"There," Madame Pomfrey's voice was a soothing sing-song. "Better?"
"Yes, Madame," answered the girl politely, as the woman brushed a strand of hair out of her tear-streaked face. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, Miss Miley," the mediwitch told her. "Now, why don't you rest here for a bit? Okay?"
"Yes, ma'am," the girl relaxed obediently against the pillow, her left arm propped up on a pillow. Poppy patted her fondly on the cheek, favoring her with a warm smile. She turned to find Snape standing a short distance away.
"Frequent patient of yours?" the man inquired, falling in step beside her as she crossed the wing.
"Sarah Miley, second-year Hufflepuff," Poppy answered, "almost as accident-prone as Harry."
The Potions Master raised a skeptical brow. "Not possible," he declared.
Poppy chuckled. "Perhaps not," she conceded, then grew serious again. "Is there something you needed, Severus?" They were now at the back of the wing just outside her office.
"Not personally, no, but I did want to ask you about Harry," Snape replied. "I was wondering if you happened to notice any – that is, while treating injuries he received here, did he appear to..." The man clenched his jaw in mild irritation. It shouldn't be so difficult to get the words out.
"You wish to know what I've been able to assess of Harry's home life during the course of treating him here," the woman guessed.
"Yes, please," said Severus, for once relieved that the mediwitch knew him so well.
"He's got a few scars and his left arm was broken at some point before he came to school. He also has a notable amount of laxity in his right shoulder. None of this necessarily suggests physical abuse, however."
"Doesn't mean it didn't happen, only that there were no scars," the man uttered darkly, well aware that one of the causes of joint laxity was repeated injury.
"No, it doesn't," Poppy agreed, "particularly since I can state for a fact that Harry has suffered neglect. I'm sure you've noticed that the boy is small for his age."
"They didn't feed him properly."
"Certainly not. That child has endured years of malnourishment – easily as long as he has been under the 'care' of his relatives. And these last two summers have been no exception, either. He's always thinner after he returns from being with them."
"Does Albus know all this?" Severus demanded. He could feel his temper begin to boil.
The silver-haired matron gave an undignified snort. "He was quick to dismiss my concerns as 'motherly coddling'," she retorted bitterly, "said I was overreacting."
"Figures," the professor muttered, truly unsurprised. Albus Dumbledore, for all his strengths, saw the world through lenses crafted by his own ideals. He often thought that things could be only one way and if they weren't, he either manipulated them to fit, or pretended otherwise. "I am assuming he has never spoke of any of this."
"Severus, how often do mistreated children volunteer such information?" she queried. Her tone clearly said that she had tried to ask – of course, she had tried – but she'd been deflected, and without the headmaster's say so, she'd been unable to press the issue.
"Almost never," he answered, "and then, only to someone they feel they can trust." He met her gaze. Even without legilimency, he knew they were thinking of the same scarred and battered young boy who'd once found the courage to open up to the gentle witch who'd showed him kindness.
"I have to know," Severus declared, "one way or another, I'm going to learn the truth."
Poppy squeezed his arm encouragingly. "I know you will," she said with conviction. "Harry's lucky to have you."
The man gave a faint smile in response. He only hoped that she was right.
The next couple weeks passed quickly and in a whirlwind of schoolwork and falling snow, the last full week of term had arrived and the whole of the student body was studying for end of term exams.
Severus had not gotten the chance to delve any further into Harry's situation with the Dursleys since his conversation with Poppy. He intended to pay the family a surprise visit, but he'd simply been too busy to get away from the school.
The relationship between Harry and himself was awkward, at best. While the boy didn't seem to be avoiding him anymore, he didn't seek him out, either. Not that the Potions Master blamed him. Snape, himself, couldn't recall when he'd last felt so out of his depth. He'd never actively tried to build a relationship with a child, really, and wasn't entirely certain how such a feat ought to be accomplished.
The man was just returning a book to the shelf in his office when there was a knock at the door. "Enter," he called. As if his thoughts had conjured him, Harry opened the door and stepped inside, closing it quietly behind him. Severus was a bit surprised that Granger or Weasley wasn't with him. "Is there something I can do for you?"
