The aftermath of Uncle Vernon's wrath always seemed loud to Harry. His pulse pounded loudly in his ears (and throbbed in whatever injuries he'd acquired this time). His breath sounded loud to him, swooshing up through his chest out his mouth. Usually he could keep from crying (after long experience, he knew that Uncle Vernon didn't like him crying), but sometimes even his muffled whimpers sounded loud.
Four weeks after his godfather was killed by the maniac Bellatrix Lestrange, everything changed for Harry. Not all at once, of course, because the aftermath was still loud. He still limped up to his bedroom after the beating, careful not to drip any blood from his wounded back on the floor. He didn't even notice that his right wrist was broken until he tried to turn the doorknob with it, and hissed in pain. Downstairs, he could still hear Uncle Vernon muttering loudly about magic and that Potter boy and he'd take what he was given and be grateful.
He could have wished a little more time had gone by since the last beating, because his back was still sore and his ankle hadn't had time to mend enough to let him get away.
It was all a mess. He collapsed on his bed, laying on his stomach to keep the rough, thin blanket away from his bloody back. Any moment, he'd have enough energy to stand up, start treating his wounds with the pilfered first aid supplies. He still had maybe one swallow of pain reliever potion, and fortunately, almost a full vial of murtlap essence. He thought he'd brought home enough for the entire summer, but Uncle Vernon had been in an especially foul mood these last few weeks.
Only a few more weeks and he'd be back to Hogwarts, back to his friends and professors, back to pretending everything was fine at home so that Dumbledore didn't have to worrry his pretty little head about what Harry Potter's life was really like.
Getting a little bitter there, Harry thought to himself, and despite everything, he grinned. Anyway, Vernon is still better than Voldemort.
With this thought, he pulled himself from his bed and headed over to the small closet, ready to pull the loose floorboard off and start treating the wounds. Before he could even make it there, though, he heard a loud knock on the front door. He paused, then continued in pursuit of his supplies. Guests were nothing to do with him, ever. Usually anyone showing up was one of Dudley's horrible friends, but Dudley and his friends had pretty much been leaving Harry alone this summer.
Harry thought privately that if he were grateful for anything the Dursleys were doing for him this summer, it was that Dudley was too afraid of him to say now to bug him much. In fact, except for Uncle Vernon, he was pretty much left to his own devices. Aunt Petunia still made him do most of the family chores, of course, but Harry didn't mind that. Chores meant he had something to concentrate on other than the burning feeling of loss that stole into his nightmares and occupied his downtime, until he was ready to wish he'd never known Sirius Black existed, and then he felt guilty about that too (in addition to everything else he had to feel guilty about). All in all, the chores were a welcome respite, and Dudley's lack of attention made it easier. Really, Harry thought, feeling bitter again, if I weren't being regularly bashed around by Vernon, it would be almost pleasant.
"Boy!" Vernon's voice shouted, the large man's footsteps heavy as he came up the stairs.
Harry froze, the loose floorboard half removed. Why would Vernon need him so soon? It hadn't even been half an hour since the man broke his wrist and whipped his back soundly with the belt. Usually even Vernon was willing to give him a little time to heal. Harry dropped the floorboard back into place and spun around just as his door banged open.
"One of your kind is here, boy," Vernon spat. "He's here to check on you. Change your shirt, quick, so he doesn't see any blood. And so help me, if you say a single thing about anything, I guarantee that what happened today will happen every single day for the rest of the summer." Vernon's voice was low, but filled with hatred, and Harry was moving before Vernon was even done speaking. He pulled his t-shirt off, wincing as the cloth pulled at the belt welts. Vernon spun around and stomped off. As Harry pulled on a new t-shirt (dark colored, to hide the blood better), he could hear Vernon's tone change to something ingratiating.
Down to the bathroom quickly for a once over. No visible blood. The bruises on his wrist were dark though, and he returned to his room for one of Dudley's old jumpers with sleeves that draped almost to his fingers. Nothing he could do about the slight red on his face from Vernon's slap, but it wasn't too bad.
