It took a good thirty minutes before father came looking for him, and in that time Harry had cried himself dry. He curled himself into a ball, with his back against the tree trunk, pretending not to hear his name being called over and over. The voice got angrier every time, and he tried to convince himself that he was shivering because he was cold rather than frightened.
“I believe you heard me saying not to climb infernal trees, boy!” father growled just below, startling the boy so badly that he almost toppled off the branch. “Come down, carefully!”
Harry looked at the man’s upturned face and gulped, he didn’t want to come down only to be punished! He wouldn’t come down at all if he could manage it, he turned away and started climbing up instead of down, blinking the moisture out of his eyes and ignoring the man cursing below.
“Stop! Moliare, moliare, don’t bloody move, you little idiot!” the man ranted, spurring the boy to climb faster, only stopping when he couldn’t see anymore.
The man stopped shouting, he was grunting and puffing with effort now. The strange sounds made Harry curious enough that he wiped his eyes and looked over the branch he was standing on. The man was clumsily clambering up the tree after him, clinging desperately to the first horizontal limb with both arms, legs slipping because of how tense he was.
“You need to relax your arms a bit, and swing one leg over the branch,” he advised in a lecturing tone, it couldn’t be more obvious that father knew nothing about climbing trees.
“I am fucking trying not to fall!” he snarled, tensing up even more, his legs searching for purchase ineffectually.
“Well, you’re going to!” Harry retorted, annoyed. “Just as soon as your hands start cramping!”
The man turned his head slightly, and the boy could see that his face was completely white, even his lips were bloodless.
“Are you scared, father?” the boy blurted out in surprise, leaning over the side of the branch to see better.
“How can you tell?” the man mocked, but the voice was too breathless to convey a sneer properly.
“You must loosen your shoulders a bit,” Harry repeated in exasperation. “Swing your legs back and forth, and over the branch. Come on, you can do it, father.”
With an angry growl, the man finally did as he instructed, swinging his legs so powerfully that he almost dislodged himself from the branch altogether. He eventually managed to hook a toe of one boot over the branch, and clung to it with arms and legs wrapped around the limb, panting.
“Are you okay, father?” Harry asked in concern after the silence stretched a while.
“I don’t think I’ll be climbing any more today,” father groaned. “Can you come down by yourself?”
“Okay,” the boy agreed with a sigh.
Adults were afraid of the oddest things, he thought as he swiftly retracted his steps down the tree, jumping from one branch to another fearlessly. He stepped onto the lowest branch, smiling at father, who had sat up with his back against the tree trunk, gripping his wand in a white-knuckled grip.
“Idiot boy,” he snarled, catching the boy by the shoulders as soon as he was close enough, and giving him a shake. “Are you trying to break your foolish neck?!”
“I wasn’t going to fall!” Harry declared indignantly. “I’ve never fallen before! I’m good at climbing!”
The man stared at him in dismay, as if the boy had announced that he liked quartering cats for entertainment.
“Merlin, give me strength,” father moaned, closing his eyes. “I’m going to have a heart attack with you. Must I blister your bottom to stop this sort of shenanigans, Harry?”
“That’s not fair!” Harry objected, angry tears filling his eyes. He pulled against his father’s hold, intending to go to the very top of the tree and stay there, but the man didn’t let go. “I haven’t done anything wrong! All the boys climb trees, but you want to take it away just to make me miserable!”
Probably, he should be afraid of losing his temper in front of the adult who didn’t hesitate to punish him for much less, but he felt as if he was a steaming teapot, unable to stop anger pouring out of his mouth. Father looked taken aback more than angry as Harry shouted at him, and that incongruous picture made him finally trail off in the middle of announcing that he would climb all the trees in the world, if he wanted to.
“As I recall, some girls also engage in that insane pastime,” father said wryly, sighing as if he had a weight of the world on his shoulders. “Making their friends sweat as they watched from the ground, imagining broken bones or worse.”
Harry blinked, his anger dissipating in his bewilderment at the turn in conversation.
“I don’t know any girls like that,” he said with a frown.
