It was bound to happen sometime. Harry had been noticing that summer that Dudley seemed to be growing more and more reckless, and with that recklessness, so too grew his cruelty toward Harry. The glorious return of Harry Hunting had been heralded in by a chase and a beating the first day he'd returned to Privet Drive. It was late June now, and Harry still sported some of the bruises from that incident. Layered beneath fresher bruises, of course.
And it wasn't just the beatings. No, now Dudley's little clutch of sadists liked to smoke and drink and commit minor misdemeanors and play the game of trying to pin them on Harry. Harry had already been blamed for vandalizing one of the neighbor's mailboxes and shaving another neighbor's cat. Yes, Dudley and company found such things to be just hilarious.
Vernon and Petunia, less so. There had been a lot of missed meals as a result.
Harry hadn't really paid attention to how dangerously these incidents were escalating, or realized that eventually the crime pinned on him would be more than a destructive prank. He was still too wrapped up in the nightmares from the graveyard, nightmares of Cedric, the lingering sensation of Crucio.
Stupid of him, really. He'd known better for years, that he had to stay on his toes when he was home. Even stupider of him, probably, to let himself become so distracted in the little park down the road. Especially now that Voldemort was back in the flesh.
But really, who needed Voldemort? Certainly not Harry. No, Dudley was already so good at making his life a living hell.
And this, this was just the icing on that delightful layer-cake of misery.
Harry had been dangling listlessly in one of the swings at the park, toes barely brushing the ground, his head slumped forward. He'd not wanted to be home, unable to stand so much as another day in the special little cell the Dursleys called his room. So he'd gone down the way for a little fresh air.
"There he is!" Piers Polkiss' voice drew him from his reverie. His head jerked up, only to see the lanky boy barreling toward him, rat-like face twisted in an expression of unholy glee. He was followed by a huffing Dudley, a few other miscreants who tended to fall into Dudley's orbit and, rather surprisingly, a bobby.
Harry knew instinctively that he should run. He also knew that it probably wouldn't do him any good. But beyond what he knew, beyond the adrenaline that began coursing through his veins, Harry was tired. So tired. Maybe it was the nightmares, maybe it was the constant dread that seemed to weigh him down. Maybe it was the feeling of hopelessness and impotence that swamped him whenever he was about to face another injustice in this godforsaken little neighborhood.
Whatever it was, he stayed put on his swing. He winced when he was shoved to the ground by Piers, when his hands were yanked viciously behind him, when he was dragged to his feet to face the bobby, a portly man with a stern face and a salt-and-pepper moustache.
Dudley was grinning maliciously, his little piggy eyes glinting like Piers'. "That's the boy," he declared. "That's the one we saw running off. He probably already hid everything he stole."
The officer frowned disapprovingly. "I know you. You're that boy they brought in for vandalism a few weeks back. Shaved that poor cat, too, didn't you, you little wretch?"
"He goes to St. Brutus'," Piers offered helpfully. "For criminal boys. We tried to keep an eye on him, sir, but he must have slipped around us. Poor Mrs. Applewhite." The boy shook his head in mock sympathy.
"Anything to say for yourself, boy?" the officer barked, snatching him by the shoulder.
"I didn't do anything," Harry mumbled sulkily. Didn't matter, though, he thought bitterly. The man's mind was clearly made, and the evidence was already stacked against him. Though it would be nice to know what he was accused of doing.
"Oh, so you mean to tell me that these five nice boys chased you halfway across the neighborhood for no good reason? That they didn't see you breaking into Mrs. Applegate's home?"
Harry would have said 'no', but he really couldn't imagine it making any difference. So instead he shrugged.
That seemed to be enough of an admission of guilt for the officer. "Well, I guess we'll have to see if a trip down to the station doesn't cure you. Maybe a few nights in a holding cell will set you straight, eh?"
Harry was too far gone into his misery to contemplate that. He figured the man was just trying to scare him straight. Likely he'd be dropped off on Vernon and Petunia's doorstep with a few stern words and a juvenile court date. Last time he'd been sentenced to community service for a week and a half. That hadn't been his real punishment, of course. His real punishment had been putting up with his aunt and uncle.
