to ask her when he felt something hit him hard in the legs. He backed up and almost fell, but luckily was able to lean against the wall of the house.
He heard Potter crying shrilly, and he stared down at the boy, who was now clinging to him like his life depended on him. He was also filthy from head to toe, much to Severus' chagrin.
"What happened?" he said quickly, looking to Hermione for answers.
Potter answered before she could, however, and it took every ounce of moral fibre Severus had not to completely break down with laughter.
"SHE'S GONNA MAKE ME TAKE A BATH!" he screamed like it was absolutely the end of the world, hiding his face in Severus' legs.
"A ... a bath?" said Severus carefully, trying to refrain from laughing as he forced himself to remember what it had felt like when he was a young boy to be forced to do something he didn't like.
Potter let out an unintelligible stream of words that included small phrases like "can't make me", "didn't mean to, I promise", and "anything but that".
"Look ... Harry," said Severus, barely able to stay serious, "you are covered in mud. I realize baths are really quite boring, but I hardly think you want to walk around looking like a mud puddle. Besides, you'll get all your favourite things dirty. I doubt you want your lion to get covered in mud too."
Potter seemed to pay particular attention when Severus used his first name, and he stared up at him like he'd never seen him before, silent at last. Severus was pleased, for it had been his attempt to get Potter's attention. Once he had it however, Severus' urge to laugh was gone in an instant, because upon Potter's face he saw very real terror. The unsettled feeling in his gut was hard to ignore.
"Professor, I am so sorry," said Granger under her breath, looking exhausted.
Severus dismissed her apology with a wave of his hand, still staring thoughtfully down at the boy clinging to his legs.
"Why do you not want to have bath?" Severus asked Potter gently, who was still looking on the verge of continuing with his little meltdown.
"C-Cause," he said, hiding his face in Severus' legs again.
"We can put some bubble bath in it," Severus said despite the fact that it sounded very silly to say it. "I'm sure I saw some in the bathroom cupboard."
Potter had a brief teenage moment and looked up at him like he had grown another head. Severus felt even sillier, but forgot his embarrassment when Potter resumed crying, albeit quieter this time.
"I'm not having a bath," Potter whimpered, tears welling up in his eyes again.
"Unless you tell me why not, I cannot help," said Severus slowly, trying to speak in a way that would make Potter trust him. "Why do you not want to have a bath?"
Whether or not Severus had managed to incite a small amount of trust, or Potter had simply become too upset to keep silent any longer, he answered Severus' question.
"The water's a-always cold when I'm bad," Potter said at last, "and then you'll make me go to my room without any lunch or dinner."
"I was going to run a warm bath, Harry," said Hermione suddenly, her eyes full of tears.
"You w-were?" Potter said.
"Tell you what," said Severus, forcing himself to breathe as he tried to ignore the resurgent lust for Petunia's blood, "you can help me run a bath. You can pick how warm it is, and you can even put in bubble bath."
"Certainly," said Severus, gently extracting Potter from his legs and taking his muddy hand.
"Okay," whispered Potter.
Severus looked over to Miss Granger, who looked like she wanted to cry. He felt his stomach clench, then looked down at the little boy holding his hand.
"Harry?" he said after a moment of inspiration.
The little boy's face lit up at the sound of his name again, and Severus continued.
"Would you let Hermione go up the attic and pick out a bath toy for you?"
Potter looked to Miss Granger, and grinned.
"Yeah," he said to her.
Hermione genuinely smiled back, to Severus' relief.
"Are you even in there?" Severus asked some time later, a little amused from where he sat on a small stool in the bathroom, only able to see Potter's dark hair amidst the mountain of bubbles. In hindsight it had been rather stupid to let Potter pour the bubble bath himself, but Severus had learned that lesson now, and he would never forget it. Just about the whole bottle had gone in, but at least the mud would disappear easily.
It had been clear from the start that Potter was definitely acting his physical age today, as he had required quite a lot of help getting into the bath. Severus had taken this duty without too much reluctance, as Potter seemed most comfortable accepting help from him, especially after Severus had trusted him to help run the water. That, and Severus did not mind helping a little so that he did not have to live with the lifelong regret of letting the Boy Who Lived get vanquished by a bottle of bubble bath.
To Severus' surprise, his question was met with a hearty giggle.
"Want your boat, Potter?" Severus asked, holding out the little wooden tug boat that Hermione had found in the attic.
"Yeah," said Potter, taking it in his bubble covered hands. "Why do you do that?"
"Do what?" Severus said curiously.
"Call me Potter so much," asked the boy, looking puzzled.
Severus paused, trying to think of a good answer to tell a child - an answer free of all of the complications of enemies and grudges. The older Potter knew all of that already, and at the moment, it was not the older Potter asking. At least that was how Severus looked at it.
"Well," he said at last, "probably because I have been a Professor for a long time, and I always call students by their last names. I do it out of school too, because that is what I am used to."
"I like it better when you call me Harry," Potter said plainly, dropping the tugboat on a pile of bubbles and watching as it sunk down to the level of the water. "Harry's better ‘cause it's the name Mummy and Daddy picked, just for me."
"That is right, isn't it?" Severus said thoughtfully, intrigued by the boy's response.
"Yeah," said Potter.
"Alright then, Harry," said Severus slowly, Potter's reasoning still echoing in his head.
Harry's smile seemed to light up the room, and it was the kind of smile that not even a photograph could quite do justice to. For a moment, the intensity of it surprised Severus. It was then that he felt he had good reason to believe that Petunia had never seen a smile like this from her nephew, because he could not quite bring himself to believe that this same sight would not change her the way it changed him in an instant.