The man’s shoulders shook with mirthless laughter as he stared at the child, and he started to grow concerned that father had suffered a nervous breakdown from his fear of heights, or something.
“Your mother was one,” father said with a grimace. “I probably deserve a child with the same predilection as punishment for my past sins.”
Harry was feeling pulled in two directions; excited to find out a detail about his mother’s life that made him connect with her, to learn that she climbed trees when she was little was amazing, but he was also filled with sadness that he was such a burden to his father already. It seemed to be like that every time that one good thing came with four bad ones!
“I’m sorry!” he cried miserably, rubbing his burning eyes with his fists. “I know I’m a bother and a fr- Oh!”
The boy was suddenly airborne, his eyes flew open wide and he squawked like a duck in distress, thinking that father had pushed him off the branch, but he was only plopped on the branch in front of the man, his long arms wrapping loosely around the child’s torso. He looked up at his father, anticipating some dreadful punishment to befall his bottom at any moment, but the man only stared into space pensively.
“So dramatic all the time,” he mused to himself. “I barely know whether you need a hug or a spanking most of the time, or maybe both to make you settle better…”
“No, I don’t!” the boy objected quietly, one hand flying to cover his bum, while the other wiped across wet cheeks. “But you said I’m like a punishment!”
The man gave him a startled look, twisting his lips into a grimace.
“I meant I wouldn’t relish worrying about you falling as I did with your mother,” father explained, leaning forward to kiss the top of the child’s head. “I don’t want you to get hurt, Harry.”
“I won’t climb anymore, father,” he said meekly, pushing his head against the man’s shoulder to hide how upset he was by saying it, but the anger of before was gone, and he didn’t want father to be worried about him.
“I think you will,” father disagreed, rubbing the child’s back very gently. “I think you like it too much to stop on my account,” Harry wanted to protest, to say that he would be good, but the words just wouldn’t come. “If I forbid it, and you disobey, I will have to punish you harshly, Harry, you already know that I don’t tolerate defiance of any kind. No, I think it’s better to find a suitable compromise that will satisfy both your desire to be a monkey, and my desire to keep you safe.”
“You really mean it?” Harry asked anxiously, not entirely sure whether he should be elated about the promised concession, or horrified at the implied whipping. Had he earned it already? He’d known he was disobeying after all.
“Yes, with restrictions,” father said in his strictest voice. “And if you disregard any safety measures I come up with, you will not sit for a very long time. Am I understood, child?”
Harry’s head bobbed up and down, his chin wobbling with upset, the man couldn’t have been any clearer than that.
“Now, that is settled,” father groaned, glancing to the side and losing all colour he had regained in the course of the conversation. “Have you an idea how we may get to the ground? Preferably without falling?”
The boy looked at the grass, mere three metres below, thinking that father would have to try very hard to fall the short distance, but he decided not to voice that thought aloud. After some suggestions, rejected by the increasingly nauseated man, Harry finally got him to try climbing down by threatening that he would fetch grandpa Al to help magic him down. It worked, but with a price.
When father’s feet reached the ground, he inhaled deeply a few times, but as soon as his face lost its greenish tinge he turned his scorching gaze on the child. Before Harry had time to do more than say “Oh-oh,” father’s hand snaked around the boy’s waist, holding him in place as he delivered a sharp slap to the boy’s posterior with the other one.
“Ow!” he whimpered.
“That’s enough insolence for one afternoon, boy,” father said warningly, completely ignoring Harry’s betrayed look as he rubbed his sore bum. “Be glad I’m not putting you over my knee for a proper session for these foolish acrobatics up the tree,” he growled, catching the child by the hand and starting to walk to the front yard. “Get off the ground before I set the safety wards, and I won’t be as lenient, I promise. Come on, hopefully, Albus hasn’t locked us inside the wards yet.”
Harry thought it monstrously unfair to be punished, when he had only been trying to distract his father from his fear of heights, but he didn’t want another smack so he didn’t state his opinion out loud. He rather thought the man had been embarrassed to be so scared by a little climb, but at least it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He wondered if father’s obsession with the stairs stemmed from his fear of heights as well...