Trying not to show his limp, Harry headed downstairs. Now that he had a moment to catch his breath, he wondered who on earth would be here to check on him. Sirius Black was gone, and the Order of the Phoenix had made it clear that they wouldn't be back until the end of summer. Maybe it was Ron's dad?
It wasn't Mr. Weasley, though.
Standing awkwardly in the Dursley's living room, looking as out of place among the tea cozies and bright colors as a candle in a torch factory, was a tall man with greasy black hair, black robes, and a horrible expression on his face.
"Professor Snape," Harry said in shock, forgetting for a moment about his limp and moving into the room. "What are you doing here?"
"Mr. Potter," Snape said. "Dumbledore has sent me to check on you." Snape looked Harry up and down, and Harry brushed his right sleeve down self-consciously, trying to keep Snape from seeing anything. But Snape was the same man who'd tried to teach Harry Occlumency this last year, and Harry knew that the man's black eyes saw much more than Harry could wish. Harry dropped his eyes to the floor.
"What does that old crackpot want now?" Vernon sneered. "The boy's fine, as you can see. You can just take yourself off and …"
"Shut up, Dursley," Snape said without even looking at the man, who's face turned several shades of red at being addressed so in his own house. "Mr. Potter, I am supposed to hear from your own mouth that you are fine." His silky voice was disdainful, but that was something Harry was used to.
Harry snuck in a quick glance at Vernon, who was glaring ferociously at him. Harry took three seconds to ponder his options: 1) tell Snape the truth, that he was being beaten on the regular by his uncle, used as a slave by his aunt, and drowning in grief over his dead godfather, or 2) lie about everything, keep everyone happy (but himself, of course, but when had anyone cared about that?), and keep Vernon from enacting his promise to make the rest of the summer even more miserable.
How much pain can one person go through before the anticipation of more pain makes the decision for him?
"I'm fine, professor," Harry said, careful to keep his eyes down and away from Snape's, to keep the greasy git from legilimizing him and discovering anything related to the truth. The words came out more easily than he expected, and it was only inside his own mind that almost hysterical laughter threatened to burst forth, to come spilling out the wounds on his back and wrist and ankle and surround him until he melted into a puddle of pain.
Pull yourself together, Harry admonished himself, and he took a deep breath and tried to stand up straighter without a wince.
"Mr. Potter," Snape said. "Look at me."
Harry shook his head. He could feel the hysteria creeping in again, and he worried that if he looked at either of the men in the room now, he would let loose some sort of horrible shriek that would end the charade. Tension rose in the room as Snape waited for his obedience, and Vernon glared so baldly at him that Harry could feel it without even looking. Opposing viewpoints the two men may have had, but at the moment, Harry was terrifed of them both.
"Dursley, get out of the room," Snape said after a few minutes of horrible silence.
"This is my house, you freak," Vernon snapped. "If you want to talk to the boy without me here, you can damn well leave my house and take the little bastard with you."
Harry couldn't help himself; he looked up at Snape for a brief moment, hope swelling behind the hysteria, but Snape's face looked just as dark and horrible, and it was clear that taking Harry with him was about as high on his to-do list as personally decorating the wedding cake for Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour.
Harry dropped his eyes again, fighting against a sudden urge to cry that was as embarrassing as being trapped in his uncle's living room with hidden injuries. He swallowed heavily. He was suddenly exhausted. Perhaps they'd both leave him alone and he could tend to his injuries and get a little sleep before the next horrible thing happened to him.
But the next horrible thing was too soon coming.
Before Harry could do anything about it, Snape stalked forward and grabbed his chin with long fingers, forcing Harry's gaze up to meet his own. Within seconds, Harry felt the strong tug of Snape's mind on his own, rewinding Harry's memories to this morning and seeing each stroke of the belt, the hand caught under Vernon's boot and stomped on until there was a sickening crack. Even the moment in his room where he flopped on the bed in despair. Snape took all the memories from Harry, and then the light touch of his mind was gone, and Harry was left feeling humiliated, emotional, in horrible pain, and so alone.
