The stasis charm Hermione had given him was, as far as Harry was concerned, one of the best bits of magic he'd every learned. Because of the stash of food he'd stored in his trunk, he was able to avoid going down to the Great Hall for meals all day Saturday and Sunday.
Sunday, before any of his dorm mates were up, he grabbed a couple of pumpkin pasties that he'd bought on the train and headed off to the far side of the lake. He stayed well back from the boundary of the grounds, mindful that Dumbledore had warned them that the dementors would be patrolling the boundaries. Harry had no desire to meet one of those horrible things again.
By Sunday afternoon, the book he'd been reading began to get boring. He'd been reading in a sheltered little hollow, but now he got up to walk aimlessly down to the lake. He kept an eye out for fellow students especially Ron or Hermione, having no interest in conversation with any of them.
Harry knew he was being stupid. They meant well. They wouldn't have said anything if they weren't worried. They were only worried because they cared.
There was nothing to worry about, though. He just needed to explain to them that it was fine. It was only Uncle Vernon, after all. He'd been lots worse when Harry was younger. It was only because Harry had blown up Aunt Marge that Vernon had been so angry at the end of the summer.
When Harry thought of talking to them about it, it felt as though his skin were going to crawl off his bones from sheer embarrassment. He'd taken on a basilisk and a Voldemort-possessed Quirrel, but they thought he couldn't cope with Uncle Vernon?
Doubtless, Hermione would figure out why Harry wasn't talking to them all weekend. She'd be all apologetic, but she'd still be hurt. She'd want to know all about what he'd been thinking. And Ron would just be annoyed.
Irritably, Harry picked up a rock and threw it into the lake. He'd have to go to class tomorrow. He'd have to talk to them and listen to their reasoning and try to allay their concerns.
It was just so maddening.
A movement caught his eye and he turned, sighing because he assumed the black he saw out of the corner of his eye was a school uniform; that someone had caught up with him out here.
Instead it was a huge black dog. Sitting several yards away, looking at him with interest.
It sat with its' head tilted sideways and its tongue lolling out. Its' shaggy fur was rough and it was skinny. No collar that Harry could see.
"Where'd you come from, then?" asked Harry, in a soft voice. "Are you a new one of Hagrid's?" The dog seemed tame enough, sitting calmly like that.
The dog's ears went up. It shut its' mouth and stood, sniffing the air tentatively.
It was so very thin. Harry pulled one of his pasties out of his pocket, "Hungry, boy? Girl? Whatever?"
The dog took a tentative step towards him. Harry tossed a piece into the air, not stupid enough to let a strange dog take food from his hand. He'd had enough dog bites, thanks to Aunt Marge's nasty little yap dogs. This dog could have Harry's hand off at the elbow, and not even notice.
The dog caught the chunk deftly, licking its' chops. Another bit followed and then another. The dog wriggled with delight each time he caught a bit of food.
Harry grinned at the dogs antics. He threw the food higher just to watch the great animal leap to catch it. Before Harry knew it he'd fed the dog everything he had in his pocket. No matter, he had more food in his trunk.
Harry stuck out his hand palm up, so the dog came over and sniffed it. He (Harry had decided it was a "he", observing it jumping) really was huge, his head easily reaching Harry's waist. He sat down docilely enough though when Harry gave it a scratch behind the ear.
He had better manners than Fang, Hagrid's dog. He didn't try to climb or jump up. Now that he had had some food, he seemed intent on taking a nap in the sun. He stood and turned around a couple of times, then lay down in the grass, looking at Harry in seeming invitation.
Harry sat down cross legged near the dog, who scooted up to him on his tummy and plonked his heavy head in Harry's lap. Harry laughed and scratched behind his ears, "I see. I've fed you and you're mine for life, is that it?"
In answer, the dog thumped his tail.
"So, what do I call you?" he asked the dog rhetorically, "Blackie?"
The dog seemed to look on him with reproach. He snuffled into Harry's hand, demanding more scratches.
The dog sneezed.
"Snuffles it is, then." said Harry wiping his hand off on the dog's fur.
The dog licked his face so hard his glasses came off, "Hey, careful." protested Harry, retrieving them.
The dog seemed contrite, whining in apology. He settled his head back down on Harry's lap.
Harry thought that the dog was better company than anyone else he could think of at the moment. The dog wouldn't ask him questions or look at him pityingly. He was just a comforting presence, like Hedwig was. Something living and warm that Harry could hold on to.
Harry thought he'd like to take Snuffles back to the Dursleys with him. Snuffles could eat Marge's dog, Ripper, with one bite.
Petting the dog seemed to make something tight and cold loosen inside of Harry's stomach. He relaxed, put his legs out and leaned back on his hands, in the sun. The dog shifted around so that his black head rested on Harry's thighs. After a few minutes, the dog raised his head to lick Harry's face again. This time, much more gently, as though to wipe away the tear that had spilled down the side of his cheek.
Harry shook his head a little That was ridiculous, and anyway, Harry hadn't really been crying
"It's been a bad week." Harry admitted to the dog, hoarsely "I mean, Neville," Harry swallowed, "It's horrible." he stopped. Snuffles sat patiently.
