Harry hated Christmas.
He was familiar with loneliness from the hours on end spent shut in his dusty, dank cupboard. He knew of pain from his empty stomach, his cousin’s fists, his aunt’s frying pan, and his uncle’s belt raining down on him indiscriminately. Harry knew of suffering because it was his very existence. Every. Single. Day.
But somehow, Christmas was always so much worse.
Maybe it was because he was forced to cook their Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas Day brunch, and the hefty traditional English Christmas dinner, all portioned for fifteen people because his uncle and cousin could eat Harry’s (admittedly undernourished) weight in food in one sitting. Or it was the fact that while he was (literally) slaving away in the kitchen for hours, his relatives were watching holiday films on the telly, gorging themselves on obnoxious amounts of tea and biscuits, and having a jolly good time as a family.
A family he was not a part of.
Because despite living with them since he was little over a year old, Harry had never been a part of their family. He was the Freak in the cupboard- not to be seen or heard unless they needed him to do something for them.
So when they locked him in his cupboard on this Christmas Eve after he finished cleaning the mountains of dishes, he watched through the vent slot Uncle Vernon purposefully left open as the trio sat in the sitting room.
Aunt Petunia had decided to get a live tree this year because she was tired of having to buy new fake ones since Dudley ruined them every Christmas whilst tearing around the branches for his presents. Atleast with the live tree, they would be throwing it away anyway along with whatever mess Dudley made. A mess that Harry would be the one to clean up come tomorrow.
The other good thing about a live tree was that it smelled nice- kind of like the herbs Harry uses when cooking. It is much more pleasant than the chemical plastic he’s previously wrestled into storage boxes. The fir tree, as Aunt Petunia had proclaimed it to be, filled the surrounding rooms with its faint aroma.
Spoiled rotten pig that he was, Dudley had cried his way into opening a few presents early. Uncle Vernon’s bushy mustache twitched on his pudgy face as he grinned down at his exuberant son thanking him for the newest gaming console. When Dudley opened up a gigantic box of sweets, Aunt Petunia simpered indulgently at her ‘Diddy-ums’.
With each present that Harry watched Dudley open, his heart ached a little more. What was wrong with him? Why was he Harry, the Freak who deserved to be locked away, only to be touched or talked to with the cruelest of intentions?
As Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon cut off Dudley after ten more presents (out of the ginormous pile that still awaited him tomorrow) and they got themselves upstairs to bed, Harry sat back on his tiny cot, cutting off the treacherous tears that started to form.
He should be used to this.
And he was. Nothing was going to change. Right then and there, Harry forced himself not to care. He was a Freak. He was hated. He was alone.
Turning on his side, Harry took off his glasses and hooked them on a bent nail sticking out of the plywood wall. He settled in with his tattered blanket covering as much of his curled figure as he could manage, already prepared for tomorrow’s disappointments. He fell asleep with the faint smell of the tree clinging to his imagination, giving him dreams of what a forest and freedom might be like.
When he woke up at six o’clock on the dot to his aunt banging on his cupboard door and screeching like a harpy to get up and prepare brunch, Harry got up, movements almost mechanical.
Settling in to the comfortable routine of preparing vast amounts of food under the scornful and nit picky eye of his aunt, Harry produced pounds and pounds of perfectly-prepared tarts, casseroles, scones, black pudding, beans, tomatoes, eggs, bacon, bangers, and mushrooms.
Exhausted, Harry almost missed his cousin’s entrance a couple hours later. Fortunately, Dudley was in such a cheerful mood that he decided to greet his cousin with a very “Happy Christmas, Freak” punch to the back, which lurched Harry forward, causing him to burn his forearm on the skillet in front of him.
Silently sucking in a sharp breath, Harry ignored his cousin and now-present uncle as they were smothered in kisses and “Good morning, darlings, Happy Christmas,” from his aunt. He knew he would be receiving no first-aid or sympathy and come morning, the pain would be gone in any case, so he pushed on.
Nearly done, Harry listened with one ear as Dudley pulled sweets and trinkets out of his stocking, complaining about some and exclaiming over others. Harry set the table for three and started to bring over the food, skinny arms wobbling under the weight.