Grandfather Al was chatting with Mrs. Wilkinson over the fence, outrageously complimenting her flowerbeds, only the way he spoke made Harry think he didn’t mean the flowers at all. In any case, Mrs. Wilkinson was deeply blushing when they came up, and father had another coughing fit that he suspected was a disguised snort.
“Severus, my boy,” grandpa exclaimed happily, when he saw them. “You must seek help about that cough of yours, it is rather worrying, especially with Harry just out of hospital.”
Mrs. Wilkinson’s eyes had begun to narrow in suspicion, but at that declaration they popped back open in curiosity. She opened her mouth, obviously eager to interrogate father about the boy’s condition, but the man flung his arm around grandfather’s shoulder to steer him away.
“Thank you for entertaining our guest, Mrs. Wilkinson,” he said smoothly, giving her a courtly bow. “However, I need to reclaim him urgently. Good afternoon.”
The old lady puckered her lips in disappointment at father’s skillful retreat from the conversation, but before they could escape beyond the reach of her strong teaching voice, she struck.
“Harry is invited to visit with Eliot tomorrow afternoon,” she called out to them.
The man paused mid-stride, looking at the old lady over his shoulder, his eyebrows arched.
“Perhaps,” father murmured sceptically, dropping his gaze to scrutinize the child at his side. Harry stood like on tenterhooks, hardly daring to breathe as he awaited the end of that sentence. “If the boy manages to stay out of trouble until then, I’ll consider it.”
“I’ll be good, father,” Harry promised earnestly. “Please?”
“We shall see,” father only said, and when the boy opened his mouth to plead his case more, he fixed him with a frigid stare. “I’ll consider it then. Thank you for the invitation and good afternoon, Mrs. Wilkinson.”
Feeling thoroughly reprimanded, Harry ducked his head as father pulled him toward the house, his hand trailing to his bottom instinctively. It didn’t throb any worse than a minute ago, but it almost seemed like it should have been a lot worse, with how annoyed the man had sounded.
“Have you lost the remains of the brain you once possessed?!” father hissed so threateningly that Harry flinched and looked up, eyes widening with terror and the hand on his behind clasping convulsively. “What possessed you to flirt with that old crone like that?!”
The boy blinked in bewilderment, clearly, he hadn’t done any such thing, as the only thing he did say to Eliot’s grandma was a quiet ‘good afternoon’. He swivelled his eyes to the old man’s face, was that what grandpa had been doing?
“Why, Severus,” grandpa murmured, grinning mischievously and stroking his beard. “One must never pass up the opportunity to compliment beauty, when one encounters it.”
"Don't give me that codswallop, Albus!" Father snapped, his voice dripping with scorn. "We both know that you play for the other team!"
Harry had been listening to the exchange with an open mouth and very little comprehension, but that last bit made him jump up and down in excitement.
"What team?" He piped up eagerly. "May I come watch you playing, grandpa?"
Both adults turned to him with similar flummoxed expressions, and he watched with interest as his father went pale as a ghost, while grandfather became healthily flustered.
“Is it a very dangerous sport?” the boy asked in confusion.
Father glared at the old man in annoyance for a moment, before answering the child’s question.
“Not dangerous, usually,” he said wryly. “But it includes a lot of flirting and even kissing, do you think you’d be interested in that, Harry?”
The boy made a disgusted face, no, he’d seen enough of older kids playing at dating, and it was very gross. He shook his head emphatically, giving grandpa a wary glance, but the man didn’t seem offended, or anything. His lips were pressed into a firm line in an attempt not to laugh.
“We should get started on the wards,” father said with a groan. “How exactly do you want to bypass the containment enchantments? Leaving me a key with your magical signature would be risky, but I require a way through nonetheless.”
“Indeed, you do,” grandfather agreed happily, his eyes twinkling merrily as they travelled from father to son. “Young Harry’s blood will provide an undetectable master key for you.”
