Harry had had a bad day.
Not only had he been caught in the attic where he knew not to be, searching for anything to verify that he was indeed someone's child, and not an unwanted nuisance or a freak, but he had also been caught that morning stuffing his pockets with bread crusts from the rubbish bin—not for himself, mind. He knew that the trash was dirty, he wasn't a baby—but for a tiny mouse he had found with tender pink ears and a cute wriggling nose. He had meant to bring it the crusts whilst he was in his cupboard for the night to lure the little wild creature. The mouse had looked so sad last evening when Harry had found it shivering behind an ancient feather duster, its little, pink hands clenched before it, the tiny nails just visible in the dim light, as if it had been scolded, or had lost its family. Harry was sure it was an orphan too.
The only good thing to happen for the day was that Harry was allowed to choose one thing from Dudders' old clothes so that he might attend the school's Christmas pantomime of the Friendly Beasts at the nativity. Harry had chosen Dudders' old wolf costume, a thing he had coveted from Halloween two years before even through Dudders' fits about how ugly it was and so uncool. (Harry recalled that Dudders had wanted to be a Transformer like on the telly, but couldn't find a costume to fit.) His cousin had refused to wear it after he tried it on, so it was as good as new and fit the smaller boy comfortably now. Of course, Dudders was one of the wise men this year, which was the only reason Harry was allowed to even be in the pageant. Aunt Petunia had looked at Harry oddly, with a little wicked smirk, and then she had allowed Harry to participate saying something that Harry didn't understand about beasts and freaks. He grew angry as if he had a white-hot brick in his belly, even though he didn't really understand, but had swallowed the emotion so that he could have the costume. Harry had secured the gleaming prize in his cupboard just that afternoon before racing to the kitchen to lay the table for dinner.
Disaster struck as Uncle Vernon arrived home. Dudders had been angry about his crown being smaller than the other two wise men, especially Melchior's because that part had been taken by the only black person in their school who also happened to be a pretty girl, whose mother always braided her hair and put beads in it. Somehow Dudley blamed Harry about the entire mess and was stomping about Aunt Petunia , who was wringing her hands and saying she would speak to the teacher. Harry unwisely, had said that Miss Smythe wouldn't like them saying anything about unfairness and that she never liked to hear Dudders kick up a fuss about the unfairness of anything especially. (Harry silently agreed with his teacher, but never said so. After all, Dudley got loads of things for Christmas and his birthday and all Harry ever got were his cousin's cast-offs.) Dudders had been so enraged that he chased Harry out of the kitchen and pinned him to the wall outside the cupboard, where he kicked Harry just below the knee on his shinbone. It hurt and Harry could not help but shout in pain before giving Dudley a shove back. The larger boy had flown across the hallway, as if Harry was Superman or the Hulk and suddenly Harry felt as if he were on top of the world. It would be so cool to have super powers like the heroes he had read about. Harry could already feel the fantasy playing out in his mind.
The world seemed to stop spinning and the fantasy images dissolved as Uncle Vernon bellowed, "Don't use any of that freakishness on my son! It's to the cupboard with you, without supper!"
Uncle Vernon took Harry by the nearest ear-lobe and marched him to the cupboard door. He bent, lowering his purpledy-veiney face to Harry's level as he opened the door. "In with you and your freakish behaviour."
Harry crawled in hastily and felt lucky when all Uncle Vernon did was slap him on his thighs with his great hammy hand, rather than give him the usual shove with his foot that always sent Harry's head into the wall. As his uncle closed the door and locked it with a loud click of the handle, he shouted, "And you'll stay there until tomorrow morning! And there will be no whinging about missing that play tonight. Freakish bad actors don't belong in a play about Christmas!"