He heard his aunt exclaim, “Breakfast, sweetheart!” and a moment later, Dudley was careening into his chair, the wood groaning under his generous weight.
“This looks delicious, Petunia,” Vernon praised his wife, not a glance or thought spent on the boy who actually made the meal.
Said boy rolled his eyes when his back was turned, internally sneering at his aunt’s coquettish “Thank you, Vernon, you’re too sweet,” response.
Quietly putting away the dishes sullied during food-prep, Harry tuned out the disgusting sounds coming from his cousin and uncle’s appalling eating habits. It didn’t bother him that he wouldn’t be getting a word of praise or gratitude for preparing the meal, nor a plate for himself. He was used to it.
Somehow, the trio consumed their feast in record time, with Harry barely clearing away the first round of dishes before he was toting theirs from the table over to the sink.
“Start preparing the turkey, boy. Not a sound from you either. Our Diddy-kin’s Christmas needs to be perfect, without any of your freakishness ruining it! Got it?”
“Yes, Aunt Petunia,” Harry replied, words barley above a whisper. His relatives didn’t like his voice, as their hands and weapons of choice so kindly reminded him in the past.
Aunt Petunia sniffed in disgust at him, but nevertheless left him alone to join her husband and son in the sitting room to open presents.
Peeking over his shoulder to make sure she was for sure gone, Harry sneaked the only scraps of food leftover on the plates: a bitten-into tomato and two pinches of crumbs from the meal’s bready items.
Scarfing them down, Harry was quite pleased with himself, especially when his stomach seemed to stop trying to eat itself.
Dishes put away, Harry began to prepare the defrosted turkey, careful to place pots down noiselessly and not to hit anything against a surface that would result in a sound. He was silent, the only sounds of the house being the ripping of paper and the trio’s excited voices from the other room.
It took a few hours for the floor to be seen again in spots around the tree and at that point, Harry was ready with the sandwiches, scones, biscuits, and cakes necessary for afternoon tea.
Sure enough, his uncle’s gruff voice bellowed out a few minutes later, “BOY! TEA!”
Harry didn’t reply, already moving the prepared trays to the cleared table, bringing over a steaming pot of tea he proceeded to pour into the three cups just as his relatives waltzed into the room. Dudley bonked into the table again, nearly spilling Harry’s hard work because he couldn’t lift his eyes from another new gaming console.
Harry set the pot down, receiving a scowl from his aunt as she bothered to look at him. “The sitting room is a mess, go clean it up, Freak! Not a needle out of place, and don’t you even think about touching any of Dudley’s gifts!”
Her orders were punctuated by Vernon’s grizzly glare that Harry deftly ignored while grabbing the box of rubbish bags from under the sink and heading to the sitting room.
Harry’s eyes bugged as he took in the small forest’s-worth of wrapping paper strewn around the room. He silently sighed, pulling out the first bag and stuffing paper, tissues, ribbons, and bows inside. Clothes, games, a telly, a radio, a tape player, a bike, and dozens of other gifts were revealed as he picked his way across the floor- his bruised back muscles protesting all the while.
Three bags later, he had all remnants picked up from around Dudley’s new possessions and now faced the task of clearing up all of the tree’s disrupted needles from the carpet.
Remembering that Dudley had broken the hoover last week by breaking it over Harry’s back when he was cleaning, Harry couldn’t help the little bit of frustration and desperation that leaked out in a whisper. “This is going to be impossible.”
That’s when he heard it.
Silly human, a voice from somewhere around the tree said. Come closer to my home and I will bite you!
Blinking, Harry scooted forward on his knees, peering past the ornaments and lights strung around the tree. With a cautious hand, he eased aside one branch about halfway up the tree and nearly jumped out of his skin when a face looked back.
Whirling his head around to make sure his relatives were still gone, Harry tried to calm his rapid breathing enough that he could think clearly. Swallowing hard, he moved the branch once more, and peered in at the creature wound around the trunk and sprouting branches. It was dark so far in, but Harry thought it looked like a giant version of the worms that wash out on to the sidewalk when it rains.