The discussion about the warding had flown over the boy’s head, as he was still trying to figure out if grandpa Al went on dates with scores of people at once, and whether they all had to play a particular sport. However, a mention of his blood being used in a magical ritual had his head snapping up in alarm, and paying close attention.
“No!” father refused categorically, his hand holding the child’s tightening painfully. “He’s too young! I won’t allow him to participate in a spell of this magnitude!”
“Harry is a strong wizard, as evidenced by his accidental magic,” the old man went on, pretending not to hear father’s objections. “Your magical signatures are already so closely melded after the sharing of blood, and yet he’s a completely unknown factor in the equation. The joint blood wards would let you slip past without the Ministry knowing, but also should the boy ever be threatened by magic again, his link to you will protect him, Severus.”
Harry understood only one word in three of what was being said, but he could tell at which point father lost his resolve. His painful grip loosened, and his angry features went blank for an instant, before donning a look of grim determination. The boy’s eyes filled with tears, his lips trembling at the knowledge that whatever was about to happen would be something unpleasant.
Father squatted down, and looked him straight in the eyes, putting his hands on Harry’s shoulders.
“At the hospital you had to drink all those nasty potions,” he said seriously. “You didn’t want to do it, but you did it because it was necessary. Do you remember why it was necessary, Harry?”
The boy’s hand was trembling as he touched his rear, a memory of the whipping very fresh in his mind.
“I had to get healthy again,” he whimpered, his eyes overflowing.
“Yes, Harry,” father said softly. “This warding is supposed to keep me safe at present, but grandfather is unfortunately right. In a few years, you’ll go to Hogwarts, and inclusion in this enchantment will protect you should anyone magical mean you harm. It is incredibly important to give you that protection, child.”
“Will it hurt?” Harry asked, although the expression on the man’s face told him enough already.
Sighing, father rose to his feet, picking the boy up as he went, and pressing his head against his shoulder.
“As our blood merges to form the enchantment, we’ll both be in a considerable amount of discomfort,” he admitted tightly. “We’ll go through this together, and it won’t take very long.”
“Please, don't make me do this, father," Harry pleaded, his tears soaking into the man's black shirt, but father didn't acknowledge him other than to tighten his embrace.
"Let's go!" The man growled furiously at grandfather. "The sooner you begin, the better."
“This is for the best, you know that as well as I do, Severus,” grandpa murmured soothingly.
“Shut up and move!” father shouted, stalking out of the house.
Grandfather began by the gate, running his wand over the gate posts, until he seemed to gather a ball of swirling energies, like a miniature storm cloud. It floated over the gate, waiting, and Harry’s stomach twisted in anxiety at what it wanted.
Father shifted the boy to one hip, and held out his hand palm up to the old wizard. Harry watched in horror as grandfather drew his wand across the outstretched palm, making a deep gash. He flinched in sympathy at the sight of blood, but his father didn’t even wince. He turned his bleeding hand over the swirling ball, letting his blood drip onto it for a few seconds before pulling it back for grandpa to heal the cut with another spell.
Harry had a brief observation that the cloud of magic seemed to like being fed blood, as it grew considerably, blood red thunderbolts striking the earth around the gatepost, making father wince with each tiny thunderclap. It was very interesting, only now father was reaching for the boy’s hand wrapped around his neck, and pulling it back and palm up for grandpa to make an incision on.
The boy cried out at the sharp pain in his pain, struggling to no avail because father’s fingers seemed to be made of iron.
“Brace yourself now, Harry,” the man warned urgently, before turning his hand to drip blood onto the spell.
The boy screamed, his body convulsing violently as the moment his blood touched the swirling mist of the spell, he was engulfed in flames. His father held him in that excruciating position for seeming eternity, and he was sure he would die from the pain. At some point, they must have moved on, as the next thing he was aware of was sobbing into the man’s neck, his hand healed and the pain lessened by half.