At least when he was out digging ditches and picking up litter, they fed him lunch. It almost felt like a reward in a way. And of course, if they hadn't fed him…. Harry didn't like to think how that would have turned out. His aunt and uncle had certainly been disgusted enough with him to let him practically starve. Though Harry always believed that they wouldn't let it go too far.
Wouldn't want their pristine home marred by the lifeless corpse of their nephew, he thought bitterly.
The trouble was, though, that the officer didn't take him back to Number 4 Privet Drive. Harry was shoved unceremoniously into the back seat for a few minutes while the officer filled out his report, listening to Dudley and the others as they described how Harry had looked emerging from Number 9 Privet Drive, pockets full of quid and stolen jewelry. It all sounded a little too cinematic to Harry, but no one had asked his opinion, or even for his version of events.
Still dazed, all Harry could think as they peeled off down the road, presumably toward the promised holding cell, was that he would probably get three square meals and regular outdoor time there. Maybe he should have committed a felony much sooner.
"Uncle Vernon, please, you have to—"
"I don't have to do anything, boy, and don't you forget it! You'll be lucky if we let you back into the house after this, you ungrateful little swine. Common hooligan, that's what you are, worse than your drunkard father. A laze-about, he was, but at least he never stole like a dirty rotten criminal! Well, you can rot down there for all I care, and good riddance."
"Uncle Vernon," Harry cried, "you have to come get me! Volde—you know, him! He'll kill me, they told you that!"
The officer assigned to keep watch over him throughout this phone call gave a snort of amusement.
"Maybe you didn't hear me," came his uncle's gruff voice. "Good riddance. No less than you deserve, if you ask me. If your kind's worried about you so much, boy, they should get their lazy arses down there and bail you out themselves, shouldn't they?" And with that the line went dead.
Harry thrust his head back in exasperation. Not good. This was not, not good. At first he'd thought that this might be a pleasant stay. Ha. Yes, because jail was preferable to Privet Drive at this point. He might even gain back the stone he'd lost since the start of the summer.
That, of course, was before he'd had time to fully consider his situation. Wandless, in a Muggle jail cell, with no way of contacting Dumbledore or anyone, practically a sitting duck for the newly arisen Voldemort. Oh, and it wasn't as if the dark wizard was in a froth or anything, was it? It wasn't like Harry, a teenaged whelp who'd been disadvantaged fifteen or so to one, had shown the powerful wizard up. It wasn't like Voldemort was ready to reap his vengeance on Harry for thwarting him yet again.
Oh, but wait, he was.
If Harry had thought he could get away with it, he would have asked to exchange his single phone call for an owl.
He begged for another phone call. He tried to explain just how important it was that his relatives come get him as soon as possible, but hell, he figured that everyone at the station had heard every story in the book from the scared young delinquents brought in off the streets. They remained unmoved, and so Harry found himself back in the holding cell with two other boys, one skinny and pale and shaking, the other pudgy and passed out against the back wall.
Harry sighed and collapsed back on the hard wooden bench protruding from the wall. He could still hope that someone was monitoring him at home, that someone would tell Dumbledore what had happened, that the headmaster would come through for him before something really awful happened. He really didn't want to die here, wandless and alone and sporting a hideous orange jumper.
At least the jumper fit, unlike his other clothes.
At first Harry was sure it was just another nightmare, only slightly more disturbing than the previous one of Cedric's body and green light and kill the spare.
He was back in the holding cell, and he could hear voices down the hall, both familiar. The one because he could remember the low, gruff voice of the officer assigned to this cell block, and the other because four years of potions classes had caused it to seep into his brain like poison, embedding it so deeply that he could never forget it, no matter how hard he tried.
Wake up, he ordered himself. Wake up right now. He wouldn't be here. It makes no sense for him to be here. There are loads of better people to come get you. Remus would come. Unless it's the full moon. What phase was the moon at anyway?
He pinched himself for good measure, but all he got for that was a small patch of viciously bruised skin.
And then he was there, standing alongside the warden, dressed in dark muggle clothes (though Harry could still see the outline of those billowing teaching robes the man favored). And, as per usual, his face was pinched with disgust, as if he scented something particularly foul.