But the worms he’d seen before could never open their mouths, revealing pointy teeth, and hissing a threatening, My sharp fangs will pierce through your entire arm, tiny human!
Gulping, Harry whispered back, Please don’t bite me. I promise I don’t want to hurt you.
The animal reared its narrow head back then slowly moved, body convulsing and stretching to slide forward on the branch Harry held aside.
You speak? It said, curious tongue peeking out of the hole in its mouth.
Of course I speak, Harry replied, reeling at the fact that he was actually talking to an animal. All humans speak. I didn’t know worms could speak, though.
I am not a worm! The animal hissed furiously, even more of its body coming forward as it reared up. I am a snake! You speak parseltongue, the language of the snakes!
I’m speaking another language? Harry queried, absentmindedly admiring the snake’s brown and green bumpy skin. I can’t even tell.
You are just a hatchling. You will learn. The snake hissed indifferently. It leaned forward, tongue sticking out in rapid succession once more. You smell of sickness, hatchling.
Harry tilted his head to the side and frowned. My name’s not hatchling, it’s Harry. And I’m not sick.
The snake bobbed its head. You are sick, Harry hatchling, it insisted. You smell like prey. Weakness. But you are not. Because you are a speaker and a great magic user.
Harry whipped his head towards the kitchen so fast that his neck cracked. Holding his breath for a moment, he listened to make sure his family was still eating before he turned panicked eyes back on the confused snake. Don’t say that word! You can’t say the ‘m’ word! It’s bad!
Magic? The snake asked, steadily coiling more of its body. Magic is wonderful, Harry hatchling. And you have much of it. I can smell that too.
Harry shook his head ferociously. Magic isn’t real, he dared to say, still cringing for saying the forbidden word.
The snake hissed, annoyed. I will prove it. Hold out your hand above the ground.
Feeling silly taking orders from a cranky, overgrown worm but unwilling to make it angry, Harry cast another glance to the kitchen door before holding his other hand out, palm down, above the needles littering the carpet.
Close your eyes. Harry did so, though quite hesitantly, not wanting to be vulnerable. Now imagine all of my home’s pointy bits lifting off of the ground and floating into your bag. Wish it like you wish for the tastiest of mice.
Harry squinted an uncertain eye at the completely serious snake before scrunching his eyes tight and wishing with all of his might that the needles would put themselves in the bag. Feeling silly, Harry was about to stop when he heard the faint sound of plastic rustling.
Look, hatchling, the snake’s encouraging voice said.
Harry dared to peek and was absolutely gobsmacked at the sight of a clean carpet and small mound of needles covering the other rubbish within the open bag. Jaw hanging somewhere near his knees, Harry looked to the snake, seeing an expression that could only be described as a smirk.
He didn’t know animals could smirk.
But this one certainly was.
I told you so, hatchling. You are a wizard- a powerful one. No ordinary magic user is allowed to speak with us noble creatures.
Harry continued to gape.
The snake seemed to count that as a proper enough response. Before Harry could react, he had a meter long snake winding its way forward up his arm. Reaching the giant opening of his t-shirt sleeve, the snake slithered forward, wrapping around Harry’s bare chest, making the boy jerk as the smooth bumps tickled him.
Hmmm you are much warmer than my home, the snake said, coils tightening to keep it in place around Harry’s ribs. Your scales are much softer than my home’s as well. I will stay with you, Harry hatchling.
That brought Harry’s brain back to functioning level. He gaped down the loose collar of his shirt at the snake barely hidden within. You can’t stay with me! He hissed. They’ll see you and freak out! They might hurt you!
I will bite them if they do! The snake insisted, nearly clear eyelids quickly sliding forward over eerie yellow eyes.
You can’t bite them either! Harry scolded.
Why not? I have heard them since they brought my home here. They are not nice to you.
No, they aren’t, Harry admitted, looking away. But that doesn’t mean you should hurt them.
The snake studied him for a moment, before shifting and tightening its coils once more in what someone familiar with such things might consider a hug.