Harry knew it would do no good for him to wail about the pageant that he would miss due to his punishment, even if Uncle Vernon hadn't said his piece. It would only lead to further punishments and it might even mean the special cricket bat that his uncle sometimes wielded when Harry was especially bad. Harry didn't even sniffle, though his insides felt the tears. He had so wanted to be the wolf who gave the Christ-child a fresh hare to eat. Sure, Harry knew that a wolf wasn't in the song, but he could pretend, and that was just as good as a fact. Harry found the soft, furry wolf costume and decided that since he couldn't attend, he would have his own pretend pageant, and that would be better than anything his stupid family would see. He slid out of his dingy handed-down clothes, donned the softly gleaming garment. It didn't seem handed down since Dudders had only tried it on once before he crammed it in the charity bin Aunt Petunia kept beside his door. Harry closed his eyes to better pretend about the pageant and his role in it.
He closed his eyes and let his imagination take him away on a sea of deepest blue and darkest purple.
Severus Snape didn't know how Albus had roped him into attending such a ludicrous display of Yuletide Muggle humbuggery, but here he sat, crunched between an older Squib who smelled of camphor and cats and the outrageously un-Muggle arrayed Albus Dumbledore. Severus rolled his eyes as Arabella Figg proclaimed over the thin programme, "Here is Harry's class, the second to last to perform. You'd think they would allow the younger ones to go first. Wouldn't you, Mr. Snape?"
Severus gave a noncommittal grunt and turned his attention to the milling crowd as they entered the seating area. Albus gave Severus a poke in the ribs with an elbow that could have been a weapon. Really, wizards over a hundred should never be allowed to poke anyone with their elbows. They had to know they were bony and caused a great deal of pain; not that Albus' suit wasn't doing a bang-up job of giving Severus the beginnings of a migraine to begin with. In honour of the festivities, Albus had donned a garish red suit coat with a waistcoat made of green silk. He wore a glittering, gold tie, made, no doubt from fairy dust and corgi wool, and his trousers, whilst a more conservative grey, were made of some sort of lightweight silk that floated about his thin legs. The trousers left little to the imagination when Albus moved, and definitely let Severus know that Albus was indeed male and that he had extraordinarily knobby knees. Severus shuddered in his own Muggle clothing, all black and all appropriately winter weight wool. His one concession to the holiday season was a starched white linen shirt and a thin, dark green tie worn under his black jumper.
Albus said in an undertone, "I thank you for coming with us, Severus. Whilst Arabella is informative in her way about these types of gatherings, a wizard's perspective is always welcome." The lights flickered and the crowd began shushing one another. The noise reminded Severus of a certain supposedly dead wizard's familiar and he clamped his fingers on his knees until the urge to vomit or flee left him. The lights dipped one last time and a light came up on the stage. A riotous cacophony of unripe voices all singing in different lisping keys assailed Severus' ears and he clenched his jaw, praying for a quick end to the evening or death. Either option was welcome if it would end his misery quickly.
Harry knew his imagination was good, but he had never known it to be this good. He had boarded a boat, one that looked like the paper boats Miss Smythe had taught them to make at the beginning of the year. He stood at the bow of the boat in his wolf costume, one leg on the edge of the ship, like the pictures he had seen of pirates in those funny old books in the library. He commanded the boat to sail towards a most fantastical island, one that looked strangely familiar to him. Once the boat ground into the shoreline, Harry hopped off and made his way through a jungle. He was fearless as he passed the large stones and tr?ees with leaves shaped like feather of the strange land and happened upon his first contact.
It was a great hairy beast with human feet and a bull's head. Harry stared into its yellow eyes without blinking once and the beast, which had begun to growl, and snort and snuffle as if it were ready to explode, quieted and bowed to him.
"You are not Max," the beast said in a leathery voice.
"You are right," Harry said and then nodded once a short, sharp gesture to match the beast's demeanour, "I am not Max."
The beast winked one eye and then the other before he said in a ponderous voice, "Tell me, Not Max, have you seen Max in your travels here and yon?"
"No, I am not 'Not Ma...' oh, bother, never mind." Harry folded his arms over his chest and lifted his chin just a little, an imperious gesture that he had seen Dudley make when he was demanding more of everything. "I do not know Max. Who is he?"
The beast gave a low, mooing moan, and wrung his hands. "Max came here long ago, at least a month and a day ago, with a wild growl and staring black eyes. He is our king. He is the one who commands the Wild Rumpuses. If Max is not here, we cannot be the Wild Things we are meant to be."