"And you said you were..." The warden stared at Snape expectantly.
"The boy's father."
Harry's blood ran cold. Like hell. Like hell. "He's not," Harry protested quickly. "I don't even know him—" Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The warden arched a brow at Harry. Snape just rolled his eyes.
"And how would you know we were speaking of you?" Snape inquired coolly, his voice too soft. It sent unpleasant shivers down Harry's spine. "If, indeed, we are perfect strangers?"
Harry glanced at the two other boys, grasping desperately at any passing thought, anything to get himself out of this massive blunder. He wasn't going anywhere with Snape, he wasn't. Dumbledore could come fetch him himself. "I live at Number Four Privet Drive," Harry asserted, though his voice trembled. "In Little Whinging. He doesn't. My guardians—"
"Ah, Harry, don't try to twist things," Snape cut him off. His words were so gentle and measured, though his eyes glittered with a terrible darkness.
Harry took an instinctive step back.
"I've told them all about our unfortunate arrangements. How I'm often abroad, traveling for work. How your mother died. How you've had to live with your aunt and uncle, since we've had so many behavioral issues while traveling in the past." Snape shook his head slightly, as if in sadness. "I've tried to do my best by the boy, but I'm afraid it has never been enough. He has a willful spirit, and precious little brains. Regrettable combination."
"Well, everything cleared on our end. He's all yours," the warden announced, drawing out his set of keys.
Harry took another step back, willing himself to think. He didn't like Snape. Snape hated him. And worse, he wasn't all that sure that the Potions Master wouldn't just turn him over to Voldemort. God, the man might even do it just for spite. And if not…. Harry shuddered just to think what the man might do with him. All alone during the summer, with no witnesses… no, definitely not good.
There might not be a body left to bury by the time the man was done.
"I want to stay here."
Both the warden and Snape turned to him, startled. Snape's eyebrows had practically disappeared into his greasy dark hair.
"I beg your pardon?" Snape hissed.
Harry straightened his spine, squared his shoulders, and did his best to stare Snape down. "I don't want to go with you. I'll stay right here, thanks, until my real family comes to get me."
Snape turned to the warden, the motions to calm, too slow, to bode well for Harry. "I'd like a private word with my… son. Is there somewhere we might speak? An interrogation room, perhaps?"
The warden scratched at the back of his head. "Bit unconventional, that. But I suppose we might have one free."
Harry's breath hitched. "No," he spat, "I—I don't want to be alone with him—"
Snape smirked cruelly. "Likely because I told him that he's never too old for a trip over my knee," he confided smoothly to the warden.
The grey-haired man snorted in commiseration.
Harry, however, could feel himself slowly turning crimson with mortification. Had Snape just implied…? He couldn't do that, could he?
While Harry grappled with that offhanded comment, reeling with terror at the thought of all that Snape could do to him, the warden unlocked the door. And Snape's heavy, bruising grip latched onto Harry's upper arm and dragged him out of the holding cell and down the hall after the warden.
Snape shoved Harry unceremoniously into the little interrogation cell the warden held open for him.
"Ten minutes," the warden informed Snape, who nodded curtly.
Snape's wand was out in a dark flash, as soon as the door closed behind the warden. Harry felt the familiar wash of privacy wards, and the thought of no sound leaving that little room made Harry's blood run cold.
Automatically, he backed himself up against the wall, running through arguments in his head to keep Snape from doing anything too horrible to him. Dumbledore will know. They'll send you to Azkaban. Um. It's wrong to kill your students. Damn, was that it?
Hell, the Azkaban argument wasn't likely valid, with the way the Ministry had been behaving lately. Harry was a pariah after claiming that Voldemort was back. His death would be awfully convenient for them, convenient enough that they might overlook the suspicious circumstances surrounding it.
"I will not repeat myself, Potter, so listen."
Harry flinched at the utter loathing behind those words.
"We are leaving here, regardless of what temper tantrums you throw, regardless of how entitled you feel to special treatment. I was ordered to retrieve you, and that is precisely what I intend to do." The man stalked forward swiftly, his long strides carrying him directly in front of Harry.
