As it turned out, grandpa Al knew all about the trouble he’d gotten into yesterday from father, and he stood like on burning coals, expecting a smacking or worse to follow. The old man didn’t scold him, though, only told him that he had scared everyone very much, and to be more careful in the future. Harry promised that he would be, and that was all he said on the topic.
Grandfather wanted to know what the boy liked doing with and without his father, and he rolled his eyes, feeling a little testy about having to answer these types of questions all the time. It was as if all the adults conspired to make him admit to things that he wasn’t supposed to like, and take them away!
“I like playing with the ball,” he declared grumpily, eyes flashing. “Father gave it to me, so it’s not forbidden!”
“Of course not,” the old man agreed, sounding astonished that the boy would suggest such a thing. “I have a feeling your father would rather forbid you quidditch than football, even though it’s quite injurious, as I understand it.”
Harry narrowed his eyes suspiciously, trying to figure out if the man disapproved of the sport or not, but his face was so placid that he couldn’t tell one way or another.
“It’s not really dangerous,” he explained, deflating. “The other day, I just fell because the grass was slippery from the rain. Father said it could happen to anyone!”
“I am sure you know better than I,” grandpa said, smiling broadly and rubbing his hands together. “How about you teach me how to play this ball?”
Harry’s eyebrows shot up in shock, but at the old man’s encouraging nod he grinned.
“Okay,” he agreed eagerly.
He ran to fetch the ball from the porch, where he was supposed to store it when not in use. There was a bounce in his step, as he returned to the back garden with the ball under one arm. Grandfather awaited the lesson with his white eyebrows raised in anticipation, and the boy suddenly felt very awkward.
“Umm,” he began hesitantly, fixing his eyes on the grass at his feet. “I don’t know all the rules yet, not the way they play football on the TV, with teams and corners,” he admitted, peeking up at the man to check if he was getting angry. “I just play at kicking into the weed ward. Is that okay?”
“Certainly, my boy,” grandpa agreed with an intrigued smile, he waved a hand to indicate the two of them. “We wouldn’t make much of a team with only the two of us, anyway.”
Harry smiled in relief and launched into a tale of how he had discovered this peculiarity about the ward, hurriedly adding that father had said he could kick the ball into it, and if he didn’t believe him, he could go ask father!
“That won’t be necessary,” grandfather soothed, studying the slight shimmer in the air with an interested gaze. “A potent hex, but not in the least harmful to inanimate objects. I hope you know not to touch it yourself, Harry?”
The boy nodded energetically, not foolish enough to risk the stinging he’d gotten when he met Eliot. He put the ball on the ground and ran back a few steps so he could kick at it with more force, he sent it hurtling through the air, and whooped with joy when it returned even faster. He didn’t chase after it, though, thinking it would be rather rude to leave the old man alone.
“I just kick it back and forth, that’s all,” Harry finished with a modest shrug.
“Let’s see how we do two against one, shall we?” grandpa suggested with a wicked grin, pulling up his navy nightgown over his knobbly knees so that it wouldn’t interfere with the game.
The fifteen minutes that followed were a little insane, the boy had to admit, with the two of them running, jumping and kicking in tandem, trying to catch every ball that the ward thrust back in their direction. There were a few tumbles, and at first Harry worried that grandpa would get injured, but the old wizard charmed the ground to be as soft as his bed upstairs.
By the time he heard father calling them for lunch, grandpa Al was bent double and wheezing, and even Harry was slightly winded, but they were grinning like mad. Father was less amused when he saw them, his forehead creased into a fearsome frown, and his hand shot up to point at the ceiling.
“Upstairs,” he ordered coldly. “You’re too filthy to eat at my table. What have you been doing, rolling in the dirt?”
Heart breaking into a gallop, Harry’s feet changed direction before his panicked brain could tell them to. The stairs passed in a blur, and he whimpered, knowing that he was making the situation worse by running, but he couldn’t slow down until he got to his room. Father had never sent him away from the table before, but he remembered to make himself scarce from the Dursleys. He knew that if he stuck around, he’d be punished, and his bottom hurt enough already.
A knock on the door made Harry flinch, his hands flying to his rear protectively.
“Are you changing, child?” grandpa’s voice floated through the door. “There’s no need, a cleaning spell will do the trick, I think.”
The boy didn’t respond, too filled with tension to breathe, let alone speak. There was a brief pause, and then the door was pushed ajar and the old man’s smiling face was looking into the room. Harry couldn’t help backing away a step, his frightened eyes flitting over grandfather’s face.