Harry gave a quick jerk of his head. "I don't know this Max, but I can command a good Rumpus. I have seen my cousin do it and have learned. Take me to the other Wild Things, and we will begin."
The beast cheered instantly and picked Harry up, cradling the boy against his chest as if he were not a freak and a burden, but a precious thing made of spun sugar and sunlight. Harry never wanted to leave the beast's arms.
In the little hall where the pageant played, Severus Snape nodded off to sleep. He dreamed of an island with trees that had leaves shaped like feathers and friends with yellow eyes and gnashing teeth that he had not seen since he was a child. Albus Dumbledore put his wand back into the holder and gave himself a secret smile. There was always a magic that would work on even the most hardened and broken heart.
At first the other beasts growled and roared, one even meowed, when Harry was put in their midst. The bull-headed beast growled and snorted louder until he had all their yellow-eyed attention. "This is Not Max, and he has come from the land of our king. He bears the strange-smelling wolf skin, the same kind our king wore when he commanded us in our rumpus a month and a day ago. Not Max will lead us in a Wild Rumpus! Rejoice, and roar to the sky, to the earth, and to the places in between!"
The beasts let out such a loud noise that Harry trembled before he remembered he had stared each and every one of the assembled beasts down and had made Dudders fly just that afternoon from a simple push. Harry raised his hand and shouted, "Let the Wild Rumpus start!"
Severus walked the dream landscape marvelling at how his mind could remember a fantasy from his shattered childhood in such detail. He passed the spot where he had seen his first beast, the bull-headed sentinel who guarded the area. He paused, remembering the strange conversation he had first had there. It had seemed so normal as a child for him to be speaking to a beast with sharp teeth and pointed claws. He grimaced, thinking of how this place had been a portent of his life, though his real life monsters had been truly dangerous, not the schadenfreude friends of his innocent imagination. He had escaped to this world as a child to take his mind off his father, the drunken sot who regularly beat his wife and actively hated Severus. In this world, Tobias Snape had been relegated to the harmless form of a` bird, his sharp-eyed gaze softened by Severus' own mastery of him. That bird was the only one given a name so that Severus could wield the old magicks over him, make Tobias less potent.
Then he had gone to Hogwarts and found new monsters, one a real werewolf, and again the echoes of this world aided him, let him stare down the Marauders until Lily had left him that fateful day. His service to the Dark Lord had been his next beast and not innocent at all. The rumpuses he had led in that capacity had meant torture and eventual death to the hapless victims, wizard and Muggle alike. Severus had seen the beast in himself then and the taint of his sins had far-reaching implications, one that had led him to the web-like plans of Albus Dumbledore. He wasn't sure that Albus wasn't yet another monster, a beast with a kind face and sharp teeth and claws like the ones who dwelt in this land of fantasy and feather-leaved trees.
He ran his hand over his left arm, feeling his feet become heavier as he tried to walk, feeling the youthful burst of exuberance that he had experienced at first flee as his adult eyes adjusted to the scenery.
What he saw in that childish land of Wild Things and Rumpuses, was not what he remembered. The jungle was cardboard and ink, not the vibrant flora of his memory. The scent of the land was ammonia and bleach, not the ambrosial odours of baking and Christmas. He took another step, this one leaden and sluggish. Soon he was mired in quicksand up to his chest, a sucking, cloying kind of feeling that made him raise his voice in a howl. He closed his eyes to the pain of lost fantasy and cried out for the succour that he had taken from this land in his childhood.
The bird beast, Tobias, the only one with a name that Harry could tell, twirled the little boy around one last time. It clacked its beak, a laugh of sorts, and then sent Harry flying to the she-beast with long red hair and huge pointy teeth. The she-beast caught him and spun him around, airplane style, as Harry had seen Uncle Vernon do to Dudley when his cousin was younger and smaller. The she-beast passed him to the strange one with horns, a shaggy beard, and lizard-scaled feet. Harry liked him best of all of them and he told the beast this with a shy smile. The beast hugged him and then lifted him to the limbs of one of the trees that rimmed the clearing. Harry swung from one limb to the next, pretending he was a monkey like the ones he had seen in the movie on Africa that Miss Smythe showed them. It was then he heard the howl.