"And then I don't know what to make of Lupin and Snape." Harry imagined that the dog looked at him inquiringly, "Hermione and Ron told Lupin that they were worried about the marks Uncle Vernon left on me this summer. Hermione always worries about things and I guess she got Ron all wound up. Well then, Snape insisted on doing my medical exam himself. They seemed really upset that Uncle Vernon caned me. Lupin did, anyway. Snape just seemed hacked off. But then, Snape is always hacked off at me for something."
Harry fell silent, thinking. Snuffles must have liked the sound of Harry's voice, because he nosed at him impatiently when he stopped speaking. The boy smiled at his own fancies, but said, "Snape teaches potions. He hates me. Apparently he hated my dad. Dumbledore said that he did, anyway. But he was really...I don't know...decent? About the whole exam thing. Not that I skived it off, but when he said he wouldn't make a fuss about what it showed." Harry thought about it, "No, he said he wouldn't mention it to anybody else. Do you think that's the same thing?"
Snuffles looked at him with wise, sad eyes.
"Anyway," Harry went on, "Snape said he wouldn't say anything, but Lupin said something about talking to the Dursleys." Snuffles gave him another one of those questioning looks, "Oh, Lupin's the new Defense against the Dark Arts teacher. I don't know anything about him. Except..." Harry trailed off, thinking about the first time he'd seen Lupin. It had been the last time he'd seen Neville.
Unbidden, the memory of the terrible cold and the cloaked horror of the dementor floated into Harry's consciousness. It was all over the school, that they had contributed to Neville's death. Harry couldn't help wondering if, as ill as Neville had been, if the dementor had just simply sucked the life out of Neville.
No, not the life. Everyone said that the dementors sucked the hope and happiness out of a place. They left you with all your worst memories, Fred and George had said. Merlin knew that Neville had had precious little happiness in his life. If the dementor had sucked it all out of him, could it be that he'd just given up? Could someone die that way? Just from giving up?
The dog whined and licked Harry's face again. Harry remembered what he'd been saying, feeling like the dog was the most understanding listener he'd ever had. " If Lupin does say something to the Dursleys, I don't know what I'll do." Harry shuddered, thinking about it, "It was worse this summer, after I ran off. The Minister brought me back to the house. I told him that Uncle Vernon was probably going to give me a hiding. He seemed to think I needed it. He said that if I were his, I'd be in for it too. Same as Marge did" without thinking he tightened his hands in the fur of the dog's neck. "Vernon will just tell Lupin how much trouble I am. It's not as if Snape will contradict him. I'll be lucky if Lupin doesn't give me a detention just for existing. And I don't even want to think about what it'll be like next summer."
The dog made a noise in his throat that might have been a growl. Harry let go of his fur, "Sorry." he smoothed down the ruffled fur and the dog relaxed.
"I wish I didn't have to go back there." Harry said, aware of the whine in his voice. Another reason the dog made such a good listener. He didn't need to censor himself for Snuffles' benefit. He didn't have to pretend that the situation was in any way all right to avoid him worrying. "They really hate me. Can't blame them, they got stuck with me. I just messed their lives up. They'd be really pleased if I never went back, but where else would I go?" Harry sighed.
The dog sighed too, as if sadly. Probably in answer to the despondent tone in Harry's voice.
Harry wondered if the big stray was some wizard's familiar, who had gotten lost. He seemed more intelligent than the average dog, but Harry found that most animals who were familiars tended to be. Well, except for Fang, maybe.
Then too, Harry's only other experience with dogs were Marge's. She had let her favorite one, Ripper, chase Harry into a tree when he was five. Until he'd met Fang, he'd never liked dogs. Now the only dogs he really liked were the enormous ones.
Snuffles couldn't belong to a student though, he was too big to keep in the dorms. Perhaps Lupin's? No, the dog looked too unkempt and hungry to have been lost recently. It was very likely that Hagrid had brought the dog back to look after him, until an owner could be found. Hagrid just must not have had him long enough to fatten up.
"Come on." said Harry after a long time, "I expect I should get you back to Hagrid's." he started to move, only to discover that both his legs had fallen to sleep under the weight of the dog's head, "Let's go. Shift." He gave Snuffles' head a shove.
The dog jumped up and Harry staggered to his feet on legs that were tingling and buzzing. Harry stomped his feet to bring some blood back into them.
"C'mon, then." Harry called, but the dog took off in the other direction, towards the Forest. So maybe not from Hagrid's. Harry had never seen an animal yet, who had known Hagrid who wasn't happy to go there.
Harry watched the black streak race away. He'd have to remember to nick some food and bring it out here for the poor thin thing. Maybe it would come back. Harry hoped so. He thought he'd like to see Snuffles again.
Notes on Chapter 9
This was some sweet fluff I wanted to include. Harry spends a lot of this story being sad or angry, so I wanted to give him a friend. He's angry at his friends, but he also has some idea that they were just trying to help.
What Harry is expecting to happen is all too common. The Dursleys are respectable people in a respectable neighborhood.
Hmm, Snuffles might resemble a certain Animagus.
A lot of people complained that the Dursleys haven't gotten their due, yet. Well, never fear, its not the last we'll see of Vernon and Petunia.