“I don’t want to be spanked,” he pleaded, close to tears.
The man’s blue eyes widened, and he came in, closing the door with a soft click. He sat on the boy’s bed, pushing the lion back to make room, and gazed at Harry with a serious expression.
“Spanking is nothing fun, I do not doubt,” he said sympathetically, patting the mattress next to himself until the boy sighed and went to sit down. “And I am sure that with Severus as your father, you had to face such unpleasantness rather more often than in your previous home. It must be a big adjustment for you, suddenly learning that you had a father, and having to live in a new place, with a stranger who isn’t always very pleasant. I am sure it isn’t much consolation, but I do not believe he does it to be cruel to you. Severus cares about you a great deal, Harry, even though it may sometimes seem he is harsh and unfeeling.”
“He’s very strict,” Harry mumbled hollowly, his shoulders slumping. “I don’t mean to disobey, really, I just forget sometimes.”
“That must be very frustrating,” grandpa acknowledged solemnly. “As you get used to being his son, Severus must learn how to be your father. I think you are both bound to make some mistakes before you settle into your life together.”
“I suppose,” he sighed, he hadn’t considered that father might be as confused and scared as he was.
“Does he do anything right, you think?” the old man asked with a soft smile.
Harry dropped his gaze, thinking about the question, he didn’t really know what was ‘right’ for a father to do. Starving your son didn’t feel like what parents should do, his father and the Dursleys agreed on that, he only hoped he wouldn’t end up as fat as his cousin because of that. Dudley had never been scolded for anything, though, while his bottom throbbed almost continuously since he was with his father. Harry was sure he didn’t want to turn out like his horrible cousin, but getting punished all the time was horrible as well.
Still, there were things he liked about living with his father, things he’d never experienced before; sitting in his father’s lap, eating fish and chips and swinging in the park together, having a friend to play with and being allowed to walk on the curb, being tickled to wake him up and read to when he had a nightmare. Harry shook his head in surprise, he hadn’t realised how many little snippets there were that he had enjoyed, that made him feel safe, but they were soured by the constant threat of a punishment.
“I guess so,” he admitted reluctantly. “He isn’t so bad, when he isn’t, you know…”
Grandpa squeezed his shoulders in encouragement.
“I’m glad to hear that. Should we go down, then?” grandpa asked gently. “I’m sure your father is wondering what we’ve been up to for so long.”
“Father doesn’t like tardiness,” the boy groaned, standing and rubbing his sore bottom worriedly. He looked at his dirt-spattered shirt and trousers with a grimace. “Can you really magic it away, grandpa?”
The old man smiled, pulling a slender wand out of his voluminous sleeve. He moved it down the child’s body, drawing all the grass and earth into a ball floating in the air. Grandpa gave Harry a mischievous wink, and tapped the dirt ball with the tip of his wand, turning it gold. Tiny white wings grew at the top of the ball, and between one eyeblink and the next, they began to move so fast that they blurred. The flying ball zoomed around the room a few times, before perching on top of the wardrobe.
Harry had to concentrate to remember how to work his face muscles, his jaw had dropped so low in astonishment.
“You made a flying ball, grandfather,” he stated incredulously. “Out of some dirt on my shirt?”
“It’s called the golden snitch,” the man explained modestly. “A little trifle to chase when you get bored with playing football. Come, I’m famished.”
The boy followed in a daze, his head swivelling to track the hummingbird ball, which took the opportunity the opening door provided and fled down the landing.
“It’s escaping!” he exclaimed anxiously, straining to hurry up after it, but grandfather had a firm hold on his hand.
“It just needs to stretch its wings,” the old man explained, leading the way into the bathroom. “And your dear father can use a distraction.”
They scrubbed their hands and face before going downstairs, and Harry couldn’t help worrying that his father wouldn’t appreciate a madly-dashing ball zooming around his kitchen. When they stepped through the door into the kitchen, the child’s knees locked at the sight of his father, the man stood with his wand raised, his face and posture conveying outrage the boy hadn’t seen yet. He let out a frightened gasp, and the blazing black eyes moved from the overhead lamp he had been glaring at, to the child’s pale face.
“Sit,” he snapped, but his gaze didn’t linger to observe Harry scrambling to obey, wincing at the hard wood under his tender bum. Father fixed a murderous glare at grandfather, who had paused at the threshold, an innocent expression on his aged face. “If you brought a racing broom for the boy to break his neck, Albus, I won’t be responsible for my actions!”