It was a soft noise, barely noticeable over the crackling din of the beasts. Harry dropped from the tree and floated softly to the ground. The beasts around him paused. The bull-headed beast that Harry had secretly named Vernon looked intently at him before he asked, "What is it, Not Max?"
"Intruder alert!" Harry shouted. It was a cool sound, commanding like he had heard on that show Dudders liked to watch, the one about the astronauts who fought the grey-skinned machine people. The effect of those words was instant. Each beast stopped what they were doing and their eyes drifted to Harry. Harry said in the same voice, "Follow me! We will find the intruder and teach him to spy!"
With an amazing quietness, the beasts sneaked on tiptoe behind Harry, who was also stealthy in his movements. They came to the clearing where Harry and Vernon had spoken, and Harry pointed to the centre of it, now filled with quicksand and a single black-haired man with piercing black eyes. "There he is!"
The man sputtered and thrashed until Tobias squawked, "Muh-Muh-Max!"
As all the assembled beasts knelt, Harry felt a stab of jealousy at their obvious reverence. He crossed his arms over his chest and stood with his feet spread apart to make sure that no one saw his weakness. "Is it true? Are you Max, their friend from a month and a day ago?"
"I am not Max, nor am I their friend." The man rolled his eyes as Harry and the Wild Things looked at him dumbly. "Max is the only name they know, besides Tobias," the man added.
The bull-headed beast grumbled with a rumbly voice, "That's not true. I know leaf, and stone, rock and bone." The man looked at the beast as if he were ridiculous, so Vernon finally shrugged and said, "And Not Max gave me a name. It is Vernon, his word of power."
Harry gulped loudly as the man's black eyes dug into him, sharp as stone. "Is that so?"
"Yes," Vernon said. "And you are too our friend, Max."
Harry thought the man might object, but he merely floundered against the quicksand that was beginning to look like chocolate pudding, reminding Harry that he would get no dinner tonight. His stomach gave a rumbly grumble, so he put his hands over it, saying, "Shush."
The man's eyes bored into him more, and Harry giggled. He never knew a simple look could tickle in his brain, or that a look could bring out his memories, good and bad. Harry shouted for the man to stop when an image of Uncle Vernon spanking him over something he did not mean to do surfaced. The man flailed again, his mouth working like the fish at the wharf when Aunt Petunia went to market in the summer. Harry laughed again because he found the man who was Max/Not Max First to be quite funny. The man held his mouth as if he had eaten a lemon and his nose twitched like Harry's little mouse from the night before. It was a big nose to be sure, much bigger than the mouse's but it still twitched when the man spoke.
"Could one of you..." The man grimaced and looked as if the words tasted like a pickle. "...Give me a hand?"
Harry knelt at the edge of the pool of quicksand and reached his hand toward the man, "I'll get you out, and you don't even have to be my friend."
"Potter," the man breathed through pinched lips and hot anger that poured from his eyes, and then he took Harry's hand whilst Vernon held the boy's feet and Toby held Vernon's feet. Before long they had a six beast/one boy chain that was grunting and huffing and pulling, and just like that, Not Max First popped out of the quicksand and onto the grass.
Once he was out, the man shook a stick out of his sleeve and he ran it over his body whilst saying odd words. A light pretty blue light covered Not Max First and then he was clean. Harry stooped beside him, hunkered down on his haunches as he peered into the man's face. Not Max First's face was interesting with the lines and puckers that came from being as old as he was. Harry ran a finger down the middle line of the man's nose as he said, "I like your nose. It's just like Tobias' beak, just not as yellow."
Not Max First huffed and Harry could see his anger glinting like knives in his eyes. Harry pulled back as the man's hand shot out to his arm, gripping his wrist roughly. "I don't allow little boys to touch me, and I don't like jokes made at my expense."