Any feeling of relief he might have felt was swept away when the old man stopped at the next post, at the corner of the property, repeating the same long incantation until he conjured another ball of swirling mists. Father’s hand shook as he brought it forth for grandfather to cut again, and Harry remembered the man had said they would both feel the pain of the spell. He watched as the muscles of his hand spasmed as his blood was fed to the ward, and father’s lips were pressed into a firm line, but he didn’t make a sound. The same couldn’t be said about the child, when it was his turn to bleed and burn.
They repeated the same horrid ritual at each corner of the property, and again at the gate, and by the time it was all over Harry was hoarse from screaming, and father’s hands were shaking so badly that he barely could hold the boy up anymore. On completion of the boundary, the swirling mists coalesced to form a pulsing red wall all around the fence, it hung in the air for a moment, before fading completely. As one, the boy and the man drew in a shuddering breath as the pain disappeared in the same instant as the bloody wall.
Harry lay limply against father’s shoulder, too exhausted to cry anymore, only barely aware of the man’s quiet words giving encouragement and praise for how brave he had been, and how proud father was to have a son like that. It made him feel better to hear those words, even though he was too tired to understand what they meant.
Father pressing a vial of red potion to his lips brought the boy out of his exhausted stupor, and he groaned in recognition and disgust. They were in the living room, and he was in father’s lap, on the armchair opposite the sofa. Grandfather was on the sofa, sipping tea from a blue teacup, and watching them with twinkling eyes.
“I don’t like it,” he whined, turning his face away and hiding in father’s shirt. “I’m not even sick!”
Harry remembered the horrible punishment for refusing medicine, and he was about to cry some more at the unfairness of it all, when the man pulled the vial back a little, his free hand cupped the side of the boy’s face, stroking his cheek with a gentle thumb.
“No, you and I aren’t sick, but we need a pick-me-up after that horrible spell,” father explained softly. “We can make it a toast, we’ll drink to staying healthy and safe, and never having to do anything so dreadful again.”
Harry peeked up at his father, and sure enough the man was now holding two identical vials of the red potion. Sighing, he sat straighter, and took one of the vials.
“Okay,” the boy agreed with a put upon sigh.
Smirking, father clinked his vial against Harry’s, and put it to his lips. He copied the man, watching closely to make sure he wasn’t cheating, but when half the contents of the container disappeared inside the man’s mouth, he poured the red liquid in and swallowed as fast as he could, trying not to taste it.
“Bleh!” he groaned in disgust, and he was grateful when father replaced the vial in his hand with a cup of warm tea. He drank deeply, but the taste of blood in his mouth was overpowering!
“Here,” father murmured, reaching for a plate on the coffee table. “Have a biscuit.”
Father put a chocolate soaked cake in his hand, and he stared at it as if it was a viper.
“I’m not allowed to eat sweets,” he objected, his heart about to burst from anxiety.
“Don’t be such a little dunderhead,” father rebuked him sharply. “I’m the only one allowed to say what you’re forbidden to do, and I say you may have one biscuit after a difficult day.”
Frightened more than he had been while burning outside, Harry felt his breath catching on a sob.
“I don’t wanna be punished!” he cried miserably.
The man blew out an exasperated breath.
“I’m not going to smack you for eating a blasted biscuit, Harry,” he said in a voice of fraying patience.
“Yes, I promise,” father sighed, he bent forward, touching his lips to the child’s forehead. “Eat your treat, and don’t worry.”
Harry finally did, taking the smallest possible bite in case the man changed his mind, but father only rubbed little circles on the boy’s back, while resuming his conversation with grandfather. The boy sat in a daze as the heavenly flavour of chocolate filled his mouth; he had never dreamed that he would be so thoroughly ignored as he did the one thing Dudley would hate most in the world - Harry eating sweets.
He gradually relaxed, taking as long as he could to eat the precious cake, and ending up with chocolate all over his hands, his shirt, and some on father’s shirt as well.
“A waste of perfectly good chocolate,” the man said with a sneer, but before Harry could start panicking, father ran his wand over their shirts, making them look as if they had been scrubbed. “I suggest you lick your fingers clean before touching anything else, yes?”
Grinning, the boy did exactly that.