“Don’t be absurd, child,” grandpa laughed mildly, walking around the table to claim a chair. He surreptitiously touched his wand to Harry’s chair on the way past, the boy’s eyes widened and he ducked his head to hide a relieved smile as the unforgiving wood became as soft as his bed. “I wouldn’t rob you of the opportunity, Severus,” the old man went on jovially, as if he was impervious to the anger twisting father’s features. “I can think of no better way to bond with your son than by choosing a racing broom together.”
“I’ve no intention to- Bleh!” father sputtered, throwing his hands up in the air, his face darkening further. “Harry won’t be another quidditch-obsessed brat! I won’t allow it!”
“Surely, a snitch to chase around the garden won’t harm the boy,” grandpa argued with an impish grin.
Father inhaled deeply, evidently trying to bring his temper under control. He slid his wand into his sleeve, and pointed a warning finger at grandfather.
“You’ll charm the bloody nuisance to stay at Harry’s head level,” he demanded icily. “I won’t have him climbing trees to catch the bloody thing. You hear me?”
“Of course, I wouldn’t dream of putting the child in danger,” grandpa assured happily, reaching out a hand to pat Harry on the head. “Didn’t you mention food, Severus? I’ve been hoping for a bite…”
Father huffed in irritation, shooting one last poisonous look at the lamp on the ceiling before stalking to the kitchen counter to fetch a soup bowl. Harry squinted at the lamp, his lips stretching into a wide smile at the sight of the hummingbird ball grooming its wings up on the lamp. Grandpa Al had been right, father got so distracted by the toy that he never even mentioned the boy getting his new clothes dirty, or running on the stairs. That was a strange thought, father didn’t seem to like the toys, but he hadn’t actually forbidden Harry to play with them.
His stomach let out a hungry snarl as father placed a bowl of chicken soup in front of him, and Harry cringed in mortification, but the man merely smirked at him.
“Eat, Harry,” he commanded mildly, stroking the child’s hair once before filling a bowl for grandfather and himself.
The boy was sure that his face was crimson in embarrassment as he bowed his head over his meal, and started to eat. He could vividly remember the reactions his stomach misbehaving got at the Dursleys, and it had never been to simply tell him to eat. His head was so filled with comparisons between his father and his aunt and uncle that he barely took note of the adults’ conversation as he devoured his soup. A mention of a substitute teacher to cover father’s classes at Hogwarts caught his attention at last, and he looked up with a frown.
“You got fired, father?” he blurted out worriedly, uncle Vernon’s unsavory opinions on people too stupid to keep their jobs ringing in his head. “Are we going to starve in the streets, now?”
Both men looked at the child then, similar confused expressions on their faces. Father’s momentary confusion morphed into anger in just a few seconds, his nostrils flaring.
“Don’t be absurd, boy!” he rebuked him sharply, sounding very affronted. “You wouldn’t starve even had I been unemployed, which I decidedly am not!”
“Your father merely takes a leave of absence from his teaching duties,” grandfather explained calmly. “I asked him to complete a project for me which he cannot do whilst at the school?”
“And you’ll pay him?” Harry checked, eyeing his father anxiously.
“Of course, I shall. You do not need to worry, Harry,” the old man assured him, his blue eyes twinkling in amusement.
“As touching as your concern for our livelihood is,” father said with a sneer. “You had better wait for us in the garden, or it may earn you a sore behind.”
Harry’s mouth fell open in surprise, he hadn’t meant to say anything bad, but he’d managed to insult his father somehow. Frightened, he pushed away his empty plate, and stood.
“Yes, sir,” he whispered meekly, doing as he had been told.
“Don’t be so hard on him, Severus,” he heard grandpa murmur quietly as he left the kitchen. “He didn’t mean anything by it, I’m sure.”
“Hard?” father scoffed derisively. “Had I spoken to my father with such cheek, I wouldn’t be able to sit for a month. I assure you I’m anything but hard! How dare he insinuate…”
The boy ran the rest of the way to the door, not wanting to hear any more about how furious with him father was. He found the old beech tree he’d pegged as good for climbing and started scrambling up the gnarled limbs. He had loved this activity for forever, as it was the only fun thing his uncle hadn’t cared about him doing, if there weren’t any chores left in any case. He stopped at a convenient fork a few metres up, legs swinging in the air. His bum throbbed an awful lot on this hard perch, reminding him that he was in trouble already, so why should he care that father didn’t want him climbing trees? He scowled, he didn’t want to obey if the man was going to be unfair, anyway! Harry didn’t notice when he started crying, he was so miserable.