Harry couldn't help it, he yelped as the man's other hand shot out and pulled Harry over his knees, face down. The grass tickled his nose and made him sneezy and just as Harry thought Not Max First would spank him, his tummy gave another loud rumble.
Not Max First righted him, but held onto Harry like Aunt Petunia used to do Dudders before he got too big. The man said, "Why are you here and not at the pageant?"
Vernon spoke before Harry could, "His evil family sent him to bed without supper. You remember what that's like, Max. Except with him, there won't be a hot plate of food waiting at the end of his adventure. He lives in a cupboard and the only friend he has besides us is a mouse. He may not be beaten, but all is not well. You've seen what we see."
"Is this true?" Not Max First asked, his lips drawn down. "Are you being punished so harshly?"
Harry nodded and the man commanded, "Answer me with words, boy. You can speak."
"Yessir." When the man didn't speak, but gave him a look that said he wanted more, Harry added, "But I was bad. I pushed Dudders and he flew across the hall, like I was Superman. But he kicked me first and chased me out of the room because Melchior's crown was bigger than his, and they always says bad stuff to me about my parents and how they were drunks and... I'm a no good freak, so Uncle Vernon punishes me to knock the freakishness out of me."
The recitation ended in a wail and Harry sobbed into Not Max First's coat, rubbing his face against the soft fabric as he whispered, "I don't mean to be a freak. I mean to be good... and now that you know... you'll hate me like they do. And Father Christmas won't be there again, and all I will get to do on Christmas is serve their food and clean the kitchen. I'm bad, and a freak and you'll hate me too."
Harry swallowed loudly and bit off his words and his tears, though he could hear the Wild Things yowling around him. The man lifted his hand and gave two sharp raps to Harry's back. "There, boy. That's enough of those tears. No one here will hate you..."
The man muttered something under his breath about how daft he was before he said to Vernon and Tobias, "You two, how do we leave here? How do we get home?"
The redheaded she-beast stepped forward. In a soft, shy voice she said, "You must use wishcraft to sail back across the sea, Max."
Not Max First struggled to stand. "Yes, that's how. Now I remember. I will name you now for assistance. Forever more, you will be Lily."
The she-beast stepped back, away from the two as she said, "Severus, take care of my son. You're the only one who will understand him, the only one who will keep him whole, the only one who will love him because he's a little boy."
Not Max First sobbed once then swallowed the sound. To Harry it sounded like Not Max First had eaten the tears, that they were the only thing making him live still. Harry gave the man two sharp raps on his back and said, "I'll be your friend, Not Max First."
"It's Severus, b—Pot—Harry. Now close your eyes and wish us home."
It wasn't often that Albus Dumbledore was struck speechless by events that he had engineered, but as the pageant sans Harry came to a close and all but the wizards had left, Severus' lean form winked out of existence then returned. That was not surprising. Albus had expected that to happen when he had sent Severus to the Island of Lost Children. What he did not expect was for Harry to return with him, dressed in a wolf costume, and smiling brightly at the stern Potions Professor. He also did not expect the answering smile on Severus' face, or for the younger man to say, "That was a good wish, Harry. You did well. Now let's go collect your things, and I will take you home with me."
Albus rose, "No, Severus. You can't take him with you... The blood wards... He won't be..."
"Not a word more, Albus," Severus said. "Not a single word. If you're going to hold me to that vow I made for Lily, then it will be done my way. From here on out, he's my responsibility, not yours and certainly not those vile Muggles."
Albus watched the man and boy leave with a dramatic swoop. Albus smiled once Severus was gone and said, as he turned to the lovely Mrs. Figg, "I believe you owe me a dinner."
Arabella took his proferred arm laughed, "It did work well, whatever you did, Albus. I'm glad little Harry won't be spending Christmas with those beastly people. They are the worst sort of Muggle."
"So I've been told, Arabella," Albus said. "So I've been told."
The greatest living wizard and the Squib strode out of the school and into the cold December night, neither of them noticed the yellow eyes that followed their progress approvingly.