A feather-light touch on his face startled Harry out of a nap, and he blinked at the man standing by his bed. His breath caught at recognising his father, sudden unease twisting his stomach into a painful knot.
“Sir?” he asked fearfully, biting his lip to prevent it trembling. He had to squash the urge to rear back to get out of striking distance of the man, instead his muscles seemed to lock themselves in place so hard that it was hard to breathe. Harry hadn’t done anything to deserve another punishment so soon after the last.
“It is nine o’clock,” father said almost placidly. “Are you ready to get up, child?”
The boy cast a wild glance about the brightly-lit room, before almost falling out of bed in his haste to get up. He couldn’t believe he’d overslept so badly!
“Yes, sir,” he said in a panicky voice, eyes flashing to father’s face before falling to the carpet at his feet in misery. “I’m sorry for lazing about in bed for so long, sir. It won’t happen again, honest.”
The man sighed, catching the boy’s arm to steady him on his feet. He ran a hand through the messy mop of hair, ignoring the flinch Harry didn’t manage to suppress entirely. He didn’t know why he had expected a cuff on the head, that was more uncle Vernon’s thing than his father’s, but his head was so muddled with thoughts and feelings that it was difficult to differentiate between the two men.†
“If I wanted you to be up sooner, I’d have woken you, Harry,” he pointed out in exasperation. “What do you fancy for breakfast?“
Harry looked up so fast that his neck cracked loudly. He knew questions of this type were tricky, but he had years of experience avoiding such pitfalls both at home and at school.
“I’m not hungry, sir,” he mumbled, praying that his stomach wouldn’t betray him and grumble. It wasn’t safe to admit to any greed at home, especially when he didn’t deserve any favours after that morning, but his tummy was getting so uncomfortable that he doubted he could eat anything despite the hollowness inside.
“Nevertheless, you will eat,” the man corrected, sounding more severe in that moment than he had while disciplining Harry earlier. “Is scrambled eggs on bacon acceptable or would you prefer something else?”
A brick-sized lump suddenly rose in the boy’s throat. He had made a mistake, but they were at home! Tears of frustration filled his eyes, a school answer wouldn’t work as well, would it?
“Thank you, but I’ve just eaten,” he whispered huskily, but that attempt only earned a derisive snort from the man.†
“You’ve eaten,” father mimicked, his voice dripping with scorn. He folded his arms across his chest, and fixed the child with a stern glare. “Would that be a grand feast consisting of a piece of toast I found crumbling away by the door? That must have been filling, indeed! Why, I am sure you’ve put on a few pounds already!”
The boy seemed to shrink with every scathing comment the man made, his glassy eyes stared hauntingly out of a bloodless face. Father knew he had stolen from him! Harry should have found a way to sneak back downstairs and hide every evidence of his thievery, instead he had fallen asleep, like some moon-addled loon! Swallowing convulsively, he berated himself for taking the stupid bread, he hadn’t been starving or anything! Instinctively, his hands trailed back to rub at his bottom, wincing slightly. The spanking hadn’t been as bad as it could have been, at least he’d gotten a lesser sentence because he hadn’t lied, but father’s hand was hard enough on its own, and he didn’t want to feel it again so soon. Stealing was so much worse than disobeying.
Noticing the child’s anxious movement, the man blew out an irritated breath, cutting his tirade short, and Harry was all braced for him to start unbuckling his belt. He didn’t realise his gaze had dropped to the awful item until long fingers curled around his chin, and tilted his head up so that he was looking into the steely black eyes of his father.
“I’m sorry I stole,” he managed to choke out, averting his eyes as much as was possible with his head held in a vice-like grip.
“You did not steal,” father corrected, rolling his eyes. “I do not mind you getting a snack to eat, at least not during the day,” he said precisely. “I would recommend a fruit to tie you over until a proper meal, rather than a piece of plain bread. I would also appreciate not finding your snacks littering the floor in the future. Is that understood, Harry?”
No, not really. He wasn’t allowed to help himself to father’s food whenever he pleased, of course not. It must be one of those things aunt Petunia would say around neighbours, but which he knew didn’t apply to him ‘my boys adored those cakes from you, honey’. Only, why would the man say such a thing, with nobody there to listen? The other part was easier to understand, and he knew the proper response.
“Sorry I made a mess,” he apologised hurriedly, meeting the man’s eyes briefly. “I’ll clean it up, father.”†
“No need, I have already done so,” the man stated impatiently. “I think an appropriate consequence for your argumentative mood this morning is to lose the privilege of choosing your breakfast. Next time, you’ll know better than to argue with me. Now, stop sulking and dress, or do you need a smack on the rear to hurry you along?”
Harry cringed, never before has anyone cleaned up his messes for him. He didn’t mean to argue with father, especially not when he was already getting so annoyed to threaten a punishment, but as the man let go of his face, dismissing him to get moving, his stomach clenched even more tightly.
“No, but… I’m really not hungry,” he insisted, folding his arms across his aching belly, his voice becoming more breathless and strained with every word. “I don’t need so much food all the time,” he babbled, saying whatever popped into his mind that would get him out of eating anything. His vision was swimming, he needed to lie down for a minute, but father was looking at him so strangely that he didn’t dare stop speaking even though his insides were about to explode. “I’m really small... honest... and food is expensive... I really should earn my keep anyway…" he was crying by the end, breaths coming in shallow gasps.