He pressed close enough that Harry could feel the man's body heat, could practically count each one of the man's crooked teeth. It would have been easy enough, since they were all displayed in a full-snarl. Snape bent his head down, so that his face was just inches from Harry's, his dark, hateful eyes boring relentlessly into Harry's.
"You are mine for the rest of the summer. That was one of the conditions for this little retrieval service. Since your family is so incapable of stopping your descent into utter depravity, I will be taking over your discipline. There will be no clemency, I assure you. You will regret this shameful little stunt, boy, with every iota of your being."
The fear was turning to rage in his stomach, churning like some living beast clawing to get free. He ground his teeth together, willing himself to rein in his temper. It wasn't fair, though. The Dursleys treating him like a filthy stray, that he could handle. Dudley framing him for breaking and entering for his own sadistic amusement and nothing else, that he could handle.
His bastard of a potions professor exorcising his vitriol on him for the rest of the summer, berating and punishing him for a crime he hadn't committed? No, that was too much. He would rather the man just give him over to Voldemort and be done with it.
"There's nothing to punish me for, because—"
"Don't say it, Potter."
"Oh, don't you dare utter that drivel to me. Your caretakers may be thick, but I certainly am not."
Harry could feel the man's hot breath against his face. He closed his eyes, trying to imagine himself anywhere but here—here being, of course, the ninth circle of hell. Where was Remus? Where was Sirius? Sure, his godfather was a little unhinged, but he wouldn't mind that right now if it would get Snape away from him.
"And do not make the mistake of thinking that your situation cannot get worse, that you have somehow bottomed out now, that you will be so thoroughly punished that I cannot possibly do anything to make it more severe. A life lesson for you, Potter: it can always get worse."
Case in point, Harry thought, still fighting to get a grip on himself. Why had he ever thought that the Dursleys were the worst possible caretakers? Oh, this was just the universe, punishing Harry Potter for his blasted optimism. Proving him wrong in the worst possible way.
"Now," Snape continued in that velvety tone of his, so quiet, so confident. "Let us establish what is about to happen. You and I will emerge from this room, you properly chastised and abashed. I will complete the paperwork needed to release delinquent children, pay your bail, and we will be off. Throughout all of this, you will be the very epitome of 'seen and not heard'. The only words to pass your lips will be a deferential 'yes, sir' or 'no, sir'. You will follow every instruction I issue to the letter. Because, Mr. Potter, if you do not, I promise you that you will spend the rest of the summer wishing you had never been born."
Harry's fists curled tighter at his sides. He very nearly shouted that he already wished he'd never been born, thank you very much, and so that threat, just as when Uncle Vernon uttered it, lacked any real menace for him. But then he remembered his latest epiphany, reinforced by Snape's blunt words. It can always be worse. And tempting Fate to prove him wrong seemed particularly foolhardy in this instance.
"Is. That. Clear?" Snape drew out each word deliberately, spitting the consonants out like cherry pits.
Nothing for it, Harry thought. He'd already made all the wrong moves in front of the warden and others. None of them would think he was anything less than a petulant child and miscreant. He had no wand. Snape was bigger, more powerful, had the law on his side, probably the support of Dumbledore…. Things were not stacking up in Harry's favor.
And if he was going to be spending any time with the Potions Master—and boy did it sound like he would—then he'd better not dig himself an even deeper grave. An irate Snape who was convinced he'd burgled some poor old lady's house, who'd had to bail him out of jail, and who now would have to put up with him until school started was bad enough.
No use in fighting tooth and nail. Better to just grin and bear it. Not that Harry had to like that fact, of course.
"Yes, sir," he muttered sullenly.
Quick as lightning, Snape snatched him by the ear and tugged on it painfully. "I do not care for the attitude, boy. Correct it. This. Instant."
Harry forced himself to drag in a shuddery breath, to push back the hurt and anger threatening to boil over. Mustering the softest, most submissive tone he could (his "Uncle Vernon is about to blow a gasket" tone), he repeated, "Yes, sir."
Snape released him, though he still shot Harry a dark, unpromising glare. The man jerked his head at the door. "After you, Potter."