You are a good hatchling, the snake finally decided. I will stay with you. They won’t find me. Magic will protect us both.
Still disbelieving, Harry wanted to continue arguing, but he heard a chair scraping against the floor, so he quickly sealed the rubbish bag and stood, making sure his snake was still hidden.
Hauling the bags outside to the rubbish bin, Harry came back in, glad that his aunt and uncle wouldn't lock him out for the night as they sometimes do when feeling particularly fed-up with his presence. Wiping his snow-nipped feet off on the mat, Harry was immediately ordered to continue preparing dinner.
Nodding obediently and returning to the kitchen, Harry continued his earlier efforts, moving on to making the mince pies along with Yorkshire and Christmas puddings.
Harry ignored his uncle and cousin laughing at a film playing in the other room, taking special care not to reveal his secret to his aunt currently sitting at the table browsing through a holiday catalogue.
He wasn’t sure what the snake meant about magic hiding it, but fortunately, Harry’s shirt was originally Dudley’s; so it’s XXL size dwarfed Harry’s XS frame, allowing plenty of volume to hide a snake-shaped bump.
When dinner was finally finished and served buffet style from the kitchen counter, Uncle Vernon ordered Harry to stand in the corner and wait, readily available to bring or remove dishes when commanded of him.
Standing for nearly two hours, body straining and eyes growing bored of examining the kitchen floor’s tiles, the only thing that kept Harry’s mind off of his depressing thoughts was the occasionally squeeze and flickering tongue that graced his skin.
Finally, finally, the Dursleys finished eating dinner and dessert, taking their coffee and hot chocolate back to the sitting room for the rest of the night. Despite exhausted limbs, Harry quickly worked his way through the second enormous heap of dishes for the day.
Hands cracked from the harsh soap, stomach rumbling from the smell of all the food he wasn’t allowed to eat, and throat scratchy from lack of water; Harry was locked away in his cupboard by his uncle.
The vent was left open of course, but for the first time in his ten years, Harry didn’t keep his eyes pinned on the world he wasn’t a part of.
Instead, he reached two hands up to help lower the snake from his chest, settling it comfortably in his lap as he hunches over in his cot.
For a moment, the cupboard is silent. Green eyes meet yellow, boy and snake studying each other in the strips of light provided from the outside.
The snake finally decides to break the silence with a quiet hiss. You do not have a happy life, Harry hatchling. You deserve better. A tree of your own.
A small, wistful but resigned sigh escapes Harry. It doesn’t matter. This is the way it is.
The snake considers his words for a moment before rising up to be eye level with Harry, hissing in a firm voice. I will stay with you forever. That way your life will be better. I make everything better.
Harry gives a thin-lipped smile, the action uncomfortable with how uncommon the movement is. I would like that. You can be my friend. I’ve never had a friend before.
Yessss! I will be Harry hatchling’s friend!
Harry’s heart clenches, the unfamiliar feeling of happiness swelling. It made his chest ache. I don’t just want to call you ‘friend’ though. Do you have a name?
Snakes don’t have names like humans do, Harry hatchling, the snake explains. But you could call me snakewhostrikesquick or hewhoclimbsthehighest or himwiththesharpestteeth!
Harry’s nose crinkles. Those are kind of long. He thinks for a moment, biting his lip as he does. A waft of the Christmas tree suddenly gives him a burst of inspiration. What about Forest? Because of your home and your colors?
The snake seems to ponder this, body tensing and coiling as he tastes the word. Forest. Foresssssst. Hmmmmm. It is acceptable, Harry hatchling. Yesssss, I am your friend, Foressssst!
With that proclamation, an actual tooth-baring smile lights up Harry’s features, his friend mirroring his elation with a happy wordless hiss and small wiggle. Shifting to get more comfortable and avoiding the injured areas on his back and arm, Harry pulls the blanket over both of them, settling in. The sounds of the Dursleys enjoying their evening without him disappear behind the hushed hissing he shares with Forest. The comforting weight of his new friend reassures Harry that he isn’t alone anymore.
Maybe Christmas isn’t too bad.