“Enough, Harry. What-,” father barked, but before he could demand what was wrong, the child’s legs folded and he crumpled to the floor. Arms caught him, but he was barely conscious of that fact, his insides tightened with every breath he managed to drag in, and he was certain that he was going to die. Angry words drifted at the edge of his hearing, and he was almost glad that he would be dead before father could punish him. An excruciating minute passed, and then his mouth was filled with something foul. A hand clamped over his mouth and nose, and he was suffocating! He struggled feebly, remembering to swallow after a moment. The obstruction over his mouth went away, and Harry dragged in a rattling breath.
Father was speaking to him, but it took a while before he could understand the soft words. He didn’t know how he’d gotten there, but he was laying sideways, with his head nestled in the man’s lap. Long fingers on his bare belly deftly massaged the hard stomach, making the boy whimper and groan in turns, as the tightness inside began to slowly lessen, the other hand was warm on his forehead, smoothing his fringe out of his eyes.
“Breathe, Harry, it’ll pass soon, just take another breath. Yes, like that, good boy, just one more,” the words swam over his head, calming and quiet, as his stomach slowly uncurled. “That’s it, child, relax, breathe. Is the pain gone, Harry?”
The boy took a shuddering breath, he was drenched in sweat and exhausted from the attack, but his stomach wasn’t killing him anymore. In fact, he was mortified to hear it rumbling softly. Harry turned his head, shooting a worried look at the man, but father merely smirked at him.
“I imagine you won’t give me any more trouble about breakfast, hmm?” Father asked, raising an eyebrow. “I wish you had told me straight away what was wrong, that was a very bad cramp.”
“I’m sorry,” Harry whispered, his lips trembling with the beginning of a sob, but the man smoothed his expression with a gentle finger.
“Apologising for being sick is very foolish, child,” he said, a tad acerbic, resuming his massage. “Do you have such pains often, when you’re worried about something, or scared, Harry?”
The boy flinched, the question was asked softly, so gently that the voice was almost unrecognisable as his stern father’s, but it did little to reassure him very much.
“Sometimes,” he mumbled, burying his face in the man’s thigh. It usually happened when he had eaten something after a long punishment, but this time wasn’t like that at all. His stomach tied itself into a painful knot the moment he opened his eyes, so tense as if something terrible was about to happen, something he couldn’t bear to even think about consciously. He bit his lip, fighting the urge to cry.
“Will you tell me what is worrying you, Harry?” Father asked very softly, and the boy shuddered, the tension in his gut becoming unbearable. He opened his mouth to cry out in pain, but what came out was a question of his own.
“Are you going to send me away now?” he whispered so quietly that it was a mere breath of air, but the man heard him. His hands tightened on the child’s head and stomach, almost painfully.
“No, never,” the words were so cold, thrumming in the air like the toll of a bell, even though the volume wasn’t much higher than Harry’s question had been. Fingers curled around his arm, and pulled him up as easily as a ragdoll, and the boy cried out in fear more than pain.†
Instead of bending him over his knee as punishment for asking, father sat Harry on his lap, holding him by the arms away from himself.† The boy gasped, staring at the severe† and† merciless features of his father’s face, there was nothing soft or soothing on it right now.†
“You are mine,” he said angrily, black eyes burning with something Harry hadn’t seen before, but might have been a strong resolve. “My flesh and blood, my child, and I intend to keep you. Had I known you were my son, I’d have taken you the day your mother passed away. Your aunt had cheated me out of six years with you, and that I will not forgive. No, I won’t send you away, not to her or anyone else. Not ever.”
Harry’s eyes were large as saucers, and he had stopped breathing again. He wasn’t sure he even remembered how, to be honest. He opened his mouth, licking his dry lips nervously, as father’s words rang in his ears.
“I’m sorry,” he said timidly, not at all certain that what father was saying boded well for him. The man sounded so angry, as he claimed his desire to keep him, that the boy wanted to cringe, except his arms were holding so tight that he couldn’t move.
Father’s eyes narrowed into angry slits.
“Are you apologising for worrying that I would do to you the same foolish thing that hideous aunt of yours did?” he demanded incredulously.
That made Harry scowl.
“Aunt Petunia isn’t hideous!” he protested hotly, the anxiety of a moment ago melted away in a feat of temper. He would have stomped his foot, had he been standing.
The man snorted, pulling the child close against his shoulder, rubbing his back soothingly.
“I must have your eyesight checked,” he murmured, with a hint of mockery in his dry voice. “As you don’t see very clearly at all, Harry.”
“She just isn’t!” The boy insisted, folding his arms in imitation of his father’s irate posture. “She’s pretty and nice!”
“Alright,” the man coughed into a fist, making him suspicious at the sudden acquiescence. “Your aunt’s virtues aside, how is your stomach feeling, now?”
Harry rolled his eyes, he could recognise an avoidance tactic when he saw one.
“You’re changing the subject on purpose,” he accused in a grumbling voice.
“Yes, well, we must agree to disagree on the matter of your aunt,” father said dryly. “There is no accounting for tastes. How about light porridge for breakfast, with some of those strawberries?”
“Okay,” the boy agreed grudgingly, sighing like someone put-upon. His father was like a dog with a bone.