The boy's bottom lip was momentarily captured between his teeth before he responded. "Yes, sir, see..." Harry began, "well, you know this Saturday is the last Hogsmeade trip this term."
"Of course." Severus pretended to be intent upon selecting another book, but the truth was that he was watching the boy out of the corner of his eye, closely enough to note that he'd surreptitiously rubbed his palms on his robes.
"Well, I – that is..."
The man turned to face him, raising an expectant brow. "Yes?"
"Will you sign my permission slip?" Harry blurted.
"And you believe that you deserve to go after your behavior during the last one?"
Harry flushed slightly. "I know I shouldn't have used my cloak to sneak out, but -"
"Why is it you didn't turn in your permission slip before?" Snape asked off-handedly. "Didn't you ask your relatives to sign it for you?"
Those thin shoulders instantly became the slightest bit tauter, emerald eyes dropping to the floor. A casual observer might have missed this reaction, but Snape was no casual observer. "I forgot."
And I'm naturally blond like Lucius Malfoy, Snape thought. "Come here," he gestured, waving the boy over to him.
Hesitating briefly, Harry complied, his shoes dragging until he stood about a meter away from the man. He sensed, in that way which only those hiding shameful secrets could sense, that Snape was going to ask him about his relatives. But why? What would have tipped the man off? He couldn't tell him, though. It wasn't as though his aunt and uncle beat him. He only got what he deserved and to make an issue of his relatives' treatment of him would succeed only in making the professor believe he exaggerated and lied for attention or something of the like.
"Harry, look at me," Severus commanded. Perhaps this wasn't the best way to go about things, but he had to know and he was certain the boy would lie to him. Green eyes raised to meet black. He paused, then asked quietly, "Do your relatives hit you?"
... a great, meaty hand cuffed him alongside the head with more force than necessary... a rotund, blond boy punched him in the ribs... a thin, severe-looking woman slapped him in the back of the skull over a skillet of scorched bacon...
"Are you certain?"
... "Outta the way, freak!" the blond boy shoved him, causing him to fall and scrape his palms and knees... a heavy fist backhanded him across the face...
"Yes, sir," the response was nearly a whisper this time.
"Are you positive, Harry?" the professor persisted. "They never mistreated you in any way?"
... an impossibly long list of chores was brandished towards him... "No food for the rest of the week!"... a group of boys led by the obese blond chased after him... a large, purple-faced, whale of a man dragged him along by the arm, heading towards a small cupboard...
The images cut off abruptly and Snape found himself staring at his son, whose eyes were screwed shut. He was sickened by what he'd seen flicker across the boy's mind in response to his inquiries, and he was certain that was only a very small sampling. "Harry..."
"I'm sorry," Harry choked out.
Snape felt as though he'd been punched in the stomach. That, he hadn't been expecting. "For what are you apologizing?" he inquired softly.
"I don't know!" Harry exclaimed, his voice thick, tears escaping from beneath his tightly closed eyelids. "I don't know what I did to make them hate me, but I didn't mean it – honest. I'm sorry!"
Severus took him by the shoulders and the boy's eyes flew open in surprise at the sudden contact. "Harry, listen to me," he hissed urgently, "you did nothing wrong. Nothing! It is not your fault. Your relatives should not have mistreated you. They were in the wrong. You did not deserve to be treated in such a fashion, do you understand? You did not deserve any of it and you will not go back there."
Harry eyed him warily, his uncertainty almost tangible. He was clearly struggling with whether or not he could actually believe what the man had just said. "Promise?" he asked, his voice very faint. But his father heard it.
"I promise," Snape vowed.
For a second, it was utterly quiet, then Harry abruptly twisted out of his grasp. But it was not to turn and flee. Instead, the Boy-Who-Had-Been-Mistreated threw himself at the Man-Who-Had-Once-Despised-Him, arms wrapping about the older wizard's waist as his hands clenched fistfuls of his black robes. Burying his face in the fabric covering Snape's chest, Harry proceeded to weep.
After a moment of awkward uncertainty, the Potions Master placed one arm around the boy's shoulders, hugging him closer, as his other hand caressed the back of the messy black head. "It's going to be alright," he murmured soothingly, "I'm here... son. I'm here."