"You couldn't just leave it," Harry hissed at the potions professor. "I didn't ask you to come here!"
"Go pack your trunk, Mr. Potter," Snape said, his voice as quiet and dangerous as Harry had ever heard him. Harry chanced a glance up at the man, who was glaring at him even more angrily than Vernon.
"I'm not leaving," Harry said, trying not to yell. Yes, for that brief moment he'd wanted Snape to take him away, but now that he was being ordered to leave, Harry's oppositional side kicked in. Besides, better to deal with Vernon's anger that was a known quantity, then to have to face whatever Snape was going to throw at him. At least with Vernon, he knew where he stood.
"You don't have a choice, Mr. Potter," Snape snapped. "If you don't go pack, I'll do it using magic, which will be blamed on you, and you'll face expulsion from Hogwarts. Do you really want to get in trouble with the Ministry right now?"
Harry didn't, but he set his jaw stubbornly and planted his feet more squarely.
"Mr. Potter! You will obey me immediately."
"That's right, boy," Vernon said, joining in where he wasn't wanted as usual. "You can leave with this man and never return."
A fog of blackness began to swirl around inside Harry's mind, made of pain and anger and despair and a strong desire to throw something or hit someone, and it didn't help that the two people who hated him most in the world (other than Voldemort, he guessed, although he wasn't even sure about that) both stood within arm's reach of him and he couldn't get away.
"Very well, Mr. Potter," Snape said, his tone resigned rather than angry. "You leave me no choice. Stay right here for a moment."
And with that, Snape disappeared up the stairs before Harry could stop him. Vernon took one more step closer to Harry, grabbing the boy's broken right wrist in a tight clasp that had Harry gasping in pain.
"If you tell him anything," Vernon whispered, his anger pooling out of his mouth and into Harry's ears, becoming part of the angry fog and chilling Harry to his bone. "If you say a single word about anything that's gone on here, I will find my way to you, no matter where you are, and destroy everything you've ever loved, piece by piece. Friends, belongings, nothing will be safe from me. You are nothing, freak, and you'll be nothing with this madman just like you are here at home. You think you matter to him? I can see in his eyes that he hates you as much as I do. You think you matter to that old crackpot Doobledorf? Who do you think makes you come back every summer? You are nothing, boy."
Harry couldn't say anything through the haze of pain emanating from his wrist. He couldn't even pull himself away. The words washed over him, seeping into every quiet place in his mind and heart, stretching down through the veins under his skin until he imagined them tattooed from toes to hairline, and he closed his eyes.
A loud thunk caught Vernon's attention, making the man drop Harry's wrist abruptly. Then another thunk, and another. Snape came into view, pulling Harry's trunk down the staircase, thunk thunk thunk, until the potions professor was back in the living room with them.
"You are leaving with me, Mr. Potter. Do you wish to have time to say goodbye to anyone?" The professor's voice was a sneer.
"No, professor," Harry said, his voice low as he tried to mask the pain.
"Then come along."
Snape didn't give a backward glance to make sure Harry was following him, so Harry hurried. As he crossed the threshhold of the doorway into the Dursley's home, he turned his head to see his uncle staring at him. For a moment, he imagined he saw a burst of fear in his uncle's eyes, and then he was out the door and gone.
"We will need to get outside of the wards before we apparate, Potter," Snape said. "Follow me."
Snape walked fast, and Harry limped after him as quickly as he could. Now that he was actually leaving the Dursleys, he began to feel some of the weight lift off his shoulders. Perhaps this would be okay, being away from his uncle.
But with Snape?
And the weight returned, reminding him that until school started again, he was a nobody and nobody wanted him.
"This is far enough. Grab my left arm, Potter, and hold on tight," Snape said, offering the arm to Harry. Harry hurried to obey, hiding the wince as he wrapped his hands around Snape's robed arm. "Brace yourself."
With that, Snape turned sharply, taking Harry with him in a haze of color and confusion. Number 4, Privet Drive, disappeared.